To the West, they bring a message. It is from one of the darkest and most dangerous places in the world: the Azovstal steel plant in Ukraine.
The partners of these Ukrainian women, all less than 30-years-old, are defenders of the southern Ukranian city of Mariupol. Their husbands and boyfriends have survived for months under siege in inhumane conditions, completely cut off from the world and under constant bombardment by the Russian army.
The women are meeting state representatives and media in western Europe – hoping to make the voices of the Azovstal defenders heard. Euronews caught up with them in Paris.
‘Texts from the darkness’
Short texts, sometimes voice messages, but rarely photographs, were what connected these women to their loved ones for months. During this time, they heard about the extreme hardships at the sprawling Azovstal steel plant.
“He told me the situation was critical. There was no medical help, there was no water, they were drinking from a glass – one sip of technically water every five to six hours,” says Olha Andrianova, the wife of Azov fighter Serhii, who is injured. She hasn’t heard from him for more than 10 days now.
“They were trying to make some sort of pancakes by grinding some rice leftovers into the flour, using a coffee grinder,” said Hanna Naumenko, the fiance of Dmytro Danilov, one of the Azov’s division’s commanders.
“Under the ruins of one of the destroyed buildings of Azovstal they found ‘a special treat’ – a bottle of soft drink – it contains sugar, it was very important to keep them going,” she added.
The young woman moves her engagement ring from one finger to another, as she is afraid to lose it, but would never take it off. She has lost a lot of weight during the last months due to a constant worry for the man she loves, his fellow combatants, civilians and even the animals that were stuck at Azovstal steelworks with them.
“Would you like to see pictures from Azovstal or from our peaceful time together,” she asked.
Danilov remembered a voice message about a little kid asking her fiance for food and painkillers, which brought her to tears. On her phone, she has the photos of Dmytro being awarded honours, holding animals stuck at Azovstal… In one of the most recent messages, she made him promise they would return to Paris together.
During the months-long siege, the couples talked little about combat, only making plans for the day when the war would be over.
“When we get a chance to talk,” says Daria Tsykunova, Illia Samoilenko’s 22-year-old girlfriend, “We usually discuss the actual news about Ukraine and I am just telling him what I am doing and how our tour is going. Also, we discuss what we are doing in the future, maybe our plans.”
‘We are the soldiers in the war of information’
Yuliia Fedosiuk, 29, the wife of fighter Arseniy Fedosiuk, says the women are routinely asked about the links of the Azov regiment to far-right movements in Ukraine.
“Russian propaganda in Europe is strong and many people think that Azov soldiers are neo-Nazis or fascists,” she said.
“We tell the media that the Azov regiment is the official part of the Ukrainian army. That it has done no crimes, no war crimes. That it is a multinational regiment. Many Azov soldiers are Armenians, Jews, Azerbaijani, Georgians and so on. The chief rabbi [of Ukraine, Moshe Reuven Azman], wrote to the Israel government to form the corridor for the Azov evacuations. Even the Jewish community supports Azov. My friend is the chief of one of the biggest LGBTQ+ organisations and they donated money to Azov,” she continued.
Olha Andrianova says she explains to everybody she meets in western Europe that it’s impossible to remain to neutral over the Ukraine war.
“I think the world started opening its eyes recently and got to understand that this is not a game, not some sort of a reality show… that the truth is horrible and the genocide is happening in Ukraine,” she says.
‘He is my ray of light’
But where do these Ukrainian women get support during these dark months? Each and every one of them said that the biggest source of their support is their partners, the very men they are trying to save.
“I feel really terrible that I have everything, next to me is a peaceful life, I feel horrible that I have this all and he doesn’t,” Kateryna Prokopenko, the wife of Azov commander Denys Prokopenko told Euronews. “I would swap everything that I have now to be next to him under the bombardment, under shelling, without food, water or comfort but next to him”
She continued: “He is my best support in this life, in this world … He for me is the ray of light, the incarnation of strength, kindness, will and spirit power. I can’t even explain how much I value this. I am responding the same way, I am supporting him each time. I want him to be with me till the end.”
‘We never had normal relationships’
The men of these Ukrainian women volunteered to defend their country back in 2014 when conflict first broke out with Russian backed separatists.
“We never had a normal relationship, as families,” says Prokopenko. “It was always a distant relationship. People are really surprised about how we can live like this… But we wanted to have the real men like this by our sides. They knew where they were going, they knew it might be a one-way ticket.
“Listening to our stories, people start to understand us. People I meet here are very empathic. I didn’t see any hate. Mostly it comes online,” she added.
Prokopenko was recently targeted in a defamatory attack. In photographs published online, a person looking similar to Kateryna performed a Nazi salute. The photographs were later proved to be fake, however the public perception of her remains dented.
‘Almost every person is ready to put their lives on the line so that Ukraine will be free’
All the Ukrainian wives and partners were defiant in their resistance to Russia.
“I only believe in our army and believe in the sanity of our authorities and other countries,” said Prokopenko.”I believe that democracy is not just words, a civilised world is not just words or just lines in some conventions, that it means real actions. We need to stop Russia.”
Our army is very strong,” she continues. “Our people are very motivated, almost every person I know is ready to put their life on the line so that Ukraine will be free.”