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“The core of Azovstal's defenders were superheroes”: Confessions of Ukrainian POWs who made it back home

Three months ago, over 2,500 Ukrainian troops ended up in Russian captivity after the siege of the Azovstal steelworks. They had been defending the city of Mariupol for 86 days. Servicemen with call signs Kombat, Tork, and Vishnya, who were wounded, survived captivity together, and were exchanged for Russian prisoners of war, recount how they made it without food, drinking water, or medication while defending the city, how the Russian military’s attitude to them changed while in captivity, and why they still intend to return to active combat despite serious injuries.

  • Kombat: “The doctors had to remove bullets without anesthesia and bandage wounds with sheets”

  • Tork: “They took our watches, chains, rings, and phones, and stuffed them into their pockets”

  • Vishnya: “Encircled by three enemy lines from the beginning till the end, we had little hope of reinforcement”

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Kombat: “The doctors had to remove bullets without anesthesia and bandage wounds with sheets”

Of course, we had been bracing ourselves for war: it's easier this way. However, our expectations turned out to be child’s play compared to the real deal. It was tough when the first guy from our group got killed. I couldn't think about anything else for an hour. Another death that took a toll on me was that of my best friend. It was a heavy blow. From then on, I took other deaths in stride.

Mariupol became so unrealistic that it felt like a Battlefield setting: planes flying, shots fired everywhere, tanks, helicopters, artillery, street battles, you get wounded, so they pull you out of the window and transport you on a motor boat... It was really like a video game turned up to eleven. You only had two options: you either become confused, scared and withdrawn or try to let go and see where it gets you. As my friend said, “we’re just watching”. I was happy that my wife was safe, so I didn't need to worry about her. So I could let go and simply do my job.

Mariupol became so unrealistic that it felt like a video game setting

Our group lived in the moment: you wake up and find something to chew on – life is great! You go on a mission and it's a success – awesome! If an operation is going well, you enjoy it. If it doesn’t, you don’t enjoy it. You live in the here and now without thinking about the future. When word got out about the deblocking, we had other things to worry about. When they said we were encircled and that we were toast, we still paid little attention. We focused on our job. But only some of us succeeded.

I defended Mariupol up to early April, fighting in the streets until I got wounded, and arrived at Azovstal on March 26. When the remaining city defenders joined us, we switched to perimeter defense on April 15-16.

The Azovstal steelworks
The Azovstal steelworks

Huddled up in the air-raid shelter with other wounded, we were running low on food. We had grains, but when an aerial bomb destroyed one of the passages and another blew up the mess hall where we could cook, all we had was raw grains. We ate what they cooked in the next bunker one kilometer away. Guys carried food around in barrels, and despite the relatively short distance, it took them up to one hour because of air strikes, rockets, bombs, and shellfire.

Our breakfast, lunch, and dinner was half a glass of porridge with a tiny morsel of salo – or without it. It was our daily ration. In the final days, they gave us yellowish river water, which caused us to use the toilet way too often.

Our breakfast, lunch, and dinner was half a glass of porridge with a tiny morsel of salo

Since I was wounded, I wasn’t among the Azovstal defenders. The guys who defended the steelworks said it was as tough as it gets: the only high ground was the Slag Mountain, already controlled by the enemy. It is the highest point with a good view of the plant. They could rain fire on all our positions and track our every movement. Quadcopters kept circling above our heads, giving way to thermal imaging drones at night.

Photo by Dmytro Kozatskyi
Photo by Dmytro Kozatskyi

On April 15, the rest of our boys withdrew to Azovstal from the streets. Our group was the first to leave the plant on May 16. The guys defended the facility for a month in incredibly harsh conditions, almost without food or drinking water. We were critically low on fighters who could carry out missions. Most were seriously wounded, almost goners, shell-shocked; others were afraid of leaving the bunkers: the war had “melted” them.

The core of Azovstal defenders were superheroes. Reporting that 2,000 people left the plant, Russian media interpreted it as though these people could have defended Azovstal much longer. However, if you take into account the wounded, the women, the dead, and those “melted” by war, very few guys had actually been defending the facility, especially in May.

The core of Azovstal defenders were superheroes

Closer to the end, meds were a problem. When treating fresh wounds, our doctors cut sheets, washed them, and shoved them into the wounds. Anesthesia was a problem too: a fighter next to me who’d had his leg torn off had to endure amputation, which included sawing through bone, with nothing but local pain injections.

Sometimes when they brought in the wounded who could still speak and give their names, the doctors already knew they were goners. Not because their wounds were too serious but because there was nothing to treat them with.

In the very end, we had no meds whatsoever. We had a guy with a call sign Wikipedia who had his leg torn off above the knee. So he was lying on the table, almost passing out, and the doctors were saying: “We won't save this one. He's a goner.” But we were lucky to have a resourceful medic among us. He told everyone whose blood was A-positive to quickly donate it. His initiative found support, and the guys gathered blood into a large syringe and gave Wikipedia a transfusion. Lying right next to him, I saw the doctor do his thing, and the guy miraculously survived. He has just been exchanged.

Our medics were working under colossal pressure. Sometimes they went without sleep for 48 hours because the wounded were arriving one after another. They were out of meds and had to make medical supplies from scratch, but they still saved many lives.

A medic helping an Azovstal defender
A medic helping an Azovstal defender
Photo by Dmytro Kozatskyi

Psychological experiences at Azovstal varied. A lot depended on your company. I was lucky in this regard. I’m from Urzuf, the second battalion. Among our wounded were infantrymen and guys from the first and the second battalions. As we lay side by side, we did all we could to support each other. For instance, someone would give us a cigarette, and Misha, a friend of mine, would share it with others. One cigarette was enough to go around for four or seven or us.

The guys in the next bunker had some flour left and something to cook on, so they made “bunker cakes” – dough fried in oil. So they'd give me three or four “cakes” and I would divide them among the eight of us. My friend and I kept telling jokes to cheer the others up.

Not everyone was a Mariupol hero. Some showed admirable courage and did a great job; others were too scared to go outside. Many guys got “melted”, turning aggressive and gradually losing their minds, stuck in the bunker. A guy from an adjacent unit shot himself in the head. The bullet went into his jaw and through his brow. Miraculously, he survived and walked around for some time, talking. He’d come up to me and ask: “Where’s my phone? Guys, has anyone seen my phone?” And all that with a hole in his skull. Once the doctors looked at him they knew they had nothing to treat him with. They said: “We can't help you. All head wounds are treated on the mainland.” He kept asking them to finish the job for him, pleading: “Please, I don’t have it in me to do it again!” The doctors said: “Are you an idiot? Get out of here!” And that was it.

Photo by Dmytro Kozatskyi
Photo by Dmytro Kozatskyi

Notably, this man had not been wounded and had all his limbs in place; wasn't shell-shocked either. He wasn't from Azov, the Bears <The Insider's note: a Ukrainian special ops unit>, or the police. I had no idea what he was so afraid of. If he’d been captured, no one would have bothered to torture an ordinary soldier. Our enemy isn't prejudiced against guys like him. It seemed that he was so trapped in his fear that he decided to take his own life. We had quite a few suicides in the bunker. I can remember at least five cases.

At least five people in the bunker committed suicide

But we were lucky to have good company. The only thing that got to us was hunger. It was tough because starvation made us very aggressive all the time. Otherwise, we were holding up nicely. If a drop bomb fell, everyone would jump to their feet and move around, but five minutes later no one would even remember it.

Quite a few guys died, though. Many of my good friends got killed simply because they didn’t get the help they asked for: “We don’t have enough men.” But when you got back to the bunker, you saw that there were enough men but that they were too scared to go outside. This really got to me in the beginning.

Our guys from Azov, the Bears, the 36th brigade, police officers and adjacent units did an admirable job. They got killed and wounded because there was no rotation and no time to get any rest. They had to carry out missions four or five days running. My group lost around 40% of its personnel. Some others reported losses of up to 80% dead. When you aren't released from duty for a long time, your body starts failing after a week of hard work non-stop. With little sleep, adrenaline running high, and a lot of physical exercise, you turn into a zombie, and that's what kills you Not because your enemy is stronger but because your body has its limits.

With little sleep, adrenaline running high, and a lot of physical exercise, you turn into a zombie, and that's what kills you

As for me, I got four bullet wounds. Our position was precarious: a studio with a window occupying an entire wall. The enemy was positioned across the street. As we were moving to the next building, I got shot – in the knee, the thigh, the left butt cheek, and the left heel. All of the bullets went through except one. When treating my wounds, the doctors simply stuck bandages into them, soaking them with a special ointment. The bullet had to be removed without anesthesia.

At first, they dressed our wounds once every three or four days, although every other day would have been better. When we were out of bandaging materials, they could only do it once in nine days. I was happy at first, but then I felt the smell that began spreading from the wound of the guy next to me when the doctors were dressing it. He had a shrapnel wound from the Grad, and it stank to high heavens! A large area on his body began to rot, which is how I realized that dressing wounds once in nine days was too seldom.

They moved us from Azovstal in four groups. The first group consisted of the severely injured who needed to be stabilized. The second group included the wounded who were stable but bedridden. The third group consisted of the lightly wounded. The third group included those without injuries and the commanders. I was in the second group.

Mariupol defenders in a field hospital at the Azovstal steelworks (photograph published on May 10)
Mariupol defenders in a field hospital at the Azovstal steelworks (photograph published on May 10)
Photo by Dmytro Kozatskyi

First, they brought us to Novoazovsk. The locals treated us as though the destruction of Mariupol had been our fault. They kept saying: “Shame on you! Shame on you!” I didn't get it: “What should I be ashamed of? Of defending my city? I’m from Mariupol. Are you saying I was destroying myself?” When they heard I was a Mariupol native, they were out of arguments. They understood perfectly well who had destroyed the city. They knew it was the Russians who’d razed it to the ground. When I said so to “DPR” fighters, their faces expressed vague agreement, if not regret. They had nothing to counter it with.

The locals treated us as though the destruction of Mariupol had been our fault

They kept us in five-bed wards. Compared to Azovstal, food was better in captivity: we got three meals a day. Going from nothing to three meals was an improvement. Granted, the meals were small, but food is food.

In Novoazovsk, “DPR” fighters came to us with questions a few times. I told them the truth: “Guys, you came at us, and we defended ourselves. We’re all military. You have your cause and we have ours. We’re no Nazis. If they fed you stories about us walking around doing the Nazi salute, it’s nonsense. We're servicemen protecting our country's integrity.” After that, even the most ardent ones began to realize that what they’d heard before had been propaganda. The same “DPR” fighters told us many times: “Guys, we can tell they’re pulling our leg with all the Nazi crap.”

After talking to us, three or four of our “DPR” guards deserted. They packed their stuff and bolted right after they were assigned to the front line. In the beginning, they’d all say: “You're fascists!” A week had barely passed, and they started greeting us differently: “Yo, guys, how's it going?” You could tell their attitude was changing from the way they talked. First, they cursed at us, but a week or two later, having gotten to know us, they realized that we weren't the beasts their commanders had made us out to be. They saw we weren’t fascists or Nazis – just soldiers fighting for their homeland.

After talking to us, three or four of our “DPR” guards deserted. In the beginning, they’d all say: “You're fascists!”

From what I understood, the “DPR” expected Russia to safeguard the borders of the Donbas republics, and that's what was in it for them. As they recounted, when their positions had been shelled, they’d gone to the Russians asking to secure Maryinka. But the Russians told them: “Our objectives are different. We don’t need to keep Donetsk safe; we’re headed elsewhere.” The Russians have an agenda of their own. As for the denazification, it's complete nonsense. Everyone in the armed forces understands it.

Journalists would come to us looking for the right angle. They'd ask us if we truly wanted to exterminate Russians. I’d tell them: “Sixty or seventy percent of servicemen in our regiment were Russian-speaking. Are you going to tell me we’re discriminating against Russian speakers?” They asked if I’d shot at civilians. I said: “How do you see that happening? I have two apartments in Mariupol. Are you saying I got into a tank and opened fire on them? Many soldiers serving in Mariupol were from Donetsk. Are you saying that once you attacked us, they turned their tanks around and started shooting at their home city?” So the interviews did not work out, much to our disappointment. We hoped that more publicity would facilitate our exchange.

Sixty or seventy percent of servicemen in our regiment were Russian-speaking. Are you going to tell me we’re discriminating against Russian speakers?

The younger generation in the “LDPR” is already starting to see through the sweet lies of propaganda. I heard Donetsk residents say more than once: “We’ve got cheap cars and reasonable utility prices.” But when I was in Donetsk – and our hospital was considered a good one – we only had running water twenty minutes a day. Between them, healthcare workers slammed politicians, saying how terrible everything was, but talking to us, they changed the tune, saying how hard we had it in Ukraine and how wonderful their life was in Donetsk.

There were interrogations too. In Novoazovsk, I was interrogated three times. When they found out I was from Mariupol, they woke me up in the middle of the night and tried to recruit me. They wanted me to betray some data and testify against Redis <The Insider’s note: Denis Prokopenko, lieutenant colonel of Ukraine's National Guard, commander of the Azov Regiment, Hero of Ukraine>. They said I could return to Mariupol and get a “DPR” passport.

Besides, everyone acknowledged that Redis is a top-notch commander – the “DPR”’s Ministry of the Interior, Russia's Investigative Committee, and ordinary “DPR” residents. They had nothing but respect for him. He did great in Mariupol. I don’t know where he is now. The latest data places him in Yelenivka, after which he was presumably transferred.

Everyone took interrogations according to their mental state. Frankly, I braced myself for the worst, for torture. But there was no physical violence. I’m not saying there was none in Yelenivka, however. I can only say for myself and the guys I was kept with.

As for medical assistance, we hardly got any, but they kept the most severely injured ones from dying. For instance, a guy's leg stumps started to rot, so he had to have another portion of his bone sawn off and more of his flesh removed. If a nurse walked into the ward and could smell pus and rotting flesh, they’d start moving around and arranging surgeries. They are out of many meds too, including decent painkillers. Either the entire hospital has a short supply, or we weren't supposed to have any.

In captivity, we hardly got any medical assistance, but they kept the most severely injured ones from dying

The attitude of healthcare workers varied. Some cursed at us. A nurse once entered our ward and started saying we’d been killing civilians in Mariupol. A friend of mine says: “We did nothing of the sort. You're talking nonsense.” She says: “Go on then, say ‘Glory to Ukraine!’” And he says: “I’m not saying it.” In response, she threw a slice of bread at him. It was indeed moral pressure, but everyone was happy enough to avoid torture of beating, save for an occasional slap on the head or shove in the chest. Back there, if they threw bread at you, it was no big deal – you could always eat it.

We had an inkling about the prisoner exchange. First, “DPR” fighters would run around with lists, after which some of our guys packed up and left.

When they announced the list of prisoners up for the exchange, I wasn't too happy to hear my name, as I was the only one in our small group of three to leave. I’m from Mariupol, which means I don’t have a home anymore. My wife is in Europe. Meanwhile, my mate was from Kyiv. His parents and his girlfriend live there. I thought he should be the one to go. I even asked a “DPR” guy: “Is there anything we can do about the lists?” He said: “Keep it quiet, you idiot, or they’ll call off the exchange.” Later, I realized how happy I was to be going home, but I still thought that the guy I’d been with since I’d got wounded should have returned in my stead.

I’m from Mariupol, which means I don’t have a home anymore. My wife is in Europe

I’m in Ukraine, undergoing rehabilitation. I still don’t want my wife to return because I feel more reassured while she's in Europe. There was a fearless guy in our group who had shown incredible courage. However, his wife was in Mariupol, and when the fighting became tough, I saw him transform from a leader to a man eaten up by anxiety. We sometimes only got a couple of hours rest, and he lay there tumbling, unable to sleep. It took a toll on his performance: he couldn’t run as fast as before and had a slower reaction time. Eventually, he got killed. Not because he was unprofessional but because he was morally strained, which affected his physical condition. I don’t want to follow in his steps. Even though I still need crutches to walk, I plan to return to combat duty, along with our entire “Disabled Division”.

Tork: “They took our watches, chains, rings, and phones, and stuffed them into their pockets”

I ended up at Azovstal on April 15 during the breakthrough from our sector to the Azovstal sector. Before that, we carried out missions on the move, out in the city. I’d already got wounded before arriving at Azovstal, so I wasn’t among its defenders.

Once we got there, no one left the steelworks grounds. We did fight back, but it was more of a firing range for beginner enemy pilots In addition, the naval artillery was not shelling the city or the nearby communities anymore and focused specifically on the plant. We followed our orders and drew a lot of firepower upon us: infantry, machinery, aviation, and navy, as the enemy was trying to take full control of the city. Had we had more experience with such warfare, we’d have held out longer. We simply lacked practice.

Had we had more experience with such warfare, we’d have held out longer

Our supply of food and water was extremely limited. We did our best to stretch it out, understanding that we could only carry on while we had something to eat.

We hoped for reinforcement and expected guys who’d served in our regiment before. They weren't afraid of a breakthrough operation. The only problem was that either the General Staff did not think everything through or no one listened to Redis’ advice. They decided against sending reinforcement because there was no air defense. Later, we didn’t want them to join us anymore. We realized that, if something went south, the guys would end up massacred because Mariupol was completely encircled. The deblocking had been planned well in advance, and Redis mentioned it, but they okayed the reinforcements too late and had to call them off.

Photo by Dmytro Kozatskyi
Photo by Dmytro Kozatskyi

A lot of ours died in Mariupol. At least one in three Azov fighters. I have no information whatsoever about the adjacent units. Their losses must have been even heavier because of the lack of skills or proper training. I have no data on civilians either. Essentially, what we saw in Mariupol was genocide against the Ukrainian people. I remember we tried to get civilians out of buildings and hid them in basements because residential houses were being razed down with the heaviest weapons: bombs, artillery, missiles, you name it. The enemy rained all of its firepower on all sorts of targets, military positions and ordinary apartment blocks alike.

What we saw in Mariupol was genocide against the Ukrainian people. The enemy rained all of its firepower on military positions and ordinary apartment blocks alike

We held the city for almost two months. After that, everyone relocated to Azovstal and held the last stronghold. In all, we fought against a giant enemy formation for three months.

Photo by Dmytro Kozatskyi
Photo by Dmytro Kozatskyi

On April 15, we received the order about the evacuation of the wounded to Novoazovsk starting April 16. Those fighting fit were sent to a detention center in Yelenivka. They promised us they’d treat us normally, without any torture, in line with the Geneva Convention. And we counted on it.

On May 16, I was carried outside from the bunker along with other heavily wounded soldiers. They carried me toward the exit from the steelworks, but there was no exit as such; there weren’t even any walls left. By evening, they'd evacuated around 50 wounded. They put us on buses transformed into evacuation vehicles, nine seats each, and several ambulances for one wounded each. They loaded us on stretchers and took us to Novoazovsk.

Captive Azov fighters
Captive Azov fighters

Novoazovsk was a never-ending sequence of interrogations from the commandants and their local superiors. They kept asking us: “What are you fighting for? Why did you come there?” When I said I was a Mariupol local, they had a different question for me: “Why were you shooting at your own?” I said: “You were the ones that attacked my home, so I was in a perfect position to fight back.” They tried making us out to be fascists or Nazis, even though they had nothing to back it with.

At interrogations, if they saw someone had a phone, a chain, a cross, a watch, or money, they’d jump at anything shiny, like monkeys, be it gold or an iPhone. It’s like they’d never seen one: all of them had Android or button phones. Even though all our devices were locked with passwords, they still took all the phones they liked. They took our watches, chains, rings – everything – and stuffed them into their pockets. They treated us like the enemy but didn't kill us.

At interrogations, if they saw someone had a phone, a chain, a cross, a watch, or money, they’d jump at anything shiny, like monkeys

We arrived in Novoazovsk at around nine or ten in the evening. We got some food – or what passed for it anyway. A bowl of gluey cold porridge and a welcome: “Get some sleep, you’ve got a long drive ahead in the morning.” We had no clue about our destination but realized that we shouldn't expect them to fulfill their promises of assistance, treatment, or prisoner exchange.

In the morning, we learned they were taking us to Donetsk. In Donetsk, we got basic medical assistance. They dressed our wounds once in three days but did not operate on anyone until two or three weeks later, when an amputee from among us already had his stump festering. It was a matter of life and death, so they decided to operate on him. It was their general approach to only operate on those who developed gangrene to avoid sepsis. In such cases, they amputated the gangrenous limb. There was no surgery as such.

They only operated on those who developed gangrene

They put us in some sort of geriatric care center that didn’t have any meds to speak of or any humanitarian aid. They didn't have enough to treat their own wounded. We tried asking about the Red Cross or humanitarian aid, but they shut us up: “Who cares if you live or die? No one brings anything here. We keep begging Russia for humanitarian aid to get at least something to treat you with.”

On the plus side, we got three meals a day – three tiny hospital meals. We got drinking water too: they’d boil it and bring it to us, even though they barely had enough for themselves. They only got running water for twenty minutes a day, and not every day. For that, they blamed the Ukrainian government. We asked: “Why don’t they dig you a canal? You’re close to the Russian border, what's the problem?” They just droned on: “It's Ukraine's fault.”

As for inhumane treatment, it was all relative. A drunk commandant would occasionally hit one of us on the chest or poke a wound with a needle. We didn't pay much heed to moral pressure; it was a given. They shoved us around a little but did not try to kill us.

A drunk commandant would occasionally hit one of us on the chest or poke a wound with a needle

Officers from various services showed up at interrogations with a bunch of questions, mostly off the record. The Russian Investigative Committee dropped by. They asked us questions about the war and our service in Azov. They asked: “How long ago did you become a soldier?” They wanted to know things about specific people, either those hyped up by the media or from high command.

Everyone was interested in our commander Redis, his deputy Kalina, and commander of the staff Tavr. These officers intrigued them a lot; they even tried quoting them at us, saying they’d been teaching us to exterminate the Russian nation during the formations. I said: “There was nothing of the sort. What they said was that, if someone, no matter who, came to our land with weapons, we would defend it.” In response, they tried pressuring me, pretending they had photo and video evidence. I’d tell them: “Show me your video. If I see my commander or someone close to him say things like that, I’ll agree with you.” They cursed at me and said: “We’ll show it to you tomorrow, and then we’ll cut off your tongue for lying!” Naturally, they never showed me any video simply because it doesn’t exist. I like to think that no one was silly enough to believe in their hoax and cave in.

Redis (Denis Prokopenko), the commander of Azov
Redis (Denis Prokopenko), the commander of Azov

They promised us that our cooperation improved our chances of exchange, even though they didn’t have a say in the matter. They were ordinary investigators recording depositions. They drew up their reports and you never saw them again. Minions.

At first, they told us we were up for exchange in the next two or three days – a week or two at the most. When a month passed, we struggled to understand what was wrong. How difficult was it to arrange a prisoner exchange in the modern world? I felt bad for those who had borne the brunt of the attack on Mariupol. They did not surrender or desert; they fought back, and many died. Why couldn’t third countries facilitate their exchange on Ukraine's behalf? Why hadn't Ukraine made such arrangements? There were people from Mariupol in captivity who were worth exchanging and returning to service. For some reason, it wasn’t working out.

There were people from Mariupol in captivity who were worth exchanging and returning to service

We had moments of despair, of course, but it changed little. We still hoped for something. The exchange that eventually took place was the first and only one, which is a shame. We expected more wounded to be exchanged a few days later, and from then on, healthy fighters would be up for exchange in groups. We're still waiting. There are fewer and fewer mentions on social media, as more recent news comes to the forefront. I want more publicity for them – for both the prisoners and the fallen.

I survived all of it because I never lost hope for a normal, peaceful life ahead. It's time I started a family: I’m 27 but have never had time for that. In captivity, you kept balancing between problems: the pain in your leg, the fact of being a prisoner, and the lack of communication and access to information. You kept worrying that Kharkiv may have already fallen and that Poland may have taken control of Western Ukraine if you were to believe Russian propaganda. You realized those were probably lies but never knew for sure. You understood that 99.9% of it was crap, but there was always that sliver of doubt.

I survived all of it because I never lost hope for a normal, peaceful life ahead

A week or so after the exchange, I reunited with my fiancée. Before that, they kept moving us from hospital to hospital. I didn’t see my parents until a month later. They are in a difficult situation. Before leaving the city, they’d spent a while in the basement, and my grandma had her leg amputated because of frostbite. Their summer house, their apartment, their clothes – all is gone. They have to start from scratch.

I’m undergoing treatment at a rehabilitation center. The doctors will need to decide what to do about my leg. I think I have a good chance to lead a normal life. The only question is, what next? There are my parents, my fiancée’s parents, and our future family to take care of. I have to find them shelter and provide for them. There are no guarantees that the government will take care of this. I might have to manage on my own, which is no mean feat these days. So my primary concern at the moment is to keep my parents safe. As for my own well-being, that can wait.

Vishnya: “Encircled by three enemy lines from the beginning till the end, we had little hope of reinforcement”

We flew to Mariupol to help our guys hold the city. My friend and I volunteered. We knew the risks and understood the situation: one regiment holding off two enemy armies – 14,000 troops.

Mariupol after the Russian invasion
Mariupol after the Russian invasion

On March 28, I arrived in Mariupol. I remember that date very well. Many were surprised to see me. I told them they were my bros and that was why I’d come to help them. What was Mariupol like? A dead body was lying on the bench with no one to remove it as a mother was pushing her stroller past it. More dead bodies scattered along the parkway with children playing ball nearby without even noticing them.

A dead body was lying on the bench with no one to remove it as a mother was pushing her stroller past it

An hour and a half later, I’d already gotten my first wound. Once I got better, I returned to combat. My second injury was a wrist wound from a mine fragment. By then, I was already in the “immortality mode” and had lost all fear. I saw many deaths at the steelworks. Shelling was incessant, but planes were the worst. They used everything they could, all of their arsenal, against us. All we could do was wonder who would die next.

They used all of their arsenal against us. All we could do was wonder who would die next

We watched our friends die in front of us. With time, you get used to it. Four of my friends died. The death of my sworn brother Serhii was the hardest on me. He was a poet. He was never buried; we had to leave him at Azovstal.

I remember we had an incoming missile that didn't go off but still killed quite a few. We couldn't get the bodies out from under the debris and had to put up with the smell of corpses for two weeks. Eventually, we did get some of the bodies out but not all of them. We had nowhere to keep them so we took them outside. It was hard, of course. We had some water, some food, and meds, but not a steady supply. Sometimes we had nothing. There were a lot of amputations. The medics were operating on the verge of their abilities, without the necessary assistance or medication.

Living with my wound turned out to be the hardest part. I got wounded two weeks before we got the order to come out. I had two bullet wounds in my legs. The bullets went right through, but I still can't walk. I’m undergoing treatment at home.

After the air corridor for helicopters was blocked, we harbored a vague hope that reinforcements might come, but we realized the chances were slim: we were encircled by three enemy lines till the end. However, we didn't despair and sang songs to cheer us up. My sworn brothers gave me a lot of strength. We took what was happening to us as a part of our job.

We took what was happening to us as a part of our job

We were not in favor of evacuation and didn't believe Redis would order it. When such an order did come, we were of two minds about it. Reluctant at first, I accepted it: an order is an order. Orders must be followed. There was a moment when I wanted to off myself. I was weighing my handgun in my hand, considering what they did to prisoners of war, especially Azov fighters, but then I thought that suicide was for wimps. I’d seen others do it.

I made my peace with the evacuation and was proud that I had Redis as my commander. The most important thing was to follow my orders to the dot. If Redis comes back, we will prevail. Although we will prevail in any case.

After Mariupol, we were taken to a hospital in Novoazovsk, then to Hospital 15 in Donetsk. I was already bedridden. Doctors didn’t do much to help us. Their objective was to keep us stable and alive. Some were visibly reluctant to do even that, grumbling: “Why help these Nazis at all!” It happened both in Novoazovsk and Donetsk. However, there were decent people who really tried to help.

Food was scarce in captivity: three tiny meals a day consisting of a lump of porridge and a meat patty. They made sure we weren't getting enough nutrition for our size. When I flew out to Mariupol, I weighed 97 kilos. Returning from Donetsk, I weighed around 60.

When I flew out to Mariupol, I weighed 97 kilos. Returning from Donetsk, I weighed around 60

The Red Cross visited us once. The “DPR”’s Ministry of the Interior interrogated us, always expressing their loathing of the Ukrainian language. They kept saying: “What the f*ck are you doing talking in your cowspeak?!” It was more of an intimidation tactic, as though they were about to beat me up with a bat, but they were more bark than bite.

They asked: “What's that tattoo supposed to mean?” I said: “Prince Daniel of Galicia.” <The Insider's note: a 13th-century king of what is now a region of Ukraine.> They wanted us to confess to murdering civilians, but I insisted that I would never open fire on unarmed people. They tried to scare us, but how can you scare someone who had survived Azovstal? I thought they’d execute me by firing squad because I wasn't on the first three lists. However, I had a subconscious hope that they might exchange me.

They wanted us to confess to murdering civilians

Isolated from the world, we had no idea what was going on. They once told us at three or four in the morning: “Pack up. You're leaving.” We didn't know where to. We thought they were taking us to the detention center in Yelenivka where the others were kept. That it was for the television, like before, and that they’d send us back. The longer we drove, the more I expected a Grad strike or something like that. When they brought me home, I thought I was dreaming. By now, I’ve returned to normal life, of course. We're waiting for the others to return. When I’m fighting-fit again, I’ll return to combat duty.

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