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‘I have died every day’: Ukraine wives of Mariupol fighters plead for help from Turkey

The Independent logo The Independent 16/05/2022 Borzou Daragahi

He had promised her that after just one more tour of duty, he would end his military career. The two would marry, settle down and have kids in their hometown of Mykolaiv. They had even decided on a name for their firstborn: Matvei.

Then the war with Russia started, and 32-year-old Olga Boiko’s fiancee, a member of the Ukrainian Marines 36th Brigade, wound up in the besieged coastal city of Mariupol. He’s now among the soldiers trapped inside the Azovstal steel plant.

And she is on the road, now in Turkey with a group of other partners and parents of the military men. On Monday, they beseeched Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to use his influence to ensure their safe passage home. Azovstal is now surrounded by Russian forces, who insist that the men surrender, which Ukrainians believe will mean their death or imprisonment.

“They’re running out of everything – food, medicine, and even water,” Ms Boiko told reporters gathered at an Istanbul press conference, her eyes welling up with tears. “I’m begging for help. We’re begging for help.”

Ms Boiko, two other wives and a parent of those inside Azovstal travelled from Ukrainian cities to Turkey to muster up political and humanitarian support for their loved ones. The trip, covered widely by the Turkish media, comes as Nato member Ankara is under tremendous pressure to do more to counter the Russian offensive and shift its position on the Kremlin.

Though the Bayraktar TB-2 attack drones that Turkey sells Ukraine have acquired a near legendary status for the damage they have inflicted on Russian armour, the nation has been accused of sitting on the fence when it comes to the Ukraine war.

Ankara has declined to abide by United States or European Union sanctions on Russia. It has welcomed Russian capital, oligarchs and tourism. Even as it maintains close relations with Kyiv, it is also in regular contact with Moscow.

Mr Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, told The New York Times on Saturday that Ankara was trying to negotiate an evacuation of wounded soldiers from Azovstal, but was being hampered by constant political and military changes.

Over the weekend, Turkey was in high-stakes negotiations in Berlin over allowing Finland and Sweden to join the Nato alliance. Ankara says it opposes their entry because of their tolerance of ethnic Kurdish nationalist groups deemed a threat by Turkey.

One official involved in talks, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had demanded that Stockholm and Helsinki denounce the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and impose restrictions on arms to Kurdish militant groups in northeast Syria.

“Cavusoglu demanded public statements by Sweden and Finland on their past PKK links and restrictions on arms exports,” said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Cavusoglu was very tough.”

The Ukrainian women in Istanbul shied away from geopolitics, and insisted they were on a humanitarian mission. Specifically, they were asking Mr Erdogan to rally China and potentially other world powers, and convince Russian president Vladimir Putin to allow their men to come home.

Ruslana, Ukrainian singer and former Eurovision song contest winner, speaks during the news conference (AP) © Provided by The Independent Ruslana, Ukrainian singer and former Eurovision song contest winner, speaks during the news conference (AP)

“This is the last chance to save them,” said Ruslana Lyzhychko, the Ukrainian pop singer who was winner of the 2004 Eurovision song contest in Istanbul and who has met Mr Erdogan. She travelled from Ukraine with the others to serve as an informal spokesperson for their cause. “I believe in the wisdom and kindness of Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” she said.


Video: Putin’s troops ‘withdrawing from Kharkiv’ amid grinding battle for Ukraine’s east (Evening Standard)

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The trip was organised and funded by private Ukrainians citizens, though at least one Ukrainian defence ministry employee was among the entourage, and other Ukrainian political officials and advisers had been promoting the trip.

At least some of the men in Azovstal are members of the Azov Regiment, a unit of the Ukrainian armed forces which was originally formed as a far-right paramilitary that included some neo-Nazi fighters. The accusation that the fighters harbour “Nazi” sympathies and Russia’s stated goal of launching the war to “denazify” Ukraine have complicated rescue efforts.

Even as they praised the bravery of their husbands, the women, too, had extraordinary stories of their own. Ms Boiko, to the shock of many of her relatives, remained mostly in Mykolaiv during the entire war, refusing even to shelter in basements during air raids and artillery barrages that have ravaged the city.

An animal lover, she has spent the war months rescuing abandoned pets and arranging their transport to Poland or Germany. She said she’s resettled around 300 dogs and cats.

“Saving animals is my way to cope,” she said during an interview after the press conference.

Natalia Zarytska, a 36-year-old agriculture specialist who is married to one of the soldiers inside Azovstal, spent a long stretch of the war in a basement in Kyiv.

I hope Erdogan with his humane actions can help us hug our husbands and children again

Natalia Zarytska

She told The Independent she last saw her husband on Valentine’s Day, when she briefly visited him in Mariupol just days before the Russian invasion began. During the war, they have traded messages on the Telegram app popular in eastern Europe, though she has not heard back from him for more than a week.

“I have died every day for the last 70 days,” said Ms Zarytska.

She said her 8-year-old son Olexander and the children of other fighters assemble Lego models of Mariupol to try to come up with ideas to get their fathers out of the city.

“I hope Erdogan with his humane actions can help us hug our husbands and children again,” she said. “Or at least bury them and say goodbye properly.”

Aleksandra Zhirova contributed to this report

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