‘I told the Russians at the checkpoints that I was going to Azovstal’

The superstar volunteer from Mariupol says he fought his way into the besieged city several times while the Russian army continually bombed it.
Serhii Okuniev09 July 2024UA DE EN ES FR IT RU

Mykhailo Puryshev, a volunteer popular on Instagram, successfully took his family to Western Ukraine at the beginning of the invasion. However, a few days later, the man decided to voluntarily return to the already surrounded city, which was being wiped off the face of the earth by Russian aviation and artillery.

For several months, Mykhailo made seven trips to Mariupol: he delivered humanitarian aid, took out civilians and children, and then found himself captured by the FSB.

‘They told me you’re crazy!’ — first return to Mariupol

Until 2022, Mykhailo did not have much volunteer experience: he organized events for young people in Mariupol and taught orphans the basics of working with a computer. On February 23, 2022, a man purchased a new Mercedes CLS-Class and was returning home to his hometown. He received a phone call at night and was told that a war had begun.

“I said, ’What war? They’ll shoot for a while and stop!’ Of course, at that time, I could not even imagine what could happen and how events would develop. Two days later, I already saw what was going on, and I went for my brother’s family and his pregnant wife to evacuate them,” —recalls Mykhailo.

The brother’s family was in Volnovakha, a city that was one of the first to receive the strike from the Russians. The trip to Volnovakha made it clear what real war was, — recalls Mykhailo. He had to take his brother’s wife and children out from under shelling during the assault when the occupiers were trying to capture the city quickly. His brother’s pregnant wife and his children forced Mykhailo to move towards the Carpathian Region, where he also evacuated his family.

“Very little time has passed. I bought a bus and said that I was returning to Mariupol. They told me I was crazy, that the city was surrounded, and there was no chance of getting there. But I bought humanitarian aid, and I bought insulin. People joined in to load me with various products and medicines. And I went.

Михайло Пуришев, джерело: Mrpl.City Mykhailo Puryshev, source: Mrpl.City Михаил Пурышев, источник: Mrpl.City

Mykhailo Puryshev, source: Mrpl.City

By an absolute miracle, the man managed to return to the city on March 8, 2022, and, among other things, deliver insulin to the local hospital. He jokes that his action was not heroic but reckless.

“Honestly, I didn’t understand a lot at the time. I didn’t understand what mine were. I didn’t understand what an airstrike was. Well, I imagined all that, roughly speaking, from films. But there was no experience. And honestly, if I had the knowledge I have now, I would probably need much more determination to repeat this,” —says the volunteer.

The man recalls the first time he met the Russian military after the last Ukrainian checkpoint in Orikhove. According to him, the Ukrainian army was sure that the occupiers would kill him without even understanding the purposes and reasons for the trip.

“Each checkpoint was a separate story, a separate conversation. We must also understand that at that time, many on the Russian side also did not understand what was happening or what they should do. I was clearly not a military man; they were not interested in me personally. Some just treated me like I was crazy. At one of the checkpoints, where I saw how cannons were hitting the city, they told me: “You can go, but it doesn’t matter because either we or the Khokhols [ethnic slur for Ukranians] will kill you.”

Mykhailo also does not hide that his excellent knowledge of the area helped him: he knew how to avoid particularly dangerous areas or battle zones.

A daring attempt to evacuate children from a surrounded city

Each subsequent trip made it clear that the state of affairs in the city and the population’s needs had long exceeded what was acceptable. In April 2022, the last defenders of Mariupol and residents hid at one of the largest metallurgical plants in Europe — Azovstal. A multi-level system of underground shelters gave hope for at least some protection from Russian bombing. At the same time, the Russians cordoned off the plant and intensified shelling of its territory, dropping hundreds of tons of explosives on Azovstal.

The international community and the Ukrainian authorities tried to save the civilians who remained in the basements and bunkers of the plant. Among them were children. The Russian side accused the Ukrainian defenders of not allowing the evacuation of civilians from Azovstal to be organized because, allegedly, they were using them as a human shield. Then, Mykhailo Puryshev decided on the most desperate operation of all the previous ones.

Михайло Пуришев, джерело: соцмережі Михайла Пуришева Mykhailo Puryshev, source: Mykhailo Puryshev’s social networks Михаил Пурышев, источник: социальные сети Михаила Пурышева

Mykhailo Puryshev, source: Mykhailo Puryshev’s social networks

“It was May 1st. I passed all the checkpoints one more time. They already knew me one way or another. The Russians were most interested in the supply of military cargo — ammunition weapons. Obviously, I had nothing like that. I reached the last Russian checkpoint before the city and said: ’I’m going to pick up the children from Azovstal.’ I knew that I would be detained,” the man recalls.

As expected, the occupiers did not turn a blind eye to Puryshev’s plans. The man was detained by the FSB and kept under arrest for several days. Mykhailo claims that this was part of his plan. He suggested that the Russians allow him and a group of international journalists to enter Azovstal, who would film the attempt to save the children.

“I told them — if Azov or someone else does not allow the children to be taken out, as you say, we will document it, and everything will become clear. Of course, I understood that the reality was different. During the first interrogations, they simply laughed at me. But later conversations began: “How do you imagine this? What’s your plan?

During Mykhailo’s illegal arrest, the Russians allowed the evacuation of civilians with the participation of the Red Cross. Of course, the Ukrainian military did not interfere with the evacuation, which once again proved the lies of the occupiers. Purishev was released, but humanitarian or other trips to Mariupol have become completely impossible since then. The Russians took control of the city, the number of checkpoints increased significantly, and any communication with the unoccupied territories of Ukraine was interrupted.

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