‘I have hope that my son will return’: how two mothers of Ukrainian prisoners of war are coping

Demonstrators gather on September at Sofiyska Square, Kyiv to commemorate Ukrainian prisoners of war killed in an attack to the prison of Olenivka, in the Russian-controlled Donetsk region in July, 2022. (Credit: Keystone/AVALON/Ruslan Kaniuka/Avalon)

The siege of Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant, which ended in May, marked one of the most dramatic battles of the Ukraine war and in Russia’s fight to gain ground in the east of the country. Ukrainian fighters held out for 82 days as Russian forces dropped bombs on Azovstal. Over 260 soldiers, many of them wounded, were finally evacuated on 16 May as the Russian occupying forces finally seized the strategic port city.

Around 200 soldiers were taken to a detention centre in the Russian-controlled town of Olenivka, leaving their families to wonder about their fate. An attack on the Olenivka prison in the Russian-controlled Donetsk region in the early hours of 29 July, where at least 50 prisoners are said to have perished, only added to their anguish.  

How are the prisoners feeling? Are they healthy? Do they have food and water? When will they come home? These are some of the questions parents and relatives of Ukrainian prisoners of war are asking themselves. They strive to live normal lives, but their hearts are somewhere on the frontline or in captivity. Geneva Solutions spoke to two mothers whose sons have been in Russian captivity for the past six months.

Turning to God for comfort

"When the evening comes, I start to cry and scream. My mind wanders a little. I don’t know whether my son is healthy, whether he has food or water,” says Oleksandra, who has been searching for information about her son for the past two months. He was a driver in the army, tasked with guarding Mariupol’s bridges along with his fellow soldiers. When the occupying forces surrounded the city, he hid in the basements of the Azovstal steelworks but didn’t tell Oleksandra so that she wouldn’t worry.

 One day, an acquaintance came across a video on social media of captured prisoners and recognised Oleksandra’s son among them. “After watching the video, I turned grey,” she says. She started calling family and friends for information until the commanding officer of her son’s military unit called her to confirm that he had indeed been captured. Oleksandra turned to all the institutions that she could think of, from the military, to the police, to the search service for prisoners. She hasn’t obtained any answers, nor has she lost faith. 

"The commander said that during the bombing in Mariupol, my son stayed alive only because he was constantly praying: at the first available moment, he would immediately run to the church,” she said. “I pray too. Therefore, I believe that God protects his life!”

Keeping hope alive

Tatiana is also a mother of one of Azovstal’s fighters. Tatiana recalls the first message she received from him in the middle of the night, from those sombre basements: “I woke up and heard a message on my phone. It was from my son. He never complained about life, but said: ‘We are here in the cellars of Azovstal. No horror movie compares to what we’ve seen here!’”

After that, Tatiana would often talk to her son, until one night at the beginning of May, when all connection was lost. “That evening, my son, as usual, wrote saying ‘Mom, good night! Love you! Stay safe!’” she recalls.

In June, an acquaintance saw on TV that wounded soldiers started coming out of Azovstal and she recognised the silhouette and jacket of Tatiana’s son. Tatiana would’ve given everything to hold her son again. “It's hard to not be able to help your child,” she notes. Tatiana says that she received a call from people that she didn’t know, claiming that her son was seriously injured and needed immediate evacuation. “They offered to take my son out for 10,000 hryvnias [270 CHF],” she says. “Later it turned out that they were scammers.”

Despite the obstacles, Tatiana continues to be strong, taking her son who never complained about life, as an example. “I have hope that my son will return home,” she says. “He promised us and said: ‘Dad and mom, I'll be home!’”