It’s been nearly seven months since Anna Zaitseva and her toddler last came under bombardment by the Russian military in a shelter beneath Ukraine’s Azovstal steel plant – and her young son still cannot fall sleep until she holds her hands over his eyes.
“He’s developed a habit. When he’s trying to sleep, he takes my hands and puts them onto his face to cover it,” Ms. Zaitseva, 25, said in an interview.
The gesture mimics how she used to protect her son, Svyatoslav, as pieces of the bomb shelter’s ceiling rained down on them under the Azovstal steel complex in Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine.
Ms. Zaitseva was one of numerous civilians trapped there for 65 days before a safe-passage operation conducted by the Red Cross this spring.
Now a refugee in Berlin, she travelled to the Halifax International Security Forum this weekend to draw attention to the huge numbers of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers forcefully taken to Russia where they have all but disappeared.
Her husband, Kirillo Zaitsev, 23, was a steel worker turned Azov Regiment soldier. He was one of the last group of Ukrainian fighters holding out in the Azovstal complex until their surrender in mid-May.
Mr. Zaitsev was taken prisoner by the Russians and his wife has not heard from him since. She presumes he’s in a prison camp in Russia, where, by all accounts, Ukrainians are being mistreated and where, she fears, Moscow is failing to live up to the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war.
She said photos of Ukrainian soldiers imprisoned in Russia show how they have lost significant amounts of weight; accounts of the conditions say the jailed troops lack access to proper food, water and medicine. “They are trying to kill them physically and kill their morale.”
Olga Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, told journalists at the Halifax forum that Kyiv estimates 1.5 million Ukrainian women and children have been “forcefully displaced” to Russia.
“We do not have any access to information on where they live or under what conditions,” she said. These Ukrainians are deprived of “any access to communications” that would enable them to talk to those back in Ukraine.
She could not provide an estimate on how many thousands of Ukrainian soldiers such as Kirillo Zaitsev have been taken as prisoners to Russia.
Ms. Zaitseva, who was a French teacher before the war, still copes with post-traumatic stress disorder as well as a concussion from a blast caused by Russia’s bombardment of the steel plant. She was caught in one attack while in a makeshift kitchen one floor above the bomb shelter where she was mixing baby formula for her son and heating it by candle.
Ms. Zaitseva says her breast milk stopped from the stress of the siege and she believes her son would not have lived through the ordeal if soldiers hadn’t discovered a cache of infant formula.
After leaving the steel plant in late April, she and her son and parents were taken to a Russian “filtration camp” where she says she was forced to stripped naked and interrogated by agents from Moscow’s Federal Security Service because she was a wife of an Azov Regiment soldier. The unit has a history of far-right leanings but is now part of the Ukrainian army.
“They told me to take off all my clothing and they were touching me everywhere,” Ms. Zaitseva said.
“They took our phones and downloaded all of the data. They told me to tell the truth otherwise I could be killed.”
She said she believes the only reason she was allowed to go free from the Russian filtration camp was because representatives of the Red Cross and United Nations had accompanied her there.
Ms. Zaitseva said civilians hiding in the labyrinthine steel plant were chronically short of food and forced to use rain and melted snow for water. A lack of sufficient power meant they had to live in complete darkness for 12 hours a day. The Soviet-era bomb shelter was plagued by high levels of humidity and she had bedsores from sleeping on makeshift beds.
People were hungry all the time. Some children played games related to food, pretending they were in cafés or supermarkets. Many lost weight. Ms. Zaitseva lost 10 kilograms and her father lost 20. When they emerged after more than two months their skin was pale.
She worries for Ukrainian children forcefully taken to Russia. “Russians are taught to hate Ukrainians and nobody will adopt a Ukrainian child.” Ms. Zaitseva fears these parentless-children will end up exploited for human trafficking or worse.
Her story is also part of a new documentary, Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom by Israeli-American director Evgeny Afineevsky, which was screened at the Halifax forum, a gathering of Canadian, American and European leaders, as well as military and security experts from NATO and its allies.