Wives of Ukrainian soldiers appeal to Pope Francis for help
By Salvatore Cernuzio and Francesca Merlo
Katheryna Prokopenko and Yulya Fedosiuk came to the Vatican and met with Pope Francis on the sidelines of the Wednesday General Audience.
Their soldier husbands are holed up in the Azovstal steel plant, which has become the last holdout of Ukrainian forces in Mariupol and the focus of heavy Russian shelling.
The two women met the Pope for only a few moments, but later told journalists they were “historic” ones.
Hoping for help
Katheryna and Yulya hail from Kyiv and Lviv but are making their way to Germany as refugees.
They spoke to reporters as representatives of the 500-odd wives of Ukrainian soldiers fighting in the steel plant, saying their hearts are weighed down by worry.
“I can't even explain what I felt at that moment,” said Yulya, describing their encounter with the Pope. “I was a little nervous, because it was a historic moment, and we all hope that it will help save the lives of our husbands and soldiers in Azovstal. We hope this meeting will give us a chance to save their lives."
She and Katheryna expressed their hopes that Ukrainian fighters can be evacuated from Mariupol to another country. If given sufficient guarantees, the soldiers say they are “are ready to lay down their arms.”
"We are all ready to help them, I hope,” said Yulya. “We will do everything we can to save them.”
Situation in Azvostal steel plant
The two young Ukrainian women said they spoke to Pope Francis in English and offered him details about the situation in Azvostal, where about 700 soldiers are wounded, with gangrenous or amputated limbs.
Many, they said, have died but have not received a Christian burial. Their bodies are decomposing in the extensive tunnel system under the steel plant.
The women added that many civilians remain trapped underground there, mostly families of soldiers who are afraid of being evacuated. They fear their husbands will be tortured and killed.
The soldiers face a scarcity of supplies, with little food, water, and medical supplies. Mariupol has no functioning hospitals due to Russia’s extensive shelling campaign on the port city.
"The situation is terrible, and we all feel it,” said the Ukrainian women. “We are following from here. Every day we receive terrible news from our husbands.”
One called his wife Tuesday night. She said Wednesday she would do anything to save his life.
"I apologize for being so nervous," she told reporters, adding that two days ago her husband asked her to look up an article on how to live without water as long as possible. "That is their situation!"
Pope’s promise of prayers
Katheryna and Yulya asked the Pope for help so that humanitarian corridors could be set up in the near future to evacuate those who remain in Mariupol.
Pope Francis assured them of his prayers and shook hands with the two women. They pleaded with the Pope to visit Ukraine, perhaps Zaporizhzhia, or talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin to mediate an end to the "cruel" war.
Appeal to the international community
The two Ukrainian women also appealed to the international community to form "a strong coalition" that would allow Mariupol soldiers and civilians to reach a third country.
Asked which country, they said, "It depends on those who have the courage to take them in. It could be Turkey, Switzerland, or any other country that wants to be the first to evacuate, help, and rescue them. We are waiting for that. If our husbands could go somewhere else, we would go with them. Then we hope to go back to Kyiv and the Ukraine we love. It is important for us; we don't want to be refugees."