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Ukraine’s intelligence services said on Wednesday that 144 Ukrainian officers and soldiers had been returned from Russian captivity in exchange for Russian prisoners – the largest exchange since the Kremlin invasion on February 24.
This number includes 95 soldiers who had defended the Azovstal steelworks in the southern city of Mariupol.
It is a huge relief for their families, but most of the relatives of the 3,500 Ukrainian soldiers who surrendered in Azovstal and other pockets near Mariupol remain in the dark about the fate of the soldiers, and there are growing anger that authorities in Kyiv are not doing enough to get them back.
“When I say I have information about his whereabouts, all they have to say is that we should shut up because the publicity might hurt them. They advise me not to say anything to no one and sit and wait – sooner or later he will be traded,” said Karina Mkrtchian, whose brother, a military anesthesiologist whom she preferred not to identify by name, was captured in April after being surrounded for weeks in the Ilyich Steel and Iron Works factory in Mariupol.
Only a few prisoners were contacted by telephone. The families’ communications with the Ukrainian authorities are mostly limited to public promises that they are working to bring the POWs home. Russian officials aren’t saying much, raising fears the prisoners will face trial.
Serhiy Volynskyi was the public face of Ukrainian troops who spent weeks fighting off Russian attacks on the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol before surrendering on May 20. Russian authorities.
Before the surrender, Volynskyi called on world leaders, the Pope, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and even Tesla chief Elon Musk to save the Ukrainian garrison.
“Before ending up in Azovstal, Serhiy was an absolutely non-public person,” said his sister Natalia Kharko. “I think the marines and other units at the steel plant realized that they didn’t have the resources to try to solve the problem. So they tried to use all possible means to save the lives and health of the soldiers.
Kharko learned of his brother’s apparent transfer to Moscow from Russian media. “I still have not [official] information about his whereabouts,” she said.
Natalia Zarytska, wife of Bohdan, a soldier in the Azov regiment whose last name she did not want disclosed for security reasons, last communicated with her husband on May 17.
“Four days after he left Azovstal, I received a call from Geneva, [International Committee of the Red Cross] and was informed that they had registered his exit from the factory,” she said. “Where has he been sent, under what conditions is he being held, if there are ICRC representatives with them, none of these questions have been answered for me.”
Since then, she has not heard anything official about her husband, either in Russia or Ukraine.
Ukraine’s government said it was negotiating with Moscow to get the prisoners back – a process led by the country’s military intelligence agency. The agency declined to comment for this story.
“The negotiation process has many secret moments, and we – relatives – do not get any information from the intelligence services,” Kharko said. “We understand that such things cannot be resolved quickly. But we hope they can get our guys back as soon as possible. … They went through hell in Azovstal. Now they are still fighting for their lives.
Publicly, even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is suspicious of the status of POWs.
“It’s a very complicated question. Many details cannot be revealed,” he said last week.
He added that Kyiv counts on the help of other nations and international organizations in the talks with Moscow. “We involve our partners as much as possible in this process: the Red Cross, the United Nations, several states that have some influence on the aggressor country.”
In captivity, Mkrtchian’s brother managed to send him a handwritten letter, which he demanded be made public. At the end of May, they had a short telephone conversation.
“In the letter, he wrote about humanity…about the wounded. My brother is afraid they might die in captivity. There are a lot of them,” Mkrtchian said.
Zarytska is today at the head of an association of parents of Ukrainian soldiers who went to Azovstal. She says she trusts the Ukrainian authorities and that she thinks they are doing everything in their power so that “our husbands can return from captivity as soon as possible”.
“Communication [with the authorities] exist. I have been informed that my husband is on the lists of prisoners of war. But I know nothing of his future fate. And there is no connection with him,” she added.
“But I believe that light overcomes darkness, that our soldiers will endure and come home.”