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Sentenced by Russia to over 20 years: Azov fighter’s story of Russian captivity

4 June, 2024 Tuesday
15:46

On the last day of spring, Ukraine released 75 POWs from captivity. Among them were National Guardsmen, border guards, and police officers. However, there are still defenders of Ukraine held captive, and Russia is extremely reluctant to negotiate regarding them. These are the Azov soldiers, the defenders of Mariupol

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Espreso talked to the mother of one of them, Tetiana, about her son's path to Azovstal, his captivity and attempts to free him from the Russian captivity. 

Tetiana lives with her family in Brovary. Her husband and brother serve in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, while she volunteers, participates in various campaigns in support of the Azov fighters and waits for news from her son every day. 

From a child to an Azovstal hero

Her son Artem was born in 2000. When the Revolution of Dignity began, his mother recalls, the 13-year-old boy was very concerned about the events in the country, and even then the teenager sometimes understood more than his parents.

“I was in awe of my child back in those days. I didn't understand many things back then, but he would always say, 'We need to fight for our Ukraine,' We need to learn history.' When Crimea was occupied, I once told him that it was good that people were alive at least. But he had a completely different opinion. He explained to me using the example of our apartment, saying, 'What will you do if a neighbor takes away one of our rooms?' I answered, 'How can he take it away, it's mine.' And he said: 'And whose Crimea is?'” Tetiana recalls. 

She says that her son made himself a patriot. He wanted to study history himself. Not the imposed Soviet history taught to his grandparents, but the real one.

“These children born in our free Ukraine are completely different. They (or most of them) have made themselves so. I love my country. But I never imagined that it could be loved as much as Artem loves it. I thought that this only happens in movies,” says his mother.

Her son had been talking about a full-scale war since 2016-2017. He realized that the war was inevitable. As a teenager, he wanted to join Azov. After the 9th grade, he entered college to be in the capital, closer to the events that were taking place there. He graduated at the age of 18 and immediately wanted to serve.

“His father and I sat down and talked. We asked him not to go yet. He is our only child. We begged him for a year, but when he was 19, Artem brought his documents and said that he had listened to us once, and now he was undergoing a medical examination and knew for sure that he was going to join Azov. He had so much determination in his eyes that I didn't even dare to refuse,” the woman recalls.

From Azovstal to captivity

On February 24, 2022, Artem called and told his father to take his passport and go to the military enlistment office. “The military won't do it on their own, either we do it or they make us do it,” he said. The family listened, as Tetiana's husband and brother are still serving in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. 

Even when he was in Mariupol at Azovstal, Artem would always convince his parents that everything was fine. 

“I knew from the media that they had problems with food and medicine. And he was 'all right.' He would never say that he was lacking something. He always had everything, as he said, 'under control.' He was more worried about us, worried about the Chernihiv highway,” Tetiana recalls.

The last time she heard her son's voice was on May 9, 2022. They talked for three minutes on Telegram. Artem congratulated her on Mother's Day and said that, as always, he was “doing well.” 

“On May 17, he wrote a message saying that everything was fine and that he would not be in touch for a long time. 'Don't worry. I love you and I am proud of my parents.' He did not even mention a single word about being taken prisoner. So when they started saying they were leaving 9the Azovstal plant -ed.), I didn't believe it at all. I was sure that if anything happened, they would be transferred to a third country,” says the soldier's mother.

But in late May, his parents were informed that the guys had been evacuated to Olenivka. Since Artem was captured, they have not received any personal news from him. From July, when a terrorist attack took place in the colony, until September, the family had no information about their son's fate.

It was only after September 21, when the first captives were released, that his mother heard that the young man was not in the barracks where the massacre took place and was alive. 

A sentence greater than age

In May 2023, 45 Azov soldiers were released, including Artem's comrades from his unit. 

“Unfortunately, one of them, my son's friend, died on the anniversary of his release. He was released from captivity on May 6, 2023, and died on May 6, 2024. When they were returning, they said that they had not seen my son, but had heard him. It was in the Donetsk detention center. They are kept there in cells, in semi-basement rooms and are not allowed to go outside. That's why the guys could only hear my son from the neighboring cell,” says Tetiana. 

On March 22, 2024, a Russian “court” sentenced 10 Ukrainian soldiers from Artem's unit, including Tetiana's son, to 22 years in prison. This sentence exceeds the age of the soldier at the time of his capture, as Artem was only 21 years old when he left Azovstal.

“We used to be told that it was easier to release those with sentences because their cases had already been worked out, the necessary information was gathered, and the sentences were passed, making it easier to exchange them. But now, it's a dead end. Unfortunately, it has become more difficult to exchange sentenced people. For the Russians, they are no longer captives but prisoners. Something changed, and since July 2023, it has been almost impossible to return those with sentences. We are told that it requires a pardon or amnesty from Putin himself. Who will ask him for this?” the soldier's mother wonders.

She believes that third countries and intermediaries should be involved to help in the return of the Azov fighters.

“We are discussing Olenivka separately because it was a terrorist attack and those involved were killed there. Similarly, we discuss doctors and orchestras separately because they are not combatants. Now we need to bring those with sentences to the international level separately. About a hundred Azov soldiers have already been sentenced, and Marines are also frequently tried. For some reason, the Marines and the Azovs are treated in the worst way there,” says Tetiana.

“My strength is my son”

The families of Azovstal's defenders were offered to write letters to the detainees through the National Information Bureau. Some wrote, but Tetiana refused. The procedure is long, the bureau accepts the letters and sends them to the Russian military base through the Red Cross. Other units receive the news, although it takes up to a year. The Azov fighters do not receive any at all. 

The coordination headquarters always communicates with families. But the top leadership of the state still ignores them.

“I still don't understand why the president himself or Mr. Yermak have not met with us during two years of captivity and three months of defense of Mariupol. They have never met with the families of the Azov fighters, and there are almost 100 convicts among them. Convicted for what? For being Ukrainian soldiers who defended Ukraine on the territory of Ukraine. And they are given sentences of 20-30 years, and ten of them are life sentences,” the "mom" says.

This is how she is called at numerous rallies calling for the release of Azov soldiers from captivity. Tetiana missed only two of them. One because of a funeral, the other because she was at a rally in Germany at the time. 

The last one was a race in Brovary on May 25, the second anniversary of the captivity. At the race they raised funds for the Azov Brigade and were reminding that Azov soldiers are now back on the front line, and many of them are still in captivity. She recalls that when they started the campaign in Brovary in 2022, people did not react very enthusiastically. But recently, more and more people have joined in, both in Brovary and in Kyiv.

“All the people who come to the rallies are such a great support! They inspire and give you strength. I adore all these people who, having no one in captivity, just come up and say 'we are with you.' Many of them have sons who are still teenagers. They admit that 10 years later, their child may be there as well. Many stars join in. They don't promote themselves, don't take pictures, they just come and stand there in silence. Sometimes they talk and support us,” says the prisoner's mother. 

To cope psychologically with such incredible stress, she had to turn to specialists. In 2022, the Association of Families of Azovstal Defenders gathered women for psychological rehabilitation. Tetiana did not want to go at first, but then she underwent a three-week rehabilitation to stabilize her condition. 

“My son is the one who helps me to endure everything emotionally. He knows how much I love him, he knows that I can't live without him. And I want to be in a normal state when he comes back (today, tomorrow or in a month). Because if he sees that I've gone crazy, he will blame himself. And I don't want him to blame himself, and I'm holding on for his sake. He is my strength, he inspires me to fight for him,” says the mother.

In a month, Artem will turn 24 years old. For the third time, he will celebrate his birthday in captivity. And his mother Tetiana is waiting and believes that she will soon be able to get her son back and celebrate his birthday with the family.

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