Exclusive'I would give up everything just to know that he's alive'

With loved ones in Russian camps, Ukrainian women fight to bring them home

Fiancées and mothers tell The Times of Israel they don’t know if Azovstal POWs are alive, and feel abandoned by Red Cross and government; ask Kyiv rabbi to petition Israel for help

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Vlada (L) and Ludmilla speak to The Times of Israel in Kyiv, August 4, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
Vlada (L) and Ludmilla speak to The Times of Israel in Kyiv, August 4, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

KYIV, Ukraine — Tatiana wanted just a little more time with her son.

It was February 24, the first day of the war in Ukraine. She knew that her only son, who had been in the army for the past three and a half years, would be among the tens of thousands of Ukrainian men heading off to fight the Russian invaders.

But Tatiana didn’t want him to go just yet.

“Wait till I get home from work,” she pleaded, before driving to the Mariupol lab where she works as a cleaner.

But Tatiana’s son, whose name she withheld over concerns for his safety, was eager to get to the front. A half-hour later he was outside her office to say goodbye. “I gave him my blessing, and I just ordered him to come back home alive,” Tatiana, 48, told The Times of Israel on Thursday.

Tatiana, a single mother, saw her son the next day as well. He was serving near Mariupol, and asked her to bring some missing gear from his bedroom.

“I brought him what he asked for, and I brought them other sweets and stuff like Snickers bars,” she recounted. “Also, my mother recently passed away from cancer, so we had a lot of painkillers and useful medicine. So I just packed it all up and brought it to them.”

The coastal city’s cellular towers remained standing until early March, so Tatiana was able to speak to her son by phone for the first weeks of the war. After Mariupolites lost reliable cellular service, she received one short text message from her son telling her that he is alive, but nothing further.

People sit around a lamp in a bomb shelter in Mariupol, Ukraine, Sunday, March 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Tatiana would eventually get in contact with her son, only to lose him again. Today, she is one of a troop of mothers, wives, fianceès, sisters and other women fighting for any information about the fates of their loved ones, and for them to be brought home. The women say their own leaders and the international community have abandoned them and their loved ones, most of whom are thought to be in Russian hands, if they are alive at all.

In the early days of the war, before Maruipol was decimated by Russian shelling, Tatiana was determined to remain in her hometown. Having just lost her mother, and her only son engaged in the desperate defense of the city against the Russian advance, Tatiana was not about to leave her ailing 72-year-old father behind.

And she was desperate for any sort of contact with her son. Tatiana spent her days walking through the besieged city clutching his photo, approaching any Ukrainian soldiers she came across. “I would show them the photo, and a lot of people would have seen him.”

As Russian forces closed in, intensifying their bombardment, Tatiana continued her lonely walks in her son’s footsteps, chasing his shadow through the shattered city.

Tragedy followed tragedy for Tatiana, in a city overflowing with them. On March 28, Mariupol’s mayor announced that the city was “in the hands of the occupiers.” Three days later, her father suddenly passed away.

A Ukrainian serviceman guards his position in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 12, 2022. (Mstyslav Chernov/AP)

“We don’t even know what happened to him,” Tatiana said. “We had no access to doctors or anything, but it was probably the stress of constant projectile and artillery fire around us at all times.”

“At eight in the morning, I buried him in the cemetery with my neighbors.”

Seventy-two hours later, while she was still in the early stages of mourning her father, Grad missiles destroyed Tatiana’s home, leaving the emotionally scarred mother lightly injured physically. Tatiana moved to a friend’s basement, grieving her mounting losses, but still emerged to walk the city. The Ukrainian defenders had been replaced by Russian occupiers, but they could still be valuable sources of information.

“I would approach them constantly, but I would approach them with different questions,” said Tatiana. “I would ask anything about news, because we were living in an information vacuum. There was no information. We didn’t know what was happening.  So I would talk to them frequently.”

The Russian soldiers were respectful, she said, and would even offer her food.

In early May, with no sign of life from her son, Tatiana decided to leave. Once again, she found herself walking. Carrying a backpack with five days’ worth of food, her son’s medals, and a lifetime’s worth of grief,  Tatiana left Mariupol behind.

Russian soldiers walks along a street in Mariupol on April 12, 2022, as Russian troops intensify a campaign to take the strategic port city. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP)

On May 9, she finally made it to Russian-occupied Berdiansk. On May 22, while trying to figure out a way to Ukrainian-held territory, she received a phone call.

It was her son.

“He said, ‘Hey mom, I was captured by Russians, but I’m okay,'” Tatiana recounted. “That was the first time I knew that he was alive.”

They spoke twice more, short conversations on May 30 and again on June 13. “But I didn’t like the one we had on the 13th of June, because it seemed like something was off, as if he was forced to call me and they were just checking or expecting some information.”

“He knew exactly where he was,” she continued. “Every time he would say he was in Olenivka.”

The explosion

In the morning of July 29, on the outskirts of the occupied Ukrainian village of Olenivka, a blast tore through a separatist-run POW camp, killing at least 50 Ukrainian prisoners and wounding many more.

A destroyed barrack at a prison in Olenivka, in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces, in eastern Ukraine, July 29, 2022. (screenshot, AP Photo)

Media footage showed charred, twisted bed frames in the wrecked barracks, as well as burned bodies and metal sheets hanging from the destroyed roof. The videos also included bodies lined up on the ground next to a barbed-wire fence and an array of what was claimed to be metal rocket fragments on a wooden bench.

Denis Pushilin, the leader of the internationally unrecognized Donetsk republic, said the prison held 193 inmates. He did not specify how many were Ukrainian POWs. Ukraine and Russia blame each other for the attack.

Vlada, 31, believes her fiancé Pavel was also in Olenivka.

Pavel enlisted in the regular army on the third day of the invasion. Vlada, a Mariupol native, sheltered with relatives in the city while trying to figure out a way to get in touch with him. On March 6, Pavel showed up at the house, and asked her to move to the basement of a nearby hospital to avoid Russian shells.

Vlada speaks to The Times of Israel in Kyiv, August 4, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Volunteers delivered food and medicine for the first three days, then were forced to stop because of the bombardment. The military took over the deliveries, and Pavel managed to join the forces supplying the hospital shelter. At the same time, local volunteers were constantly bringing bodies into the morgue at the hospital, and would share the names of those killed in the fighting.

“So every time I could see him, it was just such a relief,” Vlada told The Times of Israel. They were able to meet up twice in the hospital.

On March 16th, Vlada decided she had to leave the city, and her fiancé, behind, even though Pavel had warned her that convoys out of the city were being targeted by Russian forces. She and a local family piled into two cars and began driving out of the city. They drove over a rise, and found themselves facing two tanks.

The Russians opened fire. The lead car was struck in the wheels and engine, but none of the passengers were hurt. The drivers took cover on the far side of the hill, and all 11 passengers – 6 adults and 5 children –  climbed into the unscathed car. They drove off in the opposite direction, passing the Donetsk Regional Drama Theater in Mariupol. Two hours later, Russia bombed the theater, killing up to 600 civilians sheltering in the building.

The bombed Mariupol theater in Ukraine on March 16, 2022. (Screen capture: @Mariupolnow)

Once Vlada left the city, she was able to get cellular reception again. “I called my brother. I thought that everything is behind us. And then he told me that all the area from Crimea to Mariupol is under occupation right now. I was shocked to find that out, because I was without a connection for only  10 days. And in that 10 days, they were able to cover so much territory.”

After going through over 20 Russian checkpoints, Vlada finally made it to safety in Zaporizhzhia.

The last time she spoke with her fiancé was on May 16, the day that over 260  soldiers holding out in the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol — Pavel included — surrendered to the Russians and went into captivity. Thousands more followed in the ensuing days.

Ukrainian servicemen sit in a bus after leaving Mariupol’s besieged Azovstal steel plant, near a penal colony, in Olyonivka, in territory under the government of the Donetsk People’s Republic, eastern Ukraine, Friday, May 20, 2022. (AP Photo)

Three days later, she was contacted anonymously, and told Pavel was alive and well, but nothing more.

“From the information we have, the most probable location where he was was also in Olenivka, but we don’t know,” said Vlada.

‘We formed a community’

The women say they feel abandoned.

They are consistently critical of the international organizations whose mission is ostensibly to ensure that the treatment of POWs is in line with international law.

“It’s easy to be a well-respected world organization that is sponsored by many countries, such as Red Cross or United Nations,” said Ludmilla, 37, whose older brother Yuri was also among the troops defending the Azovstal plant. “But when it’s crucial for them to be active, it’s during situations like this. Right now, this is when we need them the most.”

In this image provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross, a Red Cross official waves a white flag while approaching the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, Ukraine, Sunday, May 1, 2022. (International Committee of the Red Cross via AP)

When Ludmilla heard from members of her brother’s unit that he had chosen to stay and defend Mariupol instead of escape, she decided to go find him. She made it to Zaporizhzhia, but couldn’t find a driver to take her to Azovstal.

Unlike the others, Ludmilla has the comfort of knowing that Yuri was likely transferred from Olenivka to another Luhansk POW camp before the explosion. “But we don’t know for sure.”

Most of what these organizations do is collect endless data from the women, the women lamented. “So we’ll we just file forms, many, many forms.”

“We’re constantly writing to donors of the International Red Cross with statements that they’re not actually fulfilling what they were promising to fulfill,” Tatiana added.

“And the United Nations as well,” she continued. “The United Nations doesn’t seem to be doing its work at the moment.”

Ludmilla speaks to The Times of Israel in Kyiv, August 4, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

The 1949 Third Geneva Convention on POWs strengthened and made universal existing protections for captured soldiers, especially against violence and reprisals. They also must be given the ability to correspond with the outside world, and to register with the ICRC’s Central Tracing Agency.

The Geneva Convention gives the ICRC the right to visit POWs wherever they are being held and to interview them privately to ensure their rights are being upheld.

A spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross stressed to The Times of Israel that “we understand what the families are going through right now, and we are in touch with them and are with them in this distressing moment.”

“We will not rest until we have access to all people deprived of their liberty in this armed conflict,” said ICRC director general Robert Mardini in a statement. “Access to just some is simply not good enough. And we will not rest until their loved ones get the answers they need and deserve.”

In March, the ICRC established a dedicated bureau of its Central Tracing Agency to track the locations of POWs and refugees. According to the ICRC, they have provided over 2,000 families, including those of POWs, with information about the whereabouts of their loved ones.

Volunteers of Ukrainian Red Cross emergency move a wounded man to an ambulance to transport him from one hospital to another, in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, Aug. 9, 2022. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

The women aren’t satisfied with what the Ukrainian government is doing either.

“There is communication,” Vlada explained. “They’re trying to offer us services, psychological help and stuff like that.”

“But we’re not hearing what we want to hear,” she continued. “The only thing we want to hear is what is their health condition? Are they alive? Do they need medical treatment? Are they getting everything they need? Where are they being held? And we want to hear their voices most of all. And the biggest thing we want to hear is he’s added to the exchange list and will be here shortly.”

In a briefing with reporters in Kyiv last Thursday, the parliament’s human rights commissioner Dmytro Lubinets said that he continues “to demand access to the site of the tragedy in Olenivka, involving as mediators international organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Committee of the Red Cross in Ukraine and the United Nations, as well as communicating with the Russian side.”

His office has also set up a hotline and center in Kyiv for relatives of POWs.

“None of the help you would expect has been coming from the direction of the military or the government,” concurred Yana Skrotskaya, 29, whose fiancé Volodymyr defended Azovstal with the 36th Marine Brigade.

Yana, who sat with The Times of Israel in an outdoor cafe in central Kyiv on Wednesday, last spoke to her fiancé on May 17, hours before he surrendered to the Russians. He told her not to worry, that everything would work out. “We don’t have information about where he is, his health condition, nothing.”

Feeling left behind by those they expected to lead the effort,  the women banded together to try to free their loved ones. They had already created a network around efforts to pressure Ukraine and foreign governments to find a way to save the lives of the soldiers trapped in Azovstal.

“We started talking with the wives and families of the soldiers that were there,” said Yana. “We formed a community.”

Yana, whose fiance is a POW in Russian captivity, speaks to The Times of Israe in Kyiv, August 3, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

“From talking to one another, we started supporting one another,” she continued. “We took matters into our own hands.”

They were happy with the way the siege ended. “In our opinion it was the best that could have happened because at least they were alive. They wouldn’t have survived much longer at the factory,” said Yana.

Tatiana, Vlada, Ludmilla, Yana, and thousands of other wives, mothers, and fiancées now spend their nights worrying about their loved ones — and dreaming of them if sleep comes — and their days doing whatever they can to make sure the POWs are a priority for Ukraine, Western allies, and international organizations.

“We wrote to everybody,” said Ludmilla.  “We wrote letters to [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, president of Turkey. We contacted world religious leaders. We contacted the president of the United States. We tried to contact everybody just in order to get some help.”

People and relatives of Azov battalion servicemen’s currently engaged in defending the Azovstal plant, shout slogans during a rally called, ‘Save military of Mariupol,’ in front of the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office in Kyiv on May 3, 2022. (Sergei SUPINSKY/ AFP)

The women haven’t found that foreign governments are especially helpful either. They receive pro forma responses, and are asked to fill in questionnaires.

They have several core demands. The families want any involvement by the Russian branch of the Red Cross to end. They want the ICRC, which facilitated the safe passage of soldiers out of Azovstal, to fulfill its role under the Third Geneva Convention, and visit and monitor the POWs.

The ICRC says that it never guaranteed the safety of the POWs in Russian hands “because it is not within our power to do so.”

“We had made this clear to the parties in advance. It is the obligation of parties to the conflict to ensure POWs are protected against acts of violence, intimidation, and public curiosity, as well as against the effects of hostilities.”

The families have not directly approached any Israeli officials to ask for assistance, but they did meet with Kyiv Rabbi Moshe Azman to request he intercede with Jerusalem.

Chief Rabbi of Kyiv’s Brodsky Synagogue Rabbi Moshe Azman at prayer, August 8, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Azman spoke with lawmakers involved with Ukraine-Israel relations on Tuesday.

Ukraine’s government has not been in touch with Israel either about assistance on the POW issue or mediating a prisoner swap with Russia, Israeli officials told The Times of Israel.

‘I am like steel’

At first, the women seem cold and standoffish. It quickly becomes clear that their emotional defenses are up, that they are doing everything they can in the most trying of circumstances to find the strength to work effectively for the release of the soldiers.

“Right now, I’m like steel,” said Yana, whose fiancé was taken in a factory producing the metal. “Nothing can penetrate me. I’m just trying to go work as much as I can, especially helping the other families.”

“I barely sleep. I work as much as I can, because this is what takes my mind off of it.”

In this photo taken from video released by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on May 18, 2022, Russian servicemen frisk Ukrainian servicemen after they left the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

Others let the tears flow as they talk, taking breaks to drink water and compose themselves.

Tatiana, whose thirst for information about her son has only grown, spends her days searching the internet for any new organizations or individuals to contact. “We call all the hotlines that we can call. We’re constantly in contact with the Ministry of Defense. We’re constantly in contact with International Red Cross, trying to figure out any pieces of new information.”

Many of the women also have no reliable place to live. “It’s a constant stress,” Tatiana sighed, “even though we should be recovering because we ourselves have gone through hell, and we’re just– right now we’re still keeping going.”

The two women engaged to be married have allowed thoughts of a reunion with their fiancés to enter their minds.

“Buffalo,” one of the Azovstal defenders rescued from the siege of the steel mill in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol trains his new prosthetic limb at a clinic in Kyiv, Ukraine, June 17, 2022. (AP/Natacha Pisarenko)

“We were preparing to get married, so we would do that,” said Vlada with a careful smile. “We wanted a big family. He wants at least two kids and we want to live peacefully.”

Yana also envisions a happy reunion, but expects a challenging road ahead.

“I just want to give him a hug and feel the ease of everything going past us,” Yana said. “It’s unclear what condition he’ll be in. He’ll need some kind of rehabilitation, physical and psychological. Because the things he has been through, it’s just impossible to keep living a normal life after that.”

Tatiana just wanted some sign that the last member of her family is still alive.

“It’s an eternal fear, it’s an eternal pain, it’s just an infinite amount of pain,” said the woman whose losses during the war have been staggering. “So what I’m going through just every day, wake up and we just… I would give up everything I have just to know that he’s alive.”

Days later, an answer came.

The mother who walked through a city in flames just to hear scraps of news about her son received an anonymous phone call on Tuesday from one of the Ukrainian POWs. He told her that her son had been in Olenivka, but had been transferred before the explosion at the prison.

And he told her that her son is very much alive.

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