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Six weeks with serious injuries solely on Corvalol: story of Azov soldier released from captivity
6 September, 2022
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Oleksandr, a soldier of the Azov Regiment with the call sign “Tork” Photo: Ksenia Chykunova / hromadske

“I thought that everything would start in the fall because in the summer of 2021 they had already begun to amass their troops. Or in the spring, when they were conducting a-la military exercises. In winter, the letters Z and V appeared. And then, Belarus joined. Everyone could see where their troops were stationed. It was clear where this was going. There was only one question: when?”

Lucky not to die

He’s a 27-year-old junior sergeant. Blonde hair, green eyes, and a T-shirt with the inscription Steel hardened in hell. Around his neck, he has a tattoo with a Straight Edge cross — a movement that rejects any substances that impair judgment.

The guy spent his childhood in Mariupol. The same courtyards became the place where he spent months defending the city in which he was born, and the country for which he was lucky not to die. After returning from captivity, he has been often called a hero. He strongly denies it: “We are not heroes as long as we are alive. We can get the title of a hero once we give our lives for it.” 

On April 12, when he was returning from positions on the embankment, he got blown up on the tripwire. He injured only one leg, so he was able to provide himself with first aid, and not bleed to death. An open fracture, splinters in the bones. Now, doctors are doing everything they can to save his limb: the fractures have already healed, although not quite correctly. They still have to sew the torn nerves. But this is difficult to do due to a large amount of residual metal.

Oleksandr shows his X-ray image on his phone: his leg is full of hundreds of small white particles. He jokes about it: if they don’t cut the leg off, he will have a new entertainment — he will set off airport body scanners. 

“This will be an opportunity to tell people what happened.”

Олександр, боєць полку «Азов» з позивним «Торк»

Oleksandr, a soldier of the Azov Regiment with the call sign “Tork”

Photo: Ksenia Chykunova / hromadske

There is no knife in the sleeve

Oleksandr joined the Azov Regiment four and a half years ago. Before that, he studied at the Faculty of Law but he was disappointed by the university education system and he couldn’t see any job prospects. 

“I wanted justice. And I came for it. However, I got into a place of self-interest, where you get something if you know the right person. So I realized it wasn’t for me.”

After he tried different jobs, from the Kyivstar shop to various IT initiatives, in 2018, Oleksandr chose a different path and completely replaced his name with the call sign “Tork”.

“Compulsory military service — I’ll tell you how it is, and you’ll rephrase it — is a “crappy job”. Everyone understands that. What’s the point of spending a lot of time, degrading, painting someone’s curbs, and marching for hours? While there is Azov, where everything is based on mutual respect and values. In Ukraine, there is nothing even a bit similar. Azov is a family”. 

One of the manifestations of trust and respect for their fellow Azov soldiers is the tradition to greet each other by shaking each other’s forearms, not hands. This way, they demonstrate that there is no knife or any other weapon in the sleeve. 

Each newly arrived recruit must pass an interview and a medical examination. If they get positive recommendations from the psychologist, they can pass to the next stage — the Boot Camp. Oleksandr explains that the Azov Boot Camp has nothing to do with the Soviet tradition. This training program is based on the system for training the United States Navy SEALs prioritizing a maximum physical and psychological load for maximum hardening. If a recruit manages to pass all the exams — tactical medicine, physical training, and tactics — the commander of the Redis Regiment awards him with a pass to the family — a chevron with a monogram of the letters I and N — “Idea of the Nation”.

“About half of the guys, even more than half, from our Boot Camp group have already died. Under different circumstances. Someone was in a bunker when a bomb landed. Someone died in close contact during the shootout. In addition, many of our people are now in captivity. I don’t know everyone personally, but we were fighting together. In one battle: back to back. We defended the same things. That’s a true value. So now my main task is to talk about them, spread the news, and cover them on all available platforms.”

Олександр разом із побратимом

Oleksandr together with his fellow soldier

Photo: Oleksandr’s Instagram

Chevron, breakthrough, and luck

As of mid-April 2022, both the positions of the military in Mariupol and the Azovstal plant were surrounded. They received an order to break through to the plant. This happened three days after Oleksandr was injured. He had deep wounds and needed urgent surgery which only doctors in the plant’s operating room could perform.

Combat medics put on a bandage and made a tamponade, but the clock was ticking. There was no way to evacuate him as a wounded man. The russians were firing at helicopters that were trying to get to Azovstal and also launching anti-tank guided missiles at boats. So the guy had two options:

“I was told the following: either you are waiting for some miracle, or here is an axe and some Nalbuphine. However, the good old Nalbuphine will not help you much. And everyone knew perfectly well that this was not a joke at all.”

Oleksandr was supposed to go to Azovstal with other wounded people in KrAZ vehicles, but there was no free space in both vehicles provided for this purpose. So he ended up in a Kozak armored vehicle. The column of about 20 units of equipment started moving, but did not go far — the russians began shelling. Shells were exploding everywhere. They precisely hit the KrAZ vehicles with the wounded.

“All the vehicles stopped. Someone shouted: “Everyone, get out!” All I could do was smile. At that time, I couldn’t even stand up on my own for a while, let alone jump to the ground. I called for help. One of the guys outside picked me up. They took me out and put me on the ground. And the question was: what’s next? It’s dark all around, you can’t see anything.”

An armored personnel carrier was passing by them. Oleksandr grabbed it without seeing anything, and then he grabbed one of the guys and climbed up. But in just five minutes, everything ended: the armored personnel carrier flew into the river. 

“I didn’t know how to swim and I still don’t. I thought that was it. The moment when I dived, it was such a disgusting feeling: am I really going to die just because I suffocate and drown?”

The picture was constantly changing. The weight of a soaked jacket. Guys in armor going to the bottom. Armored personnel carriers in the water on the bodies of those who were sitting on the opposite side. Bridge. Shelling. Explosions. Cold. One sneaker and a barefoot injured leg without a pant leg in stretched bandages that couldn’t stop the bleeding anymore. In his pocket, there was a chevron, a photo of his beloved, and a few hryvnias — all of his personal belongings.

After waiting under the bridge for a while, Oleksandr crawled towards the Azovstal plant. He crawled about two kilometers and reached his destination in two hours.

“I crawled into the plant territory. At that time, a “bird” was flying in the sky — a russian drone “Orlan”. A missile fell — but I was under the canopy. So, only pebbles fell from above, they did not touch me. I continued crawling: in twenty meters — the second missile. I thought I’d stay there. But suddenly two guys from the National Guard appeared out of nowhere. They called out: “We’ll get you out!”

This idea seemed suicidal to Oleksandr. The sky was still teeming with “birds”, so if a missile had hit, all three of them would have died at once. However, the National Guard soldiers returned with two other fellow soldiers and a stretcher. A mortar entered the game and was working right on the evacuation group. Therefore, the guys had to run in short bursts from one point to another, overcoming all the rubble of stones and iron. Oleksandr ended up first in MedEvak, and then on the operating table.

Олександр у Маріуполі під час повномасштабної війни

Oleksandr in Mariupol during a full-scale war

Photo: Oleksandr’s Instagram

Hardened in hell: Azovstal

The plant. One of the local bunkers. A long corridor with a wall of dust instead of air. About 200 wounded people lie close to each other. Between them, there are ten times fewer doctors who work 24/7. In this room, there is no difference between day and night: the light from the generator does not turn off for a moment. The wounded arrive in an endless stream. From the corridor, you can get to several rooms, including the operating room, where doctors provided assistance at first. After the missile hit and caused an explosion of an oxygen cylinder, subsequent amputations took place within a few meters from all the other wounded in the common corridor.

“Not a single humanitarian aid reached us. We ran out of everything very quickly. The coronavirus helped — in some destroyed workshops there were still stocks of antiseptic. It was used for sanitizing. For bandages, they were using everything they could find: old bandages, clothes, rags.”

The number of wounded was growing daily. And the medics were dying. One doctor was showing the way from one bunker to another to a civilian when suddenly an AGL (automatic grenade launcher — ed.) went off, and the guy was killed by shrapnel. Two medics went to the car to collect the remains of medicines, but no one returned.

They did not bury the dead. They tried to put all the bodies in the refrigerator. They hoped that the 200s would be the first ones to be exchanged so that the families of the victims would identify their relatives. But the russians were firing not only at the combat positions of the Ukrainian military but also at the hangars where the bodies were stored.

“They were firing at everything. The bunker was no exception. Although they could see perfectly in their ”birds” that only the 300s and 200s are brought there. It was obvious that no one was arriving there with anti-tank weapons or something like that. But they didn’t care. They were purposefully shelling there to play around — to show us: “we’ll get you there too.”

Oleksandr was lying in the common corridor with the other 300s. The pain in his leg made it impossible to move. The only thing left for him was to think alone with himself and talk to those who were laying next to him. They were talking about the family and the future. Not the enemy, not the war. Meanwhile, they were thinking if they would live to see the morning. 

“The stories we were telling each other helped us not to go crazy. I think, they helped someone not to commit suicide. Because when you’re lying, you’re of little use. You’re a burden. Moreover, you simply will not be able to escape if a missile hits. You won’t even have time to get up — you’ll just be hit by a concrete slab.”

The days were passing as we were waiting for decisions. The guys were waiting to be evacuated. They were counting on the implementation of the Geneva Conventions and extraction. But what agreements can we talk about when russia is on the other side?

Олександр після отримання поранення в Маріуполі й повернення з полону

Oleksandr after being wounded in Mariupol and returning from captivity

Photo: Ksenia Chykunova / hromadske

“I can’t find you”

“He woke me up at 5 in the morning. He said, “It has started.” I was looking at him, and tears were already running down my cheeks. He was walking around the room, collecting things, and calling a taxi. And I was sitting there, I couldn’t move. I had a lot of thoughts in my head: what should I do? How do I stop it? Fall to my knees now? Beg to stay?”

They hugged. She clung to him, her fingers digging into him. She knew he had to go. He had no choice. And she had no choice either. Because it has started, indeed. 

Lisa is Oleksandr’s fiancee. The couple has been together for a year. After the start of the full-scale invasion and by the time he returned, they saw each other twice: on the morning of February 24, when they woke up in the same bed, and then — about a week later — in a basement. Back then, Mariupol was already drowning under shelling, so the locals were gradually moving to bomb shelters. A few days before the connection, water and gas disappeared for good, and the Stone Age came to the city.

Oleksandr wrote Lisa a short message: “I’m coming”. He brought her water and his warm civilian clothes. At that time, the basement was already crowded, so there was no question of personal space there. He pulled her aside.

“Sasha was very worried. He immediately apologized. And he said that he would like to do it differently. But there was no time to wait. Then, he started looking for something in his pocket. And then, everything happened. After that, he kissed me and got back to work immediately. All the days that followed, when there were shellings, I was sitting in the basement, hugging this wedding ring. I would close my eyes tightly and hope that this time it wouldn’t hit us.”

Lisa lived in the basements of Mariupol for two months before deciding to leave the city, and then — the country. The girl had to change her place of the overnight stay, as shells were landing on residential buildings. That’s why all of Oleksandr’s further attempts to find her and make sure that she was alive were in vain.

In the beginning, when the military still had access to Starlink, he was writing to her: “Where are you? Are you all right? I can’t find you”, however, all the messages remained unanswered. The girl’s phone was no longer working. One of the houses in which Lisa was temporarily staying was located on a slope. From there, you could enjoy a view of Azovstal. 

“On the day of the breakthrough, we woke up to loud explosions. Everything was shaking. They were firing from everything they could. None of us moved out of the basement until everything was quiet. Around 9 a.m., I had to go out with my dog Ray. Then I saw our burnt-out cars. And a few guys who were moving in the direction of the plant.”

Олександр і його наречена Ліза у реабілітаційному центрі

Oleksandr and his fiancee Lisa in a rehabilitation center

Photo: Ksenia Chykunova / hromadske

“Let’s erase your Ukraine”

May 16, 2022. When they came for them, no one knew what to expect. They ordered them to gather, took the wounded out of the bunkers of Azovstal, brought them in the buses looking like “Bohdan” ones, but converted into reanimobiles, putting stretchers in three tiers. And took them to an unknown destination. On the way, the guys were thinking: “Either to rashka, or we’ll be shot”. And you can’t really tell what’s worse.

As it turned out later, 53 wounded soldiers were taken to Novoazovsk, and then to Donetsk, to the territory of the so-called “DPR”. Several hundreds of other soldiers ended up in the occupied Olenivka where on the night of July 29, on the territory of a former correctional colony, 50 of them died as a result of the terrorist attack, about 70 were injured, and before that, an unknown number was tortured.

“We lost the fear back in March, about a week or two after it all started. There was no time for this. Dark humor helped a lot. When it was difficult, we were talking to the guys. So we’ll die, big deal. It happens. But we are fulfilling our task. We must contain this pile of vegetables so that the russian invasion does not reach Kyiv. That’s it. Of course, Kyiv was fighting back in its own way. But we have fulfilled our task. Now we need Kyiv to do its job in relation to the guys who are there now.”

Oleksandr was in Donetsk for a month and a half. Without medical help, they were only giving Corvalol. They were saying to endure the pain. The condition of the wounds was getting worse, that’s why the limb is now atrophied. The guy could not sleep, he could fall asleep only after complete exhaustion of the body — so he fell asleep only a few times a week.  

In between, there were interrogations, provocative questions and threats. Oleksandr’s tattoos attracted the biggest attention: employees of the Investigative Committee of the russian federation were stubbornly searching for swastikas on his body but in vain. Therefore, they promised to “deal” with another Nazi tattoo – a map of Ukraine that he had on the left side of his chest. 

“They were saying, let’s erase your Ukraine. Let’s start with the eastern part and Crimea. And the Western part will be Polish territory when you get out of here, in about ten years. And ultimately there will be no territory left.”

Олександр з собакою після повернення з полону

Oleksandr with his dog after returning from captivity

Photo: Oleksandr’s Instagram

News

“Tork” returned along with other military personnel as a result of the largest prisoner-of-war exchange since the beginning of russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

On June 29, 95 defenders of Azovstal arrived in the territories controlled by Ukraine. Among them, there were 43 servicemen of the Azov Regiment. From Zaporizhzhia, they were sent to various medical institutions. From there, Oleksandr called his mother and Lisa: “Exhale, I’m home”.

His house, along with everything material that reminded him of his past life, remained in Mariupol. Now, Sasha and Lisa have to restore their documents, look for new housing, and a new city and create a new home from scratch. However, Lisa says that none of this matters.

“When he called, I was ready to give up everything, pack my bags and go to Ukraine by foot. I think people could hear my scream all over the floor. Finally! While in Germany, I was constantly checking the news. I could hardly eat anything, I didn’t go anywhere. For me, there is no life without Sasha. I’ve always said that. And surviving after everything we’ve been through is yet another proof. We are all we need.”

Now Lisa and Oleksandr live in a rehabilitation center, where he is undergoing treatment. Every day they go for a short walk: Oleksandr started walking, leaning on a crutch, only a week ago. On the territory of the center, among the abundant greenery, you will sometimes see other fighters. Some of them are on crutches, and some are in a wheelchair. They walk with their parents, wives, or alone.

Олександр у реабілітаційному центрі

Oleksandr in a rehabilitation center

Photo: Ksenia Chykunova / hromadske

It starts raining. Oleksandr calls out to Lisa to hide in the tent, he needs to rest — the burning sensation in his leg has gotten stronger. The pills he takes continuously don’t completely eliminate the pain. Everyone is concentrated on the feed on their phone. They are scrolling through Instagram and talking. They discuss a mutual friend who, among stories about walks, coffee on the terrace, and cosmetics, makes rare reposts about Azovstal. The videos are chaotic but you can hear some words: “Unpacking! I picked up a package with new cosmetics”. And then something about a highlighter at an attractive price. 

For a moment, Oleksandr is distracted. He speaks in a low voice: “Here we go again.” 

He falls silent and then intently types the text in which he once again informs about the death of his fellow soldier. Since he returned, he gets messages almost every day. From mothers, wives, and sisters. Some people reach out to him to learn the things they don’t really want to hear, he says. Therefore, when he understands by the mood of the conversation that the woman will not be able to cope with the real news, he comforts her and says that the information is still being clarified. Or that the guy is missing, they still search for him. 

“The most difficult question to answer is whether a guy is alive while, in fact, I saw him getting blown up. Or if I saw a burnt body that almost turned to ashes the next day. Not everyone is ready to hear the truth.”

Over 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers that were forcibly removed from the territory of Azovstal remain in russian captivity. Hundreds of families are kept in the dark and continue to read the news every day, expecting to find there something they would prefer to never know.

Tork’s story is part of a special project “In a steel embrace” which collected 34 stories of different people brought together by Azovstal. All of these stories are about hope and struggle, and the desire for freedom and love for Ukraine.