Wives of some of the scores of Ukrainian fighters released by Russia in a prisoner swap have described to CNN the disbelief and joy of hearing their loved ones had been released.
Alina Volovyk, speaking with CNN via WhatsApp, described getting a phone call from a man she did not recognize at first as her husband, Artem Volovyk, a Ukrainian Marine who fought at the Azovstal Steel Plant earlier this year, before all of Mariupol was captured by Russian forces.
“At first, I didn’t understand what was going on and where he was,” Alina Volovyk recalled. “But he said, ‘Honey, I’m already in Ukraine! There was a swap.’”
“I just started screaming, my hands were shaking,” she said. “Now I am the happiest woman in the world.”
Russia on Wednesday released 215 people from its custody, including some foreign nationals who had been fighting for Ukraine. In exchange, Ukraine released 55 people, as well as Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician and oligarch, whose daughter is goddaughter to Vladimir Putin.
Among the 215 people released by Russia were “188 heroes of Azovstal and Mariupol,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said overnight.
The release of the Azovstal and Mariupol fighters is a major coup for Ukrainian morale, given the huge role the defense of Mariupol played in the Ukrainian psyche early in the war.
This is the largest single release of fighters from Mariupol. In a June prisoner swap, Russia released 144 soldiers, among whom 95 had defended the Azovstal plant.
Ruslana Volynska, whose husband Serhii “Volyna” Volynskyi, was acting commander of the 36th Separate Marine Brigade, told CNN via text message that she found out about the swap on the Internet.
“Later Serhii called himself, and I heard him. It was boundless joy, shock, happiness! All emotions were mixed! I cried with happiness, and could not believe that this day had come,” she said.
An advisor to Mariupol’s Ukrainian mayor, Petro Andriushchenko, who was forced to leave his city as Russia advanced, said on Telegram that Mariupol “rejoices the return of its Heroes to Ukrainian soil. Even in the occupation!”
“I still can’t believe it,” Alina Volovyk told CNN. “It seems to me that this is a dream and I will wake up soon. I couldn’t sleep until 5 am, because I was overwhelmed with emotions.”
“Only two hours ago, when I was doing some shopping, I realized that my husband was at home and started to cry. The only thing I want now is to hug him as soon as possible,” she added.