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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Roland Oliphant

‘I looked at the wound and the blood, I went into survival mode’ – British fighter recalls hell in Russian captivity

Aiden Aslin, a British fighter captured in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol by Russian forces, in a still image from a video released last April. Photo: Rossyia 1/Handout via Reuters

The first punch in the face, delivered after he admitted to being British, was “not a bad beating”.

Compared to what followed during Aiden Aslin’s imprisonment by Russian forces, that may be an understatement.

During more than five months as a prisoner of war, Mr Aislin was beaten unconscious, stabbed, threatened with execution, and witnessed the killing of another prisoner.

But the British-born Ukrainian marine says he feels no thirst for vengeance. Instead, he is proud of his unit’s role in holding back Vladimir Putin’s war machine, and wants the world to know that many are still behind bars.

“The Ukrainian marines alongside the national guard and the border guards and the police in Mariupol ended up putting up a hell of a fight,” he says when asked if he would do it all again.

“Our fight helped the rest of Ukraine, because Russia was preoccupied with Mariupol so there were other places they had to lose, like pulling out from north of Kyiv because they couldn’t sustain it.

“What I want is to see all our brothers and sisters who were captured brought back to their families. Pretty much the whole 36th brigade was wiped out. I’d like to see the Ukrainian government get those guys home.”

It is a strange conversation to be having in a living room in Nottinghamshire. But Mr Aslin has had a very strange year. His war began at midnight on the night of Feb 23, when he woke up to go on sentry duty in a muddy front-line trench.

At the time, he was one of a handful of British fighters enlisted in Ukraine’s 36th Marine brigade, stationed in a remote and muddy trench system that marked the front line with the Russian-controlled Donetsk People’s Republic.

At first, the night was silent. Then “at 2am when I was on shift I was playing some game on my phone and monitoring the radio - in a mortar unit we always monitor the radio - and that’s when I heard the artillery working.

“I thought ‘OK, I’m just going to wake the commander up and tell him what’s going on’.”

The firing was distant, but no less alarming for that.

“We literally shot about 10 rounds and as we came back into the bunker we came under Grad [rocket launcher]artillery ourselves,” he said. “At that point we knew ‘this is it’.”

The Russian barrage was strong, but inaccurate and their counter-battery fire ineffective. Their Grads, to Mr Aslin’s surprise, were landing behind the Ukrainian trenches.

It was an early indication of the crudeness and unprofessionalism that characterised much of Russia’s early blitzkrieg.

Nonetheless, the offensive was too strong to resist. By March 2, a week after the invasion, the marines had been forced to retreat to Mariupol and prepare for siege.

With the Russians advancing from both the east and west, it was clear quite early on that the city would be surrounded, and what the likely outcome of the battle would be.

But for many of the men the most difficult thing was not the prospect of death or capture, said Mr Aslin. It was watching helplessly as the enemy also closed in on other parts of Ukraine where their families were living.

Diana, Mr Aislin’s fiancee, was still at their home in Mykolaiv, the strategic port on the river Bug that controls the road to Odessa.

By the time the 36th Marines had completed their fighting retreat into Mariupol, another Russian spearhead was closing in on the family home.

“When I saw messages from her, she said the Russians were only a few blocks away from where our house is, that’s when I started getting distressed. Especially when she told me the house was under shelling,” said Mr Aslin.

“My biggest fear was if they capture Mykolaiv and she’s still there, she will most likely be captured because she’s my fiancee with the military clothing and what-not in the house.”

It was a ghastly feeling shared by thousands of Ukrainian servicemen that week. And it is the only time in our interview that Mr Aslin’s philosophical detachment to his ordeal seems overstretched.

He takes a moment to dig out some nicotine patches before continuing his story.

After he was released by his captors he checked on the course of that battle and learnt the Russians came within a mile of the family home before they were stopped. “God knows what they would have done.”

Back in Mariupol, the encirclement was soon sealed and as the Russians battered their way into the city with overwhelming firepower and airstrikes, the defenders were forced back into three redoubts.

The most formidable and now famous is the Azovstal steelworks - a sprawling maze of warehouses, cranes and rust-covered pipes on a hill overlooking the sea in the southern part of the river. This was the stronghold of the Azov Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard.

The marines set up a perimeter defence but were slowly forced back in vicious urban fighting. By early April, the brigade headquarters itself was under relentless bombardment and the defenders were low on food, reduced to scavenging what they could find on the surface between short gaps between barrages.

When a Russian airstrike scored a direct hit on their main arms stockpile, the decision was made to finally mount a breakout.

In the chaos, some marines did make it to Azovstal but most, including Mr Aslin, had no choice but to surrender.

Mr Aslin speaks with remarkable clarity about his first several days in captivity in April - and the world of violence that went with it.

Transferred to Donetsk, he was singled out for an interrogation that largely consisted of a two-hour beating with a police baton during which time he fell unconscious.

“He asked me if I was religious and if I wanted a ‘quick death or a beautiful death’. And he said ‘did you see what I did here?’ And I was like ‘no’, and he pointed to my shoulder and said he’d stabbed me.

“I looked and saw the wound and the amount of blood coming out. That was the point I just went into survival mode.”

Mr Aslin and Diana are now living in Nottinghamshire. They plan to wed in April and then, when they can, move back to Ukraine, this time to try some journalism.

He is still an enlisted marine, but has promised his future wife he will never return to combat. When they eventually return to Ukraine - it is still home, he says - he plans to start a career in journalism.

He insists, even after the beatings and the fear, that he has no regrets and harbours little anger against his captors.

But he would like to see Ukraine win the war. 

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