The Thorn Birds

What did we need during the war?

Swards, banners, and her songs.

“Marusia Churai” by Lina Kostenko

Azovstal is well-known not only in Ukraine. This steel plant is almost ninety years old. For ninety countries across the world, it has been a top producer of steel, mainly exported to Europe. For Ukrainians, it has become a symbol of resistance and the invincibility of combat spirit. Azovstal became a fortress for Ukrainian troops defending Mariupol at the beginning of the big war. They held the line there for long eighty-seven days.

Bombs, rockets, and missiles were destroying Mariupol.

Day after day, thousands of its residents were becoming victims of Russian aggression in that Ukrainian city on the Azov Sea coast. But the warriors were still holding the line.

News coming from the commanders of the Azov battalion; messages and photos from wounded soldiers, some of whom later died — they all testified they were not about to surrender. Their invincible resistance was becoming a part of every Ukrainian’s story.

Azovstal got stuck in each of us like a piece of metal.

Some things that happened in that hell of endless shelling can be seen only in Hollywood movies. Watch the videos. A young woman is singing to the warriors between the fights on Azovstal. Explosions are banging overhead. She’s singing a popular song: “Sleep all alone.” Her code name is Ptashka — a bird. Here, in the war, she is a military doctor; in her photos, in her previous life, she is a poet and actor.

Hugging her gun, she is singing a rebel song. Men are joining in.

The song is part and parcel of a Ukrainian soul. Everyone needs it as a memory of their kin, as support of combat spirit. There is no Ukrainian soul without song.

She was singing there — supporting us here.

On May 20, after almost three months of confrontation, the Ukrainian military were ordered to stop the defense of Mariupol and leave the site of Azovstal. They were taken to the Russian-controlled territory. We realized later that they were, in fact, ordered to surrender.

Liberation of the Azov fighters from Russian captivity has become a shared national wish. Ptashka symbolized that we had to reclaim our voice because Ukrainian song has always been about bravery, hope, and loyalty to your home country.

In the late afternoon on September 21, for the first time in a long while, social media started to feel like a summertime sea — warm like the Azov Sea that you can safely wade in certain areas. Adrenalin was rushing, wave after wave. The air heated up to the boiling point.

That day, 215 Ukrainian defenders returned from captivity. Ptashka was one of them.

In 1943, the Nazis retreating from Azovstal blew up almost all open-hearth and blast furnaces and coke batteries. They destroyed the electrical grid.

Today, the steel plant is almost completely ruined.

Does this ring any bells?

They started to rebuild the plant in 1944, and as soon as in 1945, steel was already being made there.

And history is known to walk in circles.

The Thorn Birds-1

Author: Svitlana Stretovych, Ukrainian essayist, program director of Litosvita

Translator: Hanna Leliv

Illustrator: Victoria Boyko

Content Editor: Maryna Korchaka

Program Directors: Julia Ovcharenko and Demyan Om Dyakiv Slavitski