Wives of some of the dozens of Ukrainian fighters released by Russia in a prisoner swap have described to CNN their disbelief and joy at hearing their loved ones have been freed.
Alina Volovyk, speaking to CNN via WhatsApp, described receiving 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 the entire Mariupol was captured by Russian troops.
“At first I didn’t understand what was happening and where he was,” Alina Volovyk recalls. “But he said:” Honey, I’m already in Ukraine! There was an exchange.'”
“I just started crying, my hands were shaking,” she said. “Now I am the happiest woman in the world.”
Russia released 215 people from its custody on Wednesday, including some foreign nationals who fought for Ukraine. In return, Ukraine released 55 people, including Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician and oligarch whose daughter is the goddaughter of 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 major role the defense of Mariupol played in the Ukrainian psyche early in the war.
This is the biggest single release of fighters from Mariupol. In a prisoner exchange in June, Russia released 144 soldiers, 95 of whom were defending 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 exchange 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 adviser to the Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol, Petro Andriushchenko, who was forced to leave his city as Russia advanced, said on Telegram that Mariupol “is happy about 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 could not sleep until five in the morning, because I was overwhelmed with emotions.
“Just two hours ago, when I was doing some shopping, I realized my husband was at home and started crying. The only thing I want now is to hug him as soon as possible,” she added.