The fighting was very close. There was constant gunfire and bombardment from all directions. They could have been hit by one of these men at any time. Although it was dark and freezing, there were times when the sky lit up with what appeared like phosphorous weapons. This illuminated the road ahead.
Mariana was on the frontline at Mariupol from February to the start of the war. However, Mariana found out she was pregnant two week earlier.
Russian forces bombarded the city night and day, indiscriminately using Russian missiles, and besieged it.
Her battalion stationed at the Illich Steel Plant – one the city’s last Ukrainian defenders. However, the Russians were approaching and any attempt to travel from base to another location would result in death or capture.
Mariana couldn’t escape the front line and was forced to stay with her unit. She hoped for the best for her baby and herself. But she was unlucky.
“Our car was stopped, and we were told that you would be held prisoner of the Russian Federation from this point on,” she said to the BBC. They told her, “Another step, or a step left, and we’ll shoot.”
“I turned to the men I was with, and said “tell me they’ren’t being captured.” Tell me, they’re not making us prisoners! I was so afraid.”
Her worst fears became reality.
Mariana and her fellow colleagues were moved to a storage unit for three days before being taken into the Olenivka jail in the occupied region of eastern Ukraine.
The facility was notorious for its cramped conditions, abusive staff, and cramped rooms. In fact, it was the scene of a missile attack that resulted in the death of several Ukrainian prisoners-of-war. Both sides blamed each other for this attack.
Mariana’s six-month-long ordeal began with Mariana sleeping on the ground and being denied access to fresh food. She was threatened and intimidated during interrogations. At one point, she was prevented from using a toilet while she was nine-months pregnant. She was also scared that her baby would be held captive and taken from her.
She was quickly captured and interrogated shortly thereafter by a Russian official.
Mariana replied, “He said that if I don’t answer the way he requires me to, he’ll send me in a camp to Russia and my baby taken away.”
Her interrogator threatened to make sure that her child was moved from one orphanage in the country to another, making it impossible to find him.
She spoke out, quietly saying that it was “really terrible”, and she cried so hard.
Mariana was intimidated into false statements by barking dogs.
Mariana was reassured by her medical training that her pregnancy was going well throughout her ordeal. The prison conditions were not good.
“We lived in a small space meant for six, but there was 40 women there,” she stated.
“The older women slept in bunks with two or three others. I slept on the floor under a bed made by a friend. I had a few pillows and blankets.
Mariana was eventually moved to a smaller bedroom where she slept on an old wooden pallet on the ground.
She was treated in the same way as other female prisoners for the first few weeks. However, she was permitted to go outside after she became seven-months pregnant.
She explained that it all depended on which guard was working on what shift. “Sometimes, I could spend half an hour outside, while other times they wouldn’t let me leave at all.”
In July, she suffered a serious complication. She was taken to hospital for an ultrasonography. Mariana was able to see her baby for the very first time.
“I saw its little legs and arms. It opened its fist to show me its five tiny fingers. I cried and continued to cry. They assured me that the baby was doing well, but that it was still very small. I should eat more and take more vitamins.
Some guards made a pity of her when she returned from prison and brought her home-cooked food as well as vitamins.
Mariana was entering the final weeks in her pregnancy. There was talk of a prisoner exchange, but there is still no sign that it will happen.
Vasyl, her husband was frustrated by a lack of urgency shown by the Ukrainian government to negotiate her release, appealed to her for humanitarian reasons.
He told the BBC, just days before her release, that “A mother is sacred everywhere… Let her free them.”
Mariana was transferred from Donetsk to a maternity unit where she was given good care, but her fear of being separated with her baby remained.
There are two possibilities. Mariana might be sent to Donetsk, where she can live with her baby while she breastfeeds. Her baby would be taken to Russia and she would be detained there until it turned three. She was afraid to ask where her baby would go in either situation.
Mariana thought that an exchange was the last hope for her. On Friday, September 9, Mariana received the devastating news she was waiting for.
“They told me that the exchange was not valid. The situation at the frontline had become more complicated and the sides couldn’t agree. Mariana explained that she understood it was the end. She could have given birth at any time.
However, things changed over the weekend. Mariana does not know why, but the swap was granted.
She was transported along with other prisoners to a town in Russia, near the Ukrainian border, on Tuesday the next. She was placed in a military plane along with other prisoners, blindfolded, and tied her hands before being transferred to Belarus.
Mariana, nine-months pregnant, was denied access to the toilet by the Russian soldiers she guarded. The journey took twenty hours.
They made fun of me by saying, “Use the bottle”. They joked that they wouldn’t be capable of getting it in, and I replied that I was in pain. Mariana gave a resigned laugh and said that they had just told me not to do it.
She was driven from Belarus to the Ukrainian border, where she was returned to relative safety.
Mariana gave way to Anna four days later. She weighed in at 3.2kg (7 lb), which was within the normal range.
Mariana hopes to stay in medicine but her husband has other ideas.
She giggles that “He says he can’t cope” if she goes back to work. He said he’d be leaving me. They are happy now to adjust to their new life as a couple.
She stated that she had already come to terms with the fact that she has a baby. “It took me some time to adjust to being a mom. It was just unfortunate that I had the opportunity to do this in prison.