December 4, 2022

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Summoning the courage of the defenders of Azovstal at the funeral of Kyiv

Summoning the courage of the defenders of Azovstal at the funeral of Kyiv

Kyiv, Ukraine (AFP) – When he surrendered to Russian forces in May at the Azovstal Powder Steel Plant In Mariupol, a wounded Ukrainian soldier could not say goodbye to his murdered friend, whose body had to be left with hundreds of other dead people.

The ex-prisoner of war, known as David, finally got his chance Thursday at a crematorium in Kyiv.

David and other soldiers moved cautiously on crutches after his left leg was amputated, and called Ilya Honcharov, whose coffin was draped in a yellow and blue Ukrainian flag.

They chanted: “A sweet death in your agony.” “I will dissolve in you and live in you forever.”

David is one of the few prisoners of war from the Siege of Azovstal liberated by Russia in exchange.

And the body of 26-year-old Honcharov, among the hundreds, the two sides also exchanged even as they fought each other, She is one of the few that the Ukrainian authorities have been able to identify. His brother recognized one of his tattoos.

In the past two months since the Azovstal fighters surrendered, ending their relentless defense of the sprawling factory that has become a symbol of Ukrainian determination in the war against Russia, few families and friends of those killed or captured have been able to reach shutdown.

There are still nagging unanswered questions about how, where and when their loved ones died. Some residues may not be recovered.

If Ukrainian forces one day liberate Mariupol, some families hope to get a handful of dirt from the bombed city almost to oblivion. killing field for thousands of civiliansThe charred ruins are sacred grounds for the families of soldiers who were killed trying to prevent the strategic city and its port from falling into the hands of the Russians.

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More than 2,000 defenders of Azovstal emerged from its twisted wreckage into Russian captivity In mid-May, he ended the nearly three-month siege of Mariupol. Their families still don’t know when – or even if – they might come home.

David was among 144 Ukrainian soldiers – including 95 who fought in Mariupol – handed over by Russian forces on June 29 in a prisoner exchange.

He was still unable to speak about the six weeks he spent in captivity for fear of jeopardizing the release of other POWs and did not wish to reveal his full name.

But David willingly spoke of his friend Honcharov, who was hit by a mortar that shattered the bones of his arms and legs, and a shrapnel in his back. Honcharov clung to life for hours through his agony, dragging his comrades to cover in a vault after dark, and navigating through factory hells of twisted metal, overturned cars and smashed concrete.

“I don’t know how he kept up his courage,” said David.

Honcharov died on May 16, the day that marked the beginning of the end of the Siege of Mariupol. That was when the remaining defenders of Azovstal began to surrender – the last Ukrainian strongholds in the occupied city. They have largely exhausted their supplies and the commanders have informed them that they have completed their mission To bind and bleed Russian troops as long as possible.

A lucky few are flown in low-flying helicopters before succumbing in a series of daring and sometimes deadly secret rescue missions.. But more than 2,400 remained surrounded and surrendered to Russian forces. Among them is David, whose part of his left leg was blown off by an anti-tank missile hours before the surrender began on 16 May.

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The survivors left hundreds of corpses behind – among them Honcharov. It was returned to Kyiv in one of six exchanges of remains. The exchanges included the bodies of more than 400 fallen soldiers in Mariupol, including in Azovstal. How much remains unknown.

“I think we will never know the exact number,” said Olena Tolkachova, who works with the Azov Regiment, one of the Ukrainian units that defended the steel plant. He headed the regiment’s specialized service, which organized the medical care of the wounded and the funerals of the dead. It also sends out endless calls from families asking for news of the prisoners and whether their remains have been identified.

The last exchange was on July 19. Each side gives another 45 bodies and they meet and sign papers before going their separate ways. The bodies handed over by Russian forces belong to a variety of Ukrainian units. Some body bags are marked “Azovstal” or “Mariupol”, but most have simply “Ukrainian” written on them.

DNA testing is needed to identify most remains. Tolkachova said only between 2% and 3% are identified by their personal belongings, soldiers’ uniforms or distinctive signs including tattoos.

The bodies come with no information on exactly where they were found. But Telkashova and her colleagues who volunteered at the Kyiv mortuary learned that if there was sand on the corpse, it was most likely buried on the shore near the Azovstal Mill, which goes back to the Sea of ​​Azov.

“We are working and will continue to work until our last hero is buried in a decent way, until the last wounded person is healed and brought back to life, until every family is reunited with its children,” Tolkachova said. “The consequences of this war will remain with us until the end of our lives.”

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine