Dozens of people joined a rally in Seattle, Washington, on May 19 to raise awareness for the plight of Ukrainian soldiers still held in Russian captivity. May marked the second anniversary of the defense of Mariupol, where thousands of Ukrainian soldiers were taken prisoner after the siege of the city ended on May 20, 2022. The rally in Seattle was part of a wider chain of protests organized around the US which were intended to raise awareness for the 1,900 soldiers still in Russian captivity.

The soldiers who fought till the end in Mariupol were hailed as heroes by the Ukrainian government. Drawing Russian forces into a prolonged siege of the city and later the Azovstal steelworks, forced Russia to expend more resources and manpower, preventing them from deploying those soldiers and resources to other areas of the front. Ukraine’s General Staff of the Armed Forces stated, “We gained critically needed time to build up our reserves, regroup our forces and get help from our partners.”

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The Ukrainian soldiers who led the defense of Mariupol ended up changing the trajectory of the war. As a result, the soldiers from Azov were subjected to the most brutal torture endured by Ukrainian prisoners of war. Norman, a drone unit commander from the 109th Separate Territorial Defense Brigade, commented on the captivity of Azovstal soldiers: “This is the scariest and worst scenario, to end up being captured. The fate of those who are there and those who wait for them is very hard.”

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OSCE condemned it as "a grave violation of participating states' commitments under international law" and called for the immediate release of Vadym Golda and two other jailed OSCE officials.

The Seattle rally was organized by two local activists, Lina Ngo and Anton Yefremov. Lina is a Ukrainian refugee of Vietnamese descent, and Anton Yefremov is a Ukrainian-American and is the Vice President of Ukraine Defense Support. Both have said they have friends who are fighting on the frontlines and rally supporters of Ukraine through Ukraine Defense Support to raise funds to buy supplies such as drones and night vision equipment for the soldiers.

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Speaking about the motivation of organizing the rally, Lina said “The support from activists and local organizations remains strong, but we still need more constant involvement from people. The longer the war goes on, the louder and more actively we need to speak out about it.”

“We stay involved because it's not a choice – it’s a responsibility that we must carry,”

She further commented, “While some people remain active, overall engagement has decreased because the war has entered a new stage, and media coverage has lessened.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself previously stated, “Attention equals help. No attention will mean no help. We fight for every bit of attention.”

Anton said that he stays motivated to continue the fight and continue organizing rallies because the Ukrainian diaspora is the backbone of support for the Ukrainian soldiers abroad. “We stay involved because it's not a choice – it’s a responsibility that we must carry,” he noted. The official account of the Association of Families of Azovstal Defenders also reposted a social media post about the rally in Seattle.

Anton Yefremov holding a Free Azov sign in Downtown Seattle. Source: Myron Malyy

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Andrij Dobriansky, communications director for the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, also commented on the Seattle protest: “Since the war against Ukraine began in 2014, Ukrainians outside of Ukraine have communicated regularly with family and local community members serving in Ukraine’s Armed Forces. These personal connections remain the backbone of support between diaspora organizations and those manning the front lines.”

The rally in Seattle began with the organizers gathering individuals at the Space Needle, Seattle’s prominent city icon. The group built a makeshift cage out of cardboard to illustrate to the public how the Mariupol defenders are still being held prisoners. There were also flyers printed that provided details of the defenders and the need to raise awareness for their plight.

Following the gathering at the Space Needle, the group moved to the Seattle Center, holding banners with messages in support of the Azovstal defenders. The organizers provided information flyers for other rally attendees to hand out to passersby.

Lina Ngo giving a speech at the Westlake Park in Downtown Seattle. Source: Myron Malyy

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Lina then began shouting chants such as “free Azovstal defenders,” “arm Ukraine” and “Russia is a terrorist state” with the group repeating these chants to gain the attention of people nearby. Some cars drove by honking, others waved at the protestors. Lina, with a never-ending amount of energy, traversed the street, back and forth, leading the chants.

Valeria Biletska, whose son fought at Azovstal and is still in Russian captivity, attended the rally. The Biletska family is originally from Kherson and Valeria immigrated to the Seattle area shortly after Russia’s full-scale invasion. Once Lina told the group that Valeria was in attendance at the rally and that her son was still in captivity, Valeria couldn’t hold back her tears. Members of the rally quickly gathered around her to offer their sympathies and exchange hugs to offer support.

Valeria Biletska holding a banner at the rally. Source: Myron Malyy

Valeria is also an artist and has donated numerous pieces of her art (Petrykivka) for auctions to buy equipment for the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Valeria mentioned that she had shared pictures from the rally with other families waiting for their loved ones to be released from Russian captivity.

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