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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Black Sea, Overboard — How A Ukrainian Special Agent Faced Down Death In Enemy Waters

This is a tale of a Ukrainian special forces operator who wound up surviving 14 hours at sea, staying afloat and dodging Russian air and sea patrols.

photo of open sea with a ship in the distance

The darkness of the Black Sea - something in the distance?

Antonio Sempere/Contacto via ZUMA
Rustem Khalilov and Roksana Kasumova

Updated Oct. 5, 2023 at 2:50 p.m.

KYIV — During a covert operation in the Black Sea, a Ukrainian special agent was thrown overboard and spent the next 14 hours alone at sea, surrounded by enemy forces.

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The agent, who uses the call-sign "Conan," agreed to speak to Ukrainska Pravda, to share the details of nearly being lost forever at sea. He also shared some background on how he arrived in the Ukrainian special forces. Having grown up in a village in a rural territory of Ukraine, Conan describes himself as "a simple guy."

He'd worked in law enforcement, personal security and had a job as a fitness trainer when Russia launched its full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022. That's when he signed up with the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Main Directorate of Intelligence "Artan" battalion. It was nearly 18 months into his service, when Conan faced the most harrowing experience of the war.

Here's his first-hand account...

Lost at sea

In mid-August, we carried out a special operation in the Black Sea. Around 8:30 (p.m.), our boat came under fire from a Russian Su-24 bomber, which is something you see all the time when patrolling the sea. We maneuvered and fired on the enemy plane, forcing it to retreat to the nearest airfield.

We headed back to base at around 5 the next morning. About 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from our initial battle site, the Russian air team returned, and once again, an enemy plane began firing 30-caliber bullets from an automatic cannon.

We retaliated, but our team had already used most of our ammunition.

Our saving grace was having an exceptional skipper who skillfully navigated us out of the danger zone. However, during one of the extreme maneuvers, I was tossed overboard. I found myself around 130 kilometers from the shore, with no way to call for help.

Panic, fear and sadness

My initial emotion was absolute panic. Stranded at a huge distance from the shore with only the dark ocean beneath me, I was taken over by fear.

I fixated on my only reference point in the distance — the constant flame of one of the gas production towers, visible both day and night, approximately 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from where I had entered the water.

I understood that I had to collect my thoughts and adapt to the grim likelihood that no rescue would arrive anytime soon. Enemy planes continued to patrol the skies above, making any approach by a rescue boat impossible. To them, I was a tiny target, and they remained determined to keep vessels away from me.

And so, I began to swim toward that burning tower. The current was strong, but I couldn’t stop swimming not even for a moment.

And so, I swam. All I could think about was trying to survive.

"Around 8:30 (p.m.), our boat came under fire from a Russian Su-24 bomber."


Bad thoughts and hallucinations

My thoughts wandered, I must admit. I told myself that it was possible that nobody was searching for me, as I saw no signs of a rescue party. Or maybe they were looking, but had no way to locate me. I held onto the hope that my comrades were seeking me out and knew that my commanding officer, Viktor Viktorovych Torkotyuk, would leave no stone unturned to secure my rescue.

And I kept on swimming, all while contemplating life and family. I thought about my son, who would soon celebrate his first birthday, and I knew I might not ever see him again.

I was found, and I would live!

I could feel I was getting dehydrated and more and more tired, and even began to hallucinate. I would see a boat ahead, but then realize it was the same tower. Somewhere between 4 and 5 o'clock in the afternoon, I finally reached the tower.

Approaching it too closely wasn't possible due to the intense heat and noise from the burning gas; it sounded like an enemy aircraft overhead. Because of the current, I found myself repeatedly carried away from the tower. This happened several times, forcing me to swim back toward the tower.

You might wonder what's a mere 400 meters? But after swimming for over 10 hours, I was out of strength, and total exhaustion finally overtook me when I was pushed away by the currents for the fourth time. I turned onto my back and fell asleep.

A vessel in the distance

When I awoke, the current had once again put huge distance between me and the tower, forcing me to try to swim back to it. As it started getting dark, I decided I should remove my life vest, and though it was increasingly unlikely that the search party would be able to locate me.

At a certain point, I felt something clawing at my leg. I turned to find a seagull perched on me, with several more circling overhead. It was then that a vessel appeared on the horizon.

It could have been the search party, but it was just as likely an enemy ship, exploiting the cover of aviation to venture into the open sea in pursuit of us?

Seeing the flag

Suddenly, an enemy plane swooped down, firing multiple rounds at the ship approaching me, which then veered in the opposite direction. Knowing now it was probably a Ukrainian vessel gave me new determination: someone nearby was actively searching for me. I pushed on.

As I finally got closer, I could see that it was a small boat — and I spotted the Ukrainian flag. I cannot describe the joy that surged through me in that moment.

On land, the first thing I did was to send a message to my wife.

That was it – I was found, and I would live!

Upon being hoisted onboard, I rushed to embrace my rescuers. The doctor on board had me remove my vest and wetsuit, and I was swiftly wrapped in a thermal blanket, and intravenous drips were administered. My temperature was 35.5 degrees Celsius, which the doctor said was linked to severe dehydration.

The soldier was eventually rescued by a Ukrainian vessel.

Conan/Ukrainska Pravda

Dry ground

The danger though wasn't over. We needed to make a successful retreat to safe territory.

We steered towards a second tower, one closer to the mainland. As we moved behind it, an enemy plane reappeared in the sky. We took cover, waiting for an opportunity. It fired a guided missile at Snake Island. Once the sky cleared, we resumed our course.

It was around midnight when I finally set foot on solid ground, able to step off the boat unassisted.

Thanks to the intravenous drips, my strength gradually returned, and my temperature rose. The doctor told me to sip water in small amounts. On land, the first thing I did was to send a message to my wife. We hadn't been in touch for awhile. I reassured her that everything was fine, that I was in good health. It was only later that I told her the whole story.

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food / travel

Legalizing Moonshine, A Winning Political Stand In Poland

Moonshine, typically known as “bimber” in Poland, may soon be legalized by the incoming government. There is a mix of tradition, politics and economics that makes homemade booze a popular issue to campaign on.

Photo of an empty vodka bottle on the ground in Poland

Bottle of vodka laying on the ground in Poland

Leszek Kostrzewski

WARSAWIt's a question of freedom — and quality. Poland's incoming coalition government is busy negotiating a platform for the coming years. Though there is much that still divides the Left, the liberal-centrist Civic Koalition, and the centrist Third Way partners, there is one area where Poland’s new ruling coalition is nearly unanimous: moonshine.

The slogan for the legalization of moonshine (known in Poland as "bimber") was initially presented by Michał Kołodziejczak, the leader of Agrounia, a left-wing socialist political movement in Poland that has qualified to be part of the incoming Parliament.

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”Formerly so-called moonshine was an important element of our cultural landscape, associated with mystery, breaking norms, and freedom from the state," Kołodziejczak said. "It was a reason to be proud, just like the liqueurs that Poles were famous for in the past.”

The president of Agrounia considered the right to make moonshine as a symbol of "subjectivity" that farmers could enjoy, and admitted with regret that in recent years it had been taken away from citizens. “It's also about a certain kind of freedom, to do whatever you want on your farm," Kołodziejczak adds. "This is subjectivity for the farmer. Therefore, I am in favor of providing farmers with the freedom to consume this alcohol for their own use.”

A similar viewpoint was aired by another Parliament member. “We will stop pretending that Polish farmers do not produce moonshine for their own use, such as for weddings,” the representative said, pointing out the benefits of controlling the quality. “Just like they produce slivovitz, which Poland is famous for. It's high time they did it legally.”

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