“At burials, I sometimes go out and cry. It’s impossible to get used to it.” One day with the “Azov” patronage service
6 July, 2022
Olena Tolkachova, head of the “Azov” patronage service Mykhaylo Meshcherinov / hromadske

Presumably, about two thousand military men, policemen, and Border Guards have died during the defense of Mariupol. And most of them (more than one and a half thousand) still need to be taken out of the city and identified, says Olena Tolkachova with the call sign “Haika”, head of the Patronage Service of Azov.  

When the war started back in 2014, after the Revolution of Dignity, she joined “Azov” to help. She only had a car and a great desire to be useful. And then, as the military operations intensified in the East, it happened so that Olena began to take care of the wounded, the dead, and their relatives and created a unique patronage service in Ukraine.

Since February 24, the workload of Olena’s team has increased in scope tenfold. hromadske spent a day with the patronage service of the “Azov” Regiment. 

Olena Tolkachova, head of the “Azov” patronage service. Photo: Mykhaylo Meshcherinov / hromadske

“To our fellow soldier from a large Azov family”

There is a hum and a specific smell on the territory of the Kyiv morgue on Oranzhereina street  there are three refrigerated trucks used there. Inside, there has been no room in the morgue refrigerators for some time already, so the bodies of the dead that are delivered from the front are stored here, outside.

Olena Tolkachova gets out of her burgundy car and heads to the morgue. Her posture is straight, her steps are confident and honed. She disappears into the corridors of the morgue, and after a few minutes she is in the funeral room choosing a wreath for the deceased “Azov” fighter Vitaliy Udod with the call sign “Aladdin”. Today, his relatives and colleagues will say goodbye to him. 

On June 13, Vitaliy died in the Mechnykov hospital in Dnipro from a wound that he had got the day before in the battle near Zaporizhzhia. He was an experienced military man, participated in the anti-terrorist operation, was in a tank brigade. In May of this year, he officially joined the military unit 3057 of the National Guard, the “Azov” Regiment. 

For our fellow soldier from a large Azov family,  a morgue worker writes carefully on a yellow and blue ribbon. 

Two stocky men carry out the body of the deceased soldier, Olena covers the coffin with a wreath, screws some carved screws, and carefully holds it from below as the men load the deceased into the minibus. 

Then, it goes to the left bank of Kyiv, where the last respects will be paid. I sit next to the military driver, all the windows are open wide. There are photos of the deceased, flags of Ukraine, and “Azov” on the front panel of the car. 

On the Pivnichnyi Bridge, the driver turns up the volume to the song “It’s my life”, while Olena drives past us at speed. 

A portrait of the deceased “Azov” fighter Vitaly Udod on the car. Photo: Mykhaylo Meshcherinov / hromadske

“I thought that he’d live until the end of the war, until the victory”

A few neighbors gathered in a small courtyard surrounded by two-story communal apartments. Women wearing black, men wearing sunglasses, but one can still see their eyes swollen from tears. Children look out from the balconies, and the flag of Ukraine flies on a column. 

The National Guardsmen take the coffin out of the car and put it on three old stools. One by one, neighbors come up to say goodbye and lay flowers.  

In the end, three women remain near the coffin — and Olena is next to them carefully hugging Vitaliy’s mother. 

The clouds in the sky get heavier and thicker, and it starts raining. The military closes the coffin and carry it inside the house.  

I thought that he’d live until the end of the war, until the victory”, Vitaly’s mother says calmly and somewhat slowly, sitting by the coffin in a dark corridor.   

He didn’t suffer, did he?”, the woman asks Olena again. 

I guess not. All of our military personnel are trained. They have first-aid kits, and when one of the fellow soldiers is injured, they immediately give painkillers to each other. Don’t worry about it…”, Olena tries to calm down and searches her phone for information about when exactly Vitaliy was wounded and died.

Do you understand? It was the 8th, that’s why I was so shaken that day”, the military man’s mother says to the woman standing next to her.    

Neighbors standing outside begin to part: the buses that were supposed to take everyone to the crematorium at the Baikove Cemetery are late, and the rain gets heavier. Meanwhile, Olena is maneuvering around the yard, constantly talking on the phone, recording voice messages, trying to hurry everyone. 

Olena next to the mother of the deceased Vitaliy. Photo: Mykhaylo Meshcherinov / hromadske

“The shells of all possible calibers are launched at us now”

“What we were doing before is not even one percent of what we do now. Just enormous amounts. It’s very difficult mentally”,  Olena says.

Since February 24, 20 people from the patronage service team had to manage a disproportionate number of dead and wounded defenders of Mariupol. Each of them needs to be identified and properly buried, or in case of injury rehabilitated and brought back to life.

Traumatologists joined the team, and the first volunteer hospital was opened in Ivano-Frankivsk where doctors from all over the country started coming to operate. 

In 2014, when the first people were wounded, and the medical reform has not even been launched yet, it was Olena’s dream.

“Our volunteer surgeons are highly qualified doctors with experience in treating combat injuries because they themselves are immigrants from the eastern regions. 

They perform surgeries that no one will perform abroad. They have been performing such surgeries in Israel, but soldiers have specific injuries there. They don’t have an enemy as we do. Because the shells of all possible calibers are launched at us now. Military personnel receives complex shrapnel fractures, mine blast injuries”, says Olena.

Doctors who operate on soldiers are making efforts to save their wounded arms and legs, avoid amputation and, if possible, return to the military to service.

Abroad, when doctors see something difficult, they immediately amputate. For them, disability is not considered the end of the world. They have a barrier-free space, a different culture of living with people with disabilities. Our guys can’t accept amputation, they want to return to the unit, fight. And our aim is to put them in line in all possible cases. To do everything that would at least let them work in the headquarters or in aerial reconnaissance, if not in a combat unit. We try to fight for our people until the end”.

In addition to treatment and rehabilitation, the “Azov” patronage service takes care of the paperwork that will serve the wounded or families of the victims to receive payments from the state. Lawyers make sure that each document is properly drafted.

“We accompany the fighter from the moment of injury to his discharge from the hospital when he receives the last document or money is transferred to his card. We make sure that all documents comply with the law so that not a single extra letter or an unfinished word affects the payment. This is quite a lot of money, and they really save the guys. They can even buy a home for this money”.

Olena in the yard of the deceased Vitaliy. Photo: Mykhaylo Meshcherinov / hromadske

“This cannot be perceived as work, routine. It’s not like that for us”   

All Olena’s actions during the burial ceremony are clear and consistent. She takes on all the troubles of relatives of the deceased soldier so that they can say a proper goodbye to him.  

Sometimes I just go out and cry. Because I know all the guys who have to be buried. And even if I didn’t know someone personally, the face still appears before my eyes. It’s heartbreaking. This cannot be perceived as work, routine. It’s not like that for us.

Olena had never done anything like this before. Her background is in mathematics and law, she had her own law firm. But, as for many current “Azov” fighters, everything changed after the Revolution of Dignity. 

Back then, Olena witnessed the shootings and burials of the Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred, and when the war in the East began and Crimea was occupied, she joined “Azov”. She only had a car and a sincere desire to help. 

First, she was asked to bring food, then full-size dummies for training recruits. 

“And later they said: “Let’s go to the Main Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs to pick up the machine guns. They are giving us the guns, but there is no car to pick them up”, “Let’s go to pick up volunteer help.”, “Can you call this person?”, “We urgently need transport”, “We need to arrange meals for the new recruits”, Olena recalls.

“Then suddenly they called: “We have a wounded man, he is being taken by a “chopper” from Mariupol area to Dnipro. Someone has to meet him.” 

I don’t even remember the exact order of events. It was like in a dream. Either I found someone thanks to my friends, or it was a post I wrote on Facebook — and people immediately called me back to say that they were in the Mechnykov Hospital and were ready to help.” 

Gradually, Olena began making the necessary contacts and she got the feeling that she belonged there. She had to close her own business. 

“I realized that I can be most useful doing this kind of thing. And one day the commander said to me: “Olena, you should keep doing this.”

This is how a medical and volunteer unit was created  patronage service of the battalion, and later — of the “Azov” Regiment. A team of volunteers took care of the wounded soldiers and their families, communicated with relatives of the victims, took over the paperwork for receiving payments and organizing burials. Actually, she was doing everything that the state authorities didn’t manage to deal with. 

Olena at the Baikove cemetery as the last respects are paid to the deceased “Azov” fighter. Photo: Mykhaylo Meshcherinov / hromadske

“Warrior Vitaliy leaves this life as a Hero…”

We get on a bus with several Vitaliy’s neighbors and the National Guard soldiers. The downpour is so heavy that the road ahead is like milk. Vitaliy’s fellow soldiers are already waiting at the Baikove cemetery. 

A coffin is brought inside the crematorium, Olena wraps it with the “Azov” flag. The service begins. 

“Warrior Vitaliy leaves this life as a Hero...”, the military chaplain says at the end. 

National Guard soldiers sing the national anthem with an orchestra, Azov soldiers  the prayer of a Ukrainian nationalist, and the military passes the flag of Ukraine to the mother of the deceased. The warrior’s body is being put for cremation. 

Vitaliy is the first “Azov” soldier that the patronage service buried since the beginning of a full-scale war.

The bodies of the remaining victims, who were delivered to Kyiv as part of an exchange with the Russian side, are stored in morgues in the city and region. They are all sent for a DNA examination, which should establish the identities of the military men. 

“Earlier, before the start of a full-scale war, we were only doing DNA examinations in isolated cases. Now they have to be done for everyone, even those whom we previously identified by chevrons and tokens. The procedure lasts about a month, but we try to speed it up. Because parents just go crazy”, says Natalya Bahriy, a servicewoman who has been on the “Azov” patronage service team since 2015.

Together with her friend Iryna, Natalya took over communication with the relatives of the defenders of Mariupol. From her, relatives of the military, in particular, learned about the death of their relatives who fought at Azovstal. 

“According to the protocol, this should have been done by the commander, but since he was at “Azovstal” and there was virtually no communication with him, we simply received lists of the dead and contacts of relatives from him. And then we worked”, says Natalya.

This part of the work was by far the most difficult psychologically, the girl admits. Until February 24, they had under their care about 50 families whose relatives died in Shyrokyne, Marinka, Mariupol, in the Svitlodarsk arc area. Today, there are hundreds of families who have to be notified of the death of a soldier but without telling about the circumstances of how it happened or when the body can be buried. 

“Sometimes, after we receive the bodies within the procedure of exchange, parents call and say: “Can we come to identify them?” 

But what is there to identify? We can’t put 160 bodies and show them all of them. Some of them are without hands, many are without heads. They often come in the active stage of decomposing, putrefaction, evaporation. We’ve seen the dead before, but their bodies were intact. I understand that this is an irreversible process. I don’t even have dreams about them, I’m so tired at work that I don’t think about it.”

Vitaliy’s mother in the crematorium at the Baikove Cemetery. Photo: Mykhaylo Meshcherinov / hromadske

“It can not be otherwise in “Azov”. Because we are a big family”

The day after Vitaliy’s funeral, Olena and her team arrive at the morgue of the Kyiv Regional Hospital on Bahhovutivska Street for an initial identification of the bodies that Russia returned on June 21 as part of the exchange. She puts on a blue cellophane protective robe and goes inside with the military and law enforcement officers.

Natalya is also here. Her task today is to take photos of the bodies that are taken out of black bags for inspection. If they are still intact, the girl takes pictures of tattoos, special signs of the military men. They are checked against the internal database of photos that the patronage service collects from relatives. 

Olena during the examination of the bodies of the dead in the morgue of the Kyiv Regional Hospital. Photo: Mykhaylo Meshcherinov / hromadske

“We also look at the uniform, we know our uniform and we can distinguish our military from the rest. They have special internal pockets, we check the documents there. Some also have the chevrons of their units. But sometimes we just receive naked bodies. I would understand if we received them naked after hospitals... but it’s the military who were exhumed by the Red Cross, so why are they naked? Maybe they [the Russians] take off the uniforms? Many also did not have valuable belongings with them. Few people still had the rings”,  Natalya says.  

I get inside the morgue when the military has already begun to identify the second dozen bodies. I see another package being unwrapped. The face is charred, but the man is in uniform and with all the chevrons. A border guard.  

Natalya deftly photographs everything, and in a few seconds, another body is brought into the hall on a gurney. Only gunpowder and bones are left from him. 

“If bodies are delivered to us, this does not mean that we take only “Azov” soldiers under our patronage. Of course, we identify everyone and contact everyone’s relatives — regardless of whether it is a marine, or a territorial defense fighter, or our “Azov” soldier”, the girl explains. 

And although the “Azov” patronage service still does not have official status in the National Guard, this status is engraved in the heart of the people who work in it.

To prove this Olena says: “We are brothers in arms — marines, border guards. In war, we are all together, we are part of the society, the army, and the state. If one of us comes to the ward with the soldiers, including one “Azov” soldier and four guys from the National Guard, we will help everyone. If there are no resources, we will find them. We’ll call the volunteers we know, and they’ll come and help. It can not be otherwise in “Azov”. We are a big family”.

“Azov” soldiers load some of the bodies of the military after inspection back into the car “Evacuation of Cargo 200” that will be taken to Vyshhorod. There are no places left in this Kyiv morgue, too.

Author: Olesia Bida