In Focus

Families of Ukrainians taken prisoner by Russia desperate for news: ‘Please do not forget them’

The loved ones of some of the thousands of people held incommunicado in Russian-occupied territory or Russia itself, speak to Bel Trew in Kyiv about their fears as the invasion enters its third year

Saturday 02 March 2024 12:51 GMT
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Protests in Sophia Square in Kyiv by families of PoWs for the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion
Protests in Sophia Square in Kyiv by families of PoWs for the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion (Bel Trew)

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Every week Karina checks the latest lists of dead Ukrainian servicemen to see if her brother, a prisoner of war, is included in it.

Her family last spoke to Sasha, a soldier, 31,  two years ago when he was stationed at Azovstal steel plant, the site of the final Ukrainian stand against the Kremlin’s ferocious bombardment of Mariupol, which is now occupied by Russia. The frantic phone call occurred in the desperate closing of the battle. His mother Svetlana, 56 , in tears, says: “He essentially told us I love you and goodbye”.

The only proof of life the family has had since then was a message relayed by a fellow soldier released from Russian captivity last year in a prisoner swap. Sasha had been spotted in detention more than 340 miles (550 kilometres) east in Russia’s Volgograd region, wounded but alive.

He has lost nearly a third of his body weight and the family are worried he is being harmed.

“It is very difficult to keep living if you do not know what is happening to him,” Karina, 25, says, clutching a pre-war photo of him in military uniform next to a Ukrainian flag.

She joined 1,000 people, the vast majority family members of Ukrainian PoWs for a protest in central Kyiv to mark the grim milestone of two years of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The families were demanding answers from anyone about their relatives they fear might ill-treated, wounded or worse.

“We are worried about him. We do not believe reports that they are getting foreign aid and visits from the Red Cross. Russia can torture them, lie, kill them,” Karina says, using the example last month of a downed Russian transport plane last month which Moscow, claimed was carrying 65 Ukrainian PoWs.

The Kremlin, which maintains it looks after Ukrainian captives according to international law, has accused Ukraine of intentionally shooting down the flight – just before an anticipated PoW swap. But Moscow has not released proof of what occurred or the fact that Ukrainians were on board. “We are afraid, everyday we see lists of confirmed dead and check to see his name is on it,” Karina adds.

Karina clutches a photo of brother Sasha, held in Russia, at a protest in Kyiv for Ukrainian POWs
Karina clutches a photo of brother Sasha, held in Russia, at a protest in Kyiv for Ukrainian POWs (Bel Trew)

Standing nearby is Yulia, 28, whose brother Yaroslav was also serving in the Azovstal plant.

She last had proof of life three months ago when the family received a phone call out of the blue from a released Ukrainian soldier who only identified himself by his call sign “Diplomat”. Yulia says the soldier said her brother “was alive and he had seen him in Taganrog in Russia in the spring of 2023”. Then he hung up.

“No one has heard anything about the whereabouts of the Azovstal soldiers this year. We all have no idea if they are still alive,” she tells The Independent.

Two years since Putin’s launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, families across the war-blasted country are still anxiously waiting for any news of their loved ones who are among of estimated 10,000 Ukrainian PoWs believed to be held by Russia.

The number, whereabouts or well being of these soldiers is not known, as rights groups and representatives from organisations are largely barred access, top Ukrainian officials have said.

The Third Geneva Conventions grants the ICRC the right to check on PoWs on both sides wherever they are being held, as well as to collect and compile information about their fate. The ICRC has reported that it has managed to visit 2,400 Ukrainian and Russian PoWs on both sides since 2022. It has repeatedly called for unfettered access to all PoWs in the conflict.

“Not a single Ukrainian POW has seen the ICRC in person in Russian prison

Andriy Yermak, Zelensky’s chief of staff

“To date the ICRC does not have the full access to all PoWs,” The ICRC said in its latest report. “We know many other PoWs and civilian internees are still waiting to receive similar visits and we continue our efforts to access all of them, guided by our humanitarian commitment and our mandate under the Geneva Conventions.”Ukrainian officials have publicly refuted this as tensions have flared. “Not a single PoW has seen a live ICRC representative in person in Russian military prisons,” claimed Andriy Yermak, Ukrainian President Voloydymr Zelensky’s chief of staff and his right-hand man, on Sunday at press conference to discuss the topic in Kyiv.

Ukrainian Human Rights Commissioner, Dmytro Lubinets, echoed this in an interview with The Independent following the meeting.

“I have communication with the ICRC, with their representatives who work in Ukraine - even the head of the ICRC mission in Ukraine,  I know that they want to show that they have access to the places of PoW detention in Russia.

“But of the 3,135 Ukrainian PoWs who have been turned in prisoner swaps, not a single one of them says they were visited by an ICRC staffer,” he claimed.This is refuted by the ICRC.

There are also concerns that some have been mistreated or murdered. In July 2022, Russia  announced that Ukrainian shelling had killed about 50 Ukrainian PoWs held in Russian-controlled Olenvika prison in occupied Donetsk.

But former captives who were in the prison complex at the time, and were later released, told The Independent that the day before the explosion hundreds of Azovstal soldiers were suddenly moved to a warehouse building in a separate part of the complex. That warehouse had not previously been used to house prisoners. It blew up the next day.

Katerina and her mother Svetlana beg for information about their POW brother and son Yaroslav, missing since 2022
Katerina and her mother Svetlana beg for information about their POW brother and son Yaroslav, missing since 2022 (Bel Trew)

Experts analysing photos from the scene say the blast patterns point to an explosion coming from within the building not damage done by an external projectile.

Most recently there are concerns that PoWs have been killed after their capture in Avdiivka, a strategic town in eastern Ukraine, which Ukrainians were forced to withdraw from a week ago.

Ukrainian families have accused Russia of executing Ukrainian prisoners of war. A video posted by Russian military bloggers appeared to show the bodies of six wounded Ukrainians believed to have surrendered at their posts after being encircled. Ukraine says it is investigating. Russia has not commented.

But it’s a grim reminder of the worst nightmare for the families anxiously waiting for news in the Ukrainian capital.

They say they regularly rally to call for the Ukrainian government and its allies, as well as international rights groups to help to get more news.

“I hope the government is doing enough. Western countries should exert more pressure to bring them home,” says Olga whose son is a marine captured in 2022. He was last seen by a released Ukrainian PoW in Bryansk, in western Russia. She does not know where he is now.

“The only thing that is giving me strength is the hope he will return, that all our sons will come home,” she adds. Svetlana, the soldier Sasha’s mother begged in tears for the world to “stand with us and help return our sons”

“This is not a life ,we are not alive. We wait. And when I’m alone I break down,” she says.

Karina says she would do anything for her brother Yaroslav to be brought home .

“If you don’t speak up for our relatives who are in captivity they will be forgotten. Help us,” she adds clutching the photograph of her brother like it is a life buoy.

“If the world does not help us, Russia will simply devour us.”

This story has been updated to amend the number of PoWs by the IRC

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