Espreso. Global
Interview

Story of Ukrainian border guard who defended Mariupol and survived captivity: he lost his arm but refused to be evacuated

4 March, 2023 Saturday
10:51

On February 24, he was in Mariupol, where he had lived for more than a decade – first as a marine border guard, and after his service he stayed there. Although Oleksandr is from the Ivano-Frankivsk region, he spent all 26 years of his service by the sea, including in Odesa and Sevastopol

In 2019, he retired and arranged his civilian life, doing what he loved – car repair. 

As the maritime border guard told Espreso, he heard about the full-scale invasion from his sister, who lived in Vinnytsia, but did not fully believe it.

“To be honest, I didn't believe in a full-scale invasion. I thought it would be something local in Donbas. We were more or less calm in Mariupol. I knew we had enough forces and reserves for a local attack. However, I could not imagine that there would be such an attack. My sister called me from Vinnytsia and said that Ukraine was under fire and an invasion had begun. I didn't believe her at the time. Yes, I heard some shooting and explosions somewhere. You see, there was constant shelling in Mariupol: it started in 2014 and had been going on from time to time all those years. It was common to hear explosions. I turned on the TV and was shocked, but I still couldn't believe it. Then I went to the city to check out the situation. In Mariupol, even in the afternoon of the 24th, not everyone fully believed in a full-scale war.”

“There was no pain, but I felt like I was burning – my face was burning, and my clothes were melting.”

Oleksandr is reluctant to tell us what happened next. He says that after receiving a call from the military enlistment office, he went to his unit and then performed his duties.

“At one time, I was involved in evacuation, it was the period before I was injured. It's hard to say how many people I managed to save because the conditions were not right for me to keep track. The main thing was to save people. At that moment, one of the possible, fastest and most realistic ways was through the sea, through the strait between Azovstal and the city. The atmosphere was very tense, and I was constantly expecting something to happen at any second. Of course, it was scary. If someone says they are not scared, they are lying. It worked like this: I got scared, calmed down and ran on. This war is far from 2014. It involves aviation, equipment, and missiles. This is a dynamic modern war. For the first time, you are being hit from above, from the sides, from the water.”

On March 27, then-Captain Oleksandr Morskyi was seriously wounded. As the defender recalls, he did not feel any pain at the time, but he saw his clothes melting from the fire.

“We had to deliver cargo from Azovstal to the city. Before we were about to leave the coast, a rocket hit us. I don't know what kind of missile it was, but it hit us hard. An explosion, a fire... I was deafened, I saw a flash, and then darkness, and then fire. I did not realize that I was wounded. There was no pain, but I felt like I was burning – my face was burning, and my clothes were melting. Time stopped then. With God's help and a great desire to live, I got to the shore, but then 4 people were killed. Then I got to the base point, which was 200-150 meters away. There I received help, and that's how I stayed at Azovstal.”

After his arm was amputated by Azovstal doctors, Oleksandr refused to be evacuated, even though it was possible. Instead, as the maritime border guard recalls, he went to his comrades and helped them as best he could.

“They were trying to evacuate the wounded from there by helicopter, but I didn't want to go too much. I thought: there are fighters in more serious condition, so they need immediate evacuation. I felt more or less normal. All the time before I was captured, I was at Azovstal. First at the medical center, and then I went to my comrades, because there were a lot of wounded there, and I no longer needed constant medical supervision. I did what I could, let's say, in my everyday life at Azovstal, because it was almost impossible to participate in battles without my arm.”

Together with other defenders of Mariupol, in May 2022, after several months of hard struggle, the border guard left the almost destroyed plant and was captured.

“I took the news of the surrender calmly. It was what had to happen, and there was no other option. I was already mentally prepared for this. Yes, we talked to each other about captivity, and we hoped that we would be exchanged immediately. However, it happened as it happened. I was lucky, I was in captivity for a relatively short time – from May 17 to June 29. I was in Olenivka.”

In Olenivka, they were placed in a small barracks designed for just over 100 people. Almost all of the prisoners of war were wounded, including Oleksandr himself, whose left arm was amputated.

“We were brought, searched, robbed and thrown into a barrack. At first, there were more than 400 of us in a room designed for 100 people. We were sleeping on the floor, on a roll mat or whatever was available. Later they brought mattresses and something similar for the beds, because it was difficult to assess their condition. But you have to understand that not everyone had them there. Mostly they gave mattresses to those who were more seriously wounded. But we had everyone wounded.”

“There is no such thing as "hard or not hard", there is a determination to win.”

Oleksandr was interrogated, but he was not afraid to discuss with his torturers and prove that they were the Nazis in this war – the occupiers and terrorists.

“They told me that they came to Mariupol to liberate people. They actually 'saved' me from my happy life. I had a normal home, a good job and everything was fine. I made plans, ordinary human goals, like buying a better car, going on vacation. And they came, and now I have nothing left. And what? Was that what they were saving me from? They said they were saving me from the Nazis. I explained to them that they were Nazis themselves. They love their nationality and their homeland. It's the same thing that happens to us. "The same, but not the same,” they answered me,” he said. 

In captivity, Ukrainian soldiers, including Oleksandr, were subjected to mostly psychological pressure. There was no physical torture, compared to the way the occupying Russian forces can torture.

They were not told anything about the exchange, and the prisoners of war themselves did not want to get their hopes up. If not for a local collaborator who assured them that the exchange would take place, they would have thought that they were going to be taken to Russia or worse.

“We found out about the exchange by accident. About once every two weeks a group of people was taken somewhere. At first we thought it was for an exchange, but then we realized it was not. Then they gathered our small group, all of whom were wounded and missing limbs. One of their officers told us 'in secret' that we were being sent for an exchange after all. He used to serve in the Ukrainian Armed Forces until 2014, but became a collaborator. Although he regretted it later, there was no turning back. So he told us not to worry, because we were going home. Although we did not leave that day, we waited for a long time. Until the moment we were exchanged, everyone was hesitant whether it would really happen.”

On June 29, Oleksandr and his comrades were exchanged and he ended up on government-controlled territory. The man recalls his emotions and how he changed after what he experienced. 

“When the exchange took place, I didn't even call anyone. I just wanted to calm down, sit down and smoke. When we arrived at the hospital, an hour and a half later, I called home. I was afraid that I didn't know how I would behave after captivity, what would come out of my head. After the experience, perhaps, my life values have changed a bit, I am calmer about everything that happens, and I pay less attention to material things. I don't have those worries and unnecessary emotions anymore, I have calmness and prudence. There is no such thing as "hard or not hard", there is a spirit of victory. We all have to believe in it and that everything can be survived and endured.”

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