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Out of sight but not out of mind: The families of Ukrainian POWs wait for news

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Ukrainian intelligence said on Wednesday that 144 Ukrainian officers and soldiers were returned home from Russian captivity in exchange for Russian prisoners — the largest swap since the Kremlin’s invasion on February 24.

That number includes 95 soldiers who had defended the Azovstal steelworks in the southern city of Mariupol.

That’s a huge relief to their families, but most of the relatives of the 3,500 Ukrainian troops who surrendered in Azovstal and other pockets near Mariupol remain in the dark about the soldiers’ fates, and there’s growing anger that Kyiv authorities aren’t doing enough to get them back.

“When I say that I have information about his whereabouts, all they have to say is that we should hold our tongues for the publicity may hurt them. They advise me not to say anything to anyone and just sit and wait — sooner or later he will be exchanged,” said Karina Mkrtchian, whose brother, a military anesthesiologist she preferred not to identify by name, was captured in April after being surrounded for weeks in Mariupol’s Ilyich Steel and Iron Works factory.

Only a few prisoners have been in touch by phone. The families’ communications with Ukrainian authorities are mainly limited to public promises that they’re working to bring the POWs home. Russian officials aren’t saying much — raising worries that the prisoners will be put on trial.

Serhiy Volynskyi was the public face of the Ukrainian troops who spent weeks fighting off Russian attacks on Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant before surrendering on May 20. He’s now being held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, according to TASS, where he and fellow prisoners are being investigated by 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 he ended up at Azovstal, Serhiy was an absolutely non-public person,” said his sister Natalia Kharko. “I think that the marines and other units in the steel plant understood that they didn’t have the resources to try to solve the problem. So they tried to use every means possible to save the lives and health of the soldiers.”

Kharko learned about her brother’s apparent transfer to Moscow from Russian media. “I still have no [official] information about his whereabouts,” she said.

Natalia Zarytska, the wife of Bohdan, a soldier with the Azov Regiment whose surname she did not want to be disclosed for security reasons, last communicated with her husband on May 17.

“Four days after his departure from Azovstal, I received a call back from Geneva, from the [International Committee of the Red Cross] and was informed that they recorded his exit from the plant,” she said. “Where he was sent, under what conditions he is being kept, whether there are representatives of the ICRC with them — none of these questions were answered to me.”

Since then, she has not heard anything official about her husband from either Russia or Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government says it is negotiating with Moscow to get the prisoners back — a process conducted by the nation’s military intelligence agency. The agency refused to comment for this story.

“The negotiation process has a lot of secret moments, and we — the relatives — get no information from intelligence,” Kharko said. “We understand that such things cannot be solved quickly. But we hope that they can get our guys back as soon as possible. … They lived through hell at Azovstal. Now they are still fighting for their lives.”  

Publicly, even Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is cagey about the status of the POWs.

“It’s a very complicated issue. Many details cannot be revealed,” he said last week.

He added that Kyiv is counting on the assistance of other nations and international organizations in talks with Moscow. “We involve our partners in this process as much as possible: the Red Cross, the United Nations, several states that have certain influence on the aggressor country.” 

In captivity, Mkrtchian’s brother managed to send her one handwritten letter, which he asked to make public. At the end of May, they had one short telephone conversation.

“In the letter he wrote about humanity … about the wounded. My brother is afraid that they could die in captivity. There are very many of them,” Mkrtchian said. 

Zarytska is now the head of an association of the relatives of Ukrainian soldiers who surrendered at Azovstal. She says she trusts the Ukrainian authorities, and that she believes they are doing everything in their power so “our husbands can return from captivity as soon as possible.”

“Communication [with the authorities] exists. I was informed that my husband is on the lists of prisoners of war. But I know nothing about his future fate. And there is no connection with him,” she added. 

“But I believe that light defeats the darkness, that our soldiers will endure and come home.”

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