26 June 2022, 07:11 PM


Surviving Azovstal defender shares his story about the last days of Mariupol

Author: Nataliia Rop
Molfar faced the beginning of the full-scale war against Russia as a combatant with Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, which is a part of the National Guard.

By then, the 27-year-old man, a native of the Carpathian region in western Ukraine, had eight years of combat experience in the Donbas area.

As a person with Carpathian roots, he received the nom-de-guerre Molfar – in mountainous western Ukraine, this is the name for a person who has mystical powers over the flow of life.

In Mariupol, a city in south-eastern Ukraine that went through three months of constant Russian shelling and bombing, he became a commander of the communication unit at the city’s defense center.

In mid-March, Molfar was heavily wounded on one of his regular assignments. Later, he made the decision to evacuate from the besieged city, along with his fellow injured servicemembers, via the only existing route at that point – a daring helicopter raid. It was quite a risky operation.

That helicopter flight became the first successful operation for evacuating wounded Ukrainian soldiers from Azovstal, a steelworks whose basements became a shelter for both civilians and soldiers.

NV met the Azov fighter, who is now undergoing treatment at a hospital in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. It’s been three months since Molfar was evacuated from Mariupol.

We are publishing his story and his revelations about the war and his participation in it as a monologue.

From the Revolution of Dignity all the way to the Donbas war

Before the 2014 war, I was a student and took part in the Revolution of Dignity. At that time, I joined a student group of the Svoboda political party to contribute to the revolutionary effort. However, Svoboda’s Ivano-Frankivsk office wasn’t really as active as I wanted it to be.

Then, I met guys from Ukrainian Patriots, a civil resistance group, and we started doing things together. I liked the way this organization was planning its activities during the revolution – it was much more active.

When the 2014 war started, I was preparing for graduation from college and submitted my personal documents to join the Azov regiment. I was turned down several times as I didn’t have any military experience and hadn’t served in the Ukrainian army. It was taking too long – I was told to wait until a decision in my case will be made.

After the Ilovaysk encirclement in the Donbas, most of us understood that the war will take longer than expected. And that’s when the Azov regiment finally accepted my application. Other guys from the Ukrainian Patriots group joined as well.

In the beginning of my career at Azov, I was commissioned to the regiment’s artillery unit. We became a mortar platoon, then, when more people joined, became a battery. Afterwards, we received newer artillery weapons – including barreled long-range guns. Up to 2016, I was doing my service for Azov’s artillery, but soon joined the infantry battalion. When Deny “Redis” Prokopenko became Azov commander, I was offered to lead the communication unit of Azov’s special-purpose platoon. That has been my job since 2017.

We were stationed in Mariupol and its outskirts. However, this doesn’t mean we weren’t leaving the city for assignments – our regiment was conducting activities in much wider geography in the Donbas, along the frontlines.

Sometimes we did major counter-offensive operations, like the one in 2019 near Svitlodar when we acted as a battalion tactical group to go deeper into the combat zone. Sometimes we had very specific assignments on counter-sniper and counter-sabotage resistance near the frontlines, covering the entire Donbas area.

Beginning of the full-scale war

I can remember the beginning of the war very well, but I can’t remember much what was happening in the evening on February 24, because what I went through was like a non-stop  two-week marathon. In the morning, I received a phone call from an Azov commander who said: “Wake up and we’ll be going.”

At first, I couldn’t believe the war started, and was like: “This can’t be true.”

Then I checked the news and clearly saw the signs of the full-scale invasion. It didn’t take long for me to collect my belongings and report to the Azov command center in Yuriyivka. There, I received an order to join our commander in his trip to Azov’s command center in Mariupol. Since then, I’d stayed in Mariupol the whole time.

Like in 2017, I was assigned to lead the communication unit for our defensive operation in Mariupol. What we were doing was helping all those operations to defend the city to be well connected between each other, so everyone would know what they should be doing.

Mariupol’s defensive operation was supported by a number of units: Border Guards, Armed Forces, National Guard. These units were organized in a way to include all those who were assigned to defend Mariupol. For instance, the Border Guards had the 23th Marine Brigade, and also infantry. The Armed Forces had a brigade of Mariupol territorial defense, and also the 36th and 56th brigade. The National Guard had its own structure, organized similarly.

We had a number of protective posts around the city which were serviced by soldiers from very different units. Somehow we had to connect all these units, so they would act efficiently under increasingly complicated circumstances.

We managed to do this, because people were organized very well. We all understood that everything depends on our ability to cooperate with each other, and that only good cooperation would help us achieve our results. The technical aspects were the hardest: very soon we were encircled by the Russian army and couldn’t renew our supplies.

Meanwhile, constant shelling by Russian artillery and regular hits by Russian aircraft kept destroying our property. We had to be creative. However, in general, we finished our assignments in the initial stage of the war.

Quick encirclement

Approximately by February 26, it was pretty clear to us that we would be encircled. Our intelligence commander provided us with information: a column of Russian troops passed Melitopol and was moving towards Berdyansk, a neighboring city in Zaporizhzhya Oblast. So it would probably take two days before we would be besieged from all sides.

At first, we expected the Russians to invade the city from the north to block all possible evacuation routes. We had this NATO approach to planning our defense effort: our commanding center was creating various scenarios, those which are most likely and also those which are worst-case and best-case.

So, the most likely scenario that we saw was a Russian advance between Mariupol and Volnovakha to hit us from the north and cut off our connections to the mainland. We were prepared for this. But the Russian advance from Crimea played a crucial role – we didn’t expect the Russian army to get so close to Mariupol so fast.

As far as I know, Ukraine’s 503th Battalion tried to lift the blockade of Mariupol, but weren’t successful – they didn’t have enough personnel and they lacked intelligence. Basically, they didn’t know how many Russian troops were around. No one of us expected this huge and rapid Russian reinforcement from Crimea.

Getting wounded

To me, everything happening since February 24 until the day when I was wounded felt like the same day that just kept going forever. You keep working, with no established schedule, with no healthy sleep. You work, work, work, work – and sometimes you go for two days without any sleep.

Then you’re told to get at least one hour of rest. You go to sleep, but very soon people wake you up because something has happened. This was our usual thing. So I had to sleep whenever I had some spare time.

This way, your schedule becomes a mess pretty quickly and you stop understanding whether it’s day or a night, which is why to me it all felt like one day. However, I remember well the later developments and their timeline.

I was wounded in the middle of March. It was an aircraft attack by Russians. We were going to the Mariupol downtown area to repair the communications line. It was an important assignment, because we also were delivering fuel for electricity generators and food for our soldiers. That’s when we started to gather on Azovstal’s territory.

All of this was happening extremely quickly: I was approaching a car and understood that I can’t stand on my feet and will hit the ground. When I looked down, I saw my foot taking an unhealthy shape, so I couldn’t use it anymore and the only option was just to fall. Then, three more bombs were dropped by Russian planes.

Overall, Russian bombers used four FAB-250 bombs to hit one particular territory. I was lucky. I fell on the ground where the railway was, so it kind of protected me from explosions. There was a bus standing in 30 meters from where I was – and it was completely destroyed.

This is how I was wounded – as well as two of my fellow servicemen nearby. I was assisted in the evacuation by a sergeant who was following me – he didn’t have any serious traumas, only a concussion.

Surgery on the way to Azovstal

The good news was the 555th military hospital was still working in Mariupol. That’s why when the aircraft attack was over, I used my radio to ask for evacuation. I was completely conscious at that moment. My Azov fellows came over to me and delivered me to the hospital where doctors conducted surgery.

The doctors had a complicated piece of work with me: My stomach had been wounded and my pelvis was broken, but the surgery was successful. After I was evacuated to safety, I didn’t need any more surgeries to improve what was done in the 555th hospital. I’m very grateful to those Mariupol doctors.

The next day after surgery I woke up – everything felt okay. I was still at the recovery stage, but my bed was moved into the corridor. I was surprised by this, but then understood that all the hospital beds were full of people, wounded just like me.

The next day, Russian aircraft hit us again – this time it targeted Neptun, a swimming pool close to the 555th hospital. Many civilians were hiding in that swimming pool from bombs. Lots of people were killed or wounded in that attack.

Some of these people were taken to the closest hospital – which was the same hospital that I was recovering at. There, they were receiving treatment. However, very soon another Russian bomb hit Mariupol – and it was targeting our hospital. The bomb fell right near the hospital building. My doctor told me that four civilians who were at the surgery tables died right away. Some hospital workers were wounded too.

The next day we decided to evacuate everyone from hospital, as it couldn’t function properly anymore. Some people were taken to the Ilyich plant, some – to Azovstal, both are steel-making facilities. I was among the last to be evacuated.

Dangerous evacuation

We created an ad-hoc hospital in a big and well protected bunker. When I arrived there, it was already busy: more than 100 people were receiving treatment. Doctors prepared a special room for surgeries – mostly minor ones. As I was wounded quite heavily and couldn’t walk well or move around – I was put in a bed, had my bandages changed regularly, and had a IV to stabilize my condition. Back then, we still had the medicines that were needed.

I spent several days in a bed. Then one evening my commander came over and said that the helicopters would be evacuating us the next morning. He asked me if I wanted to go, because this would be quite a risky operation. At that point, I understood that we were encircled, that Russians have strong air-defense systems and the probability of success for Ukrainian helicopters was quite low. But I agreed to be evacuated.

My commander said that as an officer, I should be taken away to recover, so later I could join my regiment again for further work if the negative scenario would develop. We agreed on this.

I couldn’t believe that the evacuation would happen at all. We had been expecting helicopters to come to us much earlier, when I wasn’t even wounded yet. We asked for more anti-tank missiles, we asked for more radio stations and waited for two weeks for helicopters to deliver them.

We were told they were on their way, but in just two hours the commanders told us that there would be no supplies by helicopter. We didn’t know whether they were downed or the supply operation was canceled. This is why when I was told that a helicopter would be evacuating wounded soldiers and civilians, I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it even at that one morning at 4:00 am, when we were taken to the landing area.

The helicopters were expected to arrive by 6:00 am, and we were there standing and waiting since 5:00 am. Finally, at 6:40 am, we saw the helicopters. While we waited, we were shelled and bombed. We just were laying there and listening to explosions, feeling happy when it wasn’t anywhere close to us. Then, the artillery shelling started and we were counting whether it would hit us. So, when we heard the helicopters approaching, I thought we would all be shelled right away.

Finally, the helicopters landed, delivered some cargo, and then took all of us on board to start the flight back. Then it was crazy. Each second on that flight felt as long as a lifetime. The pilots did an extremely good job, it was a real miracle – I don’t have a different word for this.

We were flying at a very high speed and at a very low height. We had to adjust our route to the landscape underneath. When the helicopter landed in Zaporizhzhya for refueling, I couldn’t believe that we had survived. I was told: “We’re in Zaporizhzhya, we’re ok” – and I went like: “Wow!”

Then we went further, to the city of Dnipro, where we landed and were taken to the hospital. I couldn’t believe this, my emotions were overwhelming – I was happy to be rescued from hell.

I’m not sure I’m able to describe the feeling I had when stepping aboard the helicopter. I saw this as a chance to survive – a chance that was given to me. You get this chance – and it’s up to you whether you’re up for that risk or not, but your whole further life depends on it. We made this choice the evening before the flight – and didn’t change it.

It was the first evacuation trip from Azovstal. There were two helicopters, the one I was at had 8 passengers on board. No one of use believed it would be successful. But we did this and understood that our plan was good.

An unexpected rescue

During the flight, we were shelled in Zaporizhzhya Oblast where the Russians had their troops. But it looks like it wasn’t artillery – maybe rifles, maybe anti-tank missiles. Our helicopter wasn’t damaged.

I think the Russians were surprised that Ukrainian helicopters were doing this mission and managed to reach Mariupol. They might have even taken these helicopters for their own, Russian helicopters. For example, on the day when I was wounded, Russian aircraft conducted as many as 100 flights in the combat area. These are, basically, 100 attacks on Mariupol alone.

This was happening all the time: Russian aircraft was performing at least 50 flights daily since March 10. They saw we didn’t have enough multi launch rocket systems and felt that they were safe in the skies, which allowed them to keep destroying the city.

Russians were hitting civil infrastructure in Mariupol’s city center, they threw bombs on the Drama Theatre, on local hospitals, on local manufacturing facilities, even though Ukrainian soldiers weren’t even there. Russian aircraft went crazy with bombs, targeting everything they saw underneath them. This is why I concluded that the Russians might have taken Ukrainian helicopters for their own. The skies over Mariupol were stuffed with Russian planes and helicopters and they couldn’t believe Ukrainians would dare to send their helicopters here.

After the successful evacuation, we were happy to have our mission completed. At that point I got this feeling that I will be alright. The Mechnykov Hospital in Dnipro had very good doctors and I had faith in them. I had to undergo another surgery, though doctors in Mariupol did a good job with stabilizing my condition. After I recovered a little bit, I started asking questions: what happened to all the other guys? I wanted to be helpful to my fellow servicemen, I had lots of long-lasting friendships among them. We lived our lives together for eight years. Those are excellent guys.

A brotherhood forged by war

The Azov regiment has its own traditions of brotherhood. We always were like a big family, supporting each other. We always had a proper understanding of what we were fighting for.

You had a goal and the people surrounding you were also motivated by the same ideas. We really understood why we were in Mariupol, in Donbas, and we our tasks were. It gives you the momentum to do your work correctly – you don’t have time to feel desperate because you realize you have to do your job.

I know, my fellow Azov servicemen [who were evacuated in May to Russia-controlled territory] are now imprisoned. We have some information about this, but not about all of the guys. What I know myself is that they’re there, that’s it.

I need to finish my treatment and then will go back to military service, and will go back to work. We need to win this war. I’m sure that the only way to have my brothers, my friends back is by winning the war and regaining our territories. I want to go back to Mariupol some day and see the Azov Sea. That’s the reason why we’ll keep working for victory.

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