Pikovets reached the territory of Azovstal, a local steel plant with bomb shelters, on April 15, after fierce fighting broke out all around the city. At that point, Azovstal had a military hospital that was covering basic healthcare needs for wounded soldiers and civilians. There, Pikovets received treatment and stayed on its territory until May 17. Then he was captured by the Russian army.
“I want to forget all of this like it was a nightmare,” Pikovets said. “I’m not going to say we were tortured or anything. Those who came into captivity directly from Azovstal plant had some special approach from the Russians. Either they had some respect for us, or they were scared of us – I don’t know. But they saw us as warriors.”
Ukraine and Russia exchanged their prisoners of war on June 29 in one of the biggest prisoner swaps since the beginning of the war. A total of 144 Ukrainian soldiers were released and eventually returned home. Ninety-five of them are Azovstal defenders who fought in Mariupol.
The Chief Intelligence Directorate, which was overseeing the prisoner swap, mentioned that most of the released Ukrainian fighters have injuries – some quite serious, including gunshot wounds, explosion wounds, burns, and fractures. Some have already had hands or feet amputated. Right now, these soldiers are receiving medical and psychological treatment.
Earlier, on June 6, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made an estimate of the number of Ukrainian soldiers held in Russian captivity: 2,500 Azovstal defenders were among them. Ukrayinska Pravda, a news website, confirmed this figure from own sources, adding that these people were held in Olenivka, a town in the Donbas that is controlled by the Russian invaders.
Back on May 16 Ukraine’s Armed Forces General Staff explained that the commanders of the defensive operation in Azovstal received the order to keep themselves alive by whatever means. The Azov Regiment published a statement where it said it was obeying the received order and places its hopes with the Ukrainian people.
Then, Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said that Mariupol defenders had completed their mission successfully: they had held up a group of 20,000 Russian soldiers and had prevented them from advancing further into Zaporizhzhya and Donetsk oblasts. After completing this mission, fighters were ordered to preserve their own lives.
Hanna Malyar, deputy defense minister, explained that there were few options for rescuing the Azovstal defenders. The Ukrainian operation to liberate Mariupol will continue until the city is fully liberated and controlled by the Ukrainian army, she added.