Yuriy Olefirenko was a real officer. Those who served with him say: “He belonged to “the old school” being strict and having certain principles: he could take part in combats together with ordinary soldiers and he was not afraid of bullets”. Four years ago, on 16 January 2015, the colonel Olefirenko was killed in Hranitnyi near Mariupol: during the mortar shelling he covered three soldiers with his body to save them, was severely wounded and died on the way to the hospital.
Olefirenko had been a pensioner for a few years already, when the war started in Donbas. He graduated from the faculty of Special Operations Forces of Riazan College of Airborne Troops of the Soviet Union, served in Afghanistan and devoted his entire life to the Ukrainian Special Operations Forces. During Afghan military campaigns the colonel studied Farsi and in 2007-2009 he returned to Kabul as a member of Lithuanian NATO contingent, where one of the tasks he performed was translation.
He was a very experienced officer who voluntarily came to the military commissariat when the war started, so he was appointed the commander of the 42nd battalion of the territory defence in 2014. Yuriy Borysovych was born in Kirovohrad oblast, so he headed the local battalion. The 42nd battalion like other units faced many difficulties that time, but Olefirenko tried very hard to train his subordinates as good as he could. Now, after his death, the soldiers say they have never had a better commander. After the combats for Savur-Mohyla the 1st rank captain headed the 73rd Naval Centre of Special Operations Forces. He was really happy because Special Operations Forces were the passion of his life.
On 2 July 2016 the only midsize landing ship in Ukraine, which was previously called “Kirovohrad” was renamed after Yuriy Olefirenko. Representatives of “Come Back Alive” travelled with the crew of this ship from Odesa to Ochakiv and the story below tells about people who have devoted their lives to sea.
Back to Ochakiv
Nobody is outside at 5 o’clock in the morning in Virmensky lane in Odesa. The seaport is situated not far from here, behind the railroad. There are many different ships there including those saved after the annexation of Crimea: in November 2018 “Nikopol” and “Berdiansk”, small armored artillery boats as well as “Yany Kapu”, a raid tug, were captured by the Russian special operations forces in Crimea. “Yuriy Olefirenko”, a midsize landing ship, which was also captured, is standing now near the legendary “Hetman Sahaidachnyi” frigate.
The sailors call a period of staying in the port “being at anchor”: when they are in the open sea they get 70 UAH premium per day despite their rank, when they are “at anchor”, they just receive normal salary.
On the photo above: “Hetman Sahaidachnyi” Frigate.
“Yuriy Olefirenko” was designed in Poland. In spring 1973 it was called “SDK-137” and was present in the conflict zone of Israel and Egypt. The crew downed an Israeli fighter aircraft F-4 Phantom. It was the only time, when the ship participated in military actions. Since 1996 this landing vessel belongs to the Naval Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. During the illegal annexation of Crimea the Russians captured the ship, but they allowed to transport it to Odesa later. Now Ochakiv near Mykolayiv is the station of the permanent dislocation of “Yuriy Olefirenko”. The main task of the ship is transportation of Marines and their equipment.
Today the crew will travel from Odesa to Ochakiv to collect Marine paratroopers, take them to Dzharylhach island for training and return back to Ochakiv.
I go up the boarding ladder and see a bustle of the sailors on the stern: they are preparing to leave for sea and resemble a beehive. It is my first similar experience, but it is a routine for the crew members: while I am trying to grab things around not to slip and fall down, the sailors are running around the stern, paying no attention to vibration.
“Lady, do not obstruct the way, please. Stay aside, not to collide with anybody”, one of the sailors tells me with irritation and invites me to go to the cabins.
– A woman on board of a ship is a bad sign, isn’t it?
– No, it is a lucky sign. But please move aside and try not to fall down.
Life in the sea
There are almost 45 crew members. Most of them are the sailors who had to leave Crimea. Now the ship is under the command of 30-year-old Viacheslav Statsenko. The captain was born and grew up in Donetsk, married a girl from Crimea, so he knows personally what it means to lose everything.
All is new and interesting for me aboard as I don’t have any relevant experience or education. The sailors are weighing a heavy anchor, one officer is regulating the ship’s movement rather loudly and with swearing. Koliya Sukhyna, 21-year-old senior sailor is trying very hard not to lose his vigilance standing on the captain’s bridge. He is responsible for “eyes” of “Yuriy Olefirenko” ship, he is a signalman.
“It is a visual observation. I report the watch officer about targets, air and naval vessels. In general, I guard”.
Koliya says very enthusiastically that everybody who comes to serve on board of a ship, should perform a ritual: to drink some sea water trying not to stop and not to drop anything.
“You should do it in front of the crew!”, he says. “Just under the flag of the Naval Forces!”
Sukhyna loves sea, but before becoming a sailor and signing a contract, he studied to be an electrician-welder and worked in his hometown of Kaniv at the plant producing mustard. He checked the weight of ready packages.
“Then”, the sailor says, “it was time to serve in the army. I decided to sign a contract and try a career of a military man. Sea always attracted me, but I was not sure whether I would be accepted. I was lucky, and now I am here. And this ship is my second home. To be more precise, it is my first home: I can count the days away from the ship during this year and a half. I have learned a lot being a part of the Naval Forces. They use different words comparing to people ashore or representatives of other types of the Armed Forces. In general, everything is different when you are in the open sea. Sometimes it seems you are a different person here comparing to the one you are ashore”.
24-year-old senior lieutenant Serhiy Miziuk is also different from the one ashore. He says his father had served in the Naval Forces, but he died when Serhiy was less than 5 years old. In 2011 the future officer left his hometown of Kropyvnytsky (ex-Kirovohrad) for Crimea and entered the Academy of the Naval Forces named after P.S. Nakhimov in Sevastopol. He was a third-year-student when the illegal annexation of Crimea took place.
“It all started with a continuous patrolling of the Academy’s territory. We could not imagine that the Russian Federation would go so far”.
The Russians promised the cadets high salaries and good ships, which would travel abroad. According to Serhiy’s words, almost half of his fellow students believed them. Some cadets turned to the side of the Russians on the Academy’s territory.
“Those who did not want to betray Ukraine”, the senior lieutenant says, “just left the line at that moment. I don’t understand now and I did not understand that time those who had not left with us”.
Bohdan Nebylytsia, the commander of a small armoured boat “Nikopol” and Andriy Drach, an employee of the Security Service of Ukraine were also among the cadets, who like Miziuk, left the line. On 25 November last year Nebylytsia, Drach and 22 other Ukrainian sailors were captured by the Russian special operations forces in the Sea of Azov. When the annexation of Crimea began Serhiy, Bohdan and Andriy intentionally sang the anthem of Ukraine, pulled down three-coloured Russian flag and pulled up a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag in the Academy.
On the photo above: the sailors have made a gym on board of a midsize landing ship “Yuriy Olefirenko”.
Minziuk is responsible for the “heart of the ship” of “Yuriy Olefirenko”, as he is the commander of electro-mechanic combat unit. Serhiy and his subordinates start and maintain engines of the only midsize landing ship in Ukraine and make it in a way that it functions now and will continue functioning despite its age (the vessel will be 50 years old in 2021- the Author).
All photos are made by the Author.