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The man who found a ray in hell. The story of Dmytro “Orest” Kozatsky21.05.2023
The “eyes” of Azovstal. Dmytro Kozatsky. Press officer of the Azov regiment. After the full-scale invasion of Russia, he defended Mariupol from Russian invaders. He documented the war. It was his photographs of the besieged Azovstal that went viral around the world. “Orest” was held in Russian captivity for four months. On Sept. 21, he returned home together with 214 Ukrainian defenders.
What Dmytro was like as a child, what he was fond of and what he dreamed of, how he started his service and how he got to Azov, whether he kept in touch with his relatives from the besieged Azovstal and how he returned home, we’re talking about all of this within the framework of the special project Words and Bullets by Chytomo and PEN Ukraine.
Malyn, Maidan, Mariupol
Daria talks about her brother with enthusiasm and sparks in her eyes. She and Dmytro are eight years apart. Her brother has always been an authority figure for her: “He is a very positive and good person. I don’t know how I would have grown up if it weren’t for him. When I was a teenager and had all sorts of complexes, Dima used to say: “Dasha, come on!” and would take pictures of me on the soccer field, teach me how to walk in heels…”
The guy always had a lot of ideas for games. He invented all sorts of things for Dasha and her friends: the children played “Master Chef,” “Ukrainian top model,” and “Cops and Robbers”. Once, on the anniversary of the residential complex where he lived with his family, he organized a whole celebration. All the residents celebrated the day with dancing and singing, and Dmytro took on the role of host: “He was our master of ceremonies, our cheerful Dimka!”
The girl says that she has always had a good relationship with her brother. When he was studying in Poland, he would call her on Skype and tell her sister about the failed exam session.
Since childhood, Dmytro wanted to learn how to take pictures. In one of his childhood photos, where he is 3-4 years old, the boy is standing with a camera. For a long time he dreamed of a Canon camera, but his family was not wealthy, so he was given a small film camera with a built-in lens. Most often, Dmytro’s model was Daria. For his images, the guy came up with various fancy outfits. This is how tulle turned into a dress. His mother often quarreled with him about this, but Dmytro did not stop creating. Dmytro received basic knowledge of photography at a photo club. But he acquired most of his skills through trial and error.
Daria says that Dmytro was very surprised after returning from captivity by the fact that his photo was posted on a billboard in Malyn.
I told him: “Do you realize that this is just one percent of how famous you are?” He was shocked, he didn’t realize how widely his photos had spread. Dima dreamed of becoming a famous photographer in Malyn, and now the whole world knows him!
For some time, Dmytro studied and lived in Poland, but when the Revolution of Dignity began, he returned to Ukraine. He spent a lot of time on the Maidan. Later he decided to join the army. He was sent to Mariupol as a member of the National Guard. This was unexpected for the family, as they hoped he would be sent to Lviv, Kyiv or Kharkiv. The man served in the National Guard for 2-3 years, but he was eager to join the Azov special forces.
“Dima learned about all the details, talked to his friends from Azov, weighed the pros and cons. Then we realized that he wanted to develop as a military photojournalist. After that, he became more focused, much more thoughtful. My brother was happy, and we were excited about it,” says Daria.
The girl admits that she used to think that soldiers were necessarily evil. But Dmytro and his fellow soldiers dispelled this myth: “They are ordinary cool people, they are positive, it is interesting to communicate with them. But they always know when to have fun and when to work.”
Dmytro joined Azov in 2017. At first he was an ordinary soldier, then a signalman. In early 2021, he became a press officer.
“This is a precise but creative job. There were days when he did military work. And there were days when he did creative work. I remember how he prepared the calendar: he took photos for it, designed everything himself,” says his sister.
Read also: Soldier Artem Chapeye: If I hadn’t gone the first day, I would have gone a week later
Dmytro’s family faced the first day of the full-scale invasion together virtually. Even though they were all in different cities, they kept in touch with each other. Before the invasion, the guy advised the family to pack “go bags” so that all documents and necessary things would be in one place. On February 24, in the morning, Dmytro called his mother and asked her not to worry, to follow the news, and to keep the phone close to her. “Everything is fine – the war has started,” he told his family.
“In such a situation, you worry more about your family than yourself. We realized that Dima was in Mariupol, and it would be difficult there. After all, this is the military heart of Ukraine.”
Dmytro constantly called his sister and told her what was happening in Mariupol. He asked her if she remembered the cafe where they used to go. It didn’t exist anymore. Then the Left Bank disappeared: Dmytro used to live there, not far from the sea. Then the Russians destroyed the Right Bank as well. Then the Ukrainian military was forced to enter Azovstal. Not a single place in the city was left unscathed.
I did not realize the danger they were in. When they went to Azovstal, I thought it was good, because there was a good bunker there. But when they started publishing news about them being shot at, bombs being dropped, when Dima started telling me what was happening there… Then I realized that there was hell.
Once Dmytro wrote to his sister that it was his second birthday. There were two huge rooms at Azovstal: one was used for sleeping, and the other was used to keep food, clothes and other necessities. Dmytro’s bed was near the adjacent wall between these rooms. A Russian bomb hit the room with the supplies. The guy was thrown back by the blast wave, and the bed was pushed against the wall. Dmytro’s head was cut open, but this did not stop him from pulling his comrades from the rubble.
He saved Valeria “Nava” that day. During his stay at Azovstal, he recorded her story. Under aerial bombs and constant shelling, Valeria married Andriy. It happened on May 5, the birthday of the Azov Regiment. However, their story lasted only three days: Andriy was killed at Azovstal as a result of shelling by the Russian military. Valeria was held in Russian captivity until she returned to Ukraine on April 10 as part of a large-scale military prisoner exchange.
From Azovstal, Dmytro sent various photos to his family. Once he sent a whole series with wounded soldiers. Some of them had amputated limbs, but still smiled for the camera. “And this moment of understanding: that this is not some photo studio, these are not models, these are real people… The world just turned upside down,” Daria recalls.
photo: Dmytro Kozatsky
It was these photos that would later go around the world and earn Dmytro another nickname, “Eyes of Azovstal”.
Before he was captured, the guy published his photos in the public domain and asked to send them to various awards and competitions. Later, when he returned to freedom, he could not believe that his work had won so many international awards. In particular, the famous photographs received two awards each at the International Photography Awards and The Prix de la Photographie in Paris, a gold medal at the international competition of reportage photography “Live press FOTO”, and the Grand Press Photo award in Poland.
One day, Dmytro called his family and warned them that he would not be in touch for a few weeks, so they should not worry. When Daria learned that the Ukrainian military was out of Azovstal, she even felt happy: they were finally not under bombs and constant shelling… She hoped that they would be fed in captivity.
There were two options at the factory: to die of starvation or a bomb, or to leave with at least some hope. I was worried because the Red Cross provided security guarantees. We realized that this organization was ineffective, so we started to worry about the prisoners. We were given hope that the situation would be controlled, but it was still very scary.
It was especially difficult for relatives after the terrorist attack in Olenivka. On the night of July 29, an explosion occurred on the territory of the penal colony where Ukrainian prisoners of war were held, killing 53 Ukrainian defenders and injuring more than 130. When the family tried to find out if Dmytro was alive, the Red Cross did not give them any information. Moreover, during phone calls, they were answered in Russian, explaining that they did not understand and could not communicate in Ukrainian.
It was an extremely difficult period, but after a while Dmytro called his sister himself. Daria was cooking when she suddenly saw that she was receiving a call on Instagram from an account with a Russian flag. She wasn’t even surprised: she had received threatening texts and phone calls from Russians before. But on the advice of her boyfriend, she picked up the phone. “It’s Dima,” she heard unexpectedly.
“Everything inside me turned upside down. “Is this Dima?” she asked again. “Yes, Daryushka, it’s me!” That’s when I realized it was him.” Daria told her brother how much he was loved and waited for at home, and told him about the terrorist attack in Olenivka. The boy burst into tears, his voice trembling. Later, he will be able to call his relatives again.
On the eve of Daria’s birthday, she had a dream about her brother. He said that they would meet on Thursday. After that, she waited for that day every week with great hope and faith. And they did meet on Thursday: “We just have such a strong connection, words cannot express it. On my birthday, he burst into tears, and I found out about it after he returned. I cried that day too. We couldn’t talk on the phone, but we had this connection.”
Ukraine returned the defenders of Mariupol home on September 21. The exchange took place in the Chernihiv region. 215 Ukrainian defenders returned home. Orest was among them.
Daria, together with other relatives of the prisoners, organized and continues to organize actions demanding the release of all Ukrainian soldiers from Russian captivity.
We knew that we would shout about it, that we would fight. How could we just sit there and be silent? The first demonstrations were dispersed, they said it was not allowed, but we came out anyway. I don’t know where my brother is, how he is treated there, how is he at all? Over time, they realized that we could not be dispersed. We began to organize actions, to organize exhibitions with his works, to talk about all this. I am happy that we organized these events. I am sure that they gave such publicity that influenced their release. All of this helped a lot.
Daria was in English class when her mother called her. The conversation was short: the woman said that Dima had called – he had been exchanged. The girl was shocked and could not recover for several hours. Later, she and her boyfriend started to pack quickly to go to meet Dmytro. Then the sister was constantly waiting for a call from her brother. And he called just when she was in the elevator, where the connection was poor: “We’re pressing all these buttons to get out of the elevator!” I ran out to the shared balcony and shouted: “Dima!!!” Then, probably, the whole street heard me. And I heard back: “Daryusha!”.
In Kyiv, the girl met her mother and together they traveled to Chernihiv to meet Dmytro.
“The first thing we said to him was how much we love him! This is what we wanted to say all these months. There were tears of happiness and misunderstanding that this was really happening. Last night I was sad, and today I’m hugging Dima! It was impossible to believe!”
Later, Dmytro would say that when he and his comrades were taken somewhere for several days, he realized that they were being taken for an exchange. Although in captivity they were told that no one was waiting for them at home.
The Mariupol defender is currently undergoing physical rehabilitation, with psychologists working with him. He is trying to catch up with everything that has happened in Ukraine during this time, because for several months he had no access to information. He really wants to buy a camera to take pictures of everything. He also plans to finish driving school, as he did not have time to do so due to the full-scale invasion. All he has to do is pass the exam and get his license.
“He has lost a lot of weight and has health problems, but he hasn’t changed at all on the inside: he is just as joyful and cheerful. When people ask him how he is, he says he’s fine, and why they’re bugging him in the first place,” says Ihor, Daria’s boyfriend.
Ksenia, Dmytro’s best friend, says the same thing. She admits that when she received the first video message from him after his capture, she had only one thought in her mind: “He hasn’t changed at all.”
“He was always very positive, and he still is. This struck me first of all. I expected that his behavior and views would change, his manner of communication and conversation would change. But no! He is the same Dima as I knew him.”
Before the full-scale invasion, Dmytro told Ksenia to leave Mariupol: he did not scare her, but he strongly advised her. However, she stayed in the city and left during the heavy fighting. “When I was already safe and I finally had communication, he wrote back whenever he could.” Now the girl has not yet fully realized that Dmytro is back. She says she will need many more meetings to make sure he is home, safe, with his family.
A post appeared on Dmytro’s Instagram page two days after the exchange. The photo shows a phrase that the prisoners constantly corrected in their conversations: “If When we get back.”
For four months, I was always sure that Ukrainians did not forget about us and were shouting to the whole world. Even without communication and news, I felt the support of the bravest, best nation in the world…
The most painful thing for the guy is that after the Russian terrorist attack in Olenivka, many of his comrades will never see their families again. However, he emphasizes that we must make every effort to bring home those who remained in captivity as soon as possible: “Only then will I be fully happy. (…) We continue to fight.”
Read also: Dmytro Krapyvenko: it is important to talk about the losses in order not to get delusional and think that there are some immortals fighting on our side
Words and Bullets is the special project from Chytomo and PEN Ukraine about Ukrainian writers and journalists that joined the army or started volunteering when Russia invaded Ukraine in February this year. The name of the project symbolizes the weapon the heroes and heroines of the project used before February 24 and the one they had to swap it for after the full-scale invasion. The special project is realized with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
Translated by Maria Bragan
This publication is sponsored by the Chytomo’s Patreon community
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