Tuesday, February 7

What happened to the Ukrainian soldiers who surrendered in Azovstal?

“I love you so much. Don’t worry.” Vlada’s fingers caress on the mobile screen the last message that Pavel, her fiancé, sent her on May 16. After surrendering that day with other Ukrainian fighters from Azovstal she makes He hasn’t heard from him for almost a month.

Shortly after laying down their arms, the Ukrainian military barricaded itself in the Mariupol steel complex for 82 days were transferred by the Russian Army on buses to an unknown destination.

Since then almost nothing is known about them.

The mothers, sisters, wives, and girlfriends of those around 2,000 soldiers captured in Azovstal they have created several associations to demand, first of all, to have communications with them, and then, their release in an exchange for Russian prisoners.

Vlada, who prefers not to reveal her last name to Efe, knows that her fiancé had been wounded by shrapnel in the legs during the siege. On May 20, an unknown person wrote a message on his Instagram saying that Pavel had received medical treatment and was fine.

But he does not know who is the one who wrote to him or if what he maintains is true. As he has been able to find outPavel is in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.

“We don’t know what condition he is in or if he has really received medical help,” he complains. Everything is wrapped in uncertainty.

“We want the international community to force Russia to accept that the Red Cross can access the place where the prisoners are,” he demands.

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Vlada remembers a placid life in Mariupol before the war as if it were something from the distant past: she worked as a shop assistant, Pavel in construction. At the beginning of the war, Pavel entered the National Guard.

no way to communicate

“We had a good life, everything was very quiet. Mariupol was a modern and beautiful city. Now everything is destroyed,” he says in a small voice.

The story of Natalia, 34, is similar, although in this case the prisoner is her younger brother, Artem, 26, whom she has not heard from since May 16.

“We have had contact with the Red Cross, but for now no way to communicate with prisoners“, laments Natalia, who fights so that the situation of these soldiers does not fall into oblivion.

“We know that Artem is alive, but not how he is, what he eats, his state of health or how they treat him,” he explains. Artem was also wounded in the legs by shrapnel during the Russian siege.

The International Committee of the Red Cross recorded the names of the prisoners at the plant for follow-up, but has been unable to contact them. Under the 1949 Geneva Convention, the Red Cross must have immediate access to all prisoners of war.

A symbol of resistance

The soldiers of Azovstal have become a symbol: for Ukraine they are heroes who showed enormous courage by resisting a brutal siege for months, while Russia demonizes them as “Nazi criminals” who must be tried.

The defense was led by Azov Battalionwhich Russia presents as a “Nazi” militia, something that Ukraine denies and recalls that the unit has been reformed and integrated into its regular armed forces.

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“Our soldiers were in our country, in our city, defending it from foreign aggression, they are not criminals but heroes“, defends Natalia, whose brother was a professional soldier from Azov.

Both ask that the international community put pressure on Russia to respect international humanitarian law, and although they trust in an exchange of prisoners, they also feel “anxiety” and “fear” if a court were created to judge them.

A court?

“The Russians they are very aggressive towards Azovstal defenders and we know what has happened to the volunteers,” acknowledges Vlada, recalling the sentence handed down by a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic against three foreign fighters who were fighting in the Ukrainian Army.

That separatist region that only Russia recognizes has the death penalty in force.

Numerous international organizations have criticized this sentence as a flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention: Russia cannot transfer captured prisoners to another entity and those volunteers, two British and one Moroccan, were integrated into the Ukrainian armed forces, so they were not “mercenaries”.

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Denis Pushilin, the Kremlin-backed leader in Donetsk, has said the region is working with Russia on composing a tribunal to try Azovstal fighters and that some “Nazi criminals” must be held accountable.

Both Natalia and Vlada are confident that Russia respect international law and they recall that Moscow would also benefit from the release of 2,000 of its prisoners.


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