Fighting was intense; there was a lot of gunfire and bombs coming from all directions. At any moment, one of them could have struck their vehicle. Although it was cold and dark, the sky sometimes lit up with what appeared to be phosphorous weapons, which illuminated the road ahead.
Mariana had served on the frontline in Mariupol since February. But now, the stakes were higher because Mariana discovered that she was pregnant two weeks prior.
Russian forces bombarded the city day and night with missiles and relentlessly targeted it.
Her battalion was stationed in the Illich steel plant, one of the last Ukrainian holdouts in the city. The Russians were rapidly approaching, so any distance from the base would mean death or capture.
Mariana was unable to escape the frontline and had no choice but stay with her unit, despite her pregnancy, and pray for the best for her baby. She was not fortunate.
She told BBC that the Russian Federation had stopped her car and told her, “From this moment on, you are prisoners of Russia’.” They said, “A step to either the right or the left and we shoot.”
“I turned to my friends and said, “Tell me they’re not taking us prisoner!” Tell me that they aren’t taking us prisoners! “I was so afraid.”
However, her worst fears were now a reality.
Mariana and her coworkers were taken to a storage facility for three days, before being transported to the Olenivka prison located in the occupied eastern Ukraine.
This facility is known for its filthy conditions, abusive staff, and overcrowded rooms. It was also the location of a rocket strike that claimed the lives of many Ukrainian prisoners of war. Both sides blame each other for the attack.
Mariana was forced to sleep on the floor for six months and denied fresh air and healthy food. Interrogations were filled with intimidation and threats. She was even prevented from using the bathroom while she was nine months pregnant. She was also afraid that her baby would be taken away from her and born in captivity.
Shortly after being captured, she was interrogated by a Russian official.
Mariana stated that Mariana was told by her husband, “He said if he doesn’t get me to answer in the right way, he will send me to Russia and take my baby away.”
Her interrogator threatened her with transferring her child from one orphanage into another, making it impossible for her to track him down.
She said, “It was really horrible, I cried so many,” quietly.
Mariana was also intimidated by barking dogs at times.
Mariana’s medical training provided her with reassurance throughout her ordeal that her pregnancy was progressing normally. However, conditions inside the prison were very poor.
She said that although the room was meant for six people, there were 40 women living there.
“The older women would sleep two to three on a bunk. I shared a bed on the ground with a friend. I had two pillows and a blanket.
Mariana was later moved to a smaller space where she slept on a wooden floor pallet.
She was treated the same way as the other female prisoners for the first few months. She was seven months pregnant when a doctor recommended that she get more fresh air.
She said that it depended on the guard on shift. “Sometimes they let me go outside for half the day, and other times I was not allowed to leave at all.”
She developed a complication in July and was taken to the hospital for an ultrasound. Mariana saw her baby for the first time.
“I saw its tiny arms and legs. It spread its fingers and showed me five of its little fingers. I cried and cried. They said that the baby was healthy, but that it was too small for me to eat and that I needed more vitamins.
Some guards showed compassion on her when she returned to prison and gave her vitamins and home-cooked food.
Mariana was in the last weeks of her pregnancy when there was talk about a prisoner swap, but no signs of it ever happening.
Vasyl, her husband, was frustrated by the perceived lack of urgency on the part of the Ukrainian government in negotiating his release. He appealed for her release on humanitarian grounds.
He said to the BBC that a mother and her children were sacred everywhere. Let them liberate her . This was just days before ‘s release .
Mariana was moved to Donetsk’s maternity ward where she was well treated, but there was still the threat of her being separated from her baby.
There were two options. Mariana could be sent to Donetsk prison, where she would live with her baby as long as she is breastfeeding. She could be sent to Russia, where her baby would be taken away when it turns three. She was afraid to ask her child where she would send him in either of these scenarios.
Mariana believed that an exchange was her only hope. She received the news she was dreading on a Friday in September.
“They said that the exchange was illegitimate. The situation at the frontline was getting worse and both sides couldn’t come to an agreement. Mariana stated that she understood that it was the end. Mariana said that she understood it was the end.
Over the weekend, however, something happened. Mariana isn’t sure why, but suddenly the swap was approved.
On Tuesday the following, she was taken along with many other prisoners to a Russian city near the Ukrainian border. She was then blindfolded and her hands tied. Then, she was transferred to a Belarusian military plane with other prisoners.
Mariana was nine months pregnant and the Russian soldiers who guarded Mariana made it take 20 hours.
They laughed and said, “Use this bottle.” They laughed when I said that I wouldn’t be able get it in and that I was in pain. Mariana laughed with resignation, but they just told me to keep it in.”
She was taken from Belarus to the border with Ukraine and returned to her homeland in relative safety.
Mariana gave birth to Anna just four days later. She weighed in at 3.2kg (7lb), which is within the normal range.
Mariana wants to work in medicine for the future. However, her husband has his own views.
She laughs, “He said he wouldn’t cope if i go back to the frontline.” He said he would leave me. The couple is happy to adapt to their new life together as a family for now.
She said, “I have already accepted the fact that I have had a baby. It has completely changed my world.” I even took some time to accept the idea of becoming a mother. It was just too bad that I had to do it in prison