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Ukrainian fighter battles exhaustion in 14-hour swim for survival

Special ops achieves one of its most extreme missions, despite two attacks by Russian aircraft
special ops
Special ops officer “Conan”. Courtesy photo: Conan
Ukrainian fighter battles exhaustion in 14-hour swim for survival

Special ops officer, nicknamed Conan, enlisted in the Armed Forces of Ukraine on 26 February 2022. In his interview with Ukrainska Pravda, he describes himself as a simple guy from the countryside, a soldier who is passionate about his job and who cherishes life. Before joining the Artan Battalion of the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine, he worked as a fitness coach and in law enforcement, provided personal security and participated in the Ukrainian resistance movement.

Here follows an adapted translation of his interview at Ukrainska Pravda.

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Conan was nicknamed by his teammates, because of his size and strength.  Photo courtesy of Conan

His stamina, skills and will to survive were all put to the test on 22 August during a skirmish between Ukrainian gunboats and Russian aircraft, in the Black Sea near Zmiinyi (Snake) Island. The first test came when a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 bomber, attacked Conan’s ship. Luckily, the Ukrainian fighters managed to hit the aircraft using a Stinger MANPADS, causing the plane to veer off towards the nearest airfield.

The team continued towards its target and was on one of its most “extreme operations,” according to Maj. Viktor Torkotiuk. By nightfall, it had completed its mission. On their way back, about 30 kilometres from the initial encounter with the Russian aircraft, an enemy aircraft again approached and blasted the Ukrainian ship with a 30-mm automatic cannon.

The team also managed to evade that second attack.

“Typically, the Sushka [Sukhoi SU-24] would fire a few rounds, loop back, and then fire again. We used this pattern to our advantage and initiated evasive manoeuvres during one of these moves. We were fortunate to have an exceptional skipper who remained composed and skillfully steered us out of the danger zone,” Conan explained.

It was during one of these manoeuvres, as the Ukrainian boat attempted to distance itself from heavy enemy fire, that Conan fell overboard into the Black Sea.

“I weigh 120 kilos without my gear and with it, I’d be about 30 kilos heavier. For some reason, about 20 minutes before I went overboard, I felt somewhat uneasy … it was like a premonition,” he said.

“So, I removed all my equipment, including my helmet, body armour, personal load-carrying equipment and stowed my weapon. I put on a wetsuit and life jacket … and 20 minutes later, I found myself in the water, about 130 km from the shore!”

Flaming towers in the distance

At first, Conan panicked as the shoreline was distant and the water was deep. His comrades steered the boat towards him to try to rescue him but enemy aircraft continued firing at the Ukrainian vessel. Conan waved and shouted, urging them to stay away, because, “the lives of the 13 crew members aboard the boat were far more valuable than my own.” With his life jacket on, he knew he could remain afloat for a while.

Uncertain about what lay ahead, Conan focused on a single point – a gas production platform – visible both day and night and about 20 km from where he had fallen into the water.

“I calmed down, understanding that no rescue would be imminent as enemy planes continuously circled overhead. I must have appeared as a minuscule target but they continued firing and prevented our boat from approaching me. So, I began swimming towards the flaming tower.”

There were no waves yet the current was strong. It constantly swept Conan backwards, to the left, then to the right. He continued moving, realizing that if he stopped swimming the current would carry him farther and farther from his goal.

Surrender or endure?

A constant struggle raged in his mind: should he give up or press on? He had learned to swim at the age of six in a pond in his village. Being a Pisces, water was his element, but swimming had never been his strong point.

“Previously, swimming in the sea or a river without feeling the bottom beneath me, would make me feel insecure. Yet now, I had hundreds of metres of water beneath me, and I tried not to think about it. You gather every ounce of strength for yet another stroke. There’s a strong desire to survive that propels you forward …”

Various thoughts buzzed through his mind: “Perhaps, no one is actively searching for me? There’s nothing on the horizon.

Or, perhaps they’re searching but having a hard time locating me. The internal battle persisted: surrender or endure?”

But, rationality won over despair. Conan clung to the hope that his comrades were searching for him, knowing that his commander, Viktor Torkotiuk, would not give up so easily.

“Just one more stroke. Come on, do it!” he silently encouraged himself as his thoughts turned to life and family. He pictured his infant son, who would turn one in a month, and he knew he wanted to be there with him.

Without a wristwatch, his sole point of reference was the sun. At one point, hallucinations began to set in, induced by the scorching heat, dehydration and fatigue.

Around 4 or 5 p.m., he reached the flaming landmark. But swimming anywhere near the gas tower proved impossible because of the searing heat generated by the burning gas and the thunderous roar of the flames, which sounded like an enemy plane overhead. The current intensified, repeatedly sweeping Conan backwards. This happened multiple times, propelling him some 400 metres away from his goal.

Exhausted, Conan was swept away by the current for the fourth time. He was dehydrated because he had swallowed too much salt water. The heat was relentless. He turned onto his back and drifted off to sleep.

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Special ops soldier nicknamed Conan says he’s no barbarian. Photo courtesy of Conan

Rescue at sea

“When I woke up I found myself far from the rig. I removed my vest, a welcome relief after so many hours in the relentless sun. I realized night was coming and the search team wouldn’t be able to locate me.”

At one point, he sensed something on his leg. He turned around and saw a seagull perched on him with several others circling overhead.

Then a ship caught his eye. It could have been a search party or an enemy vessel. An enemy aircraft flew overhead, firing at the approaching ship, which promptly altered its course, moving away from Conan.

Seeing the ship retreat, spurred Conan on. Summoning his last ounce of strength, he swam tirelessly – until he saw waves washing towards him – followed by a small boat, flying the Ukrainian flag.

“My joy knew no bounds! These were my comrades, my brothers-in-arms who had tracked me with a Bayraktar drone. At that moment, I knew that I’d survive. I reckon I must have spent 14 hours in the water and swum approximately 20 to 25 km, though I really can’t say the exact distance.”

Conan pulled himself onto the boat and hugged his comrades. He received a thermal blanket and intravenous fluids. His body temperature had dropped to 35.5 C, compounded by severe dehydration.

“Confidence in your comrades is a constant throughout any operation, from the start to conclusion, as we function as one organism, one unified team,” Conan said.

“Our battalion commander not only dispatched a search team to the open sea but also deployed a Bayraktar and activated a rescue vessel. This was, without a doubt, a collaborative mission involving our unit, the Ukrainian naval forces, and Tymur’s unit,” said Conan. [Tymur – alias for commander of a special unit of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine -Ed]

According to Maj. Viktor Torkotiuk, the operation was one of the most extreme operations conducted in the Black Sea and in Ukraine, as of 1991.

“I will not disclose the details of the operation, but I can say this, thank God we didn’t lose anyone. That’s the most important thing for us. None of the vessels was damaged, and we accomplished all our assigned tasks,” Torkotiuk told Ukrainska Pravda.

A strong desire to live

The mission was not over. The group had to retreat to a secure location. The boat set a course for a second gas rig, closer to the shoreline. Around midnight, they finally disembarked from the boat and set foot on solid ground.

Conan’s body temperature had risen to a normal level, reaching 36.2 C, and later, while in the ambulance, to 36.6 C. Upon the doctor’s recommendation, he drank water in small, gradual sips. He had no appetite even the following day, with cravings limited to apples and sweet beverages.

“During the time I spent in the water, I often gazed at that tower, yearning intensely for fruit and Pepsi. In fact, I’ve probably consumed 20 litres of Pepsi since then,” he says with a smile.

Conan’s first act upon feeling solid ground beneath his feet was to send a message to his wife.

But he had yet to tell her what actually happened.

Instead, he asked his wife, “Have you heard of this story? How do you think this guy managed to swim such a distance? What might have been going through his mind?”

His wife answered, ” ‘He must have had an intense desire to live.’ ”

Conan nodded and said quietly, “Yes, an intense desire to live.”

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Prayer and the power of prayer hold great significance in my life. Photo courtesy of Conan

____________________________________________________________________________________________

The real Conan

Conan has always had a passion for sports. Even today, whenever he has the opportunity, he makes it a point to hit the gym or go for a run. Physical fitness and the ability to mentally prepare himself have proven invaluable.

His nickname of Conan was given because of his weight and size. Whenever there was a challenging task at hand, people would often say, “Come on, Conan!” and this name stuck. Nowadays, his comrades all agree, “But you’re the real Conan, not the guy from the film [Conan the Barbarian – the 1982 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger].”

“But really, I’m not a barbarian because I’m not cruel!” says Conan.

Most of the fighters in the Artan Battalion are athletes, including Ukrainian and world champions in various martial arts. Conan holds the title of Master of Sports in pankration, a martial art that traces its origins to ancient Greece, combining wrestling and fist fighting, as well as in powerlifting, which involves squatting with a barbell, bench press, and deadlift. Conan has clinched numerous championships and has also ventured into strongman competitions, where he secured several awards.

Special Forces officer Conan is a believer and he thanks God for granting him strength and endurance. Prayer and the power of prayer hold great significance in his life. He intends to share his story – about himself, his comrades, his battalion and his commander.

“For what purpose? To encourage people and prevent them from giving up …”

______________________________________________________________________________________________

The Artan Battalion

The Artan Battalion of the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine (DIU) is a special unit that conducts covert and sophisticated operations in the Russian-occupied territories.

Artan Battalion Photo: Instagram

The unit was established in late spring 2022 and consists of highly trained and experienced professionals, many of whom are athletes and champions in various martial arts. The Artan Battalion has performed dozens of missions, including reconnaissance, sabotage, diversion, and rescue. Some details of these missions have been revealed by the DIU or by DIU chief Kyrylo Budanov.

The name Artan derives from Arthania, an ancient state of ruthless and invincible warriors, which, as chronicled by Arab and Persian historians and geographers, lived on the territory of modern Ukraine. The battalion’s motto is, “Artan – the spirit of victory.”

Reporting by Ukrainska Pravda, adapted/translated by Christine Chraibi.

 

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