This is the most astounding interview I’ve conducted in a long time.
Ilya Samoilenko, 27, has a handsome, pallid face, one eye that seems to have been wounded and a surprisingly well-trimmed dark beard.
Second in command of the last contingent of fighters holding the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, he is 30 metres underground on a Zoom call illuminated by a cold, dim light.
In our filmed conversation he tells me he believes that he and his thousand comrades will die in the coming days, perhaps hours…
BHL: What is the situation in Azovstal right now?
IS: The same as yesterday, the day before yesterday and the day before that. It’s been seven days now, maybe eight. I don’t know anymore because we can no longer see time passing, we can’t tell the difference between day and night. It’s been about a week under mounting pressure from the enemy. They’re sending in their tanks, using their ships’ guns, their planes, everything.
BHL: In the West, we’re hearing that the Russians are attacking mostly from the air.
IS: That was the case. But it’s no longer true. In the last few days they’ve been diversifying, using special forces to carry out ground attacks.
BHL: So, hand-to-hand fighting?
IS: Yes. In waves. And those waves are wearing us down. We have the reputation of being the best battalion in Donbas. Here, we’re getting tired. It’s a hellish rhythm. We can’t keep up with successive assaults and don’t have time to recover from them.
BHL: What do you estimate the strength of the Russian special forces to be?
IS. Several hundred men. Supported by advanced weaponry that we no longer have. But we’re mobile. We know every tunnel, bend, strong room, and shield in the 12 square kilometres of the plant like the back of our hand. It’s our territory.
BHL: Do you have much ammunition?
IS: That’s our number one problem. [Enough to last] a week, maybe two. But no more than that. The same with food and water. And zero heavy weapons, tanks, mortars, armoured vehicles. The truth is that no one thought the fighting would go on as long as it has. Not even us.
* * *
BHL: But if the siege is total and you have no way out, why don’t the Russians just wait and let you die of hunger and thirst?
IS: Because they want to kill us. One by one. We know about the comrades they’ve captured. They executed them, in violation of the laws of war. Their mothers were sent their photo, taken with their own phone. One was suffocated in a plastic bag in a field of rye.
I ask if he will supply me these images.
IS: We’ll have them sent to you. But you have to understand something. Our resistance is driving them crazy. If it weren’t for us, they would have declared victory in Mariupol on May 9. We’re a thorn in Putin’s side, a bone stuck in his throat, a symbol that he wants to destroy.
BHL: To the world, you’re heroes.
IS: Oh, heroes… I know people say that. But no. We’re soldiers. We have our orders. And we’re carrying them out.
BHL: What orders, exactly?
IS: To hold the line. And then hold some more. Another week. Then another. HQ knows that every day gained is a day lost for the aggressor. And the Ukrainian people are watching us. As long as we hold on, they’ll hold on. If we give up, it’ll be a major blow.
The Zoom cuts out. I call back.
BHL: For you to pass things on, you have to live. Your fellow commanders, the general staff, have to find a way to get you out of there.
IS: Oh, the top brass will put up a nice monument for us!
BHL: Saving your garrison has become a strategic priority in Kyiv.
He seems surprised. I detect in his good eye a glimmer of childlike joy.
IS: Perhaps. Thanks. It’s true that our commander has spoken with President Zelensky several times in the last two weeks. But we can’t raise a white flag. Too many of our own have died. Hundreds. They can’t have died for nothing.
BHL: I understand. But a rescue operation, an extraction; what’s wrong with that?
IS: Not possible. We would still prefer to die than to suffer the humiliation of a surrender. That word – surrender – is not in our vocabulary.
BHL: How is the morale of your men?
IS: Good. They have the weight of the country on their shoulders and no longer have any choice. They have to keep up their morale and hold the line. The problem is with the wounded…
BHL: Do you have many?
IS: Yes, several hundred. They should be evacuated, but the Russians won’t allow it. So they stay here. They’re restless and don’t know what to do. Some are getting worse. I myself have been wounded a few times. [Note: Since this interview, Russia has agreed to allow the wounded to evacuate but only to a Moscow-controlled hospital.]
BHL: Do you have doctors?
IP: Medics. They don’t have any equipment. All they can do is provide emergency care. But they’re performing miracles. When there’s a hole, they close it. Something broken, they piece it together. And the patched men return to the fight, shivering with fever, one eye short, a limb missing, with their crutches and bandages.
BHL: And you’ve had fatalities, of course.
IS: Of course.
BHL: And you offer them honours? Bury them?
IS: We have a military ceremony. But we can’t provide them a resting place. One day, that will be done. Because that, too, is our duty. For the time being, however, we’re keeping them in a giant refrigerator at the end of one of the basement floors. Except…
He looks up at the ceiling as if the information were sensitive.
IS: …except the Russians attacked this cold room the other day and destroyed it. Since then we’ve been living in the midst of our dead. They’re our companions. We hope that eventually, after we’re gone, someone will take care of them…
His voice breaks. His face becomes misty and pallid. He picks up where he left off.
IS: And then there are the comrades whose bodies we can’t recover because they fell between the lines. The enemy is keeping us from collecting them.
BHL: For people who present themselves as paragons of orthodoxy, as the Russians do, that’s a sin.
IS: What’s one more sin?
BHL: Sure. But all those priests who are supporting the war, blessing missiles, and so on, doesn’t this sacrilege bother them?
IS: A little while back, a convoy of Ukrainian priests appeared at the eastern entrance to the city. They had come to gather bodies before they were eaten by dogs. The enemy acted as if it would let them through. Then they plundered the convoy, stole the cars and left the bodies to rot.
BHL: Are there any Jews among your dead?
IS: Of course. There are people of all faiths. Including Jews. Proud men and good fighters.
I am aware of the battalion’s toxic reputation. I know that, at first, as with any resistance movement they welcomed anyone, including far right elements, as long as they could handle a gun. Samoilenko appears to be reading my mind.
IS: Beware of the Russian propaganda. The battalion has changed. It has purged itself of its dark past. The only radicalism we embrace today is our radical will to defend Ukraine. And we know what it means in Judaism not to be properly buried. We would need a rabbi.
BHL: Do I have your permission to report this?
IS: Of course.
BHL: To bring your message to Israel?
IS: Obviously. They are our brothers. The Israelis know how to fight and die.
I don’t like the tone of sacrificial resignation the conversation is taking. So I backtrack.
BHL: You don’t have to die. There are petitions in the United States and Europe. A movement is under way, led by your wives, to save Azovstal.
Once again, a glint of sad joy brightens his pained face.
IS: Thanks. But it’s too late. No one can do any more for us.
BHL: What if a major country like France, or the UK, or the US, guaranteed your honourable evacuation?
IS: With our arms?
BHL: With your arms, of course. You would leave Azovstal with your arms, honourably. The international community organised something similar 40 years ago for the Palestinians in Beirut.
IS: They kept their guns?
He seems incredulous.
BHL: I believe so. And there were some terrorists among them.
He shakes his head.
IS: Putin says that we’re terrorists.
BHL: Maybe. But not Macron. And not Biden or Johnson. To the French, British and Americans, your bravery recalls that of those who resisted Hitler.
* * *
Shaking his head, he allows me to tell the story of Yasser Arafat boarding a merchant ship under the protection of 2,500 French, American, and Italian troops. He gives me permission to raise with anyone willing to listen, the idea of a ship for Mariupol, escorted by a national or international force. Could the same not be done for these truly brave individuals who are dying for Europe as was done for the Palestinians? The connection is dropped again. The conversation becomes choppy. Scrambled. Commander Ilya Samoilenko signs off.