Ukrainian Marine Mykhailo Dianov, shown here before and after his roughly four months in Russian captivity. Photos via Ministry of Defense of Ukraine/Twitter.
KYIV, Ukraine — The morning of Thursday, Sept. 22, was unusually quiet at the top of Kruhlouniversytetska Street in central Kyiv. Nearly every day for the past four months, a dozen or more protesters gathered here at the edge of a military checkpoint just a few blocks from Ukraine’s presidential administration building. Mostly women, the protesters often brought their children. Together, they held signs that said such things as, “Free Mariupol Defenders,” “Daddy, I love you and I wait for you,” and “Return my brother from captivity.”
Rain or shine, these protesters — the family members of Ukrainian soldiers captured by Russia during the battle of Mariupol — brought along a portable stereo system and blasted a playlist of Ukrainian rock and rap songs for hours on end. The music disrupted the typically quiet ambiance of this mainly residential street atop a downtown hill. Even so, the soldiers manning the nearby checkpoint, normally intolerant of any unruly behavior, never interfered.
When the protesters didn’t arrive on Thursday morning, the unbroken quiet loudly declared a break in their four-month-long vigil. The previous evening, Russia had released 215 Ukrainian prisoners of war, including 188 soldiers who fought in Mariupol, 124 officers, three pregnant women, and 108 members of the Azov Regiment. The freed prisoners of war also included 10 foreign nationals who served in Ukraine’s armed forces.The amphibious warship Bonhomme Richard burns in San Diego in July of 2020. US Navy photo.
On Wednesday evening, once news of the prisoner exchange broke, Ukrainian social media feeds filled with images and videos of smiling, yet often emaciated, Ukrainian POWs enjoying their first moments of freedom after more than four months in captivity. Those smiles, however, concealed many backstories of intense suffering.
“It was a nasty time with much pain and torture,” Mathias Gustavsson, a Swedish national and Ukrainian Azov Regiment soldier who was among the 10 foreigners released from Russian captivity this week, told Coffee or Die Magazine via text message, describing his time as a POW.
Captured by Russian forces while serving in defense of the Azovstal steel factory redoubt in Mariupol, Gustavsson described his captors as “pure sadist psychos.” He faced the death penalty after a Russian occupation court in the city of Donetsk charged him last month with being a mercenary.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reportedly mediated between Ukraine and Russia for the release of the 10 foreign nationals. Those freed fighters included five British citizens, two Americans, a Croatian, a Moroccan — and Gustavsson. The Swede said he will likely remain in Saudi Arabia for about six weeks to have a surgery before returning home. In news footage of the foreign national prisoners arriving in Saudi Arabia, Gustavsson is seen using a wheelchair.
Ivan Kharkiv, a Ukrainian combat veteran who served in the Azov Regiment, got word on Thursday that his friend, a soldier in the Azov Regiment named Andriy Korynevych, was among the POWs released from Russian captivity Wednesday.
“Him being home is the best thing that happened to me this year," Kharkiv told Coffee or Die about Korynevych’s release. "He is like a brother to me.”
Ukrainian Azov Regiment soldier Andriy Korynevych while serving during the Azovstal defense, left, and while leaving captivity nearly 70 pounds lighter on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. Photos courtesy of Ivan Kharkiv.
Kharkiv’s elation paralleled a sense of anger at his friend’s condition — Korynevych lost 32 kilograms, some 71 pounds, while in captivity, Kharkiv said. Korynevych reported that he and other Ukrainian prisoners were deprived of food and water for two days before their release. Even so, Korynevych, who wanted to make a defiant parting gesture, gained notoriety in Russian media because he wore a “Punisher” T-shirt while walking to his freedom on Wednesday.
“It’s a miracle for him that he is alive and home,” Kharkiv said about Korynevych. “I’m really happy for him and his family. I’m happy that he is alive and can live his life."
Photos circulating on Ukrainian social media channels show the awful physical conditions of many of the freed Ukrainian prisoners. The post-release photos of a Ukrainian Marine named Mykhailo Dianov clearly disclose the abuse and mistreatment he endured in Russian captivity. Dianov's misshapen and withered right arm is reportedly missing four centimeters of bone. Months of malnutrition ate away at the rest of his body. Wasted-away chest muscles now expose his ribs, and pockets of swollen skin underlay the eyes on his scarred face.
News of the Ukrainian POWs’ release came only hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” to raise at least 300,000 more troops for Russia’s faltering invasion of Ukraine. On Wednesday evening, Ukrainian and Russian social media feeds consequently filled with competing images — smiling Ukrainian POWs celebrating their homecomings, starkly juxtaposed with scenes of Russians protesting their country’s national mobilization.
“We remember all our people and try to save every Ukrainian. This is the meaning of Ukraine, our essence, this is what distinguishes us from the enemy,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote Wednesday on Telegram.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan mediated the release of the Ukrainian soldiers. According to the deal, five Azov Regiment commanders, including leaders of the Azovstal defense, are to remain in Turkish territory until the end of the war.
In exchange, Ukraine freed 55 Russian soldiers, as well as Viktor Medvedchuk — a pro-Russian, former Ukrainian politician. Ukrainian security forces captured Medvedchuk in April. A close ally of Putin, Medvedchuk had been under house arrest since May 2021, facing charges of treason and terrorist financing.
In May, after more than two months of tenacious resistance, about 2,500 Ukrainian troops in Mariupol surrendered to the Russian invasion force. The Ukrainian units withstood brutal, close-quarters combat. Many had sought shelter in the underground passages of the city's Azovstal steel plant. Relentless Russian airstrikes and shelling turned the sprawling, Soviet-era facility into an apocalyptic ruin. A previous prisoner exchange in June liberated 144 Ukrainian prisoners of war, 95 of whom had served in the Azovstal defense. Dozens of Azovstal defenders are thought to have died during an explosion at a Russian prisoner camp near the eastern Ukrainian town of Olenivka in June.
On Friday, about half a dozen protesters returned to the top of Kruhlouniversytetska Street in Kyiv. They held signs, and the music blared — reminders that roughly 2,000 of Mariupol's defenders remain in Russian captivity.
"We value every life! And we will definitely do everything to save everyone who is in Russian captivity," Zelenskyy wrote Wednesday on Telegram.
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