After four months in captivity in Russia, Mikhailo Vershinin has become a pale shadow of the headstrong Mariupol policeman he used to be.
The chief of the Mariupol police patrol was one of hundreds of fighters who surrendered to the Russian siege of the Azovstal steel plant on the orders of Ukraine’s president a year earlier, and on the day they were exchanged for Russian prisoners of war was done, he was on the verge of death.
He lived firsthand the day the last square of the besieged city fell and now looks back with deep sadness, but also with a sense of purpose for the country’s future.
Airstrikes had been frequent for several weeks, but the skies fell silent as Russian and Ukrainian officials negotiated the terms of the surrender. At the time, according to Vershinin, it was the only option for the men and women who were with him in the underground compound, and for Mariupol.
The Azovstal resistance also became a turning point for many countries that were hesitant to return Ukraine.
“From Mariupol, the world woke up to understand what was happening,” he explained. “We knew perfectly well that we had too many Russian forces. We were like a bone in Russia’s throat.”
The group expected reinforcements that never arrived and surrendered.
But Russia reneged on its promise to treat prisoners of war in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. Torture, hunger and disease followed them. More than 700 remain captive: securing their release has been a priority for the Kiev government and Vershinin, who was last included in a swap deal.
The men and women who fought to the end in Azovstal are heroes and martyrs across the country, and their faces are on giant billboards and banners.
At the time, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky justified the surrender order by saying that “Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes to survive. This is our principle”.
But Vershinin said mistreatment was common as their captors tried to turn them against each other and dominate them through starvation.
“Now I can say this: If we knew what awaited us in prison, many people would not have given up,” he said.