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EXCLUSIVE Azov Mariupol Armed Forces of Ukraine

How an Azov Fighter Stranded in Mariupol Evaded Capture for a Year

With Russian forces dying to find Ukrainian soldiers hiding in occupied Mariupol, Ihor had to invent identities to stay alive. Hundreds of kilometers away, his pregnant wife was about to give birth.

Feb. 7

“They pointed their finger at me,” Ihor says, recalling the moment when nurses identified him as a “military man.”

For months, Ihor, a soldier in the Azov Regiment, lived under a new identity as an ordinary civilian in occupied Mariupol while Russian soldiers tried to sniff out every single Ukrainian soldier hiding in plain sight. But he managed to stick to his cover stories as he lay in his hospital bed, ultimately evading Russian capture and returning home to hold his newborn son.

Onset of the full-scale invasion

“On Feb. 23, I went to bed wearing armor and helmet, because I was aware that it was about to start,” says Ihor, who went by the call sign BO.

“As a military unit, we’d been preparing every day for all these years.”

Ihor, a Donetsk native who had been living in Mariupol for six years, said he joined the army after he witnessed the Russian invasion in 2014, and he chose Azov simply because he had friends there.

On March 2, just a week after the full-scale invasion started, he was injured when his car was hit by a Grad rocket.

“At first, they found and stabilized me at our base, because I was wounded about 300 meters from there,” he says. But after multiple transfers, he ultimately wound up in a civilian hospital.

A Russian serviceman patrols near the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, amid the ongoing Russian military action in Ukraine, on June 13, 2022. PHOTO: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP

New identity

It was a chaotic time, he says, and no one knew where he was – some thought he was killed in action, others thought the Russians may have shot him in the hospital already.

It was then that he came up with a convincing cover story for the Russian soldiers who would later come and question him.

“My story turned out to be easy for me, because I took my whole life before the age of 19 as a basis,” he says.

He reformatted his life story so that during the period when he went to war in 2014, from the age of 19, he was a civilian.

Regarding his new identity, he says he had to think and behave like an ordinary civilian. And he had to shed the traits he’d developed in Azov as a soldier – a certain swagger.

“I had to be an opportunist, like everyone else,” he says.

As a precaution, he destroyed his documents – all except his driver’s license and a passport that’s still hidden somewhere in the hospital.

A picture taken on October 27, 2022 shows the Russian-controlled Azov Sea port city of Mariupol. PHOTO: AFP

Arrival of Russian troops

When the Russians first came, they launched an assault and moved on. But a few weeks later, they began to look for injured Ukrainian soldiers.

The Russian troops also brought Ukrainian prisoners of war along in the hope of identifying other injured Ukrainian soldiers.

Fortunately for Ihor, no one recognized him. But that didn’t deter the Russians from questioning his identity.

“I told them I lived on the Left Bank [a district in Mariupol around the Azovstal steel plant] at that time. I knew that the Left Bank was ours and that they wouldn’t check this info… According to my cover story, I’d gone out to get some water and stayed to take care of my grandmother. Then I was wounded, and nobody knew where I was,” he says.

The story worked for a certain time, but the nurses knew who he was all along when he was admitted into the hospital with his military ID. Soon the Russians began to pressure them into identifying wounded Ukrainian soldiers in the hospital.

“As a result, they pointed their finger at me,” says Ihor, adding that he believed the nurses did so because they were afraid.

The soldiers continued to question him and asked whether he was a soldier, but Ihor stuck to his cover story, and with no definitive proof, they stopped.

Another close call

“There was a moment when they entered the room, took me, and since I couldn’t walk, they took me away with the gurney,” he says. “I saw the room where they were bringing me and realized that was the end, I would never leave this room again.”

Luckily, amid the chaos, some nurses were confused as to why he was brought to the room, and that was his chance.

“They asked whether it was a mistake. I answered that some military man said I should be returned to my ward again. I was brought to the ward, covered myself with the blanket, and waited for them to forget about me,” Ihor recalled. “I know how negligent the military can be.”

This photograph taken on August 28, 2022 shows a ruined building in Mariupol. PHOTO: AFP

Contacting the outside world

As time went by, communications with the outside world became possible, but Ihor said he couldn’t call anyone because the network operator in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic was wiretapped.

After spending some time asking around for a phone, his first communication with the outside world was through Telegram. He contacted his pregnant wife.

“The first person I talked to was my wife, because I was very worried about her. She was pregnant. I didn’t know what had happened to her, and she didn’t know anything about me for a month and a half. The first thing I wrote was that it was me, Ihor, and I was alive. I told her certain things that only the two of us knew. She believed me,” he says.

It was through her that Ihor reached out to his friends in Kyiv for a new set of documents that would help him get back to Ukrainian-held territory.

I knew at that time that getting through the filtration process was the most important thing.

Gathering the documents

To move around occupied Mariupol, Ihor needed to gather a set of documents for his new identity, including a new passport and certification that showed he was unfit for service.

The documents took about a month to get ready. He then reached out to his friends who had fled Mariupol to Russia for a list of items, and they came back to deliver the items.

“I finally got my own phone… and at least a photocopy of my new documents, so it was possible to show the photocopy for identification,” he said.

But he still needed to get the physical copy of his documents – and most importantly, a permit to pass through the notorious Russian filtration camps, where you had to provide all your data, including fingerprints, and they checked whether you were military or civilian.

“I knew at that time that getting through the filtration process was the most important thing,” he says.

Courier snafus

Through those around him in the hospital, Ihor received the phone number of a courier who operated between Ukraine and occupied territories and asked whether the driver could deliver a parcel – his documents – from Zaporizhzhia to occupied Berdyansk.

All was agreed, but the driver disappeared for a week.

“It was very difficult for me, because if he was stopped there and checked, all the documents could be found, and that would have been the end,” says Ihor.

Eventually, the driver reached out to him. There was no internet in Berdyansk, the driver said, but he was ready to deliver the documents the next day.

To complicate matter, the recipients had already fled Berdyansk, and Ihor had to find a new address as soon as possible. He found one and sent it to the driver. The driver said he delivered it the next day to a woman.

But it was not supposed to be a woman.

“Where did you bring them?” Ihor asked.

“To the address you gave me,” the driver said.

“A week ago or yesterday?”

“A week ago.”

It was then that Ihor realized the driver had gone to the first address and given his documents to some random person.

Ihor told the driver that he’d delivered the package to the address was wrong, so the driver went back.

“Fortunately, the woman hadn’t gone anywhere,” Ihor says. The driver took the papers and delivered them to the right address.

After that, Ihor paid someone at the hospital with a car and a filtration permit to bring the parcels to Mariupol – including a filtration permit for Ihor.

“Most importantly, I had a filtration certificate. I filled in a couple of forms and passed them on to be signed. On May 21, I realized that I could do anything because I had the most important document,” he said.

Leaving Mariupol

“I left the city at the beginning of summer,” Ihor recalled.

But he didn’t go far. He stayed just outside of Mariupol for months, until the winter.

“I read a lot, it was my leisure time. Internet and wifi appeared, and I read and watched the news. I couldn’t do anything else. I didn’t go out, so as not to be seen. I just stayed in one place,” he said.

Since the spring, thought, Ihor had been in contact on and off with Ukraine’s defense intelligence.

“By winter, they called me and told me there was an opportunity,” he says. There was only a slim chance of success, they said, but Ihor was determined.

“I said ‘Let’s do it.’”

Ihor wouldn’t disclose the details of his journey home, but said it was “very interesting.”

“It wasn’t a very far, but in my mind, it was the longest journey in my life,” he said.

An elderly woman walks past a destroyed building in the city of Mariupol on August 1, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

The death of his friends and the birth of his child

On July 29, the same day of the Olenivka prison massacre, which took the lives of 53 Ukrainian prisoners of war, including those from the Azov Regiment – Ihor’s son was born.

“I had a feeling that the blood had left my head and I turned pale. They said a terrorist act had been carried out, and it wasn’t being covered in the mass media yet. Three hours later, my wife called me and said she was about to give birth. She was already in the maternity hospital,” Ihor says.

“There was a contrast of emotions.”

It brought to mind an eerie moment the day his best friend died as he lay in a hospital bed.

“When my best friend died on March 25, I had what’s called sleep paralysis [a state, during waking up or falling asleep, in which one is conscious but in a complete state of full-body paralysis] … I heard, felt and saw someone coming up to me and annoying me in a friendly way. I woke up in the middle of the night. I even remember my thoughts… Later I found out that Maksym Kahal, call sign Piston, died that very day,” he says.

Despite everything he’s been through, Ihor is determined to keep fighting.

“The war is not over. Victory is definitely what we need, because if there is no victory, Russia won’t retreat from our thoughts and ideas,” he says.

“When I got out, it wasn’t a blur. I was aware that I was in Ukraine… I immediately approached my friends from the defense intelligence and said that I needed a week to go get a haircut, clean up, and then I’d be ready to work to bring our guys back.”