IAN BIRRELL: The songbird of Mariupol who’ll fight on till the end

The shaky video picks out the woman leading the singing in the darkness, her clear voice imbuing the patriotic songs with an exquisite beauty that belies the desolation of her surroundings.

For she is singing in a bomb shelter amid the shattered hell of Mariupol, accompanied by a low murmur from a chorus line of men sitting beside her.

Her name is Kateryna. She joined the army last year after her music studies and, at the age of 21, she finds herself fighting for her life as a member of the heroic band of Ukrainian fighters making a desperate last stand in a besieged factory.

Her sublime singing on the extraordinary video – shot somewhere in the warren of tunnels and basements beneath the sprawling Azovstal steel plant on the outskirts of the port city – has become a social media hit in Ukraine.

Her name is Kateryna.  She joined the army last year after her music studies and, at the age of 21, she finds herself fighting for her life as a member of the heroic band of Ukrainian fighters making a desperate last stand in a besieged factory

Her name is Kateryna. She joined the army last year after her music studies and, at the age of 21, she finds herself fighting for her life as a member of the heroic band of Ukrainian fighters making a desperate last stand in a besieged factory

The footage of Kateryna, gun in hand, singing two songs was posted by Nik Mark, another trapped fighter, last Thursday – and she was rapidly acclaimed across the country as Steel Bird after her location and military nickname of Bird.

Yesterday, after the final civilians were evacuated from the plant, leaders of the surrounded Ukraine troops held an online press conference to declare that they would fight to the death against Vladimir Putin’s invading forces.

‘We will continue to fight as long as we are alive to repel the Russian occupiers,’ said captain Svyatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov regiment.

There may be up to 2,000 Ukrainian troops still holed up in the plant. Their resistance has tied down Russian forces and thwarted Putin’s bid to capture the city before today’s Victory Day parade.

It is understood their conditions are atrocious after 74 days of war during which the strategically crucial port on the Sea of ​​Azov has been devastated by bombardment.

There are to be scores of badly wounded men alongside piles of corpses beneath the massive Soviet plant, which back to the 1930s. The fighters, whose resolute defense has been hailed by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, are suffering from acute shortages of food, medicine and munitions.

Kateryna, whose singing has made her a symbol of national defiance, is understood to come from Sosnivka, a small village in the west of the country, where she was a creative student renowned for her love of the arts and positive spirit.

She wrote songs, performed on stage and had poems published in a newspaper. After graduating from the singing department of an art college in the western Ukrainian city of Ternopil, she worked in a motorbike shop in Kyiv before joining the military.

‘We always talked about the stage, art and everyday life,’ says Bohdan Mayuk, one Kateryna’s teachers.

Kateryna, whose singing has made her a symbol of national defiance, is understood to come from Sosnivka, a small village in the west of the country, where she was a creative student renowned for her love of the arts and positive spirit

Kateryna, whose singing has made her a symbol of national defiance, is understood to come from Sosnivka, a small village in the west of the country, where she was a creative student renowned for her love of the arts and positive spirit

‘She left music for another occupation that filled her soul. She could have been using make-up and going on dates but instead chose a machine gun and camouflage. Kateryna is very strong in spirit – a warrior without a drop of fear in her blood.’

Others said she was always fascinated by her nation’s history and human rights, taking part in rallies while living in Kyiv.

‘She was once severely beaten during a rally but she never gives up,’ recalls her friend Valeria Panasyuk.

In the spring of last year, Kateryna told her friend that she planned to join the fight against Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

Having taken a medical course, to avoid alarming her parents she told them she was working in a hospital – but they soon discovered the truth after their daughter reached the front line.

Yet even her closest friends did not realise the severity of her plight until the video emerged last week revealing that she was engaged in one of the war’s bloodiest battles.

‘I was shocked.’ I could not think that she was in Mariupol,’ said Panasyuk. The Kyiv said that all civilians had been government evacuated from the plant’s network of bunkers after the rescue of 300 more women, children and elderly people over the weekend.

Since then Russian forces have continued to try to storm the premises. Conquering Mariupol would give Moscow a land bridge between Crimea, which it illegally annexed in 2014, and the Donbas region.

But the families of the trapped soldiers are pleading for international help. Yulia Fedosiuk, whose husband Arseniy is among the wounded Ukrainian fighters after a fragment of shell pierced his leg, says there are 600 troops in the plant with serious injuries, some of whom had endured crude amputations.

‘One or two fighters die every day. The human bodies rot, and they develop sepsis. And there is simply no medical assistance – the situation is catastrophic. Yes, they had paramedics but many already died. Besides, there is nothing to operate with.’

Fedosiuk adds that the troops are drinking dirty water from the steelworks. ‘Regarding food, they have only grains and noodles,’ she says.

Illia Samoilenko, from the Azov regiment, told the online press conference that they had to fight until the bitter end since there was little hope of escaping to Ukrainian-held land and they feared they would be killed by Russian forces if captured.

‘Surrendering is unacceptable for us. We cannot give such a gift to the Russians,’ said the heavily bearded officer.

The Azov regiment, a volunteer militia formed to fight the Russians after the 2014 invasion, has been dogged by the image of some of its far-Right founders, something seized upon when looking for a scapegoat for his attack.

But it has emerged as one of the most battle-hardened units of the Ukrainian national guard, with two Azovstal defenders claiming their forces in Mariupol have 2,500 Russian soldiers, wounded more than 5,000 and destroyed at least 60 tanks.

Additional reporting: Kate Baklitskaya

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