Thousands of Ukrainian POWs are still missing months after capture

KYIV, UKRAINE – 2023/12/17: A protester draped in an AZOV flag at Sophia Square to support Ukrainian prisoners of war. ‘Don’t be silent! Captivity kills!’ action is held to remind people about the Ukrainian POWs, particularly the defenders of Mariupol, who have been held captive for more than 1.5 years. According to Ukrainian authorities 4,337 Ukrainians are in Russian captivity as of November 17, 2023: of which 3,574 are servicepersons and 763 are civilians. (Photo by Aleksandr Gusev/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Sopa Images | Lightrocket | Getty Images

“Every day, regardless of whether it is an anniversary or not, I feel pain about the captivity of my only son.”

Ukrainian mother Natalya hasn’t seen her son Dmytro, or “Dimka” as she refers to him affectionately, since the summer of 2022.

Dmytro was born into a military family and dreamed of military service from a young age. Since 2018, Dmytro had been serving in the Marine Corps in Mariupol in southern Ukraine.

When Russian forces surged into the east and south of the country during the initial invasion in February 2022, the port city was a key target for Russian forces looking to seize territory in the Donetsk region.

An intense battle for control of the city ensued with Ukrainian forces surrounded and bombarded in what became known as the “Siege of Mariupol.” The bloody siege ended in late May 2022 after several thousand Ukrainian soldiers and civilians who had been holed-up in the city’s Azovstal steelworks for months surrendered and were captured, marking a bitter defeat for Ukraine.

Russian servicemen inspect an underground tunnel under the captured Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, on June 13, 2022.

Yuri Kadobnov | AFP | Getty Images

Dmytro was injured in Mariupol when a tank he was in was struck by heavy shelling, leaving him with injuries to the head and spine. He was captured in another of the city’s major steelworks, the Illich Steel and Iron Works, during an attempt to break out of the factory following its Russian encirclement in April 2022.

Natalya told CNBC she was grateful to know her son was alive after hearing of his capture in October 2022 from a soldier who had been in the same cell as Dmytro before being released. She has not heard of or from Dmytro since, however.

“It is hardest for me on his birthday, when memories of his past happy life reappear, how he grew up, how he was brought up,” Natalya told CNBC in emailed comments.

“It hurts me very much that I am a mother and cannot bring my son home.”

Thousands of POWs

Dmytro is just one of an estimated 4,000 Ukrainians who are still being held as prisoners of war in Russian detention facilities. Around 2,000 of them are known as the “Defenders of Mariupol” in Ukraine, and are seen as heroes for their efforts and sacrifice in trying to defend the city before it fell to Russian forces.

Among those captured in Mariupol were around 700 fighters belonging to the Azov Battalion, who were a significant part of the defending forces…

Read More: Thousands of Ukrainian POWs are still missing months after capture

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