Ukraine fighters in Mariupol relatives tell of bitter pride

By Rek Hanibal Published on April 20, 2022
Ukraine fighters in Mariupol relatives tell of bitter pride

"I was thinking what would happen if I would receive a message that Maks has died, what would I do?" she says. "And I just started crying in the middle of the street because I don't have an answer to that."

We are sitting in the office of her volunteer centre in Kyiv, where boxes of supplies - food, medical kits and armoured vests - are being gathered to be sent off to Ukrainian forces on the eastern front: the epicentre of the Russian offensive.

Her sense of purpose is twofold: her nation and her family, with her 26-year-old cousin Maksim, or Maks, fighting in Mariupol.

The boy she grew up with, whom she describes as a kind and respectful engineering student is one of the last remaining Ukrainian defenders holed up in the Azovstal steel plant in the city, somehow withstanding the ferocious firepower of one of the world's most enormous armies.

Perhaps a couple of thousand soldiers and civilians are there, in the Cold War-era network of bunkers and tunnels, where food, water and time are running out. The last message she had from him was on 8 March.

"He never told us about the real conditions; probably he didn't want to upset us", she says. "But they have very little food and medical supplies - and it's harder and harder to treat wounded soldiers."

Growing up in Sumy, north-eastern Ukraine, Maks's mother - Olena's aunt - wanted him to join the army, calling it "a school of life for men".

When he was called to fight in Mariupol, she was initially relieved, thinking the city, a little further along the coast from the occupied territories of the Donbas, would be spared the worst.

But Russia is determined to establish a land corridor through eastern Ukraine to Crimea - and that would have to run through Mariupol. And so Russian forces have besieged it for some seven weeks. Ukraine's President Volodymr Zelensky said tens of thousands may have died in the city.

"I feel terrible about him being there", says Olena, struggling to hold back her tears. "First of all, I feel very sorry about not speaking to him as much as I could while we still had a connection. It felt terrible when my aunt sent me a message at 06:00 to say that Maks' friend was probably dead and she's so worried about him."

I ask of the pride she must feel towards the boy who used to drive her in his car - and became a Ukrainian fighter who refused Russia's demands to surrender.

"I would have never imagined my cousin to become a true hero of Ukraine and Mariupol", she replies with a smile. "It's a very bitter sense of pride because he's in a life-threatening situation. I dream of the day he will return, and I will be able to tell this to him."

On the shelves in the volunteer centre are spoils of war: Russian soldiers' equipment, downed missiles and fragments of a Russian fighter jet that the Ukrainians proudly exhibit as symbols of an invasion that has not gone Moscow's way.

But the Kremlin will undoubtedly be determined that the eastern offensive does not repeat the mistakes of the west, from where Russian troops have now retreated.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to want a tangible gain by 9 May - the annual commemoration of Victory Day against Nazi Germany - and Mariupol could serve him that.

That's a fear shared by another relative, Vladimir Vasilyuk, whose 23-year-old son Danilo is also fighting in the Azovstal plant. They're still in regular contact.

"The boys lack ammunition", Vladimir says, "but they don't want to leave because they're protecting the civilians - they don't want to abandon them."


Rek Hanibal

Rek Hanibal

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