May 20, 2024

Oksana sits in her Aberdeen flat, thinking about her husband. She has not spoken to him for almost two years now. She is wearing a wristband in the colours of Ukraine, and a wedding ring which shines on her finger.

Her husband Alexei – not his real name – was captured by the Russians while fighting for the Ukrainian army in Mariupol in April 2022.

Almost two years later, Oksana, who works as a housekeeper in the Aberdeen area, is pleading for the release of her partner.

The 28-year-old, who has lived in Scotland for the last 18 months after fleeing the war, believes he is in a Russian prison.

The BBC is choosing not to name her husband and has blurred his face in photographs.

Oksana fights back tears. “He is a very kind, caring person. He is always there for me. He always makes me smile.”

Oksana has not heard from Alexei since she received a letter from jail in September 2022. Having spoken with other released prisoners since and by searching social media like Telegram channels, she thinks he was still in prison in January this year.

She reflects: “He will come back to me, and we will have a beautiful future together. The two of us, and our cat. I don’t know about kids now.”

A life together

Oksana met Alexei when they were both teenagers and studying in the same college in southern Ukraine.

After a year of being close friends, romance bloomed. They enjoyed cycling and running together. He liked playing games such as Call of Duty on his Playstation.

Oksana says he was always a patriotic Ukrainian, and in 2015 he signed up for the armed forces as soon as he turned 18.

He served in Donetsk, where Russian-backed forces had taken control years before. When the Russians launched their full-scale invasion two years ago, everything changed.

Outbreak of war

On the morning of 24 February 2022, Oksana woke up to a call from her friend. “She told me the war had started.”

Alexei packed up his things and was ordered to go to Mariupol. How did he feel?

“He was excited about it,” said Oksana. “I think he was playing Call of Duty too much! He was excited about defending Ukraine.”

Before he left, he drove Oksana to another part of the country to be with her family.

“We saw the Russian planes and snipers. Everything was on fire.”

Once her husband left, Oksana sheltered as best as she could. “I heard explosions. The whole house was shaking. We were hiding in the basement, but we could still hear the explosions, the planes, and shooting.”

After a few weeks, the Russians occupied their area. There was no electricity, but she eventually managed to speak to her husband on the phone to let him know she was OK. But it was not safe.

“They (the Russians) were checking cars, they were checking people. They went to houses to find some signs that we were sending messages to Ukrainian soldiers about their location.

“They took some people. I don’t know what happened to them next. It was scary to go out of the house. I only went out once a week to church.”

The Siege of Mariupol

Alexei, meanwhile, was in the middle of some of the fiercest fighting of the war.

He was in Mariupol, a key strategic target for Russian forces in the early days of the invasion, as it links Crimea and the Donbas. The brutal battle lasted more than 80 days, before Russia eventually seized control.

“He told me everything was really bad, and we don’t have a way out of the city.”

In one call, Alexei revealed the Russians had bombed his unit. Several soldiers who he had served with for years were killed. He was left with shrapnel in his head and his hand.

“He was devastated,” said Oksana. “I was crying all the time, but I was trying not to show him that I’m so scared because he was in a worse situation than I was.”

He called her a few weeks before he was captured to say there was “no chance to survive”, with weapons, ammunition, food and water all depleted. “He asked me to care for his family, and to take care of myself.”

Then, on 12 April 2022 Alexei called to say he was alive but had been taken prisoner. He asked her to get back to Ukrainian territory, and she later moved to a friend’s home in the west of Ukraine.

The road to Aberdeen and search for her husband

OksanaOksana

Oksana is living in Aberdeen, but wants to return to Ukraine one day with her husband.

While there, Oksana read about the opportunity to escape the war and move to the UK.

After applying via a Scottish government refugee programme, she arrived shortly afterwards on her own in August 2022, with her family and friends all still back in Ukraine.

A month later, she received a letter from her husband from a Russian prison. “It said he was alive, he was OK, he was being treated well, and that he loved me, but it looked like they had dictated what to write. There were no feelings in it.”

It is the last time she has heard from him.

Since his capture, Oksana says she has been in touch with the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United Nations and the Ukrainian government – but to no avail.

‘It is up to Russia’

In July last year, she had heard from another prisoner who had been with her husband. He said Alexei had lost weight, and was losing hope.

Then, a second prisoner who had been with Alexei was also released. She says he revealed Oksana’s husband was still in in Russian prison on 3 January this year.

“Nobody can help,” says Oksana, fighting back tears. “It is only up to Russia.”

Since arriving in Scotland, she has lived in a hotel in Dyce, student accommodation, and is now in her council flat in Aberdeen.

She spends her days working as a housekeeper in a hotel in the local area, longing for a return to Ukraine with her husband. She remains in touch with a community of other Ukrainians who have also fled the war and ended up in Scotland.

“The first thing after my husband called me and said he was in captivity, it was like – ‘that’s better’. He will be alive, and he will be fine, but it is already two years.

“I know many cases where people never come back from captivity. They were tortured or killed.

“I love this country. The Scottish people I have met have always been extremely nice. They support me. But one day, I want to go back. After my husband comes back, I want to stay in Ukraine because it is my home.

“I love him, and I will be waiting for him.”

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