I swore I was not going to do a piece on Azovstal — complete distraction from the real news taking place at the front, etc. But after reading this piece by Russian war correspondent Dmitry Steshin, I figured, okay, just this once. Because I am a sucker for a human interest story.
For those who have not been following this subplot within the main story arc, here is the Executive Summary:
After hiding, for weeks, like rats in their underground bunker; and after swearing on the Norse Gods pantheon and the Ghost of Adolph Hitler, that they will die rather than surrender, our Neo-Naughty “heroic defenders” decided to call it quits. Initially there was just supposed to be “evacuation” of the severely wounded. Russian/DPR side promised to take these guys to the hospital, where they would be provided with medical treatment, probably physical therapy, and psychological counseling, to help them get over their PTSD. Then, once word got out that this was a thing, the process started ballooning and getting out of hand. Now even healthy, ambulatory Ukrainian soldiers decided they wanted to take the deal as well. Next thing you know there were up to something like 700 guys or even more, wanting to surrender; and latest estimates say maybe even as many as a thousand. A fleet of buses and luxury coaches had to be chartered to take everybody, because Russians are nicer people than the Japanese in WWII, who just made prisoners walk to their own doom. Now they can take a bus.
But the really hilarious thing is that, at least in the first couple of days, before they got mocked to death on youtube and Twitter, Westie media all decided to spin this mass surrender as an “evacuation“. Which made it sound like the Ukrainian soldiers and neo-Naughties were calling the shots and rescuing their own. As usual, CNN was the most fakey of all the fake news, with deceitful headlines such as “They will be taken to the Ukrainian town of Novoazovsk…” conveniently omitting the fact that Novoazovsk is controlled by Donetsk Peoples Republic, not Ukraine. And much other deceitful headlines and copy. relying on the ignorance of their clickers.
“I laughed my Azov,” wrote one pro-Russian commenter to the CNN nonsense, thus birthing the meme du jour.
First Come The Sappers
Early morning, May 16. Reporter Steshin gets the scoop of a lifetime when he is allowed to hang out with the Russian/DPR soldiers at Azovstal, while they wait apprehensively for the thing to go down. The Ukrainians are set to emerge from the blocked up entrance to an old railroad tunnel connecting to the steel plant. Interminable minutes go by. Then: A white flag pokes out from one of the tunnels. A group of men in camouflage emerge. Accompanying them is a young boy, he looks to be around 15 or 16, his name is Kolya. He says he has been living inside the steel plant for the past month, he found himself a storage bunker, and that became his home. This first group, including Kolya, is there to negotiate the terms of surrender for the others. Despite his youth, Kolya is clearly connected with the Nationalists and will most likely be detained with the others. One can only hope, for his mother’s sake, that she raised him properly, in other words, no tattoos! A single tattoo on the body can make the difference between status of regular POW and accused war criminal. Especially if it’s, like, a big swastika or sun symbol.
Four hours go by, now it’s around 13:00 hours. The word goes out: “They are coming out. Don’t open fire.” And then a group of Ukrainian sappers emerges. With help from the Russian soldiers, they get to work clearing the debris from the access road. Then, showing nerves of steel the sappers calmly clip the wires on the bombs, which are laid out everywhere and hidden in the debris. The entire area is de-mined, quickly and efficiently.
Two hours pass, now it’s 15:00 hours, and the Russians are waiting for the first group of seriously wounded to be brought out.
As the Azovites emerged from their cavern, they looked like moles who had been underground too long, blinking at the sun. Before them, even in this devastated place, spreads lush greenery, as frogs burble happily in the nearby river. Across the street is the restaurant Sarmat, which has been closed since the beginning of the war. One of the Azovites peers at the restaurant wistfully and sighs, “How I could eat some shashlyk…” Turns out that these guys are really hungry. Turns out they had plenty of water, but very little food. This is an important detail because everybody on the internet keeps repeating over and over that the “defenders” had no water. Actually, they had unlimited supplies of water. We’ll talk about this later.
Never Let Them Take Your Smile
At this point we are halfway down in Steshin’s report, and if you scroll down, there is a short video (just under 3 minutes) which illustrates some of this story. You can distinguish the Russian from the Ukrainian soldiers in that the former wear white stickers on their arms and legs; and the latter have blue or green stickers. Steshin shows the sappers doing their thing.
Steshin tries to strike up a conversation with some of the Azovites. They look straight ahead and won’t make eye contact with him. He notes that their gear is and kit is top of the line. They carry the same rifle as their Russian counterparts, the Kalashnikov.
The reporter was expecting dirty and frightened men, but this is not what he sees. They are clean, neat, and do not appear to be scared. More like apprehensive. The mystery of their cleanliness is solved when one of them dishes the secret: All along, they had plenty of water. They call it “technical” water, from endless supplies in the pipes. Technically it’s not supposed to be drinking water, but they would use it to make tea. And they would wash and stay clean. Given that, one wonders why they decided to surrender, but the secret is that they ran out of food a week ago. It was hunger, not thirst, which drove them out of their hole.
Steshin is accompanied by a DPR soldier named Vlad, who hails from Poltava. They have been inseparable for the past 3 months on the road. Vlad was filled with hatred against these Ukrainian Nazis, and wanted revenge. But now something is happening to him: At the sight of the captives, his hatred and anger start to melt away, and he becomes calmer. Steshin philosophizes about the “Russian soul”, and how this effect works: At the sight of a conquered enemy, the Russian rage wilts, then compassion becomes more dominant within the psyche. To be sure, these Nazis will be put on trial for their crimes. But it is not the Russian way to carry out battlefield justice.
Steshin asks one of the Ukrainians: “How many still in there?” The Ukrainian, whose name is Dmytro, gets cagey: “Still quite a few, you’d be surprised…” Steshin offers the guy a chance to speak into the camera and let his loved ones know that he is still alive; but Dmytro politely declines. Not one of the captives wants to give an interview, so Steshin has to respect their choice.
An 18-year old Azovite named Nazar is the only person in the whole group of captives who speaks in pure Ukrainian dialect. He is from Lvov. He overhears Steshin chatting with Vlad and philosophizing, how this all came about. Nazar butts into the conversation and says, in Ukrainian dialect: “People were pitted against people.” Ukrainian Dmytro objects to this: He says he is from Mariupol, and he says that people were getting used to the new life (under Maidan rules). Vlad objects angrily: “I am from Poltava, I had to leave my home in 2014, because I understood that it was impossible to live under the new rules. We all spoke Russian, and they started to forbid the Russian language, they passed a lot of laws…”
Dmytro exhales: “Yeah…” But then quickly collects himself and dives into the political debate: “All the same, these were our internal, Ukrainian affairs. Why did Russia have to stick its nose in?”
Vlad retorts angrily: “You wanted them to just kill us all, with nobody intervening? You have Europe and the U.S. behind you, so we have Russia behind us. Does that seem normal to you? Is it normal to waste your youth fighting in a war?”
Dmytro: “I have also been fighting since 2014. I also wasted my youth in this.”
Vlad [getting curious]: “Really? Whereabouts were you fighting?”
Steshin leaves these two soldiers to their reminiscing, noting that they kept up their conversation for at least an hour.
During that hour the de-mining process continued, there were more mines than you could count. But eventually the route was clear, and it was time to start bringing out the wounded. They brought the first group out on stretchers, and then headed back in for more. Some of the guys on stretchers were in really bad shape: They would not have lasted even one more day.
An Azov officer appears. He reports to the Russian group that the fighting component of the Regiment are still within the factory, and just waiting to see how everything goes on this first day of the process. The soldiers have internet connection so they are avidly following social media and watching everything that goes on. One conclusion they are all reaching is this: The Kiev regime has no use for them any more.
The battle for Mariupol is over!
What Happens Next?
Steshin and Vlad collect their gear and leave the scene. Vlad reveals, surprisingly, “You know. when this war is over, I would be happy to go out with Dmytro and have a drink with him.”
“You forgive them?”
“No. But I like him. We had a lot of things to talk about.”
“What about him do you like?”
“Well, he was the only one of them who didn’t pretend to be a cook. He was honest with me. He is a worthy adversary.”
“But we defeated them.”
“True. But it was a really tough job.”