Anna Zaitseva and her husband Kirilo had only a few stolen moments together last winter in a deep, dark underground shelter.
These fleeting, poignant reunions were over before they started. They happened amid the cacophony of shelling and earth-shattering airstrikes as the Russian military’s noose tightened around their hometown, the southern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.
The young couple saw each other only twice for five minutes each time during Anna Zaitseva’s 65 days trapped in the damp shelters of the sprawling Azov Valley Iron and Steel Works – a name and place now synonymous with the country’s fierce resistance to the Russian invasion.
The lanky 26-year-old French language teacher – who also has a near-perfect command of English – fled with her three-month-old boy to the industrial fortress when the invasion unfolded on February 24.
Kirilo Zaitsev was a steel worker and also one of the defenders of the Azovstal plant.
The last time the pair shared an embrace was in mid-March, when the city they grew up in was under siege.
“[Kirilo] already knew, Anna told CBC News in a recent interview.
“I asked him if I would have a chance to see him again. And he just wants to be quiet. He looked straight at me, he told me he loves me. And he was gone.”
The siege of the Mariupol and Azovstal works captured the world’s attention and galvanized Ukrainians during the initial Russian attack. While the town around the facility was reduced to a smoking ruin, its defenders refused to surrender until 17 May.
A wounded Kirilo Zaitsev was led into captivity and an uncertain fate.
A former Marine, he left the military at his wife’s insistence so they could start a family.
When they were awakened last winter by the first missile attacks that marked the beginning of the full invasion, he told his young wife that he wanted to join the local Azov Regiment, a unit of Ukraine’s National Guard that had its beginnings as a extreme right wing. ultranationalist battalion.
Anna said her husband volunteered because of his former military background and chose the nearest unit.
“I had very mixed feelings, because from one point of view I am proud that he is a military, but from another point of view I understood that I want to be alone with my child,” she said.
She hasn’t heard from him since he was captured. She has no idea where he is. In random texts from unknown numbers, he tells her he loves her.
“I don’t know if he doesn’t have access to proper food, water, medicine. Is he tortured or not?” she said.
Before she and her son, Sviatoslav, were evacuated through a humanitarian corridor, life underground at the facility was a haze of hunger, cold and misery.
At one point, the stress of the siege saw her breast milk dry up; the plant’s defenders struggled to find enough infant formula to keep her child alive. A direct hit on their bunker buried them inside and left the young woman with a concussion.
When they emerged from the deep tunnels to board a waiting bus, her son had spent so much time underground that he didn’t know what sunlight was. Anna had to explain it to him.
Evacuated from the ruins of the steel mill through a humanitarian corridor and processed 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 three officers from the FSB – the Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB – took turns examining her for neo-Nazi tattoo symbols and interrogated her for hours.
Anna said she believes she was saved from further humiliation – or worse – by the presence of the International Red Cross.
“I can half say that [of] me is already dead,” she said. “It was killed in the Azovstal facility.”
The lingering effects of the concussion still bother her.
“You’re in 65 days,” she said. “I had this thought that I could be dead, my son could be dead. And definitely, I’m a new person now.”
She said she often wonders how the experience has changed her.
“Maybe I’m stronger,” Anna said. “But certainly right now I have this power in me to fight, to fight for the people who are right now voiceless, who are right now in captivity. To fight right now for the children who are being forcibly taken to Russia. “
Thousands of children have been found in the basements of war-torn cities like Mariupol. Some are orphans. Others have been separated from their parents.
Russia claims that these children do not have parents or guardians to look after them or that they cannot be reached.
But an investigation by the Associated Press found that Russian officials have deported Ukrainian children to Russia or Russian-controlled areas without consent. The AP reported that Russian officials lied to these children by claiming they were not wanted by their parents, used them for propaganda purposes and gave them Russian families and citizenship.
Anna Zaitseva’s story is one of several in the documentary Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, by American filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky.
The film is a stark, gritty look at the humanitarian crisis caused by the war.
“We used to know that war is tragedy and soldiers,” Afneensky said. “This film is not about tragedies and soldiers.
“It’s about human stories. It’s a mother who prays every night that her child will wake up the next morning and they’ll be alive. It’s a doctor who tried to save people’s lives… It’s volunteers . It’s journalists like you who deliver stories on the front lines.”
The documentary – which was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and in Halifax at last weekend’s security forum, as well as in New York and Venice – is an urgent call to the world’s democracies, Afneensky said.
“Because if we neglect the situation, as we neglected for the last eight years, what will happen?” he said, referring to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. “What else can happen?”