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Interview by Shura Gulyaeva. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
In 2014, 27-year-old Victoria Obidina moved from Ukraine's Donetsk region to Mariupol and began working as a paramedic, and in 2021, she signed a contract to become a military physician. At that start of this year, Victoria and her four-year-old daughter, Alisa, were planning to go to Egypt for what would have been their first trip abroad. When Russia launched its full-scale invasion, however, Victoria was sent to work at the Azovstal iron and steel works, and in May, while trying to escape with her daughter to Zaporizhzhia, she was captured by Russian troops and taken to a POW camp in Olenivka. On October 17, Victoria and 107 other women returned to Ukraine as part of a prisoner exchange. She spoke to Meduza about her time in Azovstal, the bonds she developed with the other prisoners in Olenivka, the violence she faced from Russian soldiers, and her release from captivity.
'She'd always wanted to be a doctor like her mom'
On March 10, when the other paramedics and I arrived at Azovstal, it still wasn’t equipped [as a shelter]: we set up sleeping quarters and a kitchen and stocked it with food and medication ourselves. Wounded soldiers started arriving almost immediately. I’d never seen wounds like that in my life; this was my first experience [working as a military doctor]. Until May, I worked around the clock; I never knew if it was day or night outside.
At first, my daughter lived with relatives not far from Azovstal. In late March, though, we started losing contact with the outside world: phones stopped working and stores throughout Mariupol started running out of food. By then, it was already too late to leave the city, so I decided to have Alisa come live with me. A guy from Azov we knew brought her, and literally two days later, he was killed by a sniper. I don’t know his name or his call sign — he was just a guy who helped me. I’ll be grateful to him for the rest of my life.
In Azovstal, Alisa and I studied letters and numbers. One day, she said, “Mom, I’m bored. Can I come help you?” And she started giving out pills [to patients] — which saved me almost an hour of work. She'd always wanted to grow up strong, like her mom, and become a doctor — and now she had experience.
At some point in late April, we were being shelled so intensely that Alisa asked me, “Mom, is this our last day?” It did seem to me that our lives were over, but you can’t tell a child that. So I told her that everything would be okay and that we would get out of Azovstal alive. At that point, the Red Cross had started organizing “green corridors” to [Ukraine-controlled] Zaporizhzhia, and since I had a child, they tried to get me out on my commander’s orders.
On May 5, we were taken through a [humanitarian] corridor through the [self-proclaimed] DNR. When we arrived in the village of Bezimenne, [occupation officials] took me in for questioning in a tent camp. They said I wouldn’t make it through “filtration” [as a military doctor] and that my daughter would be taken to a children’s shelter [in Russia]. I asked them to at least let me look after her for the next two days, until the humanitarian convoy continued on to Zaporizhzhia, [and they agreed]. In the filtration camp, I met a woman who offered to help take Alisa to Zaporizhzhia. From there, Alisa’s uncle was supposed to bring her to my mother in Poland — she had moved there last year, before the war. I wrote the woman a letter of attorney, and on May 7, I walked Alisa to the bus. There was a crowd of people outside the bus, so I discreetly boarded it and left along with her. I had escaped the filtration camp.
Our bus got as far as Manhush (Editor’s note: a village in the Donetsk region) before the convoy was stopped by Russian soldiers. At that point, they already knew who I was: they had figured it out from a video in which Alisa said she was in Azovstal and asked to be evacuated because she wanted to go home. And even though the clip compromised me, I don’t regret that it was filmed and uploaded, because thanks to it, people learned that there were still children, civilians, and wounded people in Azovstal.
The soldiers wanted to take Alisa off the bus along with me, but I insisted that they only needed me, not my child. That’s how she ended up going to Zaporizhzhia without me. Of course, I didn’t reveal [that I was being taken captive] so that she wouldn’t get scared: I told her we’d meet again soon, and that I loved her very much. If Alisa had stayed with me, they would have used her to torture me: if they had her pinned down, squealing, I would immediately have told them a lot of things. But since my child wasn’t with me, I held out.
Life in the Olenivka prison
In Manhush, they took me to the district police station and started beating me, trying to get a confession out of me. Since I was the first service member to come out of Azovstal, the soldiers wanted to know which of the commanders were still there, the names of the people I served with, how many wounded there were in the facility, and how much medicine and food was left. Once they realized I wasn’t going to say anything, they put me in a cell.
A few days later, on May 9, I was taken to the organized crime division in Donetsk. There, they beat me again and took my documents, including my passport. And they didn’t return them. That same day, they ordered me to “put on makeup and dress up nicely” and to say on camera that “everything is fine” in Donetsk, that I planned to stay there, and that I wanted [Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories] Iryna Vereshchuk to “return” my daughter to me. Of course I didn’t want to say it, but I didn’t have a choice.
On May 31, I was transferred to a temporary detention facility, where I spent the next month. There, I was treated a bit better: they fed me three times a day, although sometimes there were cockroaches in the food, but you just get them out and keep eating. [...]
In July, I was taken to Olenivka. I was kept there until October 14. First, there were 11 of us in a two-person cell, then we were transferred to a six-person cell that contained 26 people. [...]
I think I was fortunate compared to the other women: I wasn’t beaten as much. They mostly used a rubber truncheon on our heads and ribs, plus on our necks. I found that the female guards were much meaner than the male ones. When they took me in for interrogations, they blindfolded me and gave me directions: turn left, turn right, step up. And you didn’t know where the step was, so when you turned the wrong way and hit your head on a closed door, they would laugh.
Recipes, Harry Potter, and the Olenivka explosion
At Olenivka, there were women from various other formations — Azov, the National Guard, and the Ukrainian Armed Forces. [...] Those girls and I became like one big, happy family: we tried to comfort each other, we exchanged our favorite recipes and wrote them down — though we weren’t allowed to take our notes with us, of course. We talked about what we would buy first when we were released, and how much money we would spend. The first things we wanted to buy, of course, were phones, so we could call our families.
Some of the women would voluntarily work in the kitchen or cut the grass outside to pass the time. I read books that the guards gave us: Anna Karenina, several of the Harry Potter books, Twilight. They often tried to stick us with books about Russian history.
The other girls and I lived on the first floor, and the men were on the second floor. They were badly abused. We often heard them getting beaten. It was impossible to ignore: you heard it and knew that the man being beaten was with you in Azovstal and defended you, and now there was nothing you could do to help him.
On the evening of July 29, we heard an explosion. We thought we were being shelled, and it turned out that it had hit our boys in the neighboring barracks. Later, it was proven that the explosion came from inside the barracks, but in any case, about 60 guys were killed. [...]
For months, I didn’t know where my child was. The last time I had been able to call her was on May 12, when I was in Donetsk; at that point, I had learned that she had made it to Zaporizhzhia, but I didn’t know if she'd made it to my mother. October 3 was Alisa’s birthday; I spent a long time trying to get the guards to let me make one call so I could tell her happy birthday. The following day, they actually let me make the call. That’s how I learned that Alisa had arrived in Poland, and how my mom learned that I was in Olenivka.
Liberation and rehab
On October 14, [the guards] came into our cell and said, “Pack your things!” There were only four of us left in the cell; they had already removed everyone else in stages. They read out three names, and mine wasn’t one of them. I started sounding the alarm and asking them to call someone in for me. I said, “I want to leave with my girls. Together with them.” They responded, “If we manage to make [temporary] documents for you, you can go.”
In the end, they just wrote something by hand on a piece of paper, and I was able to use it to get out of Olenivka. They blindfolded us, bound our arms, and put us in an Ural truck. [...]
[After we were taken to a distribution point in Taganrog, Russia, and put in another prison cell,] on October 17, they told us, “Get your things and go!” They blindfolded us and tied our hands again, put us in a vehicle, and then put us on a plane. Then it was back into a car, where they finally let us open our eyes.
We realized we were headed towards Zaporizhzhia — but up until the last moment, we didn’t believe that there would be a [prisoner] exchange. We thought, “At some point, we’re going to turn off and go to another penal colony.” Even after we saw the buses from the Ukrainian side [that had come to retrieve the soldiers], we were still worried everything would fall apart somehow. But when we finally got out and breathed the Ukrainian air, we realized: “It’s over! Now we’re free!” Though for the first two days, we didn’t fully realize we were free. Out of habit, we kept our hands behind our backs and ate quickly.
Immediately after the exchange, we were given phones. I called my mom and said, “Mom, they traded me! I’m in Ukraine!” I talked with my daughter, and now we call each other every day. I can hear how she’s matured over these months. She says she misses me and constantly asks, “Mom, will you come in a week?” I tell her, “A little bit later than that.” Until I finish rehab, I can’t go to Poland to be with them. Me and the other liberated women are doing rehab in Dnipro, and it will last about a month. We’ll be examined by all the doctors, do tests, and restore our documents. I can’t wait until I can finally see my mom and Alisa and hug them.
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After everything I went through during my 165 days in captivity [beginning with detention in Zaporizhzhia], [free] life feels strange. Even an ordinary shopping trip seems strange to me. But I’m gradually getting used to it. In Dnipro, the first thing the other women and I did was eat sushi. We ordered all kinds and ate it for two days. We’ve already gotten our hair done, and every day, we go shopping and buy clothes and makeup. Along with our salaries, we’re entitled to benefits for the time we spent in captivity. It’s nice to finally be able to get cleaned up.
Unfortunately, my military contract is over. I signed it in 2021 for three years, but I’m going to have to end it early, because the month of vacation I get after rehab is not enough to make up for the time with my daughter that I lost. I need to devote more attention to her right now, because it’s been a long time since I’ve seen her. So at first, I’ll be with Alisa in Poland — I’ll relax a bit and start studying the language. If I have time to work in my profession there, I will, of course, but I hope that the situation in Ukraine stabilizes in six months or a year and my daughter and I can return. But not to Mariupol; while I do miss it, even when it becomes Ukrainian again, I won’t be able to go back there knowing what happened there during the war. I won’t be able to walk through it; to see the destroyed streets where I used to spend my free time, or my old apartment building that’s been burned to the ground. I think we’ll live in Dnipro; I liked it there. And then I’ll sign another contract, because I can’t do without the army — that’s where I found myself.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
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