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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

That Rare Mariupol Happy Ending: How One Ukrainian Couple Was Reunited

An estimated 700 soldiers who defended Mariupol remain in Russian captivity. As prisoner exchanges prove challenging, relatives wait nervously for news.

"Azov" Valery on the phone.

Soldier "Azov" Valery, who was held captive for almost a year.

Anna Steshenko

KYIV — Around 700 soldiers from the Azov battalion, who defended Mariupol, remain in Russian captivity. The exchange of prisoners of war is difficult, but the state and relatives are fighting for each Ukrainian soldier.

The heartache experienced by those who have lost husbands, sons, and fathers is beyond words. Equally distressing is the situation for those left waiting for their soldiers to return home. Often, they're left in the dark, with no updates on their loved ones' status. The agonizing uncertainty of whether they will ever reunite only amplifies their distress.

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Kateryna (29) and her husband, Azov soldier Valeriy (26) were born in Berdiansk — in the Zaporizhzhia region, currently occupied by Russian troops — where they dated for several years.

Before the war started, she worked as a cook, and he was a waiter in a neighboring restaurant.In 2016, he was called up for military service. He served for two years. When he returned in 2018, the young couple got married. At the same time, Valeriy decided to join the Azov.

Peaceful life and the Russian world

"My husband's father served in the military. He has always been an example for him. That's why military life, even after he finished his service, still came for him. No matter how much his relatives asked him not to join and not to go, he decided to become a soldier anyway," Kateryna recalls.

The military wife emphasizes that no one in Berdiansk was waiting for the "liberators". "There were only two pro-Russian teachers in our entire school. All the others did not become collaborators and left the city. I have never considered Berdiansk a pro-Russian city. It's just that before the war started in '14, we had a lot of vacationers from Russia. But we did not expect their 'Russian world' on our land," she says.

Nevertheless, such a world arrive. "On the night of February 24, my husband was not allowed to leave the military unit, although we have a small child. On that terrible night for all of us, I could not sleep. I was feeding the child, holding his hand. Towards morning, around 4:10, the first explosion occurred, followed by another in a few minutes. It was terrifying."

In 10 minutes, Kateryna's mother came running; she lived nearby.

"We immediately started packing. My husband called and told me to leave the city immediately. I got into the car with the baby, my mother, and my husband's mother and started driving. In Berdiansk, refueling was impossible because of the long lines, chaos, and panic. So they decided to go to their grandmother's house in the village of Zamistia (Zaporizhzhia region), away from the sea, where the shelling was coming from. There, we finally refueled the car, but it wouldn't start. We had to push it to my grandmother's house. We were stuck there for a whole month. Because the occupiers came," says Kateryna.

The village is captured

Kateryna recalls how she realized that the village had been captured.

"One day, I went for a walk with my son Makarchyk. We were standing on a hill overlooking all the roads. My hands trembled, and everything inside me shook when I saw the movement of an endless amount of military machines. I could not even count them. The worst thing was that I realized then: they were going to Mariupol, where my husband was. I stood there crying because they were targeting the Azov battalion."

"There were days when he disappeared. He was silent for about nine days. I turned gray."

There was no fighting in the village itself. "Russians set up a checkpoint and seized a gas station. They were shooting toward the houses with people. They were having fun like that. We were lucky that our house was on the other side. Makarchyk's eye started to hurt. I persuaded one man to go to the pharmacy for medicine. When he returned, he apologized for not bringing anything: the Russians wanted to shoot the pharmacy clerk because she did not want to give them all the medicines. Everyone was scared."

All this time, Kateryna was still in touch with her husband, who actively participated in the fighting. "There were days when he disappeared. He was silent for about nine days. I turned gray. When they brought in the Starlinks, it became easier. He could quickly report that he was alive — and then go back into battle. He asked me to look for someone to repair the car so we could leave the occupation. Because everyone knew our family was in the military. It was dangerous for our lives. People were already being taken to the basements (for interrogation and torture)."

At the Azovstal plant, Valeriy told his wife about the horrors in Mariupol. There was a terrible stench on the streets because of the many corpses.

Kateryna and her husband at their wedding.

Kateryna (29) and her husband, soldier "Azov" Valery (26).

Courtesy of Katerina/Livy Bereg

Evacuating under fire

Finally, they managed to fix the car, and on the morning of April 1, the vehicle set off for Zaporizhzhia.

"We joined the humanitarian convoys from Berdiansk. There was no evacuation from Mariupol — the occupiers did not allow it. In the evening, we got into a traffic jam near Vasylivka. There was a lot of military equipment around. Not so far away — terrible explosions. Only buses were allowed through at the main checkpoint in Vasylivka. And at that moment, I realized that we were left in the cold in the middle of the field."

That night and morning were the worst for the three women with a small child. "We warmed the baby's water from our bodies. I wrapped him in two blankets, bent over him, and put my jacket on top to keep him warm. We had to save gasoline. We had little gas left, only until Zaporizhzhia. At two in the morning, the shelling started. The explosions were terrible. The whole land was shaking."

"The unknown is scary. But it is better than them all being killed at Azovstal. The main thing is that he is alive."

Russian vehicles started driving past the evacuation cars at high speed in the morning. "They did it on purpose so that people could not get out. And every car was packed with children. There were stickers 'children' everywhere. Everyone was scared. At noon, I burst into tears because I had no strength left."

"Finally, they started letting us through. We didn't make it to the beginning of the convoy, and that saved us: after the checkpoint, we had to pass a mined field — the first car exploded, started burning, and children and parents jumped out of it. They were picked up by other cars. Everyone was screaming. My husband's mom was holding on to the wheel; my mom was praying. I was holding Makarchyk and crying. We drove across this field for about 10 minutes, which seemed like an eternity."

The journey to freedom

Until April 15, Valeriy participated in the battles in Mariupol. On May 9, he was wounded while performing a mission at Azovstal.

"And then he said that there was an order to leave. Captivity is terrifying. However, honestly, after one mother was sent a photo with the body of her tortured son from Azovstal, we all realized the possible consequences. The unknown is scary. But it is better than them all being killed at Azovstal. The main thing is that he is alive."

There was no communication with her husband for almost a year. "He was allowed to call only twice for 30-40 seconds. He managed to say he was alive and ask about his son."

Kateryna adds that during this terrible year, the families of Azov's defenders have become a real united family. When her husband's commander was exchanged, Kateryna discovered that Valeriy was in a Donetsk pre-trial detention center.

Valeriy was in captivity from May 17, 2022, to May 6, 2023. "How did I survive almost a year when he was there? My child was holding me. I had no option: every morning at 7:00, a little head is already sticking out over you: 'Let's play!' Although sometimes, it seemed that I was going crazy from all this. You have to smile, and the state is such that you die every day. But in the morning, you have to live. I knew my husband would come back."

"My husband called me and told me that he was released... He cried, and of course, I did too. I was very emotional for three more days."

Life after release

Now the couple lives in Kyiv. Valeriy is undergoing treatment. Then rehabilitation. He has problems with weight loss and exacerbation of chronic diseases.

"As the doctor explained to me, the body has already started to eat itself. But this is not just Valeriy. Everyone returns from captivity like this. Unfortunately, there are still about 700 Azov defenders in captivity. That's why we will fight for all of them until the last fighter returns home," Kateryna says.

"I hope that after the victory, the world will know about all those horrors."

She says her husband is not very forthcoming about his time in captivity.

"He tells us a little bit. But we are still waiting for our guys and girls, so we should not disclose any details. I hope that after the victory, the world will know about all those horrors."

"I can say for sure that captivity did not break Valeriy. He went through so much. When we met under that bus after his release, his eyes were confused. He did not believe that he was released. But he remained the same. He went through everything with dignity."

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The Problem With Always Blaming Climate Change For Natural Disasters

Climate change is real, but a closer look at the science shows there are many factors that contribute to weather-related disasters. It is important to raise awareness about the long-term impact of global warming, but there's a risk in overstating its role in the latest floods or fires.

People on foot, on bikes, motorcycles, scooters and cars navigate through a flooded street during the day time.

Karachi - People wade through flood water after heavy rain in a southern Pakistani city

Xinhua / ZUMA
Axel Bojanowski


BERLIN — In September, thousands of people lost their lives when dams collapsed during flooding in Libya. Engineers had warned that the dams were structurally unsound.

Two years ago, dozens died in floods in western Germany, a region that had experienced a number of similar floods in earlier centuries, where thousands of houses had been built on the natural floodplain.

Last year saw more than 1,000 people lose their lives during monsoon floods in Pakistan. Studies showed that the impact of flooding in the region was exacerbated by the proximity of human settlements, the outdated river management system, high poverty rates and political instability in Pakistan.

There are many factors that contribute to weather-related disasters, but one dominates the headlines: climate change. That is because of so-called attribution studies, which are published very quickly after these disasters to highlight how human-caused climate change contributes to extreme weather events. After the flooding in Libya, German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described climate change as a “serial offender," while the Tageszeitung wrote that “the climate crisis has exacerbated the extreme rainfall."

The World Weather Attribution initiative (WWA) has once again achieved its aim of using “real-time analysis” to draw attention to the issue: on its website, the institute says its goal is to “analyse and communicate the possible influence of climate change on extreme weather events." Frederike Otto, who works on attribution studies for the WWA, says these reports help to underscore the urgent need for climate action. They transform climate change from an “abstract threat into a concrete one."

In the immediate aftermath of a weather-related disaster, teams of researchers rush to put together attribution studies – “so that they are ready within the same news cycle," as the New York Times reported. However, these attribution studies do not meet normal scientific standards, as they are published without going through the peer-review process that would be undertaken before publication in a specialist scientific journal. And that creates problems.

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