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On Saturday, September 17, another peaceful action took place near the monument to Taras Shevchenko in Lviv. Families of prisoners from the entire country gathered again to remind the world about their loved ones, whose fates have remained unknown for several months now. These are elderly women, pregnant and military personnel, whose traces disappeared in the territory not controlled by Ukraine.
Soldiers of the «Azov» Regiment, which is part of the National Guard of Ukraine, are still among the captives. The regiment was created as a volunteer battalion at the beginning of the war in 2014. It took part in the battles near Ilovaisk, carried out an offensive on Shyrokine and defended Mariupol from the end of August 2014.
It was the «Azov» soldiers who accomplished the feat on Azovstal metallurgical plant last spring. Only on May 20, on the 86th day of the defence of Mariupol, they stopped the resistance and surrendered to the Russian troops following the order of the leadership. The relatives of the captured Azov fighters are in contact with the Ukrainian authorities, but they still do not have detailed information about what happened to them. Those whom they miraculously managed to contact said they were held in the occupied territory of the Donetsk region.
In particular, the fate of the «Azov» fighter Sviatoslav Siryi, who turned 27 on August 27, is still unknown. His mother, Dana Labinska, agreed to tell us about her life and her hero son.
Dana has been teaching mathematics and computer science at the lyceum in the village of Ryasne-Ruske in the Lviv region since 1996. She has four children – a daughter and three sons, all having patriotic views. The woman says she loves them very much, and that together they are a team. The three eldest are already adults, and the youngest son, Severyn, is also independent, although there is a ten-year difference between him and the eldest Svyatoslav.
«When my son went to the front, they already had their boys’ hangouts without me,» – the woman begins.
The beginning of a full-scale invasion
For many Ukrainians, the morning of February 24 divided their lives into «before» and «after», but not for this family. They felt the spirit of war on the Maidan in 2014, and from 2020, the eldest son took up arms himself, signing a contract for three years.
Svyatoslav Siryi was among those students who suffered from «Berkut» during the crackdown on the Maidan which happened on the night of November 29-30, 2013.
«February 24 was not a turning point for me, because even before that, we had a war going on. We were «accustomed» to the anti-terrorist operation and helped the front. Although the stage of the war at that time was serious, now it is completely different. One of the veterans said that ATO [anti-terrorist operation, launched by the Ukrainian government on Donbas in 2014] is like a sandbox for adult boys. And we all definitely felt it,» – continues the mother of the «Azov» hero.
Since the beginning of the Revolution of Dignity, Ms Dana has been knitting warm clothes: first for Maidan participants, then for ATO soldiers. It’s volunteering and a hobby at the same time.
«I knit different items using various techniques. I clearly remember that I knitted more than 350 pairs of socks in three winters,» – she says.
The woman learned about the beginning of a full-scale invasion from her daughter, Dzvinka, who called her at five in the morning on February 24. Although she went to military trainings for civillians, acquired practical survival skills, it was difficult for her to comprehend that a great war was possible.
«Of course, we were preparing, but the head, the mind did not want to accept it. I didn’t fully believe that such an option was possible, like in the movies: a moment – and the war begins. The brain blocked it,» – Dana Labinska explains.
For the family and for her personally, almost nothing changed after the full-scale invasion, except that she suddenly began to feel an incredible love for her country.
«It was after February 24 that I realized how beautiful, developed and free Ukraine is, despite all its shortcomings and challenges. It’s a shame that we realized this only when we started to be destroyed, when we went hiding in basements, when our life plans started falling apart,» – the woman admits.
The closest relatives are at war
Now, the son of Dana Labinska, Svyatoslav, who defended «Azovstal», is in Russian captivity. Before serving in the army, he graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy of the Ivan Franko Lviv National University, majored in psychology. The mother says that her son wanted to serve in «Azov», it was his well-considered decision because he wanted to join the combat unit.
«I never dissuaded my children from anything, I brought them up with the idea that they should be worthy descendants of Ukrainian heroes. Svyatoslav grew up an active patriot, so I am not surprised by his decision to join the active army. Men always choose. And no matter how hard it was at that moment, no matter how much I wanted to cry, I understood him, because we are who we are,» – the hero’s mother explains.
In addition to Svyatoslav, three more members of Ms Dana’s family are serving at the front. Her son-in-law, Oleh, has been part of Azov since 2015, her husband Vasyl and his father, who was in the ATO in 2014 and 2015, joined the ranks of the Armed Forces on the morning of the first day of the invasion.
The woman recalls: «On the morning of February 24, we were all confused. We decided to go to the husband’s family because they have a nice basement. Directly from the threshold, his father said: «Vasyl, we have to go to the recruitment centre.» Their dialogue was very short. We went to the basement, and they went to the cold, during the air raid, got into the car and went to the recruitment centre, where they agreed to take them to the 72nd separate mechanized brigade [named after the Black Zaporozhians] if they would get to Bila Tserkva in central Ukraine themselves «.
Exceptionally principled, firm, strong-willed – this is how his mother describes him. She adds that Svyatoslav was like that from an early age. At the age of one and a half, he learned to give alms. Those were difficult 90s, then even pennies were saved, but when going for a walk with her son, a woman always had to have a few coins in her pocket.
«Then, there were a lot of beggars in the city. And when we met one of them, Svyatoslav stopped, looked and refused to go further until we gave alms. It could not be moved. How can you teach a one-and-a-half-year-old child to give alms? No one taught him this, he was like that,» – says Dana Labinska.
Svyatoslav was very fond of singing Cossack songs and identified himself with the heroes of the past. From the age of three or four, he sang very clearly, and although no one understood what it was about, songs were recognized by the melodies. Later, he was sent to «Dudaryk» choir.
The family spent a lot of time in their Carpathian estate. When they climbed the mountains, Svyatoslav always went ahead and sang a Cossack song «Oh, on the mountain, the reapers are reaping.»
«At a certain point, he looked back, explained that he was [the Cossack hetman] Doroshenko, and walked on. If my son was a Doroshenko at the age of three, then what could I do when he turned 23 and announced that he was going to «Azov»? I have always understood that my role after the children grow up is to bless them and wait. When moms say: «Oh, I’m going to have hypertension, I’m going to worry,» – that’s selfishness. I’ll either survive it or I won’t. Such is life,» – the woman believes.
While Svyatoslav was defending Azovstal, Dana spoke with him infrequently. These conversations were short – the message «it’s ok, I’m here» was enough. There is an unwritten rule in the family for such cases: the one who is fighting cannot contact everyone. Sviatoslav kept in touch mainly through correspondence with his fiancée Maryana, and she already relayed the news to Mrs Dana.
«Maryana, an IT worker, was able to restore his account and some other contacts after all his things burned at one moment. The only specific message he sent his bride in the first days of the full-scale invasion was the following: «During the first 30 hours of the war, I slept for 50 minutes in full gear on a box of shells,» – says the woman. «This is how the beginning of the war in Mariupol looked like.»
On April 28, after constant shelling of Azovstal, the roof of the underground shelter collapsed, where the operating theatre and the hospital were located. Dana’s wounded son was there. Few survived after that, but Sviatoslav with moderate injuries and his badly wounded comrade managed to escape. The fighters slept on one bed, because there was a shortage of them.
The mom saw her son on December 19 and read a message from him on May 5. Later, their Starlink was taken away by the fighters who did not stop defending the metallurgical plant.
«I remember writing to him then, asking how he was feeling. He wrote that he was surrounded, in the hospital, and wounded. I asked if he had anything to eat or drink. He did not answer anything about food and said that the water had not been available for a day, but the boys promised to «solve» this issue, – the mother of the «Azov» fighter recalls.
Living conditions in the tunnels and bunkers of the metallurgical plant. Photo: Dmytro Kozatskyi
The woman learned that her son managed to evacuate the plant after watching a video from one of the DNR channels, which was found by Maryana. On this video, they recognized their soldier and his comrades from Lviv. Then Dana saw Svyatoslav for the last time:
«When we saw that he was walking with his own legs, we couldn’t even understand how this was possible, he had a projectile fragment in his leg. Then Maryana said: «It’s okay, it was Slavka who «invented» something, and we were happy about it. It’s surprising, but this is human nature – to rejoice in the worst, hopeless situations.»
It is known that some of the evacuated fighters were kept in Olenivka prison. After the shelling of the prison barracks on July 29, where many defenders of Azovstal were killed, 53 Ukrainian prisoners of war were among them. The Russian side claims that the shelling was carried out by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Ukraine rejects these accusations, claiming that it was a terrorist attack organized by Russia. No one knows where Svyatoslav is now.
«After that «evacuation» from the plant, I heard rumours that someone was writing something to someone from unknown phone numbers. We don’t know how this «word of mouth» works, but there have been rumours that a certain person exists. However, after the public execution of the «Azovians» in Olenivka, no one heard anything about Svyatoslav,» – says Ms Dana.
The fighters left Azovstal under the guarantees of many international organizations and heads of state, although the option of surrender was not considered in principle, because the defenders of the plant were ready for the last deadly battle.
«Russia calls them terrorists, but they are official units of the National Guard, the Armed Forces of the state, which is recognized by the whole world. Being military, they had to iconate the order. But even the guys who were exchanged claimed that they were ready to go to the last battle, that it would be much easier for them than everything you will have to go through later,» – says the mother.
In support of the «Azovstal» defenders
At the end of May, already after the military withdrew from the territory of the Azovstal plant, their families from all over Ukraine came to Kyiv and created the «Association of Families of Azovstal Defenders». As an official legal entity, it can appeal to international organizations, leaders of other countries, and Ukrainian authorities. The families of the fighters are organizing actions in Lviv and in the capital to remind the world about the captured «Azovians».
«Those fighters who managed to be exchanged say that the prisoners are kept under a complete information blockade. They do not know what the situation is in Ukraine, what is happening here on the front line and in their families. They are told that they have been forgotten, that no one needs them, because they are ashamed, – explains Ms Dana. – So we record everything so that after the return, our loved ones will see that we did not sit idly by and remember them every moment. Not only the closest relatives, but everyone. The boys know that we love them and are already preparing for their rehabilitation.»
Dana’s daughter Dzvinka is an active member of the «Association of Families of Azovstal Defenders». Her husband is also currently fighting
The woman herself wonders how she manages to talk about her son. She believes that many people are afraid to speak, thinking that it may harm their relatives, do not find the right words, and cannot hold back tears.
«I already cried my heart out behind the refrigerator when three-ton bombs fell on Azovstal. The children fell asleep in the corner, and I cried in the kitchen, prayed, I don’t even remember about what. But it’s okay, we survived it, because no one knows the limits of their suffering,» – says Ms Dana.
After Svyatoslav returns, words will not be the main thing, she believes: «I won’t be able to say anything. I will look at my son for a long time, touch him, wrap him in a blanket knitted especially for him, soft and white, like the wings of an angel, and I will not move him – let him rest as long as he wants.»
The mother of the «Azovian» sees a stable future of Ukraine in a strong army, and victory – only with the establishment of control over the internationally recognized borders of our state. Then it will be possible to live in a relatively safe country.
Marta Baidaka spoke
Text: Roman Tyshchenko-Lamanskyi, translated by Vitalii Holich
Video: Volodymyr Panchuk
Photo: Ivan Stanislavskyi
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