Anna Zaitseva and her husband Kirilo only had a few moments together last winter in a deep, dark underground shelter.
Their fleeting, poignant reunion was over before it began. They erupted amid a cacophony of artillery fire and earth-shattering airstrikes as Russian military nooses tightened around their hometown of Mariupol, a port city in southern Ukraine.
During the 65 days that Anna Zaitseva was confined to the dank shelter of the sprawling Azovstar Steel Works, the young couple met only twice for five minutes each. Its name and location are now synonymous with the country’s fierce resistance to Russian aggression.
When the invasion unfolded on February 24, she fled to an industrial fortress with her three-month-old baby boy.
Kirilo Zaitsev was a steel worker and one of the garrisons at the Azovstal factory.
The last time the couple shared a hug was in mid-March, when the city they grew up in was about to come under siege.
“[Kirilo] I already knew,” Anna told CBC News in a recent interview.
“I asked him if there was any chance of seeing him again. And he just kept quiet. He looked me straight in the eye and told me he loved me. And he is gone.
The siege of Mariupol and the construction of Azokhstan captured the world’s attention and energized the Ukrainians during the first Russian onslaught. The city around the power station lay in ruins, but the garrison refused to surrender until his 17th May.
Wounded Kirilo Zaitsev was captured and sent to an uncertain fate.
A former Marine, he left the military at his wife’s insistence to start a family.
When they were awakened last winter by the first missile strikes, marking the beginning of a full-scale invasion, he told his young wife that he would join the local Azov regiment, an ultranationalist battalion.
Anna said her husband volunteered because of his previous military career and chose the closest unit.
“It was a very mixed feeling. From one point of view, I was proud that he was in the military, but from another point of view, I knew I was going to be alone with my child. ‘ she said.
She has not heard from him since he was captured. She doesn’t know where he is. In a random text from her unknown number, he tells her he loves her.
“I don’t know if he doesn’t have access to proper food, water and medicine. Is he being tortured?” she said.
Underground life in the factory was a haze of hunger, cold and misery before she and her son Sviatoslav fled through the humanitarian corridor.
At some point, the stress of the siege depleted her breast milk. The plant advocate scrambled to find enough formula to keep her child alive. A direct hit to the bunker buried them inside and gave the young woman a concussion.
When they emerged from a deep tunnel to catch the waiting bus, her son had spent so much time underground that he didn’t know what daylight was. I had to explain.
Evacuated from an abandoned steel mill through a humanitarian passage and through a Russian filtration camp, Anna was pulled aside because her husband was a member of the Azov Regiment. She said she was forced to strip naked while her three officers from the FSB (the KGB’s successor, the Federal Security Service) took turns examining neo-Nazi tattoo symbols and interrogating them for hours. Told.
Anna believes that the presence of the International Red Cross saved her from further humiliation, or worse.
“I can say half [of] I’m dead,” she said.
The aftereffects of the concussion still haunt her.
“Sixty-five days to go,” she said. “I thought I might be dead, my son might be dead. And definitely I’m a new person now.”
She said she often wondered how the experience changed her.
“Maybe I’m stronger,” said Anna. “But now I have the strength to fight. Now I have the strength to fight for those who have lost their voices and are incarcerated. Fight now for the children who were forcibly taken to Russia.” “
Thousands of children have been found in the basements of war-torn cities like Mariupol. There are also orphans. Some have been separated from their parents.
Russia claims that these children have no parents or guardians to care for or cannot be contacted.
But an Associated Press investigation found that Russian authorities deported Ukrainian children to Russia or Russian-controlled territories without their consent. claimed to be unwanted by his parents, used it for propaganda purposes, and reportedly gave him Russian family and citizenship.
Anna Zaitseva’s story is one of several featured in the documentary. Freedom on Fire: Fight for Freedom in Ukraine, By US-based filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky.
The film presents a grim and gritty look at the humanitarian crisis wrought by war.
“We knew war was a tragedy and a soldier,” said Achninski. “This movie is not about tragedy or soldiers.
“It’s about the human story. It’s the mother who wakes up every night and prays that her child is alive the next morning. It’s the doctor who tried to save people’s lives… It’s the volunteer. It’s you.” It’s the kind of journalist who delivers the story on the front lines.”
The documentary, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and last weekend’s Security Forum in Halifax, New York and Venice, is an urgent call to the world’s democracies, Afneensky said.
“Because what else will happen if we ignore the situation like we have ignored the last eight years?” he said, referring to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.