Alla Samoilenko has been waiting to hear anything from her son Illia since May 20.
That was when she last exchanged texts with the 28-year-old soldier in Ukraine’s Azov Regiment. His regiment hunkered down with Ukrainian citizens for weeks in Mariupol, defending the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works complex, until it was seized by Russian forces in May.
She watched with the rest of the world as the three-month siege played out on international media. Her son, an officer, was still able to keep in communication with her. He would describe the regiment’s weapons, water and food supplies and tried to keep her spirits up.
“He didn’t give me a chance to feel doubt,” she said.
It’s unclear where Illia and his fellow soldiers, now prisoners of war, are. As Wednesday’s Independence Day of Ukraine approached, Samoilenko and loved ones of other soldiers feared their sons and daughters would not get a fair trial from Russia. Or worse.
“I hear that all people who [are] captured to Russian prisons, they are tortured. And I know that. And it’s very difficult to live with it if I know that my beloved boy is in such ugly hands.”
Still Samoilenko holds on to hope he is still alive. At one point she heard Illia was in the Olenivka prison camp in Eastern Ukraine until the end of June. Or that he might still be there. No information about his whereabouts has ever been confirmed.
No legal help or visits
“I have only rumors and all the rumors are so uncheckable,” she said. “We can’t connect with Russian lawyers, for example; even if they have our request, they have no authority to visit the places of our prisoners of war.”
Her pain is juxtaposed with the brightness of her home. The window sill in her colorful kitchen in Kyiv, with its yellow walls and orange ceramic tiles, is dotted with crafts made by her four-year-old daughter Margarita. She says her son used to say he didn’t care for young children before his sister was born. But they became the best of friends.
The counter is lined with bowls of vegetables she grew herself. It’s been a good year for cucumbers, she says. The tomatoes are tasty but not as plentiful. While she waits for news of her son, she says her garden nourishes her soul.
It’s one of the few reprieve for the soft-spoken 48-year-old. She has heard stories from people who were held in Russian prisons in the past.
“They told many, many absolutely terrifying stories about Russian prisons. And we have no illusions. We just hope that our soldiers, our boys and girls, they have the possibility to keep their dignity and to keep their lives,” she said.
When Illia joined the military in 2015, Samoilenko says she asked him not to go. Her younger son had been seriously hurt in a car accident a few years earlier that left him paralyzed. The fear of another son in pain was too much to bear. But he was drawn to fight.
He was injured during a deployment in 2016, losing an eye and an arm. But he could not be kept away from “his brotherhood,” Samoilenko said. He left for the East before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, to support the soldiers by working as a staff officer.
Little is known about the regiment’s PoWs
The Azov Regiment fought in one of the earliest battles in Mariupol. Soldiers defended the steel plant through horrendous conditions, holding off the Russians until May 20 when Russian authorities said 1,700 soldiers surrendered.
Stories about Russian torture of Ukrainian PoWs have been widespread. On July 29, a prison where Ukrainian soldiers were held in Olenivka was attacked and 53 soldiers were killed. Russia blamed Kyiv for blowing up the prison. Ukraine said the attack was carried out to cover up the torture of the prisoners.
The regiment has controversial beginnings. It operates now as part of Ukraine’s National Guard. But when it was formed in 2014 to fight Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east, it was a volunteer brigade that drew fighters from the far-right. The Kremlin uses this origin to back its claims of Nazism in Ukraine.
Earlier this month, Russia’s Supreme Court designated the group as a terrorist organization, a move the regiment said was Moscow trying to justify war crimes, according to The Associated Press.
On Monday, Russia’s security service, the FSB, alleged an Azov Regiment member was responsible for the death of Darya Dugina, a pro-nationalist Russian TV commentator who supported the war with Ukraine, and daughter of political theorist Alexander Dugin. Dugina was killed by a remotely detonated explosive planted in her car.
Ukrainian authorities were quick to deny the claim, saying the ID released by the FSB was falsified.
Now families and authorities worry about the fate of the PoWs as they await trial, which Ukrainian officials have said could start on Wednesday. The Ministry of Defense released a photo they say shows iron cages that Ukrainian soldiers will be kept in while on trial.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said if this “show trial takes place” then there will be no more negotiations with Russia.
At home, they wait
Samoilenko scoured footage and photos of soldiers being taken out of the plant in May, trying to spot a glimpse of Illia, but she did not see him.
Like many Ukrainians, she is concerned that the world will stop paying attention to what is happening in their country and that weapons and funding will no longer flow across the borders.
“This is our biggest fear of the moment, because we need the protection. We need the support from all over the world, and we need more and more weapons to fight.”
As she tends her garden in the outskirts of Kyiv, she is not far from where danger has struck in this war already. She worries about her son, but also the people and the country her son was defending when he was captured.
She worries the war is becoming normalized in some parts of Ukraine, with people in some regions not heeding warnings to go into shelters when the air raid siren sounds, for example.
“It’s difficult to explain, but I think we are tired from the fear. Some of our citizens are very relaxed from where we’ve seen this happen and it’s not good. I think we must be very careful.”