This is the first release of captive women since the beginning of the war that the Kremlin started in Ukraine. And the second largest exchange of prisoners after September 21, when 215 Ukrainian soldiers were released.
108 Ukrainian women returned to their families after months of Russian captivity. They were exchanged for 110 Russian prisoners of war, mostly sailors.
The freed Ukrainian women were welcomed by their relatives and colleagues with hugs, joy, tears, flowers. The head of the president’s office, Volodymyr Zelensky, took part in the event via video link – Andrii Yermakwho posts photos.
“It was a tense exchange. There were too many details and moments that could have changed the course of things,” Ermak said.
The Deputy Head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense Dmitry Usov confirmed that this exchange was preceded by difficult negotiations with the Russian side.
Ukraine’s interior ministry said several of the women had been in prisons since 2019 after being captured by Moscow-backed authorities in the eastern parts of the country.
The freed Ukrainian women spoke about the harassment they were subjected to in Russian captivity. They compared the Russians to fascists and said the female guards were particularly cruel to them.
“They behaved like beasts, even animals are not like that. They beat girls, tortured them with electric shocks, hit them with hammers. I won’t even talk about the food that even dogs don’t eat,” he said Anna – a servicewoman from the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU).
She’s a Marine. The torture for her began immediately after she left the Azovstal bunkers.
“For those of us who have tattoos, they wanted to cut off our hands, cut off our tattoos, burn us with boiling water. Just because we were there. For being in the Marines, for speaking Ukrainian.” Anna added.
Olga Lekunova – a fighter from the defense of Mariupol, said that at the beginning of the invasion, she went to the recruiting office herself. Later, like many defenders of the city, she ended up in “Azovstal”. She was in captivity for six months and five days. It seems like an eternity to her.
“Women beat us the most, their wives beat us. They took us out of the cell every morning and every night to count us and beat us. Every morning, every night they beat us,” repeated Olga.
The returned captives said that the only thing that kept them alive was the belief that they would see their loved ones again.
For the military doctor from the “Azov” battalion Victoria Obidina the horror was even greater because she was separated from her 4-year-old daughter.
“All this time I didn’t know where my child was, how he was, I didn’t know anything. They dreamed that he would hug his daughter sooner. Now I will go to her, I want to see my daughter so much,” said Victoria.
She also talked about their release.
“Until the end, we didn’t know where they were taking us. They put us on a plane, then on a bus, and then we realized that we were traveling to Zaporozhye. But until we crossed the front, we couldn’t believe it.”
Another military doctor – Valentina Pashchenko, and she has not seen her husband since February 24 – the beginning of the war. That’s why the first thing she does when she’s free is to call him on the phone.
“They told us: ‘Ukraine doesn’t want you, nobody needs you’. They mocked us, they beat us. These are non-humans. Only in Valuyki [град близо до руския Белгород] we weren’t beaten, but they made fun of us there,” said another of the women.
The Ukrainian women also told how, upon their return, two representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross entered the bus and handed out questionnaires to them. But then the Russian soldiers who accompanied the bus pulled the shutters of their machine guns and said that they must leave immediately. Red Cross workers “got scared and just jumped off the bus,” said one of the freed women.
All of them face a long period of rehabilitation and medical care, which will be provided by the Ukrainian authorities, he assured
Andrii Yermak. He conveyed to them personal thanks from President Zelensky for their perseverance and faith.
Yermak spoke about the need to make every effort to ensure the admission of missions of international humanitarian organizations and representatives of Ukraine to Ukrainians in Russian captivity. According to him, Kyiv expects more active actions from the Red Cross to pressure this to happen.
“We continue to fulfill the task of the President of Ukraine: we must free all our people,” added Andriy Yermak.
Around 2000 Ukrainians remain in captivity of the Russian forces.
“We do not forget any of our people, we must return them all. And we will return them,” said Volodymyr Zelensky in an address to the nation.