A photographer who documented Mariupol's Soviet-era iron- and steelworks shares insights into the factory set to hold a final showdown between Ukraine's Azov Battalion and Russian forces.
According to the Kremlin-controlled TASS news agency, Russia-backed separatists began advancing into Mariupol’s Azovstal iron- and steelworks on April 19 with “attack groups formed for storming the facility.”
Ukrainian fighters from the controversial Azov Battalion, whose members sport patches featuring neo-Nazi symbols, are holed up inside the massive factory in preparation for what is likely to be a bloody and destructive battle. The Ukrainians ignored earlier calls to surrender.
Azovstal began operations in 1933 after Soviet authorities chose the site, on the coast of the Sea of Azov, for its easy shipping access to iron ore deposits. Before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the plant employed more than 10,000 people.
In 1941, Azovstal was forced to cease operations when much of the equipment inside the factory was transported east away from the Nazi advance into the Soviet Union.
Viktor Macha, an industrial photographer from the Czech Republic, documented the inside of the metalworks in 2016. Macha says that while he has become used to the closure and controlled demolitions of metalworks throughout Europe, the current shelling of Azovstal “is wild and absolutely uncontrolled.”
The following photos were made during Macha’s visit to Azovstal in 2016 and give some idea of what a final, close-quarters battle would look like.
Mariupol, in southeastern Ukraine, is home to two vast metalworking factories. Azovstal’s sister plant, the Illich iron- and steelworks was captured by Russian-led forces in mid-April and appears to have suffered significant damage. Macha says he believes the smaller Azovstal factory was chosen as the site for the Ukrainian fighters’ final stand because of the “badass bomb shelters” built beneath it.
Although he was not given access to Azovstal’s shelters during his 2016 visit, Macha says that, when the factory was restored in the 1940s after the harsh lessons of World War II, Soviet planners “built the bomb shelters first, then rebuilt the steel mill above them, so it's well protected, but perhaps not enough.”
Macha told RFE/RL that he imagines the conditions inside the heavily bombarded factory “must be real horror,” adding, “I can’t imagine what the Azov Battalion and the civilians are going through right now.”
Mariupol’s city council has claimed there are more than 1,000 civilians taking shelter in the bunkers beneath Azovstal. Russia-backed separatists have denied that civilians are present in the factory grounds.
The Czech photographer has been closely following the news coming in from Mariupol and fears that “not much will be left of Azovstal” after the fighting.
But given the violent history Azovstal has already endured, Macha believes "for the Ukrainians, I think a situation like this is nothing new and they will rebuild Azovstal, just as they did after World War II."