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Liliia Ivashchyk last heard from her boyfriend, a Ukrainian soldier, after the Russian siege of the Azovstal facility in Mariupol
Liliia Ivashchyk last heard from her boyfriend, a Ukrainian soldier, after the Russian siege of the Azovstal facility in Mariupol | Photo courtesy of Liliia Ivashchyk

Young dancer in Ukraine fears worst after military boyfriend missing from Mariupol

The news came in May that the siege of Azovstal ended in Russian control of the facility. For a couple of hours, I waited. Those proved to be some of the worst hours of my life since the war broke out in February. My world collapsed. All hope for salvation disappeared and I felt dizzy.

Interview Subject
Liliia Ivashchyk is a young ballet dancer from Kyiv, Ukraine. Her boyfriend serves as a military soldier in the Azov Regiment. She heard from him for the last time in May when the soldiers in the Azovstal steelwork facility in Mariupol came under heavy Russian fire and were eventually taken prisoner by Russia. Since then, he has been out of contact. Liliia hopes for his return and lives her days waiting for news.
Background Information
Ukraine’s Euromaidan demonstrations began in Kyiv in November 2013 after then-President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an agreement bringing Ukraine more closely into the European Union. Citizens also protested widespread corruption, seeing all these actions as signaling Yanukovych’s desire for a closer relationship with Russia.
While the protests began peacefully, they devolved into violence in early 2014, with security and police forces killing more than 100 mostly civilian protesters over several days in February of that year. In the immediate aftermath, Russia occupied Crimea, which was part of Ukrainian territory. A few months later, in April, they seized the eastern part of the country.
Then, on February 24, 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine to “demilitarize and de-Nazify” the country but in fact, most people understand Russia’s main goal was to maintain its regional power at the expense of post-Soviet states that aligned with Western allies. Aggression continues today, taking the lives of Ukrainian patriots and innocent civilians and further destabilizing global politics and economy.

KYIV, Ukraine ꟷ I saw my love for the last time on February 16, 2022, in Kyiv. People in Ukraine were already talking about a full-scale Russian invasion. Before we said our goodbyes, I asked him if everything would be alright. He assured me Ukraine would be fine and he left.

When Russia invaded our country on February 24, 2022, I immediately texted him. He told me he and the military stood ready to defend our country; that Ukraine would withstand the assault. With defenders like my boyfriend, I had no doubts.

Ballet dancer meets soldier in Ukraine, love follows the tremors of war

My darling joined the Azov Regiment of Ukraine’s National Guard in 2015. He took on the defense of our country in the east.

[The Azov Regiment took shape in May 2014 within the Special Tasks Patrol Police but transitioned to the Guard six months later. Since then, its members actively defend Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity from Russian aggression. Russian and foreign media use propaganda to assert the regiment adheres to Nazi ideology, endangers minority groups, and commits war crimes to justify Russian preventative strikes.]

My partner and the other members of the regiment serve as a shining example of grit, character, and professionalism. We met in 2019. Back then, I felt certain we could not find common ground because we came from very different worlds. He serves in the military; I dance in the ballet.

Read more first person accounts out of the Russia-Ukraine War from Orato World Media.

However, I fell in love with his inner strength and affection for Ukraine. Over time, I discovered a caring, kind, and responsible man, who even expressed a boundless love for cats! Of course, constant separation and his long work trips frustrated me. While I remained in Kyiv, he worked in Mariupol, and we lived for the promise of a future and for his return.

While we remained in constant contact, I always felt alone, wishing for a life together. Before the war we would meet for short visits until, once again, he deployed, and we faced months apart. Had the war not broken out, he would have received the rank of officer and come to live in Kyiv. Instead, I have not seen him in eleven months. Though we remained far apart, he always made me feel safe.

Woman worries as Russian troops close in on her boyfriend’s position at Azovstal

On February 24, 2022, early in the morning, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. [Russia has targeted the Ukrainian civilian population, hospitals, maternity houses, critical infrastructure, schools, kindergartens, and local administration. As of September 30, Moscow killed 397 children in Ukraine.]

When we realized the Russian forces encircled Mariupol in early March, my days of faith and fear began. I live in a hell that continues today. My boyfriend would call from time to time. We believed he and his colleagues could escape the encirclement, but as it narrowed, my fear only grew. We heard stories of constant losses and injuries. Then, Azovstal happened.

Liliia with her boyfriend during one of his trips home | Photo courtesy of Liliia Ivashchyk

[Ukrainian forces withdrew to an iron and steelwork facility in Mariupol because it remained a defensible position.] The Ukrainian soldiers there fell short of food and medicine. Little contact could be made. I would reach out to his brothers-in-arms to try and get information. “Have you seen him,” I would ask when someone answered. Their response gave me minutes of pure happiness, then the waiting began again.

I felt total despair at times, thinking this would be the end. Soon, the Russian forces completely encircled Azovstal, pounding the facility with heavy, continuous attacks. I rarely heard from him. Occasionally, he sent a few words in a text and my hope returned, knowing he lived another day. I tried to support him but rarely knew what to say. Every day felt like the last. I had no way of really helping.

Soldier disappears, presumed to be held in a Russian prison camp

The news came in May that the siege of Azovstal ended in Russian control of the facility. For a couple of hours, I waited. Those proved to be some of the worst hours of my life since the war broke out in February. My world collapsed. All hope for salvation disappeared and I felt dizzy.

Then, he called me. Though he suffered from incredible exhaustion and hunger, he told me everything. He said he dreamed of lying on the green grass and I promised him we would. We both said, “See you soon,” and hung up the phone.

Russian troops began evacuating the Ukrainian defenders from the factory and I received a couple of texts that said, “We’re okay. We’re holding on.” Since then, I have heard nothing. These moments remain impossible for me to describe.

Eventually, I found out about Olenivka – a Russian prison camp where they held him. Fear paralyzed me, but he never showed up on the casualties list. I have food and sleep in a bed, yet I am helpless. There seems to be nothing I can do for him. I find it difficult not to imagine the worst and struggle to find strength for the future. When I think of the uselessness of so many organizations – of the guarantors of security around the world who promised to defend our safety – I become angered.

The only tranquility I find is at church. Prayer calms my nerves and moderates my thoughts. With all my soul, I continue to believe he will return to me.

Loved ones whose Ukrainian family have gone missing keep fighting, plead for international support

We view our nearest and dearest loved ones who became prisoners of war as a solitary whole. In Ukraine, those of us left behind fight for the hostages the only way we can. Every demonstration and project we pursue remains marked by pain and anxiety, but we hold onto the hope we will be heard.

Liliia’s boyfriend on duty as a member of the Ukrainian military | Photo courtesy of Liliia Ivashchyk

Our defenders did the impossible and we must do everything we can to never forget them; to mobilize those who could foster their liberation. It remains critical we take action in the hopes of saving one life. Morally, we feel committed to take every opportunity to remind the world these prisoners of war exist. Fighting for them remains our duty.

Foreigners help Ukraine every day and much aid comes from every corner of the world. I believe by telling my story, people will feel my pain and continue to support Ukraine. If the world remains aware of our prisoners of war, the greater the likelihood they may return one day, alive. In Ukraine, we resist a terrible evil called Russia. We must fight on, but we cannot do it alone. Global unity affords strength.

Notes from the journalist:

Mariupol, in the Donetsk Oblast region, is a Ukrainian city on the north coast of the Sea of Azov. In the early months of Russian aggression against Ukraine (April-May 2014), the separatist marionette ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ controlled Mariupol, but soon, the Ukrainian army liberated the city. For these years, Mariupol became a cultural and economic center of the Oblast since international donors generously supported its development. But it also turned out to be a strategically important city for Russian invaders. Situated just 10-15 kilometers near the frontline (border with Russia-occupied territories in the east of Ukraine), and just between Moscow-occupied Ukrainian eastern areas and Crimea, Mariupol is a Russian outpost making for a land corridor from occupied Donbas to occupied Crimea. 

This explains why Russia actively attacked Mariupol starting on February 24,  2022. On March 2, Mariupol was surrounded. Azovstal is a huge metallurgy complex with a comprehensive system of underground communications and shelters. That is what made it a ‘last stand’ fortress of Mariupol defenders. Many civilian residents of Mariupol and wounded Ukrainian soldiers found shelter in Azovstal, hiding from Russian bombarding. As of May 16, as many as 600 injured defenders of Ukraine were in Azovstal works, 40 of them in serious condition.  On May 16-17, Russian invaders ‘evacuated Ukrainian soldiers from Azovstal, bringing them to horrible conditions in prisons in occupied territories of Novoazovsk and Olenivka. Then, on July 28, Moscow committed the deliberate mass murder of 53 Ukrainian prisoners of war in the Olenivka prison camp. On September 21, Ukraine succeeded to exchange 215 prisoners of war from Putin’s captivity, 108 of whom served in the Azov regiment, but Liliia’s boyfriend was not among them.

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Yuliia Rudenko is a journalist and social media manager at Euromaidan Press, a Ukrainian English-language journal. She covers human rights developments in Russia-occupied territories of Ukraine. Yuliia is an international law student in Kyiv. She dedicated her research to human rights, international humanitarian and criminal law.