Lest we forget. As this terrible meat grinding war drags on to an inevitable conclusion, there is few hopeful news but this one may be one little ray
Pfc. Oleksandr Ivantsov hid for a week before beginning his journey west.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
He Was Ready to Die, but Not to Surrender
How a Ukrainian soldier escaped from the embattled Azovstal steel complex in Mariupol and sneaked 125 miles to Ukrainian territory.
After seven days hiding in a dank and dark tunnel deep in the bowels of the sprawling Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol as the city burned around him, Pfc. Oleksandr Ivantsov was on the verge of collapse.
President Volodymyr Zelensky had ordered Ukrainian soldiers to lay down their weapons after 80 days of resistance and surrender. But Private Ivantsov had other ideas.
“When I signed up for this mission, I realized that most likely I would die,” he recalled. “I was ready to die in battle, but morally I was not ready to surrender.”
He knew his plan might sound a little crazy, but at the time, he was convinced he had a better chance of surviving by hiding out than by surrendering himself to Russians, whose widespread abuse of prisoners of war was well known to Ukrainian troops.
So he knocked a hole in a wall to get to a small tunnel, stashed some supplies and made plans to stay hidden for 10 days, hoping that the Russians who had taken control of the ruined plant would let down their guard by then, allowing him to creep through the ruins unnoticed and make his way into the city he once called home.
But after a week, he had gone through the six cans of stewed chicken and 10 cans of sardines and almost all of the eight 1.5 liter bottles of water he had secreted away.
“I felt very bad, I was dehydrated, and my thoughts were getting confused,” he said. “I realized that I had to leave because I could not live there for three more days.”
Mr. Ivantsov’s account of his escape from Azovstal is supported by photographs and videos from the city and factory that he shared with The New York Times. It was verified by superior officers and by medical records documenting his treatment after he made it to Ukrainian-controlled territory. Still, his tale seemed so far-fetched that Ukraine’s security services made him take a polygraph test to assure them he was not a double agent.
Mr. Ivantsov is still fighting for Ukraine, helping a drone unit outside the pulverized city of Bakhmut, where he recalled his story one sunny afternoon. He told it reluctantly, saying he could not share certain details in order to protect the Ukrainian soldiers from Azovstal still being held as prisoners of war and the civilians in the occupied territories who aided in his escape.
Private Ivantsov, 28, was thousands of miles from Ukraine when Russia began its full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, working as a maritime security agent assigned to protect ships from Somali pirates on the Gulf of Aden near the Red Sea.
He had lived in Mariupol for eight years, he said, when it was a city on the rise. “They were making roads, parks, an ice palace, swimming pools, gyms,” he said. On March 14, he enlisted in the Azov regiment, a former far-right militia groupthat had been folded into the Ukrainian military and was leading the defense of the Azovstal plant.
By then, the battle for Mariupol was already securing its place as among the most savage of the war. As the Russians blasted the city into oblivion, thousands of civilians and soldiers barricaded themselves inside the elaborate network of bunkers under the plant, a complex about twice as large as Midtown Manhattan.
As the Ukrainian forces grew more desperate, the military leadership in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, decided to mount a daring operation to fly in support across enemy lines. Private Ivantsov volunteered for the mission, knowing he might never return.
On March 25, against all odds, his low-flying Mi-8 helicopter eluded Russian antiaircraft batteries and landed inside the factory grounds, delivering desperately needed supplies to the thousands of Ukrainian soldiers holed up there. A total of seven flights would manage to get through in the coming weeks.
But it was not enough. When Private Ivantsov arrived at Azovstal, the soldiers had no ammunition left for many of their heavy weapons and were running low on anti-tank mines and mortars. The civilians were surviving on dwindling rations.
“There were quite a lot of very heavily wounded people who had gangrene,” he recalled. “They were rotting there and slowly dying.”
And every day, the Russian noose around Azovstal was tightening.
On May 16, after it was clear that the Ukrainian soldiers were no longer an effective fighting force, Mr. Zelensky ordered them to surrender.
It would take four days to complete the process, giving Private Ivantsov plenty of time to reconsider his plan. But his mind was made up.
“I told everyone about my decision, and before they left, I shook hands with each of them,” he said of his compatriots, 700 of whom remain in Russian captivity. “Those who had money gave me money.”
On May 20, 2022, the last Ukrainian soldier surrendered and Private Ivantsov went into hiding in the tunnel. In addition to the food and water he had stashed, he had some coffee, tea and sugar, as well as a mattress and a sleeping bag.
Most important, with Covid still a top concern, the plant was littered with bottles of hand sanitizer.
“It burns very well,” he said. “You can even cook with it.”
Sometimes, he said, he would just stare at the flame. When it went out, he was in total darkness.
“It reminded me of the movie ‘Buried Alive,’” he said.
As the days passed, the once unceasing thunder of bombs raining down on Azovstal was replaced by a disquieting silence.
By the seventh day, running low on water, he knew he had to leave. He changed into civilian clothes, ditched his weapons and ventured out into the factory grounds. Looking up at the sky for the first time in days, he said, he was struck by the brilliance of the stars.
He also observed that the Russian soldiers in control of Azovstal did not bother to hide their positions. “The patrols that went around the factory used flashlights, they talked loudly,” he said.
Private Ivantsov was easily able to avoid them, ducking under railroad cars when one came too close for comfort.
It took six hours, he said, and the sun was rising when he made it into the ruined city.
Making it out of Azovstal was only the first step.
“The plan was to go to the neighborhood where I used to live,” Private Ivantsov recalled. “I thought if I saw familiar faces, I would ask them for help: to wash, eat and so on.”
But nothing would go to plan. The city he had known was obliterated. Even the people he had known before the invasion were like strangers. He could not trust anyone.
He quickly realized that his only hope of evading capture was to get out of the city and head west to Ukrainian-controlled territory. He would still need help, and clearly he would have to be careful about whom to ask.
“I always looked first to see if I could approach, assess the person,” he said. He would not have survived without the kindness of strangers who helped him, often at great risk.
“In one village, an old woman gave me water from a well to drink,” he said. There were others he would not discuss.
He was captured once while still in the city, he said, refusing to divulge any further details. Reaching the front would take him 18 days, crossing about 125 miles behind enemy lines.
By that point, his feet were bloodied and his back and knees ached so much that he had trouble walking; he had lost more than 25 pounds. When the moment came to cross into Ukrainian territory, he said, he was operating on pure adrenaline.
He thought about crossing a river that presented a natural barrier between the forces, but deemed it too dangerous. He finally decided to just forge ahead through a final 10 to 15 miles overland, past mines and other booby-traps.
“I had nerves of steel, no emotions, no thoughts, just purpose and cold calculation,” he said. “That’s how I mentally psyched myself up. I had already come to terms with my death.”
But he made it, looking wild-eyed and crazy as he struggled to convince stunned Ukrainian soldiers that his improbable story was true.
They eventually believed him, and as he was driven away from the front on his way to Kyiv for medical care and rehabilitation, he stopped at a gas station and bought a coffee and a hot dog.
He had never tasted a better hot dog, he said, or sipped a better cup of coffee.
Marc Santora(Marc Santora - The New York Times) has been reporting from Ukraine since the beginning of the war with Russia. He was previously based in London as an international news editor focused on breaking news events and earlier the bureau chief for East and Central Europe, based in Warsaw. He has also reported extensively from Iraq and Africa.