Saturday, August 6, 2022

Families of Mariupol heroes being held in Russian prison camps have not heard from them since May

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“I dream of hugging him. I fall asleep imagining he is next to me.” …I speak to the wives of six soldiers who were captured after the siege as they wage their own struggle to discover the fate of their husbands

At the height of the battle for the besieged city of Mariupol, the defenders of Azovstal became a symbol of Ukraine’s national resistance around the world. For almost three months, soldiers held tight in the “hero city”, pushing their way back inch by inch into the industrial complex, where they fought their last stand under apocalyptic fire.

The final days of the siege were followed hourly around the world. But exactly two months after the militants were forced to surrender, many taken by Russia as prisoners of war are still missing.

I set out to speak to the families of missing Azovstal fighters, some of whom said they had “no answer” as to where and how their loved one is being held.

Others fear their heroic efforts are being gradually forgotten during one of the toughest sieges since World War II as the conflict rages on and people “stop sympathizing”.

One appealed to the British government to support efforts to exchange Ukrainian prisoners as soon as possible.

However. Despite the grueling wait and the uncertainty of the situation, all the soldiers’ wives had one thing in common: hope.

Here are the stories of six Azovstal defenders still in Russian hands with no return date in sight.

Yaroslava Ivantsova, 49, said her husband Mykola and their two sons-in-law Dmitry Ishchenko and Alexey Lyashuk were taken as prisoners of war to a camp in Olenivka, located in the Russian-occupied Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.

Ms Ivantsova said she heard from her husband on the day of the surrender when he informed her that they were leaving Azovstal as the supreme commander had ordered the steelworks to lay down their arms after they were surrounded by the Russians.

The Red Cross then called to tell them that he had filled out a questionnaire and had been captured by Russian forces.

“It’s a very difficult situation for us because we realized that when the order was given to leave Azovstal, it was under certain conditions and we don’t know what those were.

“Every day we have this sense of anticipation that we are waiting for [their return] happen which makes it even harder… we live together as a big family and try to call different government agencies for news and if they are on the POW list… It’s hard to describe how we’re feeling right now,” said Ms Ivanstova and spoke through the interpreter Iryna Dreval.

The mother-of-four said she feared for her husband and the husbands of her two daughters as all three were injured defending the steel mill. Mykola and one of her sons-in-law sustained a gunshot wound in the leg, while the other sustained multiple injuries from shrapnel.

“I’m worried about her health,” she added, fearing a lack of X-ray machines and other healthcare facilities to treat the wounds.

Alexey Lyashuk is married to Ms Ivantsova’s eldest daughter, Victoria, 27, with whom he has an eight-year-old son and six-year-old daughter. Dmitry Ishchenko is the husband of their youngest daughter Anastasiia, 22, and they have a three-year-old son.

Ms Ivantsova said she hoped the Ukrainian government would work to exchange the three prisoners, as they would need hospital treatment immediately upon their return. “It has been two months since it happened and the Government has asked us to remain silent and not be hysterical as they claim to be doing everything they can.

“We hope they’ll do whatever they can to help us.” She added that she not only hopes they’ll return — she “sincerely believes in it.”

Speaking of her husband, she said: “He’s the best man in the world, I never get bored with him because he has hobbies like collecting old things, old coins.

“I think he’s a really good husband and a wonderful father and an even more wonderful grandfather. I think he’s the best person in the world.”

She is also proud of her sons-in-law: “They are wonderful husbands to my daughters and they respect me and my husband and I believe they are real heroes – despite all the ordeal they have had to go through, they are real heroes and I love them.” she really.”

Ms Ivantsova appealed to the UK government to facilitate the exchange of prisoners of war, saying she had appealed “to anyone who can help… I am asking you to help so that our relatives can return and receive proper treatment here and we ourselves.” they can meet again.”

Hanna Biliaieva, 27, is the wife of Alexander, who stayed behind to fight in Mariupol and is now being held captive at an undisclosed location in Russian-held territory.

During the siege, the couple only got a chance to speak to each other about 10 times due to poor phone reception, but it still helped her understand the situation and how he and other fellow soldiers were doing.

The freelance illustrator said she was struck by the noble heart of Azovstal’s defenders and described how they struggled to rescue pets who had been abandoned by owners who had fled their homes despite being constantly bombed by the Russians became.

“Despite the fact that they didn’t have enough food, they tried to share it with these pets so they could save them,” she said.

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