Ukraine’s Secret and Deadly Rescue Missions |

KYIV, Ukraine – As usual before every flight, the veteran Ukrainian army pilot ran his hand along the fuselage of his Mi-8 helicopter, stroking the heavy carrier’s metal skin for good luck, as well as to his crew.

They would need it. Their destination – a besieged steel mill in the brutalized city of Mariupol – was a death trap. Some other crews did not return alive.

Yet the mission was vital, even desperate. Ukrainian troops were pinned down, their stocks were running out, their dead and wounded were piling up. Their ultimate position at the Azovstal plant was a growing symbol of Ukraine’s defiance in the war against Russia. We couldn’t let them perish.

The 51-year-old pilot – identified only by his first name, Oleksandr – flew only one mission in Mariupol, and he considered it the most difficult flight of his 30-year career. He took the risk, he said, because he didn’t want the Azovstal fighters to feel left out.

In the charred hellscape of this factory, in an underground bunker turned medical station that provided shelter from death and destruction above, word began to reach the wounded that a miracle might happen. Among those who said he was on the evacuation list was a junior sergeant who had been shredded by mortar shells, slicing through his left leg and forcing his amputation above the knee.

“Buffalo” was his nom de guerre. He had been through so much, but another deadly challenge loomed: escaping Azovstal.

Clandestine Helicopter Missions

A series of clandestine, against-the-odds, terrain-hugging and high-speed helicopter missions to reach the defenders of Azovstal in March, April and May are celebrated in Ukraine as among the most heroic feats of military bravery in the four-month of war. Some have ended in disaster; each became increasingly risky as Russian air defense batteries grew.

The full story of the seven supply and rescue missions has yet to be told. But from exclusive interviews with two injured survivors; a military intelligence officer who participated in the first mission; and pilot interviews provided by the Ukrainian military, The Associated Press has pieced together the account of one of the final flights, from the perspective of both rescuers and those rescued.

It was only after more than 2,500 defenders who remained in the ruins of Azovstal began to surrender that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky first gave wind of the missions and their deadly cost.

The tenacity of the Azovstal fighters had thwarted Moscow’s goal of quickly capturing Mariupol and prevented Russian troops from being redeployed elsewhere. Zelenskyy told Ukrainian broadcaster ICTV that the pilots braved “powerful” Russian air defenses by venturing beyond enemy lines, carrying food, water, medicine and weapons to so that the defenders of the factory can continue to fight and by sending the wounded flying.

The military intelligence officer said one helicopter was shot down and two others never returned and are considered missing. He says he dressed in civilian clothes for his flight, thinking he could blend in with the population if he survived a crash: “We knew it could be a one-way trip.”

Says Zelenskyy: “These are absolutely heroic people who knew what was difficult, who knew it was almost impossible…. We lost a lot of pilots.

Buffalo’s story

If Buffalo had been right, he wouldn’t have lived to be evacuated. His life would have ended quickly, to spare him the agony he suffered after 120mm mortar rounds ripped open his left leg, bloodied his right foot and peppered his back with shrapnel during of street fighting in Mariupol on March 23.

The 20-year-old spoke to The Associated Press on condition not to be identified by name, saying he did not want to appear to be seeking publicity as thousands defenders of Azovstal are in captivity or dead. He had been on the trail of a Russian tank, aiming to destroy it with his armour-piercing, shoulder-launched NLAW missile on the last day of the first month of the invasion, when his war was halted.

Thrown next to the wreckage of a burning car, he dragged himself to hide in a nearby building and “decided it was better to crawl into the basement and die there quietly”, he said. -he declares.

But his friends evacuated him to the steelworks of Ilyich, which then fell in mid-April as Russian forces tightened their grip on Mariupol and its strategic port on the Sea of ​​Azov. Three days passed before doctors could amputate him, in a bomb shelter in the basement. He considers himself lucky: the doctors still had anesthesia when it was his turn to go under the knife.

When he returned, a nurse told him how sorry she was that he lost the limb.

He cut the awkwardness short with a joke: “Will they return the money for 10 tattoo sessions?”

“I had a lot of tattoos on my leg,” he said. One remains, a human figure, but its legs are also gone.

After the operation, he was transferred to the Azovstal plant. A fortress covering nearly 11 square kilometers (over 4 miles), with a 24 kilometer (15 mile) maze of underground tunnels and bunkers, the factory was virtually impregnable.

But the conditions were grim.

“There was constant shelling,” said Vladislav Zahorodnii, a 22-year-old corporal who was shot in the pelvis, tearing a nerve, during a street fight in Mariupol.

Evacuated to Azovstal, he meets Buffalo there. They already knew each other: both were from Chernihiv, a northern city surrounded and shelled by Russian forces.

Zahorodnii saw the missing leg. He asked Buffalo how he was doing.

“It’s alright, we’ll be clubbing soon,” Buffalo replied.

Zahorodnii was evacuated from Azovstal by helicopter on March 31, after three unsuccessful attempts.

It was his first helicopter flight. The Mi-8 caught fire while exiting, killing one of its engines. The other kept them aloft for the rest of the 80-minute early morning run to the city of Dnipro on the Dnieper River in central Ukraine.

He would mark his deliverance with a round tattoo on his right forearm: “I did it so as not to forget,” he says.

Buffalo’s turn came the following week. He was ambivalent about leaving. On the one hand, he was relieved that his share of dwindling food and water now went to others still able to fight; on the other, “there was a painful sensation. They stayed there and I left them.

However, he almost missed his flight.

The soldiers dragged him on a stretcher out of his deep bunker and loaded him onto a truck which rumbled towards a pre-arranged landing zone. The soldiers wrapped him in a jacket.

The helicopter ammunition cargo was unloaded first. Then the injured were taken on board.

But not Buffalo. Left in a back corner of the truck, it had somehow been forgotten. He couldn’t sound the alarm because the mortar fire had injured his throat, and he was still too hoarse to be heard through the whoop-whoop-whoop of the helicopter rotors.

“I was like, ‘Well, not today then,'” he recalled. “And suddenly someone shouted, ‘You forgot the soldier in the truck!’ »

Because the hold was full, Buffalo was placed across from the others, which had been loaded aboard side by side. A crew member took her hand and told her not to worry, they would go home.

“All my life,” he told the crew member, “I’ve dreamed of flying a helicopter. It doesn’t matter if we arrive, my dream has come true.

‘Very scary’

In his cockpit, the wait seemed interminable to Oleksandr, the minutes seeming like hours.

“Very scary,” he said. “You see explosions around and the next shell might hit your location.”

In the fog of war and with the full picture of covert missions still looming, it is not possible to be absolutely sure that Buffalo and the pilot who spoke to reporters in a video interview recorded and shared by the army were on the same flight. But their account details match.

Both gave the same date: the night of April 4 to 5. Oleksandr recalled being fired upon by a ship as they flew over Mariupol waters. A shock wave threw the helicopter “like a toy”, he said. But his evasive maneuvers saved them.

Buffalo also remembers an explosion. Evacuees later learned that the pilot had evaded a missile.

Oleksandr fired the helicopter at 220 kilometers (135 miles) per hour and flew as low as 3 meters (9 feet) above the ground except when jumping over power lines. A second helicopter from its mission never returned; on the return flight, his pilot radioed him that he was low on fuel. It was their last communication.

On his stretcher, Buffalo had watched the field slip away through a porthole. “We flew over the fields, under the trees. Very low,” he said.

They arrived in Dnipro, safely. Upon landing, Oleksandr heard the injured call for the pilots. He expected them to yell at him for shaking them so hard during the flight.

“But when I opened the door, I heard some guys saying, ‘Thank you,'” he said.

“Everyone clapped,” recalls Buffalo, currently in rehab with Zahorodnii at a clinic in Kyiv. “We told the pilots that they had done the impossible.”

AP journalists Sophiko Megrelidze in Tbilisi, Georgia, and Oleksandr Stashevskyi in Kyiv contributed.

Picture credits: AP/Natacha Pisarenko

Bonny J. Streater