This story is part of a series in TW+ magazine on the wide-ranging impacts of the Russia-Ukraine conflict on shipping. Read the full stories when the magazine is published on 20 May.
By early April, communication with the Azburg had become difficult.
The 6,142-gt, 1995-built general cargo ship had been sitting in the Black Sea port of Mariupol since 24 February, the day Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine and bombed the city, injuring 26 people.
As the invasion stretched into months, the city came under siege. The two sides attempted to establish humanitarian corridors, on land and on sea, but those efforts collapsed, if they happened at all. Mariupol was without running water, electricity and food.
One of the country’s two seafarer unions, the Marine Transport Workers’ Trade Union of Ukraine (MTWTU), had lost contact with its agent in the key port city, and the Azburg’s flag state, Dominica, was corresponding with the ship’s shoreside designee once a day or every other day.
“It’s physically not possible to deliver any supplies or goods or anything to help them,” union chairman Oleg Grygoriuk told TW+ on 7 April.
He was speaking for the seafarers of the Azburg and those on board four other ships — the 5,245-dwt Blue Star I (built 2005), 6,830-dwt Lady Augusta (built 1995), 8,975-dwt Azov Concord (built 2008) and 15,968-dwt Smarta (built 2007) — also trapped in Mariupol.
“The whole city is ruined completely. Yesterday, there were heavy fights in the port area,” Grygoriuk said.
Part of that fighting sank the Azburg, which was hit with shells for the first time on 3 April, then again the next day, setting off a fire in the engine room.
One of the 12 Ukrainian crew members was hurt and tended to by Ukrainian forces. The other 11 sought refuge on the four other ships docked in the port.
By the weekend of 9 and 10 April, Dominica officials said the seafarers were being evacuated, but it was unclear by whom.
Further communication elicited that the tide in the fighting in Mariupol had turned: it was Russian forces that were escorting the 12 Ukrainian seafarers and untold others of unknown nationality off their ships and to Donetsk.
By 13 April, Russia claimed to have taken control of Mariupol completely, with Russian state television airing footage of Ukrainian forces surrendering.
In the coming days, though, it would be clear some forces were still holed up in the city’s huge steel plant, refusing to give up.
Donetsk is the capital of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, a breakaway state backed by Russia and Russian separatists. The region is reportedly the site of what Ukrainians are calling “filtration camps” where Ukrainians are sent before deportation to Russia.
Dominica has been able to establish contact with the seafarers, but Russia had been refusing to release them or acknowledge their safety.
“What the Russians are doing is very, very ... it’s hard to understand,” said Eric Dawicki, the deputy maritime administrator for Dominica. “It’s hard to believe that in the 21st century we would be witnessing this type of behaviour.”
Ukrainian crew members make up a key constituency among the global seafaring population.
Grygoriuk said when Covid-19 lockdown measures made it difficult for Indian and Filipino seafarers to work, Ukrainians stepped in to fill those roles.
It also meant those same seafarers were placed in increasingly difficult situations abroad once the war broke out.
In the US, a legal dispute over cargoes kept seven Ukrainians stuck on board a ro-ro while the ship was auctioned and new ownership was worked out.
The men worked on board the 6,705-gt Ocean Force (built 1983), which was arrested in February 2021 in Delaware in a dispute between Odessa-based Primeshipping and charterer CAC Maritime.
By July, the ship, docked in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, had gone to auction but failed to sell.
The second time around, Marshall Islands-registered Alexander Navigation was the successful bidder, with Judge Richard Andrews approving the sale in early March. Alexander Navigation took control of the ship for $500,000 and appeared set to send it to the scrapyard.
But before that could be done, the seven Ukrainian crew members — the longest-serving had been on board since 9 July 2021 — had to be changed. That meant US Customs & Border Protection (CBP) would have had to move the men into a detention centre for an indefinite period for processing.
After lobbying by International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) inspectors and others, the seven were granted special parole, but remained on the ship until 20 April.
“... They’re going to stay in the Ukrainian community for a little while, but they’re going to need to figure out what the ins and outs are of seeking protective status,” said ITF inspector Barbara Shipley.
Shipley was unsure whether the men would go back on another ship, choose to go home or apply for special protective status and stay in the US.
They could have the opportunity to work in the US maritime industry, and Shipley said the Seafarers International Union would support that transition.
Ultimately, even with all the questions surrounding their status, the decision will be up to the men, Grygoriuk said.
“They have this amazing opportunity, let’s say. Nobody will blame them if they [choose to stay in the US],” he added. “Obviously as the nation, the Ukrainian union, we wish that they come back and continue to work aboard our ships or other ships.
“This is an individual decision for each and every individual human being. We easily can support them to find their place in the US.”
But the special parole situation extends only as far as the men on the Ocean Force. Other Ukrainians in similar situations might fare differently.
“Unfortunately, the process still isn’t clear,” Shipley said. “If we have another seafarer that comes in and says, ‘I can’t go home, I haven’t heard from my family, there’s nothing for me, I need to stay’, I wouldn’t know what to do with them. It’s still the process with CBP that they have to put you in the detention centre.”
Grygoriuk said the vast majority of 100,000-plus Ukrainian seafarers want to continue sailing, earning income they can send back to their families.
“I think that 5% to 10% are those seafarers that have military background and they badly want to come back and fight against the aggressor because they know how to do that,” he said.
“If you don’t have the military experience, you’re kind of useless on the battlefield and we don’t have very many warships where our seafarers can use our skills and knowledge.”
The ones that do return to sea can earn US dollars or euros working the world’s commercial ships and send money back home, bolstering the domestic economy battered by Russian aggression.
“It’s the best they can do for their families, themselves and their countries,” Grygoriuk said.
The MTWTU supports a plan to have the Ukrainian government designate seafarers key workers to make joining ships easier.
The plan is opposed by its rival, the Ukrainian Marine Trade Unions Federation, which believes everyone, regardless of profession, should stay and fight.
The ones that do choose to fight are seeing the difficulties their military is facing up close, even as Western powers bolster Ukrainian forces with lethal and non-lethal aid.
“I don’t even know how the union of sailors can help,” one seafarer-turned-soldier told a union inspector, according to correspondence shown to TW+.
“We have problems with uniforms and ammunition, bulletproof vests, helmets. We miss this.”
Returning to sea might create difficult situations on board, too.
Russian and Ukrainian crew members make up more than 14% of the world seafaring population and they often work on ships together.
There have been no reports of issues between the two nationalities on board yet, but death tolls in the war have risen and there have been widespread reports of alleged Russian war crimes.
Grygoriuk said some Ukrainian seafarers could find themselves on a majority-Russian ship or vice versa.
Some Ukrainian officers have told him they might not be kind towards their Russian charges, although he stresses at this point it is all talk.
“It’s easy to say [you’ll be respectful] when you’re on board the ship and you don’t have that much news all the time from back home and you don’t have people who died — friends or relatives who died in Ukraine,” he said.
“This can change significantly if those cases are known to the Ukrainian seafarers aboard the ship. There could be racial aggression if they had tragic information from back home.”