Diana and Vitaliy Markiv on the Maidan, 2014. Photo: Diana Markiv’s FB page
At that time, Vitaliy was serving near Mount Karachun; he was armed with an AK-74 Kalashnikov. It was stated that Andrea Rochelli was killed by a mortar fired from the “grey area”, four kilometers from where the Kulchytsky Battalion was located. However, the Ukrainian troops deployed on Mount Karachun were not equipped with mortars.
For two years, Ukraine has been following this lawsuit, and everyone believed that an Italian court would issue a fair verdict. Considering that the charges were groundless, the sentence came as a shock for everyone… even the Italian prosecution.
Today, Vitaliy’s name is on everyone’s lips. Ukrainians say that he is the first political prisoner in the European Union. Who is Vitaliy Markiv? Why did this young man, who led a peaceful life in Italy, suddenly leave everything and travel to Ukraine to fight? We start at Vitaliy’s hometown – Khorostkiv, Ternopil Oblast.
NO ONE BELIEVES THAT HE’S GUILTY
The road to Vitaliy’s apartment building passes in front of a picturesque park with an old castle. We arrive at a five-storey apartment building in Tykha Street (Quiet Street). Vitaliy’s grandparents – 73-year-old Ivan Petrovych Koziy and 72-year-old Sofiya Mykhailivna Koziy – live on the third floor.
Sofiya’s eyes fill with tears. She can neither sleep nor eat; her health is failing.
“We are in a state of shock. I still can’t believe it! It’s a ploy initiated by Putin himself. There was never any mention of such a sentence. The prosecutor demanded 17 years. Then, that bastard Putin made an official visit to Italy at the beginning of July… and suddenly, they give Vitaliy 24 years!?” says grandfather Ivan.
Neighbour Olena Falion knows Vitaliy Markiv well; her children grew up with him.
“They played football or mock battles in our street. Vitalik was a very kind and well-behaved boy. He spoke politely to his elders, and obeyed his grandparents. He had good manners.”
Grandmother Sofiya continues:
“He was in 6th grade when his mother left Ukraine to work in Italy. Ruslana, his sister, wasn’t even at school then. I looked after the children, taught them to believe in God, to honour their elders, to be fair and honest.
Of course, there were arguments because a teenager doesn’t always want to listen to his grandmother. I remember that we even fought once… because he started hanging around with some older guys, and he was only 12 or 13 years old. Whenever he wanted to hurt me, throw me off balance, he would look at me fiercely and call me “баба-жаба” (granny the toad)! But, I didn’t get angry because I knew he didn’t really mean it. And, you know what? He still calls me that, even now…here, I’ll show you.”
Grandmother Sofiya takes a bag out of the bottom shelf of the closet. Inside is a carefully folded piece of paper, a letter dated May 27, 2018, from her grandson interned in an Italian prison.
“Hello, my dearest granny the toad (I’m just kidding). Please don’t worry. I’m strong, and will stay strong, because I know that everyone’s waiting for me at home… and no one and nothing will break me! And, I promise you that you’ll live to see your great-grandchildren, because I always return home – whether it’s from the Maidan, or from the war, and now from prison. “
STANDING UP FOR THE TRUTH
At school, Vitaliy was a natural leader; his classmates followed and listened to him. Nadiya Maksymchuk, Vitaliy’s home teacher remembers him well:
“He was very sociable. He always stood up for the truth, and had a very strong sense of justice. He treated all the teachers with respect. He loved biology and history, but didn’t like writing essays.
Vitaliy’s classmate Daryna Zahorodnia speaks about their school relations:
“You know what usually happens in a school playground… the boys like teasing or even insulting the girls. Vitalik wasn’t like that at all! He was polite and friendly towards us. Honestly, I can’t say anything bad about him. We met at a school reunion, ten years after graduation. He was in a very good mood then, talked passionately the Maidan and the war. He also told us his plans. He wanted to build a successful military career…”
Vialiy’s classmate, Pavlo Mashuta, pitches in:
“He was very sociable, a good leader and organizer. In 9th grade we organized a celebration for the girls on March 8 – International Women’s Day. We took them out for wine and pizza!”
After completing Grade 9th, Vitaliy and his 7-year-old sister Ruslana moved to their mother’s home in Italy. A new life began for the two children, but evrything changed again in November 2013.
“WE MUST ACT!”
Grandmother Sofiya nods her head wearily and tells us about how the Maidan changed the course of Vitaliy’s life:
“The Maidan started after the student beatings in Kyiv, end of November 2013. There were protests and rallies everywhere. Vitalik told me that he was glued to the television screen for two days. Finally, he couldn’t stand it anymore – “I can’t just sit here doing nothing!” I knew he’d come back to Ukraine very soon, so I went shopping to cook up some delicious dishes for him. And what did he do? He arrived, ran into the apartment, packed a small bag, and off he went to Kyiv. We didn’t even see each other…”
On the Maidan, Vitaliy met Diana. They looked at each other and fell in love. They didn’t plan a big wedding; there were more important things to do. They got married quickly. Vitaliy’s mother Oksana didn’t have the money to fly to Ukraine and attend the ceremony. So, her Italian husband, who loved Vitaliy and Ruslana very much and was always kind to them, put a ticket on the table and told her to go. What a great surprise it was for the newlyweds!
Grandmother Sofiya sighs and continues:
“Vitaliy loves Diana, and says that her varenyky taste even better than mine. So, I got the recipe from Diana. You know, Diana’s a fighter; she’s very supportive. I often cry, but she says that everything will be fine…”
“Vitaliy and I met on Maidan Nezalezhnosti on New Year’s Eve 2014. He told me it was his duty to support the protesters, and that we had no right to surrender our country to criminals. Six months later, Vitaliy proposed, and we got married in October. We settled in a small apartment near Kyiv, but when they started to gather volunteers and form the National Guard, Vitaliy went to the front to defend Ukraine.”
“FIGHT ! AND YOU SHALL OVERCOME!”
Vitaliy Markiv joined one of the first volunteer battalions fighting the Russian invader; his battalion was later named in honour of Serhiy Kulchytsky, head of the military and special training directorate at Ukraine’s National Guard. General Kulchytsky was killed during the siege of Sloviansk, when his helicopter was shot down by pro-Russian militants. Vitaliy’s wife Diana supported her husband’s decision.
“At that time, we thought it would be over quickly, the anti-terrorist operation would be over in a few months. But, the first time that Vitaliiy returned home from the Donbas, we both realized that it was war. In two months, my husband lost 15 kilos, and lots of grey hair appeared. It was hard for me to look at him…”
Vitaliy’s mother, Oksana Maksymchuk, says that she never expected her son to go off to war.
“I spoke to him just before he signed the contract with the Armed Forces. I asked him to think it over. But, my son had no doubts about his choice; he wanted to live in a free Ukraine!
Vitaliy has a large map of Ukraine tattooed on his chest, and on his arm – Taras Shevchenko’s famous words – “Fight! And you shall overcome!” This is his motto in life.”
Grandfather Ivan recalls Vitaliy’s first days on the front lines:
“His nom de guerre was “Italiyets”(the Italian) because he knew the language well. General Kulchytsky was a close friend. When he died, Vitaliy cried… But, my grandson didn’t tell us much. When he called us from the front, he usually reassured us in his calm voice: “Don’t worry, I’m fine.”
THE DAY OUR LIVES CHANGED…
“Vitaliy didn’t intend to return to Italy. We wanted to build our future in Ukraine. In 2017, we just wanted to visit his mother. We never suspected that something like this could happen. I first heard about Rochelli after Vitaliy’s arrest.” recalls wife Diana.
Vitaliy’s mother Oksana Maksymchuk remembers the events of that day:
“My husband and daughter went to Bologna Airport to meet the children, and I stayed home. I talked to my son when they were getting into the car. Within a few hours, I lost all contact with them. I called my husband, my daughter, Vitaliy… but no one answered. I was terribly worried. Finally, my husband was allowed to call me from the police office. They returned home without my son, with a piece of paper explaining the charges against Vitaliy.
I don’t understand… It’s been so long since the Italian journalist died! If the Italian authorities had any real evidence of Vitaliy’s guilt, they should have launched a proper investigation with the Ukrainian side. Moreover, they had many opportunities to apprehend him. When the Italian carabinieri came to talk with the National Guard, my son was their interpreter. He also visited the Italian Embassy to renew his passport.”
Vitaliy’s mother is convinced that Italy needed a scapegoat… and found an easy one in her son. After all, the Italian journalists wrote extensively about him, putting him in the “limelight” of the war.
“He was the ideal subject for them! In all the video interviews, he spoke to them in Italian. You know what they thought, those Italian journalists?… that our army was composed of mercenaries who were sent to eastern Ukraine to kill civilians. Vitaliy told them that this was an outright lie, that the soldiers were defending their country!”
Diana recalls that they were not allowed to speak to him after the arrest. When they finally met, Vitaliy asked his family whether they believed these allegations. Of course, they knew that Vitaliy was not guilty of anything; he was just doing his duty as a soldier.
“MOM, I DON’T WANT YOU TO CRY!”
Diana Markiv says that they had no illusions about the outcome. She often spoke to Vitaliy on the phone, and he prepared her for the court decision. Despite everything, she broke down when the sentence was pronounced, saying: “How can anyone be prepared for such a verdict? My heart has been shattered into a million pieces…”
Oksana Maksymchuk’s voice trembles when she recalls that dreadful day:
“When I heard the verdict, I felt drained, empty, no emotions…I bowed my head and just sat there, silently. I was told that my son glanced at me when the sentence was pronounced, but I couldn’t look into his eyes. After the trial, he asked the carabinieri to allow him to say goodbye. My son was calm, much calmer than our lawyer and myself. “Mom, I don’t want you to cry. Don’t show them that you’re sad, because it’s not the end.
Visiting hours are six hours a month. We bring him packages and things he needs. No more than 20 kilos per month are allowed – books, clothes, food and money. Vitaliy is allowed to go to the gym three times a week for 1 hour 40 minutes. He wasn’t allowed to visit the library or walk in the courtyard after someone reported that he was allegedly plotting to escape from the Pavia prison.”
The defense team is currently preparing an appeal. They have 90 days, and it will probably be considered by a Milan court.
“… I’m waiting for all this to be over. I’m convinced that sooner or later the truth will come out, and I will return to Ukraine. ” wrote Vitaliy in a letter to his grandmother.