When Kateryna Polishchuk began her studies to become an opera singer, she could have never imagined that one day she would be performing surgery without anaesthesia on a wounded soldier while hiding away in a bombed-out steel plant.
But Russia’s war in Ukraine made the unthinkable possible.
“The hell I went through in Azovstal – it cannot be dreamed by anybody or shown in any action film,” Polishchuk told Euronews. “Not even (Quentin) Tarantino would know how to make such a film.”
The 21-year-ago paramedic was among the Ukrainian contingent that defended the Azovstal plant during the three-month siege of Mariupol. The industrial site was the last stronghold in the ravaged city and quickly turned into an international symbol of Ukrainian resistance.
“We resisted the Russian army with a completely calm understanding of how it could end. We understood that we would all die. But we did not give up,” Polishchuk said, speaking through a translator.
“From the very first days, when we were surrounded, we had no supplies, we had no medicines, food, water or ammunition. We had no proper equipment, and no air defence means.”
“Unfortunately,” she went on, “we had very difficult conditions to fight, but we had fighters who wanted to defend their home, who wanted to show the whole world that Russia can’t take neither Ukraine nor Europe.”
In her interview with Euronews, Polishchuk recalled the extreme conditions that Ukrainian soldiers were forced to endure throughout the relentless Russian attack. Some soldiers, she said, spent “three to four days” in a row without sleeping or eating, as the shelling lasted through the night – only to continue in the morning.
After 82 days of gruelling fighting, Mariupol fell to Russia and the remaining soldiers surrendered. The city, razed to the ground, was left nearly unrecognisable.
“The worst thing was to surrender and give up because we understood that as long as Azovstal was standing, as long as they (Russia) spent most of their military force on Mariupol, it was easier for our brothers to fight all over Ukraine,” Polishchuk said.
Polishchuk spent almost five months in Russian captivity, until her release in late September as part of a prisoner swap. She now travels across Europe to rally support for those on the frontline.
In Brussels, the 21-year-old attended a special exhibition of photographers taken by Dmytro “Orest” Kozatskyi, a soldier-photographer who was also holed up in Azovstal.
The pictures, which went viral after Kozatskyi posted them on social media, depict the resistance, despair and solitude of the Ukrainian soldiers during the brutal siege.
“These photos evoke emotions of pride for the army with which I stood shoulder to shoulder, for the guys who held on no matter what,” Polishchuk explained.
“These photos evoke memories of the heroic struggle of heroic people, some of whom are in captivity, some of whom are unfortunately no longer with us.”
As a survivor of the Mariupol siege, Polishchuk says she feels a particular responsibility to speak on behalf of the men and women fighting for their country so that “no one is silenced.”
During her stay in Brussels, she urged the European Union to remain by Ukraine’s side until the very end, arguing the country’s fate will determine the bloc’s own future.
Although she dismissed her opera skills as rusty, Polishchuk’s voice shone through the room, firm and mournful, when she stoop up to sign the Ukrainian national anthem.
“We will fight. We are brave, we are courageous, we are unbreakable. We are powerful and we will stop this enemy,” Polishchuk said.
“But we need support and help because if we do not stand, Europe will not stand.”
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