Copyright © 2024

The work of Euromaidan Press is supported by the International Renaissance Foundation

When referencing our materials, please include an active hyperlink to the Euromaidan Press material and a maximum 500-character extract of the story. To reprint anything longer, written permission must be acquired from [email protected].

Privacy and Cookie Policies.

Mariupol’s three lines of defence: Azov battalion, the volunteers and the kids

Mariupol’s three lines of defence: Azov battalion, the volunteers and the kids
Lesya Hanzha, exclusively for UP. Life

“We are prepared to gather together, to rally, to stand in a live chain from the side of Novoazovsk and all along the Vostochnyi area, but help us to ensure the safety of the rally.” It is a closed meeting at Mariupol’s executive committee. August 30. Russian “Grads” are in Novoazovsk.  That is 40 km away. According to intelligence reports, they are even closer, in Bezimenne. The eastern outskirts of the town are located in the affected zone.

“Help us ensure the safety of the rally!” the volunteers ask. “Have you filed a request for holding a rally?” replies the chief policeman. And this is when you understand that you have reached the point where parallel worlds have converged, for a while. Converged, in order to part again straight away, each back to its own reality: bureaucratic survival and the town’s defence.

Later, the volunteers will say: “The safeguarding of the bridges is carried out formally;” “Check up on the taxi drivers:  they were all accomplices of the separatists, back when the DNR were here;” “Suspicious people were spotted in the criminal district of Adzhaha.”  To all of which the police will reply:  “Where are the specifics?”  Where are the written statements?  Your accusations are unsubstantiated; be more specific: where, which taxi drivers, what was the address in Adzhaha?…”

“Yurii Yuriivych,”  the volunteers address the mayor of Mariupol, “give us your number in order to co-ordinate the actions.”Write down the number of the police officer on duty,” replies the mayor of the front-line town. “We don’t need an officer on duty,” retort the volunteers.  “We need you…”

“The meeting is over,” says Hotlubyi, who then gets up and leaves. The officials and military commissars together with policemen follow suit.

The volunteers and the servicemen of the “Azov” battalion remain: deputy commanding officer, Vadym Troyan, promises to protect the rally, and dictates his number for the co-ordination of activities, saying that the bridges and the taxi drivers are under control, and that they know about Adzhaha…

The first defence line: Azov 

“The enemy must be stopped outside the town.” This is the main motto of Mariupol’s defence.

“Only outside the town!” repeats Troyan at the closed mayor’s meeting.  “Otherwise, the town would burn, just like Ilovaisk. Because, every burned-down apartment is someone’s burned-down life…”  He is asking for help with the trenches, and to to construct a shelter, which should be covered with flagstones. “Warm clothing needs to be brought for the fighters to their checkpoints.”  The volunteers are writing it all down.

“But guys, maybe there is no need for our rally?” the volunteers ask.  “I mean: maybe it’s all in vain? Maybe, it will only pose problems for you?”

“It is needed,” replies Troyan.  “It is all needed.  I showed the fighters the video from your last meeting, and their spirits were boosted. We have to see who we are fighting for.”  And, he repeated again: “Do everything. Do at least something. This is your town after all.”

Apys (his nom de guerreI) picks up the phone used for the purpose of co-ordination between the town and Azov.  He doesn’t say his real name and asks not to be photographed: his mother is on the occupied territory. “Most of the calls to number 9000 are demands to provide weapons right away. Or cries that the town was given away and it is all lost now,” says Apys. Such a flood of calls constitutes 80% of communication with the city dwellers. Another part of the messages is about minor hooliganism and domestic abuse.

While we are conversing with Apys, he is asked to come to the gate.  Azov are stationed in Mariupol in a boarding school, the gates of which are guarded by a few fighters. Two elderly women are awaiting Apys at the gate. At once one of them begins her sorrowful story about how her son is an alcoholic, who demands money from her, while she is hiding at her acquaintance’s place with her second son who is physically challenged.

“I turned to the police,” says the woman with tearful eyes, “they told me: ‘call Azov’…”

Azov is even patrolling the town in the evenings. The battalion builds shelters and gives training sessions to the inhabitants: lets them hold submachine guns, teaches them how to discern grenades and how to hide in a shelter…

The weakest positions in town during the shelling are the top floors of the houses, says Apys.  So. if shelling commences, it is crucial that you descend. It doesn’t have to be to the basement, but at least downstairs. It is even much safer near the house. He is talking in a very serious manner and then suddenly starts laughing: “Once I was running to the shelter in Ilovaisk, to the basement, and suddenly I see another one of our fighters running. I turn around, in order to make way for him and he, too, turns around to make way for me. We laugh with Apys and recall the classic scene from “Dead Souls,” where Chychikov and Manilov are exchanging courtesies “Only after you, Pavlo Ivanovych.”  “No, only after you…”

An arrow indicating where the shelter is

Some time before the war, Apys was a police employee, but he quit, and as started up a “small car business”.  He officially serves as a soldier in the battalion, although he was an officer at the Interior Ministry [of Ukraine]. “Azov” is his fourth attempt at becoming a volunteer.  At first, he wasn’t accepted into “Slobozhanshyna,” then to “Kharkiv1,” then to “Kyiv1” [battalions]. “When I was in Kharkiv, all of us volunteers were gathered and were asked: ‘who [here] was a police officer?’ We got up. In response, we got: ‘goodbye,’ he says.   It is for this reason he can’t officially be an officer. “They will not forget my background in Kyiv,” he says.  And he comments: “I will still fight, even as a soldier.”

He had already been buried twice in his hometown in Luhansk Oblast. News that he had been caught and executed by shooting as an enemy of the Donbas people who killed 35 people appeared in the local newspaper.

“I called them back and told them that I haven’t killed anyone and that I am alive. Some time later, this same nonsense happened again. Besides, this time they wrote that I wasn’t merely executed by shooting, but also drowned. I haven’t called them anymore. Afterwards, I got a call from the LNR security service one day and got asked…to report on work I had done. I told them: ‘come to Kyiv, and we’ll talk.”  In response: “Nothing, we will be there soon,” Apys willingly talks about himself.

“I’m not the only one from Luhansk here. There is a whole subdivision of them here – 25 people. Later we will meet Stryzh and Smaller (“Why Smaller?” I ask. “Because he is small,” replies a serious fighter in a balaclava). Both of them are former miners. Stryzh worked at the mine for  a total of 12 years. “So they shouldn’t be shouting that it’s their Donbas. It is our Donbas. And there will be no LNR here,” says Smaller.

“What do you think about the position of the mayor of Mariupol, Apys?”  Just as I have, Apys also attended the closed meeting with the mayor.

“I understood it this way:  he  doesn’t need it,  I mean, the defence of the city.  Headquarters have to be established. Where are the headquarters and staff?  Nothing. Where is the co-ordination of actions?  Nothing. Right now we will try to co-ordinate amongst ourselves. Volunteers will help…But we will not let them [the pro-Russian militants] inside the town. You understand, we cannot let them in here. They have a grudge against this town, as we have already chased them out of here once… They could do too much harm around here.

The second defence line: Anya and her friends

“When there was an explosion on the bridge on June 13, I woke up…went to the window, closed it on auto-pilot and went back to sleep,’ says Anya. Anna Kotelnikova is a doctor. She lives in the center of Mariupol.  She has been in the ranks of the volunteer movement since April, back then the volunteers created a secret group on Facebook, to co-ordinate their actions, gather information about the movement of the DNR army within the city and support each other.

“I can’t even remember when the last time I have been to work was,” says Anya. ” I have been either at the hospital or the checkpoint…My leadership told me this: “Anya, we are only expecting victory from you…”

Anya is showing me a video on Facebook of how she is chasing after the column of the 24th brigade which was led out of encirclement. “My 24th,” says Anya.

“I remember that you also went to Melitopol. Were you going to them?”  I have been told about Anya a while ago. Once we were even planning on briefly meeting in Melitopol.

“No,” Anya shakes her head, “back then I had the 72nd [brigade]. It’s just that I am very active. You think that’s too much?” I don’t think so. That is not how I think about her at all. I admire her.

“Once my car got stopped on the highway at a checkpoint. Far from the city. I was actually on the way to my checkpoint. I had vegetables, water, canned food and liquid soap in my trunk, ” Anya explains how she met the 24th [brigade].

“Which checkpoint is yours?” I inquire. “[The one at the] airport.  We are on our way there right now,”  explains Anya readily, and goes on about the 24th.  “… I barely managed to convince them to give me their numbers: in case they would need anything. Then we started talking: at times we would drop off the vegetables to them, other times it would be the tents and mats, or medication. Once they asked for a tonometer. It was a heat-wive, and the guys’ blood pressure was jumping around. This is how they became mine.”

The 24th, is that brigade which was fighting under Zelonopillia.

“After one of the battles, my guys at the checkpoint were crushed: they had friends that were killed, some  wounded…I was thinking, I should support then somehow: I bought a lot of ice cream.  I am rushing, the ice cream is melting…They greeted me and said: ‘bye, Anya, they are leading us out of here, we are going to fight.’ And this is when we all started crying and hugging…”

Then, the 24th got surrounded, and when they got out of it, they called Anya right away asking for water. It is hot. 40 degrees. Everyone is exhausted, covered in mud…

“They call: ‘we need water, most importantly quickly because the column shall not keep waiting’. I call our volunteers – Oksana, Andriy…I go to get the cigarettes, as they need those too. Oksana is off to the petrol station, Andriy is off to the checkpoint, where he organizes a ‘green corridor’ for us.”

“As we start heading to that place, they call and tell us that the itinerary was changed. And we rushed there…I see the column moving, and I can’t do anything, as it isn’t stopping. The medical van whose drivers we made an agreement with, is moving in front of the column. What to do? I get the car onto the oncoming traffic line and start outrunning them at the speed of nearly 200 km/h (you can see it on the video how Anya’s car sweeps past as a white dot and then disappears)…Then, when our [medical] van has stopped, and the guys on the APCs started braking, we started throwing the packs of water straight onto the APCs.”

“…Lesya, there were so many of them, that three full loaded trunks weren’t enough. We gave away our own bottles, from which we were drinking, to the last ones…”

Anya is a member of the New Mariupol volunteer organization. It is a strong association, which, in addition to Mariupol residents, also includes many from throughout the Donbas, refugees, some who have been living here for a month or two, or even longer.

Lera is from Donetsk. In the peaceful times she worked as a taxi dispatcher. Lera’s husband is serving in a voluntary battalion, while her parents stayed in Donetsk. Lera is telling me how to make a camouflage costume, a “kikimora”. “You take a sack from cacao-beans, says Lesya. You wash it, take it apart into threads. You dye the threads. A girl who lives in a private sector dyes the threads in Mariupol. The smell coming from the dye is very peculiar, hence it’s better not try doing it in an apartment.

“Then, you take a fishing net,”  Lera instructs, “you cut it out and sew it together. Afterwards it’s all very simple: you tie around nets with the threads.”Tying one costume takes up around half a day, with 8-12 people working on it. “But be sure to mention,”  says Lera, “that it was not us who came up with the method of making a “kikimora”, it was the girls from Kharkiv who taught us…”

…The commander at the checkpoint has changed. Anya goes to meet him. I go with her. She is writing down a list in a business-like manner: big needles, but not the harness ones, black threads, plastic cutlery, shoe cream, chapstick…”Lips dry up a lot,” says the commander shyly.”What about the thermal underwear?” asks Anya. “What is that? Have never worn it…,”  says a young guy, Vadym, who is from the Khmelnytsk Oblast, as are his guys.

They have called Anya not only in order to meet her, but also…to give her the cookies. The soldiers are loading the boxes with cookies and candies into the truck, and asking [her] to bring those for the kids.

While we are having a chat and loading [the boxes], a car stops by. Some elderly men are calling Anya to their window and ask her to take 200UAH for the army.

… Pavel and Ruslan are loading the cookies into the trunk. Pavel seems familiar to me. “Were you at the Maidan by any chance?”  I ask him. “I was,”  Pavel laughs. “On the other side [of the barricades]…” Pavel and Ruslan are both in Internal Forces and stood at the Maidan, on Hrushevkoho Street on January 19, next to the “Dynamo” stadium colonnade. “We had bottles and stones flying at us the whole night,” remembers Pawel and repeats: “I did not carry out the criminal orders.”

While on our way back to the city, we discover that wounded guardsmen from the shelled parol boat have been brought to the hospital. Right away Anya starts loading her car with analgesics, styptics, diapers, droppers, and rushes to one hospital, then to the next one.

There she will make a list of all the injured, talk to the doctors and commanders, insist on the immediate dressing of the wounded and treatment of their abrasion. She will shout at the doctor who tells a fighter “Well, you’re not dying are you?  So wait for your turn.” She will bring medication, underwear, slippers, socks and food to everyone.

“You always have a problem,” a discontented nurse will tell Anya. In turn, Anya will make excuses for them to me: “You have to understand, they aren’t ‘vatniks’ [derogatory slang for the supporters of people’s republics and Novorossiya].  It has just always been this way here.  They don’t rush. It is necessary to hurry them…”

…When we sit down to have a bite at the end of the day, Anya would ask me: what do you think, should I bring my son to the city? He intends on entering the college, here, in Mariupol. The mathematics exam is on the 8th of September.

I reply to her that it is very dangerous. That it is better to send him to relatives, who live near Kyiv, and that he could get into college the following year. Anya nods. Simply nods, to avoid arguing.

Her son is going to take an examination in mathematics on Monday. I will be crossing my fingers for him. For him, for Mariupol and for mathematics.

The third defence line: Ihor and the kids

Twelve young guys show up to the self-defense training announced by Azov [battalion]. The guys are quite young.  The older people there are volunteers Tanya and Anya, and I.

“Why are you here?”  I ask one of the youngsters. “Today it is us who have to defend the country, not these…pensioners, who are 30-40 years old and are longing after the Soviet Union,” one really young guy says to me. His name is Holodnyi. He is from Kharkiv Oblast. Anya and I are exchanging glances, we can’t hold back our smiles. It actually is very funny…

I make the acquaintance of another guy, Serhiy, 18 years old, a Mariupol resident. He came to the training. He wants to defend his city together with the battalion.

“Are you studying?” “I already finished my studies.”

“Are you working?” “What work is there to be talking of? Right now all guys are thinking about how to quit work and join a battalion.”

“What stuck in your memory about the DNR?” “The smell of alcohol,”  says Serhiy.

He is a football fan of the Mariupol’s “Metallurh”. “Actually the current official name of the team is “Ilyicevec”, but we don’t acknowledge this name,” he explains to me.

There are a lot of ultras [football fans] in Azov, whom Serhiy and his friends have known from the past, pre-war life. For instance, Felix, who is a student of the Institute of Foreign Studies and comes from Luhansk, is also a football fan. He fought in Ilovaisk, however, he told his parents that he is working in Kyiv.

” What about your parents? How does your mom react?” I ask Serhiy. “I only have a father,” he says. “He is against this. But you have to understand him: my mom died, he has the three of us, and is constantly thinking about how to provide for us…There are a lot of people like this here, who only need a job, a salary and to live in warmth. They don’t care whether it’s DNR, Ukraine, Honduras…”

“And you do?  [care]? “I do.”

Anton, Serhiy’s friend, who is 21 years old and also came to learn how to hold a weapon, says that he came here in order to defend his town.”Everyone in my family supports me, even grandmother. She voted for Yarosh at the elections,” says Anton.

The youngest one, Danylo, is 17. His mother is a well-known volunteer in the city. Danylo looks like a typical overachiever. He is small and slim, just like my brother in his childhood years. Danylo thinks this way: he will be fighting till the end, even if his city will get seized. Then he will continue waging a guerrilla war with his friends. “I am not bad at acting and I can ask the right questions, in order to find out the information,”  he says.

Danylo takes a “Klashnikov,” and on cue, unlimbers it for action, reloads the weapon, and then uncocks it again…

…”Come with me, I’ll introduce you to our ninja,”  Halyna, the volunteer, is leading me towards  Ihor Kanakov. Ihor fought in the Dnepr-1  battalion. A storm trooper, he was injured in Ilovaisk. He was thrown out of the second floor by a blast wave and fell onto the broken concrete stairs. He has a spinal injury. He is lying at an emergency hospital in Mariupol. He firmly refused getting evacuated.

“The day after tomorrow I will be learning how to walk,” Ihor tells me on the last day of summer.  And, he is already walking. Ihor’s usual weight is 93kg, now it’s barely 50kg. “My dream is to get up as soon as possible. I need to walk to my town, to Donetsk,” says Ihor.

He is telling about how he got into Dnepr 1, about his combat operations, and that he will surely get up and go into a battle, which must be carried out by old men only [a reference to a Soviet film about the World War II fighter pilots, called “Only old men are going to battle” – tr].

Those guys who were with me, refused to rotate because they know that youth aged 20-22, who don’t know how to do anything, will come in their place…Those who know how to fight should be fighting, not those who want to.

Ihor says that he will have his own place in the ranks of the Mariupol defense. He talks a lot about Donbas, his Donbas, and how his mother who is a doctor is still in Donbas: [she] said that she cannot leave her patients, all the other doctors have left.

“We get called ‘Kolomoisky’s black chastiers’. I can remember how we were liberating the Pesky village near Donetsk, when an elderly lady comes out to us. I don’t know what basement she came up from…Old and barely walking, she is bringing a canned fruit compote for us. Maybe it is her last compote. She says: ‘Thank you for coming.’  I will never forget that compote…Because when you know who you are fighting for – you aren’t simply retuning the fire, you are winning.”

[hr] Source: UP. Life, translated by Dasha Darchuk. Edited by Olena Wawryshyn

For more information about the New Mariupol volunteer association, see Mariupol appeals to EU citizens

You could close this page. Or you could join our community and help us produce more materials like this.  We keep our reporting open and accessible to everyone because we believe in the power of free information. This is why our small, cost-effective team depends on the support of readers like you to bring deliver timely news, quality analysis, and on-the-ground reports about Russia's war against Ukraine and Ukraine's struggle to build a democratic society. A little bit goes a long way: for as little as the cost of one cup of coffee a month, you can help build bridges between Ukraine and the rest of the world, plus become a co-creator and vote for topics we should cover next. Become a patron or see other ways to support. Become a Patron!

To suggest a correction or clarification, write to us here

You can also highlight the text and press Ctrl + Enter

Please leave your suggestions or corrections here

    Will the West continue to support Ukraine?
    • Know what moves the world.
    • Stay informed with Kompreno.
    • Get quality journalism from across Europe.
    Special discount
    for Euromaidan Press readers
    Euromaidan Press

    We are an independent media outlet that relies solely on advertising revenue to sustain itself. We do not endorse or promote any products or services for financial gain. Therefore, we kindly ask for your support by disabling your ad blocker. Your assistance helps us continue providing quality content. Thank you!