‘Miracle’ of Azovstal’s ‘ray of light’ photo after mother dreamt of sign her son was alive

EXCLUSIVE: The ‘miracle’ of Azovstal’s iconic ‘ray of light’ photo: Mother of Ukrainian soldier tells how she dreamt she would get a sign her son was alive… days before image of hope emerged

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When Iryna Yurchenko saw a photograph of her son bathed in a beam of sunlight shining through the shattered roof of Mariupol‘s Azovstal steelworks she felt hope for the first time in months.

For more than 80 days, Dima Kozatsky had documented the struggle of his elite Azov Regiment in a series of pictures tweeted from their underground redoubt as they fought a desperate rearguard action against overwhelming odds.

But it was his dramatic final post before surrendering to Russian forces last week that had the greatest impact.

To the world at large the iconic ‘ray of hope’ image was an uplifting symbol of the indefatigability of the Ukrainian resistance but for Mrs Yurchenko it was an answer to her prayers.

Just days before the picture surfaced, the 50-year-old had dreamt that she would be shown a sign that her son and his comrades would survive their ordeal.

The very next morning, she sent the 26-year-old Mr Kozatsky an emotional video message.

Iryna Yurchenko poses with a photo taken by her son Dima Kozatsky, one of the defining images of the war

Iryna Yurchenko poses with a photo taken by her son Dima Kozatsky, one of the defining images of the war

The iconic 'ray of hope' image was an uplifting symbol of the indefatigability of the Ukrainian resistance

The iconic ‘ray of hope’ image was an uplifting symbol of the indefatigability of the Ukrainian resistance

Dima Kozatsky (pictured) had documented the struggle of his elite Azov Regiment in a series of pictures tweeted from their underground redoubt

Dima Kozatsky (pictured) had documented the struggle of his elite Azov Regiment in a series of pictures tweeted from their underground redoubt

‘My son, please, hold on,’ she told him. ‘Hold on. I was very stressed yesterday, but this morning I feel differently. I understand that there will be a way out.’

Mrs Yurchenko, despite not being overtly religious, added: ‘God will save you, he will protect you. I believe that you’ll be rescued. I am certain in my heart of our meeting. I love all of you, and I will see you soon.’

Kozatsky was so struck by his mother’s words that he shared the message with his fellow soldiers in a bid to raise morale when spirits were at a low ebb.

Just days later his photograph was released to the world – and within a week Ukraine had negotiated a safe passage out for the troops.

‘That photograph was a miracle – it was a ray of hope for me,’ Mrs Yurchenko tells the Mail from a cafe in Kyiv.

‘I just felt hope for the first time,’ she says, affectionately stroking a print of her son’s famous picture.

is pictured the last time he saw his family at New Year 2022 alongside his mother Iryna and sister

Kozatsky is pictured the last time he saw his family at New Year 2022 alongside his mother Iryna and sister

Just days before the picture surfaced, Kozatsky's mother had dreamt that she would be shown a sign that her son and his comrades would survive their ordeal

Just days before the picture surfaced, Kozatsky’s mother had dreamt that she would be shown a sign that her son and his comrades would survive their ordeal

But with the ultimate fate of the Azov Regiment still unknown following their surrender to the Russians, the mother-of-two urges caution.

‘For me, I will not believe the miracle is complete until my son is at home in my arms,’ she says.

Volodymyr Zelensky’s regime has suggested it could bring them back in a prisoner swap, but some Russian politicians have called for the battalion to be put on trial and executed.

The country has been whipped into a frenzy by Kremlin propaganda that characterises the men as neo-Nazis but Mrs Yurchenko claims nothing could be further from the truth.

Mr Kozatsky never wanted to be a soldier, she insists. From a young age he was obsessed with botany and loved nothing more than to make his adoring mother elaborate floral bouquets.

The creative middle-class boy dreamed of becoming a photographer one day but first went to university to study IT in Poland with a view to pursuing a more stable career.

He hosted a radio show in his spare time and was on course for a top degree – until he witnessed his friends being beaten on the streets of Kyiv during the Maidan Revolution against the pro-Russian regime of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.

From a young age Kozatsky was obsessed with botany and loved nothing more than to make his adoring mother elaborate floral bouquets
From a young age Kozatsky was obsessed with botany and loved nothing more than to make his adoring mother elaborate floral bouquets

From a young age Kozatsky was obsessed with botany and loved nothing more than to make his adoring mother elaborate floral bouquets

Mr Kozatsky dropped out of university to join in the revolution despite desperate pleas from his mother and father

Mr Kozatsky dropped out of university to join in the revolution despite desperate pleas from his mother and father

‘That changed him,’ his mother says. ‘I watched him transform from a joyful young boy into a serious man over the next year.’

Mr Kozatsky dropped out of university to join in the revolution despite desperate pleas from his mother and father, Yuri, 58, to complete his studies.

The following year he joined the army and eventually, in 2017, the Azov Battalion.

‘Of course it was hard, but I supported him in joining the army,’ says his mother. ‘It was his decision to make.’

He joined the Azov Battalion because he said they were more like a band of brothers than a military unit.

‘He enjoyed the fact that nobody was above anybody. He loved the camaraderie, and he loved Mariupol.’

As tensions mounted with Russia last winter, Mr Kozatsky spent New Year with his parents and sister Daria, 18, at Mrs Yurchenko’s home in the city of Malyn, north west of Kyiv.

Mr Kozatsky spent New Year (pictured) with his parents and sister Daria, 18, at Mrs Yurchenko's home in the city of Malyn, north west of Kyiv

Mr Kozatsky spent New Year (pictured) with his parents and sister Daria, 18, at Mrs Yurchenko’s home in the city of Malyn, north west of Kyiv

It would be the last time his family saw him.

After Russian tanks rolled over the border on February 24, the full force of the invading army piled into Mariupol, flattening the newly renovated city and, according to local officials, killing an estimated 21,000 civilians.

‘Many times I thought he was gone,’ says Mrs Yurchenko, fighting back tears. ‘If he did not reply to me for several days I was sure he was dead.

‘Then he would appear online and say, ‘I am alive’, and I would feel such relief.’

Mrs Kozatsky would keep herself occupied helping to evacuate civilians form Kyiv in her role as a train conductor.

But it became almost impossible for her to focus when the Azov Battalion went underground on April 16 in preparation for their last stand.

The creative middle-class boy dreamed of becoming a photographer one day but first went to university to study IT in Poland

The creative middle-class boy dreamed of becoming a photographer one day but first went to university to study IT in Poland

‘To hear the Russian propaganda every day, what they wanted to do to the Azovs, and knowing all of these boys – all of their mothers – it was so distressing.

‘You are a military mother so you have to stay strong for them but it was so hard. Dima would try and act like it was fine, but as his mother I could feel his despair.

‘I could see the videos and reports of what their conditions were really like.’

After the photo gave her hope, she was buoyed further by their peaceful surrender to the enemy.

It was still not clear whether Kozatsky was one of the ones who made it out, until he managed to call her very briefly last week saying simply: ‘Mum, I am alive’.

‘I now feel a bit better, after they left the steelworks, because the conditions were so horrible,’ she says. ‘But me and the other mothers cannot rest.

‘We have to believe – and ask that the world does not stop supporting them until their eventual liberation.’

But she remains mystified by Moscow’s decision to invade: ‘I have one question for them: ‘Why?’ Why have they treated us this way? For what reason? We are here on our land, we want to live here. It is so painful and unpleasant what they have done.’

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