‘We got married while he was in the bunker’: Azovstal fighters’ wives stage desperate rally to save them

For one Ukrainian soldier stuck in the steelworks fighting Russian forces, it was now or never when he popped the question

Nataliia Zarytska, with a photo of Bogdan Semenets, whom she had been dating for three years before she accepted his proposal Credit: Heathcliff O’Malley for The Telegraph

Even in quieter times, Bogdan Semenets was not the kind of man many women would see as ideal husband material. 

A fighter with Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, he has spent most of the past few years on the front lines of eastern Ukraine, fighting pro-Russian separatists.

Now he is among 2,000 hardcore fighters holed up in Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks, making a last desperate stand against Vladimir’s Putin’s forces

Yet despite being a dubious prospect for marriage, and a likely candidate for funeral rites, last month he texted his girlfriend in Kyiv, asking for her hand in marriage. 

Her reply gave him what may prove one of his last happy moments in life: “Yes.” 

“When he proposed to me, I couldn’t refuse,” Nataliia Zarytska told The Telegraph in an interview near her home on Saturday. 

“We’ve been going out for three years, and I was hoping we’d get married anyway, but not for another year or two. The war, though, is speeding up our lives and our time together now is shrinking.”

Bogdan Semenets is among 2,000 hardcore fighters holed up in Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks Credit: Heathcliff O’Malley for The Telegraph

Right now, the couple stands little chance of living happily ever after. Indeed, in accepting her partner’s proposal, the 36-year-old may be doing little more than granting a condemned man’s wishes. 

While Putin has said that the Azov fighters can surrender, Mr Semenets would rather save his last bullet for himself than trust in the Kremlin’s mercy.

As he said in a recent text to his beloved: “Better our commanders order us to kill ourselves than we give ourselves up.”

Ms Zarytska spoke as Ukrainian officials said that most remaining civilians sheltering in the plant, which has a labyrinth of service tunnels to hide in, had been evacuated by the UN.

The Kremlin has refused such an amnesty for the Azov fighters, who are now low on food, ammunition, water and medicine. Hundreds are injured, their untreated wounds going gangrenous.

It was in these grim conditions that Mr Semenets exchanged his wedding vows online with Ms Zarytska on April 17. The ceremony was officiated by his commanding officer, who can conduct marriages under Ukrainian military law. 

But with Wi-Fi in the steel plant limited – there is just one spot where fighters can communicate with the outside world – there was not even a Zoom ceremony. 

Instead, the couple simply sent each other signed wedding consent forms via the Telegram messaging app, his form hand-written and bearing his commander’s stamp.

Nataliia Zarytska met her husband through a mutual friend while he was fighting with Azov against Russian separatists in the Donbas Credit: Heathcliff O’Malley for The Telegraph

“A female Azov fighter, who was a trained lawyer, acted as a witness,” said Ms Zarytska. “The day before, she had lost her own husband in the fighting, but she drew up the documents for our wedding anyway.

“We had no ceremony, no dresses or suits, and afterwards the Russians attacked again. We had cluster bombs for our wedding instead of fireworks.”

Ms Zarytska, who works in agribusiness, met her husband through a mutual friend while he was fighting with Azov against Russian separatists in the Donbas region

The battalion has attracted controversy abroad because of the far-Right roots of some of those who founded it in 2014. But since then, it has integrated into the wider Ukrainian army, attracting more mainstream volunteers because of its fighting prowess.

“Bogdan is not a fascist. He has no tattoos or anything like that,” she said. “He is just a kind, thoughtful man and a very brave fighter.”

Once they started dating, the couple would see each other when Mr Semenets was on leave, pursuing a mutual interest in literature. A favourite is We the Living, a critique of life under Soviet rule, written by Ayn Rand, the Russian-American author.

Nataliia Zarytska joined other wives of Azov fighters at a rally urging Kyiv to do more to save their husbands’ lives Credit: Heathcliff O’Malley for The Telegraph

After the war began, Mr Semenets was incommunicado throughout March and early April. When Ms Zarytska got a flurry of delayed Telegram messages on April 9, her hair “went grey”.

“He’d lost 20 kilos and looked gaunt, plus two of his comrades that I knew had died,” she recalled. “At that point, he began saying that he could die any day. He’d aged as well – he looks 45 now, and inside he says he feels 100 years old.”

Last week, she joined other wives of Azov fighters at a demonstration in Kyiv, pleading for their own government and others to do more to save their husbands’ lives. 

Greater international pressure, they believe, could persuade the Kremlin to allow the fighters safe passage out of the Azovstal plant.

In a video conference from the Azovstal plant on Sunday, Azov commanders said they had been “abandoned” by Nato, who had refused to supply it with weapons. They claimed that 25,000 people had died in Mariupol in all.

Ms Zarytska said since the West had cheerleaded Ukraine in the war, it had a duty of care to Azov’s fighters.

“It is all very well for the UN to focus on civilians, but soldiers like my husband have risked their lives to defend Mariupol,” she said. “They deserve some protection too.”

Few believe they will get it. Putin has already told his forces to starve the remaining fighters out, ordering the Azovstal plant to be sealed so that “not a fly can get past”. 

The top two messages from Bogdan Semenets, on the grey bubbles, read: ‘It can’t go on like this much longer... we may not meet again’ Credit: Heathcliff O’Malley for The Telegraph

And in his latest Telegram messages to Ms Zarytska this weekend, Mr Semenets said they could also be his last.

“It can’t go on like this much longer,” he wrote. “We may not meet again. XXX.”