After Russian forces occupied most of Mariupol, members of the Azov Battalion and other Ukrainian fighting forces were holed up in the Azovstal steel plant – their last stand in the besieged city. For their own safety, Ukraine’s government encouraged them to surrender to Russian forces. They were imprisoned for months but recently many were part of a prisoner exchange and now have stories to tell. We hear one of those stories.
In this episode:
- Krzysztof Dzieciolowski, award-winning freelance journalist, film director and founder of Vision House
- Alina Panina, Ukrainian border guard and former prisoner of war
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Full episode transcript:
This transcript was created using AI. It’s been reviewed by humans, but it might contain errors. Please let us know if you have any corrections or questions, our email is TheTake@aljazeera.net.
Halla Mohieddeen: Before we start this episode, we want to invite you to subscribe to our show. Just look for Al Jazeera’s The Take on your favourite podcast app, and we’ll be in your ears three times a week. Thanks.
[THEME MUSIC PLAYING]
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: We spoke to Alina in Kyiv, We began to talk about life.
Halla Mohieddeen: That’s Krzysztof Dzieciolowski, a Polish journalist. He recently met with Alina Panina, a Ukrainian woman who was a prisoner of war.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: And we talked about her dogs, the love of her life.
Halla Mohieddeen: Krzysztof has been working with Al Jazeera for years and his chat with Alina was not his first assignment in Ukraine.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: My history of Ukraine is a pretty long one. I mean, I started going to Ukraine in 2001, 2002.
Halla Mohieddeen: But for this assignment there were no bombs falling, no shots fired. It was just Chris, Alina and the Al Jazeera crew sitting down in a restaurant. And yet the violence and trauma are still hard for him to shake.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: This is still very painful, and I always feel humbled and privileged when I talk to people like that.
Halla Mohieddeen: Soon after the Russian siege on the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, Alina Panina, a Ukrainian border guard and dog trainer was taken prisoner. That was in May. Months later, she was released and spoke with Chris.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: After what she’s gone through, it’s still gonna take probably a lot of time for her to comprehend what actually happened to her.
Halla Mohieddeen: I’m Halla Mohieddeen and this is The Take.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: It feels like the PTSD’s been stabilised.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: She can sleep through the night again, more than a month after she’s been released, but she’s still having flashbacks. She’s still living through what she’s gone through. She’s not probably ready to revisit some of those horrors.
Halla Mohieddeen: When Chris met Alina for the first time. It was a lot like getting together with any acquaintance or even a close friend.
[SOUNDS OF RESTAURANT]
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski Does she want her coffee there?
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: We agreed to a restaurant where we had a quiet corner where we could talk to her. What was striking to me, is that she had a brand new iPhone, that she had a brand new Apple watch,
Halla Mohieddeen: Just days ago, Alina was given a prestigious medal from the Ukrainian military.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: And then in some of the videos that she posted on her Facebook, she was taken to a hairdresser for a massage. It certainly looks like the wellbeing of those prisoners is very much on the top of the agenda.
Halla Mohieddeen: The thing is she had already paid a heavy price.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: Those who went to the depths of hell are now treated with respect. And it appears there is willingness to compensate for the horror they went through.
Halla Mohieddeen: But it’s not just new personal electronics and shiny medals. As Alina sat across from Chris, he also noticed hints of what happened in her recent past.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: She was accompanied by a guy from the border guard unit.
Halla Mohieddeen: A member of the border guard’s press service. Chris was also told Alina was taking anti-anxiety medication. And she was brought to the restaurant from what amounted to a prisoner of war rehab facility.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: And they were undertaking psychological treatment.
Halla Mohieddeen: But how did Alina get out of prison?
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: Well, Alina was part of a larger, POW swap.
Newsreel: It’s the most significant prisoner swap since the war began.
Halla Mohieddeen: Just a year ago, she was living in a small town in the western part of Ukraine. Driving a bus across the Polish border for work and training her dogs.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: But then she got a job on the border with Poland, with her sniffer dog.
Alina Panina (translated): I served in the border guard.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: She had two private dogs that she took with her to the service. She’s a very keen dog trainer.
Halla Mohieddeen: And that was her life. Training dogs, guarding the border.
Halla Mohieddeen: And then she was moved to Mariupol.
Alina Panina (translated): And, at the end of 2021, my fiancé and I moved to Mariupol and I served in the port as part of the Donetsk border guard.
Halla Mohieddeen: Alina and her boyfriend, they had a nice life for a couple of young people. Good jobs, dogs, and love. Then came February 23.
[SOUNDS OF BOMBING]
Alina Panina (translated): And I was on duty in the port and there was a massive shelling bombardment.
[SOUNDS OF BOMBING]
Newsreel: The strategic port city subjected to indiscriminate attack.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: They were taken by surprise. They didn’t know the invasion was just about to happen.
Alina Panina (translated): Russians ships were approaching the port closely. You could say that they were trying to annoy us, playing with us. Ships came close and then sailed back, repeatedly. Then, sometime after lunch, it was 16pm (14:00 GMT). That’s when our chief of department told us we’d be moving to a factory.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: They started to move out of the port and they engaged in a battle, as I understand. They engaged in a battle in different facilities.
Alina Panina (translated): We were holding the Mariupol defences for approximately two months.
Halla Mohieddeen: Over the course of those months, they were moving from factory to factory, using them as improvised bunkers. They tried to push against the Russian forces.
Alina Panina (translated): Our push was not successful. Naturally, it was scary. We were afraid the planes above would drop some kind of bomb if we were moving.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: And then she told me that on April 12, her fiancé moved in a different direction with his unit.
Alina Panina (translated): He was captured.
Halla Mohieddeen: She says her fiancé’s unit saved her life. They saved many lives.
Alina Panina (translated): They basically distracted the enemy. They focused all of the attention on themselves.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: And then they entered the bunkers, the Azovstal steel plant, the barrage of tunnels. And then they were together with the Azov Battalion.
Halla Mohieddeen: And it wasn’t just Azov. Many forces joined them in the tunnels. Why? Because Mariupol is that important, Chris says.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: I was in Mariupol in 2014 and 2015. And it was a hotspot. It is strategically located at the southern-eastern part of Ukraine and it was critical for the Russian military objectives. And I see this war as another chapter of a much longer history.
Halla Mohieddeen: In 2014, the time Chris is talking about, Russia made its first attempt on Mariupol, having just seized the Crimean peninsula.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: And their aspirations or ambitions, were to create the corridor that links mainland Russia with Crimea and Mariupol is strategically positioned just Right there in the middle, so, it came as no surprise to all of us that, that Russians tried to capture this town very early on during the war.
Halla Mohieddeen: So now, Alina was there, hiding out in the Azovstal steel plant with all these other Ukrainian armed forces. They became the Russian target.
Newsreel: And for the past few days, it’s been the scene of heavy fighting as Russian forces tried to capture the last pocket of resistance in this strategically important city.
Alina Panina (translated): That factory was fired upon with everything they had. It was aviation, rockets launched from the sea, tanks. Later, the infantry arrived.
Halla Mohieddeen: What was already a bad situation got worse. The steel plant was in ruins. Alina was living underneath. The actual plant was too bombed out.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: She was telling me initially they had two sources of water. They had drinking water and they had industrial water. Halfway through, the drinkable water just came to an end. And then all they had left was this industrial leakage that was available for them to drink. She saw a lot of dead bodies, a lot of dead bodies of her work colleagues, from the border guard unit. The conditions were absolutely dire.
[UKRAINE NATIONAL ANTHEM PLAYING]
Halla Mohieddeen: But their patriotism stood strong. There is a video with Alina and the others singing Ukraine’s national anthem, her hand on her heart and her dog Sonya tucked under her arm.
Alina Panina (translated): And as the infantry was moving in, it was reducing our numbers.
Halla Mohieddeen: And that’s when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stepped in.
Alina Panina (translated): And an order from the President of Ukraine was given, that we have to become prisoners, to save our own lives.
Newsreel: These fighters from the Azov Battalion attempted to defend the steel plant in Mariupol and prevent Russian soldiers from completely taking over the port city, but outnumbered and overpowered, Ukraine says its mission to defend the plant is over.
Alina Panina (translated): He accepted the Geneva Convention and according to its rules we were taken prisoner.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: And so Alina was one of the very first few people who came out of those dungeons into the light.
Alina Panina (translated): I was in the first group. We had 30 people from the border guard and 30 people from Azov. Everybody went out in different groups. We went out to a bridge. That’s where the enemies were. And they were armed, and holding their position.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: And she recalled that she felt completely powerless and then helpless. All of a sudden, she didn’t have a gun.
Alina Panina (translated): And there we were walking out there with only our personal belongings, those who had them. Some of us didn’t even have that.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: She left the bunker, along with her dog Sonya. She was freaking out. It’s gonna be an execution, she felt. This is the end of it.
Alina Panina (translated): It was scary, because you’re going without the armoured vest, helmet, without your weapon, you have nothing. And as you go, the enemy has its gun on you. And it’s not only one enemy, there were so many of them. You don’t know if you’re going to be captured or they can just shoot you right there on the spot if they don’t like something. It was scary.
Halla Mohieddeen: There’s footage of Alina walking out..
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: And then we can see Alina in a red t-shirt.
Alina Panina (Translated): They checked us
Halla Mohieddeen: But not Sonya. Sonya stayed behind.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: Her dog was taken away from her, and then she was presenting all her belongings to Russian soldiers like everybody else.
Alina Panina (translated): They put us on buses and took us to Olenivka.
Halla Mohieddeen: It was one of the hardest things that had ever happened to her. But now, talking about it, she seems resigned.
Alina Panina (translated): It was scary. It’s life.
Halla Mohieddeen: What was life like serving months as a Russian prisoner of war? That’s after the break.
Halla Mohieddeen: After the Russian siege of Mariupol, Alina Panina, a Ukrainian border guard and dog trainer, was taken prisoner of war. Several months later, she was released as part of a prisoner swap and she told Al Jazeera producer Krzysztof Dzieciolowski what happened when they surrendered to Russian forces.
Alina Panina (translated): When we entered the territory, women and men were split up.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: Where did the Russians take you then?
Alina Panina (translated): The guys were in the two story barracks without bars, with normal windows and beds with metal springs, just like in the army. The women were placed in one room, like in a jail. The room had bars on the windows and six shelves with a wooden bed bolted to the wall. There were 28 people in the room.
Halla Mohieddeen: Other accounts have it at four beds but still 28 people in a room. Chris asked how they were able to sleep like that.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: How did you live there?
Alina Panina (Translated): Two women could sleep on a shelf at once, all of the rest just slept on the floor.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: Where did you sleep?
Alina Panina (translated): On the floor.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: Were you interrogated by the Russians?
Alina Panina (translated): Yes
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: Were you tortured?
Alina Panina (translated): They did lots of different things to us. They would exert psychological pressure. They would swear at us. They did other things, I can not describe them.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: Can you explain any more?
Alina Panina (translated): No, I can’t.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: Just generally?
Alina Panina (translated): In general terms, we had different experiences. The girls had a different experience than the men. But I don’t like going into detail on this.
Newsreel: Despite Russian denials, others have claimed torture was commonplace.
Halla Mohieddeen: Chris has been a journalist for years. He’s covered wars and many other traumas, but he found it difficult to hear Alina talk about her experiences, and to see the very real impact her incarceration continues to have on her to this day.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: Later after the interview, in the car, she told me that she didn’t wanna break down. She didn’t wanna come across as a crying woman. No, I mean, she felt it was important not to get teary, not to cry. She had a story to tell, but for a number of different reasons, also for security reasons, for the safety of her own boyfriend, she didn’t want to reveal too much. She also felt that if she’s gonna say too much, that may backfire on those who are still in captivity. So, it’s a very sensitive interview and what you put on air is also very sensitive because you can see how much this kind of an interview can have a butterfly effect on many other lives, on lives of many or other people. I mean, she’s been to hell and she’s out of hell.
Halla Mohieddeen: But there are things she did say.
Alina Panina (translated): I was scared, because you’re afraid you just won’t go home to the people you’re closest to. You’re afraid of not seeing them or hearing them. Of course, I was scared. Everyday there felt like a week.
Alina Panina (translated): I will tell you that there are humans and there are not-humans. Even in captivity, some show mercy toward you, try to help with something, bring soap for example or speak without aggression. And some don’t treat men and women differently. They treat you equally. We’re not killers. We were defending our land, defending our home and our people. We did not come to them, they came to us. And we were imprisoned because we stood for what’s ours.
Halla Mohieddeen: At the end of July, there was an explosion at that detention facility.
Newsreel: Dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war were killed.
Halla Mohieddeen: Dozens were killed. Russia says it was caused by Ukrainian missiles. Ukraine, Alina and satellite imagery indicate it came from inside the facility.
Alina Panina (translated): We heard screams and dogs barking. But we didn’t see anything, because we only had these two small windows. The next day, wounded were brought to us, into our building. The guys who were wounded in that place and then the women tried to treat the wounds.
Halla Mohieddeen: Zelenzkyy says it was the deliberate mass murder of prisoners of war.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: Once she told me the most important phone call she could make from prison was a call home, so she rang her mum just to say she was okay. She knew that the phone was tapped and the Russians were listening to the whole conversation. So all she had to say is just that she’s fine. And she was reassuring her mother. I’m gonna be back home. And for her, the most soothing experience was calling her mother.
Halla Mohieddeen: But, throughout the dark days of her seven month long captivity, she told Chris she never lost faith.
Alina Panina (translated): We knew that Ukraine wouldn’t abandon us. Of course, we also knew we had to go through that complicated period, and we had to persevere. We always said we’re strong, we can do it, our relatives are waiting for us back home and for the sake of them you can do this, you can face all of the challenges. And we did it and thank god we were returned to Ukraine.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: Do you remember the prisoner swap day?
Alina Panina (translated): On the October 1, we were taken into Russia itself. To a high-security prison.
Halla Mohieddeen: Alina says they were taken on a plane, but not directly. There was stop after stop.
Alina Panina (translated): We didn’t really understand where we were going. They just sat us on a truck, covered us with a tent and drove us. And we started seeing signs like “Kherson”, and ”Melitopol,” then we realised we were moving in the direction of Zaporizhya, into the grey area, where the prisoner swaps are done. It was amazing to see our cars, when they were driving us over the bridge. You sit there, looking at our Ukrainian cars driving. Girls were crying and laughing, singing the national anthem. There was one moment, when their military was standing on our right and we were passing by, all the girls were passing by, and their military couldn’t even look us in the eyes. They just lowered their eyes to the ground and that’s it. It means that Ukrainian girls are stronger than their men. Girls stood through it.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: How did you feel on that day?
Alina Panina (translated): The first thing I wanted to do is to call my home, hear mom and tell her that I’m home and in Ukraine. Just to hear my parents’ voices, my relatives’ voices. This is the most important thing that you have, you cherish it and you will go for it and fight for it.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: What happened to your fiancé?
Alina Panina (translated): He’s been imprisoned since April 12. He hasn’t called once. He’s on the list. His capture was confirmed, but I don’t know where he is.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: He’s still captured?
Alina Panina (translated): Yes.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: No connection with him?
Alina Panina (translated): Nothing.
Halla Mohieddeen: And it’s not just her fiancé she’s missing now.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: Her dogs were taken away by the Russians, during one of the transfers. As she’s learned, the dogs are now working as sniffer dogs for the Russians in Donetsk.
Halla Mohieddeen: And the Russians are asking for a ransom to be paid.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: She’s currently actively pursuing an option of recovering her dogs.
Halla Mohieddeen: And her plan now she says.
Alina Panina (translated): First of all, to take back all of our boys from captivity. Then, to take back my dogs that were taken from me by the Russians. But, I like this job, no matter what happens or what I go through, I still want to stay in the service.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: They’re gonna be taken to another place. Like a health spa somewhere they’re in the mountains where they’re gonna undertake another month of treatment.
Halla Mohieddeen: So, it’s not over yet, and the war is not over yet either. She hopes that some political solution can be reached, but those hopes are dwindling, she admits.
Alina Panina (translated): With so much blood spilled and people killed, it will never be the same again.
Halla Mohieddeen: Chris says her release shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the end of the war is nigh.
Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski: I don’t think that the end of the war is coming anytime soon. But I’m not a future storyteller in that sense. And in all fairness, back on February 23, many of us and the journalists didn’t think that a war of such a scale was going to unfold in the eastern corner of Europe. So, how can I tell whether the war’s gonna come to an end or not? So, let’s see through the winter. I mean, there are many parts to this puzzle, so fingers crossed for peace. But a prisoner swap is not a sign of peace yet, in my mind.
Halla Mohieddeen: Whatever happens, Alina says there is not a person who left captivity with her who is not using sedatives and sleeping pills. And there are many, many people, including her fiancé, even her dog, who are still being held prisoner today.
Alina Panina (translated): I think that we’ll never have it as before, when Russians and Ukrainians were, as they used to say, one people. The attitude that people have now is different. It won’t be forgotten in a year or two, what Russia did here.
Halla Mohieddeen: And that’s The Take. This episode was produced by Amy Walters with Chloe K. Li, Negin Owliaei, Ashish Malhotra, Alexandra Locke, Ruby Zaman, and me, Halla Mohieddeen. Our sound designer is Alex Roldan. Our engagement producers are Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad and our head of audio is Ney Alvarez. We’ll be back.
This episode was produced by Amy Walters with Chloe K. Li and our host, Halla Mohieddeen. Ruby Zaman fact-checked this episode. Our production team includes Chloe K. Li, Alexandra Locke, Ashish Malhotra, Negin Owliaei, Amy Walters, and Ruby Zaman. Our sound designer is Alex Roldan. Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad are our engagement producers. Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio.