On the night of February 24, he was watching a movie with a friend. But at 5 a.m. they were woken up by a comrade: “Guys, get ready, it’s war!” 21-year-old Bohdan, nicknamed “Budapest”, is a fighter in the Ukrainian Azov regiment. He says he didn’t want to believe it at first, but messages on his cell phone reported rocket attacks on Kyiv, Kharkiv, Zhytomyr and other cities. The men were immediately sent to Mariupol, the port city on the Sea of Azov where the large Azov Steelworks is located.
The DW reporter met Bohdan on September 1 in Kyiv. The interview was organized by the Azov press service. Bohdan believes public relations is one of the few things he can do to help his comrades still in Russian captivity. He himself was released on June 29. It was the largest exchange between Russia and Ukraine since the beginning of the war. 144 prisoners were able to return to Ukraine, including 95 defenders of the steel plant and 43 Azov fighters.
Bohdan grew up in Kharkiv and speaks Russian. The tall man with dark hair and brown eyes needs a crutch after suffering a serious hip injury. He had joined the Azov regiment last year and spent the winter in a training camp near Mariupol. All his friends went there. His mother supported the decision, while his grandmother strongly opposed it.
As of March 7, Bohdan says, street fighting began in Mariupol and on March 10 the city was surrounded. With each passing day, the belief that the Mariupol garrison could defend itself was fading. However, the Ukrainian presidential office has assured the population and the Azov fighters that the Russian siege of Mariupol will be broken.
“In April, I don’t remember the exact day, they said the operation would start at 4 a.m.,” says Bohdan. But when nothing happened for ten days, Bohdan no longer expected it, especially since the columns with Ukrainian equipment could no longer reach the city. Then Bohdan realized that he will either be captured or die. “I knew we wouldn’t last long,” said the young man.
During the fighting in Mariupol, Bohdan was wounded in the head by shrapnel, after which his comrades took him to the bunker of the Azov Steelworks, where soon all the defenders of Mariupol would take refuge. Bohdan had to lie because of his injury. “The food supply was critical. There was a cup of porridge a day and sometimes just half, plus a small piece of bacon,” says Bohdan.
When Russian troops dropped a bomb on the bunker, the room where Bohdan and other wounded lay lay was buried. He was the only one who could be saved, but he suffered further injuries. All other wounded perished there. As a result, more and more fighters in the bunker said they wanted to surrender, says Bohdan. He himself did not want to go into captivity at first. “They said there was no other way out, either go into captivity or die, which they didn’t want,” he recalls. Eventually, Bohdan was left with no choice but to join them.
By mid-April 2022, after Russian forces and pro-Russian separatists captured large parts of the city of Mariupol, the remaining Ukrainian defenders, along with civilians and foreign fighters, had retreated to the steelworks’ bunkers. Estimates went from about 3500 people. Around 500 women and children were evacuated at the beginning of May 2022. Then, during the night of May 16/17, several hundred Ukrainian defenders surrendered, and on May 18, Russia reported that another 700 defenders had surrendered.
Bogdan recalls that Russian flags and symbols were everywhere as he was being carried out of the steelworks on a stretcher. First he was taken by the Russian occupiers to Novoazovsk, a town in the Donbass, around 50 kilometers east of Mariupol. The Red Cross picked him up there, but he is not on good terms with him. He was asked for his family’s contact information, which he declined. Bohdan assumes that the representatives of the Russian office were interested in the data. “I said I wouldn’t give out the phone number unless I could call her myself,” Bohdan said. He never saw those Red Cross employees again after that. Bohdan spent a day in Novoazovsk. There he was treated “normally”: “A Russian soldier injected me with a painkiller. He was okay.”
Then Bohdan was transferred to a hospital in Donetsk. All floors but one were full of wounded Ukrainian POWs. On a separate floor were fighters of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic”. In the rooms where the Ukrainian military were stationed, the doors had to be left open. They were often verbally humiliated by supporters of the “Donetsk People’s Republic”: “A nurse started telling us how bad we were and that she had been suffering from bombs for eight years.”
One day representatives of the Russian secret service FSB came to him. “They wanted to know how much equipment the Azov regiment has and where the ammunition depots are. They also wanted to know the names of the officers,” says Bohdan, adding that the FSB also wanted to know why he killed Russian soldiers. Bohdan said: “Because you came to my house with guns. If I see a guy in someone else’s uniform, then of course I’ll shoot.” A representative of the Russian investigative authorities also asked him if he liked “Bandera”, a controversial nationalist politician during World War II.
Bogdan was depressed that he could not reach his family. From conversations he heard about the exchange of prisoners, which apparently had failed. Because Bohdan’s comrades, who had allegedly been taken away for exchange, came back to the hospital. According to Bohdan, the prisoners were later told that Azov fighters would no longer be exchanged. Then he was desperate.
But one day the wounded Ukrainian soldiers, including Bohdan, were told to pack their things. A real exchange of prisoners took place. “I couldn’t believe it,” Bohdan remembers and says: “I came to Zaporizhia, saw the city, the people. They immediately put me on a stretcher. Several doctors came to me, everyone helped me.”
Bohdan believes that his comrades will also return home soon. “A lot of them are in Olenivka, he says. But he doesn’t trust the Russian lists of wounded and dead. The Azov militant emphasizes that the Ukrainian military command appreciates each individual and is doing everything to speed up the exchange. As for the prisoners of war from Russia and the pseudo-republics, they are better off in Ukrainian captivity than at home, says Bohdan: “They have more rights in captivity here than in their own country”.
After his rehabilitation, the Ukrainian wants to go back to the front: “It is my duty to defend my country, its interests and its territorial integrity.”
Adaptation from the Russian: Markian Ostapchuk
Author: Tamara Kiptenko
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The original of this post “Azov fighters: “Either imprisonment or death”” comes from Deutsche Welle.