8:35 p.m., May 14, 2022
This is the most moving interview I have conducted in a long time. This man is called Ilya Samoilenko. He is 27 years old, with a beautiful, very pale face, one eye that seems dead, a black collar of beard, strangely well trimmed. He is the second in command of the last square of fighters holding the Azovstal steel complex in Mariupol, Ukraine. He is thirty meters underground, at the end of a Zoom link, in a dull and cold light. He thinks that he, with his thousand comrades, will die in the days, perhaps the hours, which come.
The conversation is filmed – I summarize.
“I am very moved to speak to you.
– And I am very happy. You and our commandant met last year in Mariupol. He has warm words for you.
– What is the situation today in Azovstal?
– The same as yesterday. And the same as the day before. And that day still before. It’s been seven days, maybe eight, I don’t know anymore, you can’t see the time passing, you can’t tell the difference between days and nights, it’s been eight days that the enemy’s pressure is growing, that he donates his tanks, his naval guns, his planes, everything.
– They say in the West that the Russians mainly attack from the air.
– It was true. It is no longer. They have multiplied, for a few days, the ground assaults, with special forces.
We can no longer follow, nor recover between two assaults
“So hand-to-hand combat?”
– Yes. In waves. And these waves wear us out. We have the reputation of being the best battalion in the Donbass. There, we are tired. It’s a hellish pace. We can no longer follow, nor recover between two assaults.
– How many men estimate these Russian special forces?
– Several hundred. Supported by sophisticated weaponry that we no longer have. But we are mobile. We know like the back of our hand every tunnel, bend, strong room and shielding of the twelve square kilometers of the factory. This is our territory. We don’t let them solidify positions. »
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In his voice, hitherto overwhelmed, a moment of resolution and almost joy.
“Where are you at with the ammunition?”
– This is problem number one. One week. Maybe two. But not more. Same for food and water. And zero heavy weapons, tanks, mortars, armored vehicles, zero. The truth is, no one expected the fighting to last this long. Not even us. »
They want to kill us. All. And one by one
I’m in contact in Washington with a group of veterans who plan to fly drones to resupply the plant. I inform him. The reply bursts out, which he has to repeat, because a dull detonation has covered it.
” It will not work.
– Why ?
– First, the nearest launch area would be 150 kilometers away. And then the first drone that would fly over our smokestacks would be shot down immediately. No. It’s impossible. Unless there is a miracle, we are doomed. It’s only a matter of days. »
I think of Masada. In the Warsaw ghetto. In Roncesvalles from La Chanson de Roland. To the heroism of this guard which, as at Waterloo, dies but does not surrender. I tell him. He nods. These references sound familiar to him.
“There is one thing, Ilya, that I don’t understand. Why, if the siege is airtight, don’t the Russians just let you die of thirst and starvation? To wait?
“Because they want to kill us. All. And one by one. We have cases of comrades they captured. They executed them, in defiance of the laws of war. Their mothers received their photo, taken with their own mobile. There’s one suffocating, his head in a plastic bag, in the middle of a field of rye. »
I ask if I can have these images.
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“We will pass them on to you. But you have to understand one thing. Our resistance is driving them mad. Without us, they would have declared victory in Mariupol on May 9. We are the pebble in Putin’s shoe. The ridge across his throat. A symbol he wants to destroy.
– To the world, you are heroes.
– Oh, heroes… I hear people say that. But no. We are soldiers. We received orders. We obey.
“What orders, exactly?”
– Hold. Hold still. One more week. Another. The staff knows that each day gained is a day lost for the aggressor. And the Ukrainian people are watching us. As long as we hold, he holds. If we capitulate, it will be a crushing blow. »
The only thing forbidden is to give in, to surrender
He said that with an air of evidence and without particular pride. He repeats.
“All of us here have come close to death. But our lives are worth nothing. What matters is Ukraine. And Ukraine must win. For this, we must hold on. Then die. The only thing forbidden is to give in, to surrender. There are many front lines in Ukraine where our example gives courage. We have no right to forget it. We are in a historic position. »
I object that heroes are not made to die, that they are more useful to their people alive than dead. He concedes it to me, but almost reluctantly.
“It’s true that we have things to share, combat experience, a story. Ukraine has no shortage of heroes. But young-blooded patriots have yet to learn. »
The line cuts. I remind.
“For you to transmit, Ilya, you have to live. Your brothers in arms, the general staff, have to find a way to get you out of there.
– Oh, the staff… They’ll make a fine monument for us!
– Nope. Saving your garrison has become, in Kyiv, I know, a strategic priority. »
Too many of ours are dead. They can’t be dead for nothing
He looks surprised. But I glimpse, in his most vivid eye, a gleam of youthful joy.
” Perhaps. Thank you. It is true that our commander spoke with President Zelensky. Several times in the past two weeks. But we cannot lower the flag. Too many of ours are dead. Hundreds. They can’t have died for nothing.
– I understood well. But a rescue operation, an extraction, why not?
– It does not exist. We would rather die than suffer the humiliation of surrender. This word, surrender, is not in our vocabulary. »
The same formula, curiously, as that of the young Massoud, the day after August 16, when he entrusted me with his first interview and denied being in negotiations with the Taliban. He cracks a weak smile. Change your tone.
“There is still good news, that said…”
He pauses, looks above his head – he suddenly seems to be having trouble breathing.
” Good news ?
– Yes. There are no more civilians on the site…”
This cold room, the enemy attacked and destroyed it. Since then we live among the dead
He repeats, pedagogue.
“We evacuated the civilians. Now it’s easier. We no longer have any innocents that the operations endanger. We have our hands free to fight.
– What is the morale of your men?
– Good. They have the weight of the country on their shoulders and they no longer have a choice. They have to keep their spirits up and hold on. The problem is the injuries…
– Do you have many?
– Several hundred. They should be evacuated. But the Russians oppose it. So they stay there. They turn in circles. They are wasting away. I myself have been injured several times.
– Do you have any doctors?
– Military doctors. They have no equipment. They are reduced to emergency care. But they work miracles. When there is a hole, they plug it. Something broken, they tie it up. And the men go back to battle, shivering with fever, one eye gouged out, one limb amputated, with their crutches and bandages.
“And, of course, you have dead people?”
– Which ones do you honor? What are you burying?
– We’re having a military ceremony. But we cannot give them a burial. One day we will. Because it is also our duty. But, for the time being, we keep them in a large refrigerator, at the end of a basement. Except that… “
Again, a glance at the sky. As if the information was sensitive.
“Except this cold room, the enemy attacked and destroyed it. Since then, we have been living among the dead. They are our companions. We hope that someone, one day, after us, will take care of them. »
The battalion has changed. He purged himself of his dark past
The voice breaks, the look fogs up, the complexion becomes waxy.
“And then, he continues, there are the companions whose bodies we cannot recover. They fell between the lines. The enemy prevents us from accessing and collecting them.
– For people who, like the Russians, want to be the eldest sons of orthodoxy, it’s a sin. »
“They are not one sin away!”
– Certainly. But all those popes who support war, bless missiles, etc. : this sacrilege does not bother them?
– The other week, a convoy of Ukrainian priests arrived at the eastern access to the city. They came to collect bodies to prevent them from ending up with the dogs. The enemy pretended to let them pass. Then he looted the convoy, stole the cars and left the corpses to rot.
“Are there Jews among your dead?”
– Sure. There are people of all faiths. So Jews. Proud men and good fighters. »
I know the sulphurous reputation of the battalion. I know how, in its early days, like all the resistances in the world, it picked up everything it could and who knew how to handle a weapon – including far-right elements. It’s like he read my mind.
“Don’t believe Russian propaganda. The battalion has changed. He purged himself of his dark past. Our only radicalism today is our desire to radically defend Ukraine.
– I know it.
– Thank you. And we know what it means to Jews not to be properly buried. We need a rabbi.
Nobody can do anything for us anymore
– Do you allow me to say it?
– To take your message to Israel?
– Obviously. They are our brothers. In Israel, we know how to fight and die. »
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I don’t like the tone of sacrificial resignation the conversation takes. I repeat:
“You don’t have to die. There are petitions, in the United States, in Europe. There’s a movement going on, led by your wives, that says we have to save Azovstal. »
Again, a flash of sad joy in his suffering gaze.
” Thank you. But it’s too late. Nobody can do anything for us anymore. »
“Imagine a great country. France for example. She would vouch for your evacuation in honor.
“With our weapons?”
– Of course, with your weapons. You would leave Azovstal with your weapons, with honor. The international community organized this forty years ago for the Palestinians of Beirut.
“Did they keep their handguns?” »
He looks incredulous.
” I think. And yet there were terrorists among them. »
He shakes his head.
“Putin says that we too are terrorists.
– Perhaps. But not Macron. For a Frenchman, or an American, your bravery is reminiscent of that of the resistance fighters against Hitler. »
He nods. Let me tell him the story of Yasser Arafat boarding a merchant ship under the protection of 2,500 French, American and Italian soldiers. Authorize me to breathe, to whoever wants to listen, this idea of a boat for Mariupol, escorted by a national or international force. What we did for the Palestinians, we wouldn’t do for those truly brave people, dying for Europe, who are the damned of the Azovstal undergrounds? The line cuts again. The conversation becomes choppy. Confused. I know what remains for me to do. Commander Ilya Samoilenko hangs up.
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