Ukraine’s First Lady meets heroes of Mariupol as they are reunited with their families in Turkey after being released by Russia in prisoner exchange
- Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska among the first to greet the heroic defenders
- Five commanders of Mariupol defence awarded Hero of Ukraine medals
- Scenes of emotional tears and joy as the five finally reunited with their families
- They had been released as part of prison swap but must remain in Turkey
Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska was among the first to greet the heroic defenders of Mariupol as they were reunited with their families in Turkey after a prisoner swap secured their release from Russia.
There were scenes of heartbreaking joy as five of the commanders that oversaw the three month defence of the port city were finally able to embrace their excited children and hold their loved ones once again.
Among them were Azov commander Denis Prokopenko, his deputy Svyatoslav Palamar, Denys Shleha and Marine commander Serhiy Volynsky, each having withstood months of torture, neglect, malnutrition as the Russians reneged on the promises they made prior to the defenders’ surrender.
The four heroes were awarded the Hero of Ukraine title and the Order of the Golden Star by Andriy Yermak, Head of the Presidential Administration, for holding out in the sprawling Azovstal steel plant on the Black Sea coast while under constant bombardment by besieging Russian forces.
Part of the deal that the two warring sides struck to bring them home was that they must sit out the entirety of the war in Turkey in an undisclosed location under the auspices of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The joyous reunion with their anxiously waiting families was something many feared would never happen again after they were last seen being bussed off to prisons likened to concentration camps.
Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska shakes hands with the ecstatic daughter of Denys Shleha after the five Azovstal commanders are finally reunited with their families after 19 weeks as prisoners of war
A smiling Serhii Volynskyi receives a kiss from his wife and Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska as he cradles his son in his hands after being released from 19 weeks of Russian captivity as a prisoner of war
Denys Shleha and family pose with Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska and Andriy Yermak, Head of the Presidential Administration, after they are reunited
Azov commander Denis Prokopenko hugs his daughter with an expression of pure happiness as he is finally reunited with his family
Denys Shleha’s daughter tears across the room to jump into the arms of the father that she thought she would never see again
Mariupol defender Denys Shleha is greeted by his emotional wife and daughter who rush to him and hug him tightly as he enters the room
Many doubted they would be seen alive again. Russian hardliners, who view Azov as the worst of the worst – Nazis and war criminals – had been calling for show trials executions.
More than 2,000 defenders, many in the Azov unit, had marched out of the Azovstal steel plant’s twisted wreckage into Russian captivity in mid-May, ending a nearly three-month siege of the port city of Mariupol.
‘We agreed that the soldiers – both rank and file and officers – would be able to live together, although by custom they would have been interned separately,’ a Ukrainian intelligence officer told Ukrainska Pravda.
Our doctors were to be able to examine the soldiers, and our cooks, if there are any left, will be able to cook with what is available. They were all to be kept together.’
But it quickly became clear that these conditions would not be honoured, the officer said.
Originally, the group were supposed to be kept together at the Olenivka prison camp on Russian-controlled Ukrainian territory under the terms of their surrender.
But the Russians immediately violated these promises and shipped the group off to separate penal colonies on Russian soil.
This ultimately proved to be an unlikely boon. The Olenivka prison camp was hit by a missile in late July, after the Azovstal defenders had been transferred out, that killed at least 40 Ukrainian prisoners of war.
An emotional Denys Shleha embraces his wife, who would have feared that she would never see her husband again
Sviatoslav Palamar sits with his wife and young son, having not seen them for months
Serhii Volynskyi receives a deep hug from his young son in a touching moment
The four commanders were each awarded the Hero of Ukraine title and the Order of the Golden Star by Andriy Yermak, Head of the Presidential Administration, for holding out in the sprawling Azovstal steel plant on the Black Sea coast while under constant bombardment by besieging Russian forces
They survived 19 weeks in Russian custody, where they were allegedly subjected to cruelty, malnutrition, torture and other privations
Denys Shleha, one of commanders of defenders of the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works in Mariupol, poses with his medals with Zelensky’s right hand man Andriy Yermak
Mykhailo Dianov, one of the hero defenders of Mariupol, was dramatically freed in a surprise prisoner swap with Russia along with 205 other Ukrainians
Dmytro Kozatskyi, head of the Azov Regiment press service, photographer and Mariupol defender, is photographed showing his emaciated body after being held in Russian captivity since May and freed recently in a prisoner exchange
Among the prisoners released is Viktor Medvedchuk, Putin’s traitorous right-hand man in Ukraine, with President Zelensky saying he was exchanged for 200 Ukrainians
Just when it was feared that the promises were shattered and the defenders would never be seen again, a surprising flurry of news emerged in late September of an unexpected prison swap.
Clandestine negotiations for their freedom had been going on behind the scenes for some time, involving Ukrainian spies and Russian FSB, intermediaries, world leaders and even the Pope.
In total, Russia agreed to give up 215 Ukrainian prisoners – the five Azov commanders, 10 foreign prisoners including Britons Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin, and 200 others – in return for just 56 of their own.
Among the prisoners released is Viktor Medvedchuk, Putin’s treasonous right-hand man in Ukraine, with President Zelensky saying he was exchanged for 200 Ukrainians.
The US claimed, shortly before Putin launched his astonishing full-scale invasion of his Slavic neighbour, that Ukrainian-citizen Medvedchuk had been tapped by the Kremlin to lead a puppet government in a postwar regime.
Serhii Volynskyi hugs his wife and son tightly upon their reunion after 19 weeks in Russian captivity
Denys Shleha is surrounded by his overjoyed family after surviving Russian captivity and coming back to them in one piece
Father and daughter beam with joy as Denis Prokopenko is reunited with his family after spending three months under Russian siege in Mariupol
A group photo shows the five war heroes with their families, along with Olena Zelenska and Andriy Yermak
It was something that mostly clearly marked him out as a traitor after years of leading the pro-Moscow Ukrainian OPZZh [Opposition Platform – For Life] party, which acted as a Trojan horse for Putin within Ukrainian politics.
Medvedchuk was finally detained in April, trying to escape capture disguised as a Ukrainian serviceman.
His swap – for six times as many people – was final proof that he had been an agent of Putin’s all along.
Zelensky assured his people that trading such a high traitor was a price worth paying, and that Medvedchuk had already provided spies with a lot of information.
And many would consider that it was a fine price to pay for rescuing the Azovstal defenders from the 19 weeks of suffering they endured.
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