Families of Ukrainian prisoners of war worry for fate of loved ones

Demonstrators in Kyiv call for international action on July 30, 2022 after dozens of POWs were killed in an explosion. PHOTO: NYTIMES

KYIV (NYTIMES) - They came to a square in the shadow of the majestic St Sophia Cathedral in central Kyiv on Saturday (July 30) with tears in their eyes, fury in their voices and signs calling on the world to declare Russia a state sponsor of terrorism.

As Ukrainian officials mounted a case to back their argument that Russia orchestrated an explosion at a prisoner-of-war camp in eastern Ukraine, killing dozens of fighters late on Thursday, friends and family members of soldiers being held in Russian captivity gathered to call on international institutions like the Red Cross to protect Ukrainian POWs.

Ms Yulianna Savchenko arrived with makeup depicting "bloody tears". Her boyfriend, Sasha, was one of the last defenders of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol who surrendered to the Russians in May.

Many of the estimated 2,500 fighters from the steel plant were taken to the prison camp where the blast occurred.

"I kept a diary: When he contacted me, I circled the date. We last spoke on May 18. On May 19-20, they began to withdraw from Azovstal. Since then I don't have any information," she said. "I hoped he would contact me at least on my birthday, on July 24, but no."

She said she did not know whether he was in the camp, which is in the town of Olenivka.

"When I heard the news about Olenivka, I thought I was going to lose my mind," Ms Savchenko said. "Then I packed all my things and went to my parents', because I realised in my apartment I really go mad. I still can't get over the footage I saw.

"I called the Red Cross - they can't find him," she said. "I know he is somewhere; he is alive. I feel it, woman's intuition. I hope my boyfriend survived."

Many loved ones of Ukrainian POWs are afraid to speak out in detail, fearful that Russia may seek retribution.

Olha, who asked that only her first name be used because her husband is in Russian captivity, said that the fighters' wives and girlfriends knew that the conditions in the camps were grim but that they were still in shock over the soldiers' deaths.

The trauma, she said, was made worse because Russian soldiers were writing to her every day, taunting her about her husband.

"To even say my name without a surname is scary for me," she said.

She does not know where her husband is, and neither the Red Cross nor officials from the Ukrainian government have been able to give her information.

The Ukrainians have not released the identities of those killed, but the Russians are circulating unverified lists of names, perhaps to sow fear.

"On those lists are names of the guys I know," Ms Olha said.

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