Ukraine’s secret, deadly rescue mission

Kieu, Ukraine (AP) —As with his pre-flight practice, a veteran Ukrainian pilot hands along the fuselage of his Mi-8 helicopter to bring good luck to him and his crew. I ran.

They will need it.Their Destination — Siege Steelworks In the brutal city of Mariupol — It was a death trap. Some other crew did not bring it back to life.

Still, the mission was essential and even desperate. Ukrainian troops are pinned and their supplies are in short supply, Their dead The injured are piled up.Their last ditch stand at the Azovstal iron mill was a symbol of the growth of Ukrainian rebellion. War with Russia.. They were not allowed to perish.

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

In Burnt Hell-The Landscape of the PlantChanged from an underground occultation that provided shelter from, to a medical station Death and destruction above, The words that miracles may come have begun to reach the injured. Among those who were said to have been on the list of evacuation was his junior sergeant, who was shredded by a mortar bullet, amputated his left leg, and forced him to amputate on his knees. ..

“Buffalo” was his name. He has experienced many things, but another deadly challenge is imminent. It’s an escape from Azovstal.


A series of secret, bizarre, terrain-friendly high-speed helicopter missions to reach the defenders of Azofustari in March, April and May is one of Ukraine’s military derring-do’s most heroic feats. It is celebrated as one. 4 months war.. Some ended in a catastrophe. As Russian air defense guns caught up, each was increasingly at risk.

The full story of the seven supply and rescue missions has not yet been told. But from an exclusive interview with two injured survivors. A military intelligence officer who flew on his first mission. A pilot interview provided by the Ukrainian Army, The Associated Press has put together an account for one of the last flights, from the perspective of both rescuers and rescuers.

that’s all After more than 2,500 defenders left At the Azovstal ruins Surrender started Did it Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky First give the wind of the mission and its deadly cost.

The tenacity of the azovstal fighter Dissatisfied with Moscow’s purpose to catch Mariupol quickly It prevented the Russian troops there from being relocated elsewhere. Zelenskyy said Ukrainian broadcaster ICTV Pilots adventure across enemy fronts, flying food, water, medicine, weapons, allowing plant garrison to fight, and flying injured, “powerful” Russian air defense. Bravely confronted.

Military intelligence said one helicopter was shot down and the other two were considered missing because they never returned. He said he wore civilian clothes for his flight, thinking he could blend in with the population if he survived the clash: “We have it a one-way ticket. I knew it might be. “

Zelensky said: “These are absolutely heroic people who knew the difficulties and knew it was almost impossible …. we lost a lot of pilots.”


Had Buffalo been on his way, he wouldn’t have lived to evacuate. His life was soon over, with a 120mm mortar torn his left foot, bloody his right foot, and escaped the pain of shrapneling his back with a shrapnel. Treet fighting in Mariupol March 23.

The 20-year-old spoke to the Associated Press on condition that he wasn’t identified by name, saying he didn’t want to make it look like thousands of people were asking for a promotion. Defenders of Azovstal are in captivity Or dead. He followed the path of Russian tanks, aiming to destroy them with armor-piercing NLAW missiles fired from his shoulders on the last day of the first month of the shortened invasion of the war.

Thrown next to the wreckage of a burning car, he dragged himself to cover a nearby building and “decided to crawl into the basement and die quietly there,” he said.

However, his friends evacuated him to the Illich Steel Works. Then fell in mid-April As the Russian army did Tighten the Mariupol’s grip A strategic port on the Sea of ​​Azov. Three days have passed before healthcare professionals can amputate in an underground bomb shelter. He considers himself lucky. The doctor still had an anesthetic When his turn came under the knife.

When he came, the nurse told him how disappointed she was that he had lost his limbs.

He jokingly got through the awkwardness: “Do they return the money for 10 tattoo sessions?”

“I had a lot of tattoos on my feet,” he said. One remains, a human figure, but his legs are gone now.

After the surgery he was transferred to Azovstal Iron Factory..A 24 km (15 mile) fortress covering nearly 11 square kilometers (more than 4 miles) Labyrinth of underground tunnel And the bunker, the plants were virtually impregnable.

However The conditions were strict..

“There was constant bombardment,” said 22-year-old Corporal Vladislav Zahorodnii, who was shot through the pelvis during a street fight in Mariupol and chopped up his nerves.

I evacuated to Azovstal and met Buffalo there.They already knew each other: both were from ChernihivNorth city Surrounded by Russian troops and smashed..

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

“Everything is fine. I’m going to the club soon,” Buffalo replied.


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

It was his first helicopter flight. The Mi-8 fired on the way, killing one of the engines. The other left them floating in the air for the rest of the 80-minute early morning dash to the city of Dnipro on the Dniepru River in central Ukraine.

He marked his rescue with a round tattoo of a mortar on his right forearm: “I remembered it,” he said.

The next week, it was Buffalo’s turn. He was ambiguous about leaving. On the other hand, he was relieved that the declining share of food and water would spread to others who could still fight. On the other hand, “I had a hard time. They stayed there and I left them.”

Still, he almost missed the plane.

The soldiers carried him from a deep bunker on a garney and onto a truck that hit a pre-prepared landing zone. The soldiers wrapped him in his jacket.

Helicopter ammunition cargo was first unloaded. After that, the injured boarded.

But it’s not buffalo. Left in the back corner of the truck, he was somehow overlooked. He couldn’t give an alarm because the mortar blast hurt his throat, and he was still too hoarse to hear the helicopter rotor hoop-hoop-hoop.

“I thought to myself,’Well, not today,'” he recalled. “And suddenly someone shouted,’You forgot the truck soldier!'”

The cargo compartment was full, so Buffalo was placed crossing other people who were loaded side by side. The crew took his hand and said he would go home without worry.

“Everything in my life,” he told the crew, “I dreamed of flying a helicopter. It doesn’t matter if we arrived — my dream came true.”


In his cockpit, the wait time seemed tremendous for Olexandre, and minutes felt like hours.

“Very scary,” he said. “Explosions have been seen around and the next shell may reach your location.”

In the fog of war, the whole picture of the secret mission is still emerging, and it is absolutely certain that the pilot who spoke with the journalist in a video interview recorded and shared by Buffalo and the military is on the same flight. I can’t be sure. However, the details of their accounts are consistent.

Both gave the same date: the night of April 4-5. Alexandre remembered being fired at the ship when he plunged from Mariupol. He said the blast threw the helicopter “like a toy.” But his escape strategy freed them from trouble.

Buffalo also remembers the blast. The evacuees were later told that the pilot had avoided the missile.

Oleksandr bombarded the helicopter up to 220 km (135 miles) per hour and flew up to 3 m (9 ft) above the ground, except when jumping over power lines. The second helicopter on his mission never got it back. On the return flight, the pilot wirelessly informed him that he was out of fuel. That was their last communication.

In his Gurney, Buffalo watched the terrain pass through the zipper through the porthole. “We flew over the fields under the trees, very low,” he said.

They arrived safely at Dnipro. Upon landing, Olexandre heard the injured calling for a pilot. He expected them to yell at him by swinging them violently during the flight.

“But when I opened the door, I heard everyone saying’thank you’,” he said.

“Everyone applauded,” recalls Buffalo, who is currently rehabing with Zaholodney at Kyiv’s clinic. “We told the pilot that they had accomplished the impossible.”


Contributed by AP journalist Sophiko Megrelidze of Tbilisi, Georgia and Oleksandr Stashevskyi of Kyiv.


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