‘He said he was fine — but what else would a brother tell his sister?’ Dmytro Kozatsky, whose photos gave the world a window into Azovstal, is now in Russian captivity. His sister told Meduza his story.
Dmytro Kozatsky is a soldier from Ukraine's Azov regiment and the photographer behind a now-famous collection of photos showing the defenders of the besieged Azovstal steel plant. On May 16, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces ordered the commanders of the units in Azovstal to “save the lives of the personnel” there. Four days later, on May 20, Kozatsky reported that he had surrendered. Meduza spoke to his sister, Darya Yurchenko, about why Kozatsky originally decided to join Azov, his life during the siege, and his family’s main concerns at the moment.
Dmytro and I grew up together. We have a full family: Mom, Dad, Dmytro, and me. Mom works as a train conductor and Dad is a trucker; he also served in Afghanistan. When Dmytro was five or six years old, Dad was also a conductor. He and Mom would switch off so that first one would be home, then the other.
Dmytro’s a really good brother. When younger brothers or sisters are born, their older siblings usually treat them more coldly. But Dmytro was very happy I was born (we’re eight years apart). Mom told me about how he would go to school and say, “Look, I have a new sister!” and show everyone photos of me.
We lived in the city of Malyn, near a paper factory, in a five-story building that had a lot of children. We were eight years apart and had different interests, but Dmytro always found time for me — he’d make up all kinds of games. Dmytro held our whole block together. All of my friends and peers still talk about how energetic and positive he always was. Now he’s on the verge of death.
Because he was so energetic, he always wanted to be useful to someone. I don’t mean to brag, but all of our neighbors knew us as very good kids. If there was an old woman with a heavy bag, we’d never let her pass by without helping her. Our family just raised us that way from the beginning.
In our family, Dmytro was the voice of truth. He might say, “Darya, you’re wrong. Mom did the right thing,” or it might be, “Mom, you’re wrong, in this case I support Darya.” Whenever me and Mom would fight, I would call Dmytro, and he’d ask, “Well, why? What are you fighting for? How did you get to that point?”
Dmytro was always very active at school. He didn’t get the best grades, he was more of a B student, but he took part in all the events. I took after him in that way. In school, he was always the main photographer. He was in the photography club, and they provided him with a camera — we weren’t able [to buy one] at that point. He took pictures of all the events: whenever there was any kind of competition where students participated, he would take pictures. He was a very popular photographer. Not in the sense that he made a lot of money, but as an artist.
He was awarded some points [toward his grades] for taking part in the photography club — it counted as an extracurricular activity. He was also very involved in computer science competitions, and he often won first place. As a result, he was given free admission to [a university in] Poland to study in their software security program. I remember walking around in our courtyard when he ran outside, super happy, and cried, “Darya, I got into Poland! Hooray!” I was 10 years old, and I didn’t quite understand the point, but I was really sad he was leaving. He was the source of all of my games, all my entertainment. I thought, if he’s leaving, what am I supposed to do?
At that time, it was very popular and prestigious to go to Poland. “Wow, cool, Poland, awesome.” It seemed so foreign.
When he got to Poland, he started working at a Polish radio station. He doesn’t speak Polish fluently; I don’t remember what language the radio station used. It wasn’t associated with the university, and Mom was very concerned about it: “What are you doing this for? We give you money.” Our parents were worried his work would interfere with his studies.
Dmytro said his classes there were hard. We were very close back then; even when he didn’t tell Mom things, he would call me and tell me. That’s when I was 11-12 years old.
‘He wanted to live in Ukraine, in his home country’
Dmytro didn’t plan to live in Poland forever. Outside of the apartment he rented in Poland, he hung the Ukrainian flag.
Then the Maidan Revolution began. Dmytro was in his second year of college. He really wanted to come to Ukraine and be a part of the Maidan, but Mom said, “Stay in Poland — there’s no reason to come here. It’s scary here — something crazy is brewing.” Dmytro, of course, didn’t listen. He hitchhiked all the way back to Ukraine — and the whole way there, he only spent six hryvnias (about $0.30). Dmytro really wanted to come home; he even started a blog about his trip back. He really wanted to be useful out on the Maidan. Meanwhile, our parents said, "he's just a child — he's only 20 years old.”
They told him to stay at home because they didn’t want to worry. Then one night, Dmytro asked me to go wash up, and to slam the bathroom door on the way. At the same time, he opened the front door and left. I was still really small, and didn’t understand what he was doing it for. Of course I helped him — he’s my brother. But I didn’t know where he was going. At that time, we had a cat that was usually very quiet, but that night, when Dmytro left, the cat started meowing loudly and scratching at the door. Before he left, Dmytro had left a note for Mom. Our parents woke up and realized Dmytro was gone, and they started calling his phone. My dad said, “If you love your mother, if you don’t want her to worry, come home.”
Dmytro really loves Ukraine — he has since his earliest childhood. He’s very patriotic. [But he ultimately] didn’t go to the Maidan until our parents let him — after everything had settled down a bit. He became a volunteer. I went, too — our whole family was there. He helped deliver firewood and supply food. Dmytro was really happy to have made it there.
Our whole family is very patriotic. We took a Ukrainian flag with us [to the Maidan] — it was all old and shabby. [But after the Maidan Revolution,] we hung it on the balcony like it was the heart of Ukraine itself.
Dmytro definitely didn’t want to return to Poland. He wanted to live in Ukraine, his home, and do everything here. After the Maidan, it became clear he wasn’t going anywhere, and he decided he wanted to join the army. He thought they would either send him to Kyiv or to Kharkiv — somehwere peaceful. But they sent him to Mariupol. In 2015, he joined the National Guard, and he’s been living and serving Mariupol ever since.
He already knew about the Azov regiment when he joined it in 2018. He didn’t hesitate for a moment. I remember him talking about how they didn’t have all of that “I’m a commander, and you're below me” stuff. In Azov, everybody’s like family to each other. If a soldier dies, they salute him and his family and give them a bit of [financial] assistance every year. They’re all like brothers.
To this day, Dmytro says he doesn’t regret [the decision to join Azov] one bit. All of his expectations have been confirmed: Azov is made up of very good people. My brother told me they’re not the kind of people who want to kill. They’re people who want to give back to their motherland — Ukraine.
In our family, we have an understanding: if Dmytro made the decision [to join Azov], he’s confident in it. My mom and I were discussing it before the war started. We’re really glad that he made the decision, that he knew why he was doing it, and that we supported him. After a few years, we started to understand ourselves: we saw how they [the soldiers] treat each other, and how all of the families stay in touch — even the [soldiers’] parents.
The army doesn’t always just mean fighting. Right now, Dmytro is the commander of the [Azov regiment’s] press service. He’s now made the army part of his life just like he made photography part of his life. He didn’t become rude [when he became a soldier], despite the myth that the army roughs you up. Not Dmytro.
‘I know they’ll get out’
[After the start of the war,] Dmytro told us everything was going to be okay: “I love you, boys and girls.” And that was it.
It’s really difficult when people come [into your country] and start killing your brothers and raping your sisters. What else is there to say? It just makes me want to cry. It’s been very hard. I experienced it myself when they were shelling [Kyiv]. You don’t know if you’re still going to be alive from one second to the next.
[During the siege of Azovstal, the soldiers] had somewhat of an Internet connection. You’d write him a message: “How are you, Dmytro? How are things there?” What a dumb question. Every day you’d ask that question, and he’d answer, “Everything’s fine here, don’t worry.” But what else is a brother going to tell his sister? What else is a son going to tell his mom? If he’d started telling Mom the details, she would have lost her mind.
But he told Dad everything. He knew Dad went through basically the same thing in Afghanistan, and he told him about it man-to-man. Dad told me what Dmytro told him, and I tried to keep it together.
Dad told me that [Dmytro] eats once a day — some kind of oatmeal, five spoonfuls or so. The only water they had was for factory use, but they barely even had any of that. Apportioning water that way — in sips — in the 21st century seems so surreal.
[Dad] said they were bombing them really heavily and that [Dmytro] had been injured once. Dmytro said that that was his second birthday. It was very scary and painful.
Quite a few of his friends died there [at Azovstal]. One of his colleagues was there — she and another soldier were planning their wedding. And he was killed.
When you see people dying every day, your friends, a small part of your heart dies too. I’m confident he wrote what he wrote because he got out of Azovstal alive, but he also saw a lot of death there.
He knew that his home, his beloved city [Mariupol], was gone. I understand that I can’t go see him there anymore. When those things sink in, that feeling is a form of death.
We didn’t discuss [the soldiers’ decision to surrender] at all. In the last few days, we only video-chatted a couple times. We decided we wouldn’t touch that topic [war] for a few days. We told him, “Dmytro, you just come home, and we’ll discuss it all with you then. But can we just pretend for a few days that this [war] isn’t happening right now? As if you’re home, and we’re with you, and we’re just talking?”
I did manage to get his advice. I’m currently making t-shirts with his photos printed on them. We were trying to decide which photo would be best, and I immediately thought of [the one showing soldiers under rays of light coming through the destroyed roof of an Azovstal building]. I promised him that when he gets out [of captivity], he’ll be met by thousands [of people] in the shirt. I want to make sure nobody forgets about our heroes, and that Dmytro becomes a super-famous photographer, just like he dreamed of when he was little. And for him to see how many people were waiting for him. He’s getting more popular, and I’m very happy.
I always have faith that help will arrive. Right now, a lot of people are saying our government won’t do anything, but I’m not part of our government. I can’t put myself in their place and decide what I would do. I’m confident they’re doing everything in their power. But there are situations like this one [in Azovstal] where you have to do those things [surrender]. Dmytro and everybody there with him always believed help would come.
But when Dmytro says he has food left for five days, it’s hard to say [whether he should surrender or not]. Crudely put, you’ll either die from a bomb or from starvation. His decision had to be made very pragmatically. It’s really hard not being in touch, not knowing where he is, what he’s doing, whether he’s eaten, all of those things.
What other reaction can you have? We’re trying not to bring up the situation too much because Mom is having a really hard time. Everyone’s thinking about it privately. I know everything will be okay — that he’ll get out [from captivity]. I’m trying to approach it rationally. It’s very hard for Mom, and if I just sit and cry with her, that’s not going to help anything.
We’re supporting each other and waiting for a call, waiting for Dmytro, the sooner the better. I’ve been making the t-shirts, and when he’s released, it’ll make him really happy. We’re trying to keep our thoughts occupied with other things. There’s nothing else we can do. We can’t just go and pick him up, unfortunately.
Translation by Sam Breazeale