Europe

Ukrainian woman seeks her husband behind enemy lines

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Media captionJames Reynolds reports on Oksana Svyryd's quest to free her captured husband

On 21 January, rebel fighters took Donetsk airport, in one of the toughest battles of the entire war. Rebels captured a group of exhausted government soldiers.

The defeated men were made to march through the streets of Donetsk. They did so slowly, their heads down - as a crowd heckled them.

One captive, 37-year-old Sergeant Major Anatoly Svyryd, looked ahead blankly. He shuffled along, protecting his bandaged right hand.

He ignored the insults thrown at him. The captives were made to kneel. They were then taken away and imprisoned.

His wife, Oksana, has made the journey alone into rebel-held territory to get her husband back. When she first tried to cross the border, the rebels took her prisoner as well.

They interrogated her and let her go after 10 days. But the experience did not stop her.

She has tried to explain her mission to the couple's eight-year-old son Mark. "When I left, my son started crying," she says.

"He said, 'Mum, don't go.' He's little, but he's quite a mature boy.

Image caption Ms Svyryd was initially detained by the rebels when she began searching for her husband

"I sat him down and explained the situation to him: 'Mark, you're a big boy who knows and understands quite a lot.'

"And I said to him honestly, 'Mark, I'm going to Donetsk. And I'm going to get your daddy.'"

As she continues, she fights tears of her own.

"The child at the moment doesn't know that daddy is in captivity, he knows that his daddy is at war. But he doesn't know he was taken prisoner.

"So I said: 'Mark, I'll try and bring daddy back from Donetsk.' So I told him honestly. The child understood," she concludes.

Emotional issue

Ms Svyryd is getting help from Vladimir Ruban, a former Ukrainian army officer.

A year ago, Mr Ruban began to arrange the release of captives. At first, the country's rebels didn't trust him. They took him and his colleague prisoner and threatened to kill them.

"Our only desire was to die not from a knife, not beheaded, but, as is befitting an officer, from a bullet," he says.

Image caption Dariya Morozova says the rebels quickly return badly injured captives

"At that moment that was all we wanted, to have a dignified death, when it was already clear that there was no help coming and resistance was futile."

Mr Ruban and his colleague were later released. He slowly managed to build up an understanding with both sides. Over the last year, he has negotiated the release of more than 600 prisoners.

"Both sides trust us," he says. "We don't take part in this conflict on either side, we don't collect any information, record any conversations or pass on any information to anyone."

The fate of captives on either side is one of the most emotional issues in the entire conflict.

If there is to be a lasting peace agreement between the Ukrainian and the rebels here, it will have to include a full prisoner exchange.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Pro-Russian rebels captured Donetsk airport in January, after months of fierce fighting

Right now, the government and the rebels each promise to release injured captives.

"We try to return the wounded straight away because those guys are missing arms and legs," says Dariya Morozova, who runs the rebels' human rights department in Donetsk.

"There's no point them staying here. They may as well go back to Ukraine and get treatment. The rest will be exchanged in turn."

The rest may include Ms Svyryd's husband, Anatoly. Negotiators say that the sergeant-major may be released this week.

His wife will stay here, in rebel-held territory, until that happens.