Listen to this story:
ROME – On Wednesday, at the end of his weekly audience, Pope Francis spent several minutes with the wives of two of the Ukrainian soldiers currently barricaded in the tunnels of the Azovstal steelworks in the city of Mariupol.
“He is our last hope,” said Kateryna Prokopenko, speaking with journalists. She was joined by Yulya Fedosiuk. Their husbands, Commandant Denis Prokopenko and Arseniy Fedosiuk, are trapped in the plant, along with some 2,000 soldiers, 700 of whom were wounded by Russian forces and need a medical evacuation.
“I can’t even explain what I was feeling at that moment,” said Fedosiuk, describing her meeting with the pope. “I was nervous, because it was a historical moment, and we hope together that it might help save the lives of our husbands, of our military.”
The women said they hope their meeting with the pope will help save the lives of their loved ones, and guarantee a proper burial for those who have already lost their lives in the steel works, the last redoubt of the Ukrainian military in the Ukrainian city, which has been under Russian siege for almost 80 days.
They said they are in contact with some 500 other women, wives and girlfriends of the estimated 700 soldiers who need safe passage from Mariupol to receive urgent medical aid.
Pope Francis has often referred to Mariupol as a “martyr city” due to the heavy destruction caused by Russian bombardments.
The two women had written to Pope Francis, and to their surprise, they quickly received the invitation from the pontiff to attend the Wednesday audience.
“There are countries such as Turkey and Switzerland that are ready to welcome our husbands, but [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, refuses to allow them to leave” the sieged factory, Prokopenko said.
“We hope that this meeting will actually help us save their lives. We are thankful for the actions of the pope and his delegation. And our soldiers are ready to be evacuated to a third country. They are ready to lay down their weapons in the case of evacuation to another country. They are ready to help them, I hope. And I believe that in the nearest time, all of them will survive. And we will do everything and anything we can to help them,” she added.
“We told the pope that 700 of our injured soldiers have gangrene, amputations, their flesh is rotten,” Prokopenko said. “Many of them are dead, and cannot receive Christian burial. We asked the pope to help us, to help them use the humanitarian corridors. He told us that he will pray for us. And that he is doing everything he can.”
The two young women asked the pope to travel to Ukraine and speak to the Russian president to ask him to let their husbands go.
Prokopenko said that on Tuesday night she spoke to her husband for the last time: “He told me that he loves me, and I told him that I love him, too, and that I will do everything I can to save his life. We will do whatever it takes.”
The women said that conditions in the Azovstal tunnels are “terrible,” because they have no food, no water and no medicine, and the last hospital in the city was shelled by Russian soldiers.
Fedosiuk explained that her husband wrote to her two days ago, asking her to “find an article on how to survive without food and water,” and added that every day “one or two wounded soldiers die.”
“There are some civilians left there because they are relatives of the military,” Fedosiuk, 29, said. “They are afraid of being evacuated because they fear that Russia will not let them enter Ukrainian territory, because many, when evacuated, are taken to concentration camps. So, of course, they are afraid of being tortured or killed by the Russian Federation. So, they could die there, together with our soldiers.”
Both assured that captivity in Russia “is not an option,” because they know they will be tortured, killed, or sent to labor camps, as has happened to thousands of people so far, something Pope Francis denounced a few weeks ago.
“If our husbands are evacuated, we will join them in any country,” they said. “But we want to go home. We don’t want to be refugees; we want to help rebuild our country.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma