Conflicts & War

Mothers, wives, sisters of Azovstal fighters demand release of loved ones

By Luis Lidón

Kyiv, Jun 15 (EFE).- Vlada caresses the screen of her cell phone as she reads the last text message she received from her fiancé, Pavel, exactly one month ago.

“I love you very much, don’t worry,” the message, sent on May 16, reads.

Vlada, who prefers not to reveal her surname to Efe, has received no news from her fiancé since then.

Pavel is one of some 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers who were barricaded in the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol for 82 days before they were forced to surrender to Russian forces and transferred to an unknown location.

Vlada is one of the many mothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends who have joined forces to demand the release of the soldiers.

“We want the international community to force Russia to agree to allow the Red Cross access to the place where the prisoners are being held,” she says.

Vlada knows her fiancé was wounded by shrapnel in the legs during the siege. On May 20, an anonymous person reached out to her on social media and told her Pavel had received medical treatment and was doing well.

But Vlada remains skeptical and does not fully believe the claims.

“We don’t know what condition he is in or whether he has actually received medical help,” she tells Efe.

The young Ukrainian woman talks about her life in Mariupol as if it were a distant memory. She worked as a salesclerk and Pavel in construction before joining the army after the Russian invasion.

“We had a good life, everything was very quiet. Mariupol was a modern and beautiful city. Now it’s all destroyed,” she says.

Like Vlada, Natalia has not received any news from her younger brother, Artem, since May 16, when the Ukrainian fighters surrendered to Russian forces.

“We know that Artem is alive, but not how he is, what he is eating, his state of health or how he is being treated,” Natalia tells Efe.

According to the 1949 Geneva Convention, the Red Cross must have immediate access to all prisoners of war. But the charity has been unable to make contact with them.

The Azovstal soldiers have become a symbol of resistance in Ukraine, where they are considered heroes of the brutal Russian occupation of the strategic port city of Mariupol that lasted for months.

“Our soldiers were in our country, in our city, defending it from an external aggression, they are not criminals but heroes,” says Natalia.

Vlada and Natalia fear the soldiers will be put on trial in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) where three foreigners fighting for Ukraine were sentenced to death last week.

“The Russians are very aggressive towards the defenders of Azovstal and we know what has happened to the volunteers,” Vlada says.

Numerous international organizations have denounced the sentencing of two Britons and one Moroccan servicemen and said it is a flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention.

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