Ukraine news live: Zelenskyy says Russian ‘fire superiority’ is ‘much felt’ in Donbass; Ten dead in rocket attack on Odessa | world news
By Gillian Joseph, Sky News presenter, and Nick Stylianou, Sky News producer, in Kyiv.
In the outskirts of Kyiv, Alla Samoilenko has no electricity or water. She lives next to the road that Russian tanks attacked at the start of the war, in their failed attempt to take the Ukrainian capital. In the house she helped build, she said she was never going to leave, even though the shells rained down above her head.
But we’re not here to talk about his war, we’re here to talk about his son: Ilia Samoilenko, 27, is one of the famous faces of the Azov Regiment, the defenders of the Azovstal Steelworks in Mariupol.
For months, she was in daily contact with him as he fought back from the city’s last outpost.
We asked her about the siege and the tactical resistance of Ilya and his comrades.
“I’m not sure I can explain it to you because it’s still a secret,” she said. “I think we’ll know a lot of things exactly when they get home.”
Ilya’s large beard, eye patch and titanium hook on his right arm made him instantly recognizable across the world during press conferences and media interviews. But Ms. Samoilenko showed us professional casting photos of a fresh-faced 8-year-old boy and his younger brother, separated by just over a year.
“They looked almost identical. And they were best friends,” Alla said.
She’s a renowned casting director, and her boys briefly flirted with the idea of following her into the industry. But young Samoilenko fell very ill, unable to leave the hospital, and Ilya became preoccupied with biomedical science as well as deeply passionate about history, a subject he later studied at Kyiv University.
In 2015, he joined the Azov – then a battalion – and taught combat medicine. But in 2017, during a demining mission in the Donbass, a Russian shell exploded nearby, detonating the device he was holding.
“But he was still conscious and ordering his own medical evacuation,” Alla said.
Going back to the current invasion, she remembered watching her last interviews as the end of the famous siege approached. One, with Sky’s Dermot Murnaghan, is his favorite for his son’s clarity and direction. She saw him again with us.
“It was absolutely crazy, in this interview he said they would probably be killed in a few hours. The next day I heard not from them but from our local Facebook community who said that [the Russians] will begin this ‘evacuation’.” She said ‘evacuation’ with air quotes, after numerous failed attempts to safely pass those who wanted to escape.
Does she know where her son is now? She shook her head. She hasn’t heard from him since. A friend with another son from the Azov regiment said he saw “Gandalf” in Russian captivity in eastern Ukraine a few weeks ago. His beard, his height and his love for Tolkien earned him this nickname among his friends. But given that he is one of the most prominent soldiers, there is a chance that he was taken to Russia.
She explained: “Two places are a possibility, one is Olenivka in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, another is with Azov commanders at Lefortovo prison, near Moscow in Russia, we don’t know exactly. where.”
Ms. Samoilenko referred to the case of British-born fighters Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, captured in Mariupol and sentenced to death by Russian-backed separatists.
“So many messages from the Russian side about these British citizens – we’re trying to figure out what’s going on with this case and what’s going to happen with other soldiers, with Ukrainian soldiers, whatever they’re doing with them – This is absolutely illegal. Our soldiers are not criminals. They are defenders. Defenders of their country.
We asked her if she had ever spoken to him about the possibility of him not coming back. She said she only mentioned it once. “I understood that he was ready for this.”
She stops, her eyes now full of tears. “I haven’t cried in a long time.
“I keep it inside…I work to keep it inside, let it come back. It comes back. It comes back.”
She repeated it like a mantra until she calmed down again.
Alla’s husband – Ilya’s stepfather – is in the Territorial Army but regularly comes home for breaks. Four-year-old Marguerite rides a bright pink bicycle down the driveway. Life tries to return to normal in Kyiv, but Ilya is never far from his mind. His childhood room is sparse – a pack of cigarettes, a few bottles of booze, and a camouflage jacket left on a hanger.
The rest of the rooms are littered with toys, there is food on the kitchen table, and there are cupboards full of books. She is proud of the family home she built.
“My daughter gives me so much energy for life, and I think I spend my time preparing everything for her return.”
Alla grows vegetables and roses in her garden. When she pulls the weeds, she says she imagines she is chasing the Russians out of her country.
If only it were that simple.