Oksana Maksimchuk, Vitaliy Markiv’s mother at a rally in Tolentino, Italy on October 14, 2019. Photo: Natalia Kudryk (RFE/RL)
Article by: Natalka Kudryk
June 30 marked three years since Vitaliy Markiv was arrested at Bologna airport, when he and his wife arrived in Italy to visit his mother, who has lived and worked for 20 years in the town of Tolentino, Marche region, Italy. Vitaliy lived in Italy with his mother, sister and stepfather for almost 10 years, but in the winter of 2013, he returned to Ukraine where he joined a Self-Defense unit on the Maidan in Kyiv. When Russian troops invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014, Vitaliy joined the National Guard of Ukraine as a volunteer fighter and fought near the town of Sloviansk in Donetsk Oblast, which had been captured by Russian hybrid forces.
On May 24, 2014, Italian journalist Andrea Rochelli and Russian interpreter Andrei Mironov were killed in a shelling attack on the outskirts of the city. French photojournalist William Roguelon was injured. The foreign reporters had moved into the “grey zone” without the consent of the Ukrainian authorities and wore no marks identifying them as “press”. A few years later, Italian investigators focused their case on Ukrainian soldier Vitaliy Markiv, basing their arguments on an article published in Corriere della Sera by journalist Ilaria Morani.
The nightmare began: arrest, pre-trial investigation, trial, sentence, appeal… and pandemic. The appeal hearing was scheduled in Milan in spring 2020, but postponed to autumn. However, no date has been set, and due to the ongoing pandemic crisis, all judicial work in the courts in Italy has been suspended for four months.
Since the day of her son’s arrest, 51-year-old Oksana Maksymchuk and her Italian husband have been counting the days and months. Vitaliy is currently jailed in a maximum security prison in the town of Opera near Milan (northern Lombardy). During the interview, Oksana spoke with conviction about her experiences, her words reflecting a mother’s pain, patience, strength and faith.
– We’ve already done over 140,000 kilometres. We visit my son twice a month and also meet with the lawyers. I can’t tell you how many times we were refused access to my son – we arrive, we don’t have all the required permits, they say, and we return home. This happened frequently in Pavia during the first month after Vitaliy’s arrest. Now that my son is in custody near Milan, we try to see him twice a month for three hours. I sometimes lose whole working days or take days off at my own expense. I work at a local factory in Tolentino, which manufactures leather furniture. Fortunately, the management is very understanding. We’re allowed to bring 20 kg per month. At first, bed linen, books and the press weren’t counted, but when the directors of the Milan prison were replaced, they began weighing everything.
– Vitaliy was arrested on June 30, 2017. Could you ever have imagined that it would take so long?
– No. We thought it was a misunderstanding and that it would be cleared up in a matter of days. They’d check the documents, see that we never had problems with the law, and Vitaliy would be released very quickly. In addition, Vitaliy had no problems in Ukraine. About three weeks later, he was transferred to Milan, so we talked to a lawyer, and realized that this matter wouldn’t be resolved quickly. Days turned into weeks, then months…
– What is life in prison like? Does your son talk about it?
“I can’t tell you much because he doesn’t like to talk about life in prison. I only know that he’s under strict conditions. Inmates from other sections are allowed to meet their visitors in the open air, but not Vitaliy. He’s also confined, gets no fresh air. When he was on trial last year, he managed to breathe in some fresh air. He has access to a small place without a roof, surrounded by walls; he can jog there. And he’s allowed to visit the gym twice a week.
– How did Vitaliy get through these months of quarantine? Did he give you some advice on how to survive psychologically in isolation?
– His stepfather jokingly told him that we were also under house arrest. But, Vitaliy just looked at him and said: “Would you like to take my place?” We can’t compare our quarantine with his place of confinement. I can’t tell you more… Vitaliy doesn’t like to talk about prison life.
– How does he get news and information? Do you filter your conversations?
– Of course. We don’t share any negative news, only positive stuff. If there’s an opportunity to pass on Ukrainian newspapers, then he can read the news and draw his own conclusions. I keep in touch with his army friends in Ukraine; some write letters, others send greetings; they’re all waiting for him. I relay all this to my son; he’d like to be with them, with us, but…
– My next question may sound a little strange, but here goes… Does he experience any pleasant moments in prison?
– What can be pleasant about being locked up? It’s a high-security prison. Books help him a lot, especially historical and patriotic topics. He got most of the books from his wife. We had to disassemble each book, make photocopies, because hardcover literature isn’t allowed. He reads a lot: the Kobzar by Taras Shevchenko, Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, Notre Dame d’Ukraine by Oksana Zabuzhko, The Tale of Ihor’s Campaign, Alone with Yourself by Marcus Aurelius, and Myths and Legends of Ukraine.
– What about letters?
– Oh yes, he gets lots of letters from his army friends and that really helps. He even receives postcards from strangers; children write and send drawings from schools. Once, I wanted to give him a Ukrainian flag, but I was told it was forbidden. So, Vitaliy decorated his cell with children’s drawings with blue and yellow flags; this way he has a small picture of Ukraine in his prison cell. These are probably the pleasant moments. Sometimes, people even send envelopes with stamps so that he won’t have to spend his own money.
– Does Vitaliy keep a diary?
– I don’t know. I’ve told him that he should write a book.
– What was the most painful moment in these three long years?
– The day the sentence was pronounced. The verdict, of course.
– When you heard the judge announce the term of imprisonment (24 years), what thoughts flashed through your brain?
– My first thought was that we must continue fighting, we can’t give up. We’d been so sure that all the charges would be dropped, because there was no concrete evidence. The verdict was a shock to us all. But, we must remain optimistic.
– When the verdict was announced on July 12, 2019, I saw tears in your eyes for the first time; you’d managed to stay strong during seventeen court hearings. Did your son inherit this inner strength from you?
– Yes, from me. We’re both Lions (zodiac sign). He was born on August 16, and I was born on August 19. During our prison visits, there are some emotional moments and his stepfather starts crying. Vitaliy doesn’t like that; he doesn’t want us to show weakness. His state of mind depends on ours. He’s very strong. When I tell him about all the problems in Ukraine, how worried I am, he calms me down and tells me not to believe everything I read. There are people who understand the situation and will make the right decisions, he says. Yes, he’s tough on the outside and on the inside.
– Has prison changed your son? Are there any noticeable changes?
– Vitaliy travelled to Ukraine in December 2013, just before the Christmas holidays, because he hadn’t been there for a long time. He didn’t tell me why he was going; he didn’t even see his grandmother in Ukraine. He just wrote her a note: “I’m going to the Maidan.” I don’t see any changes. He has absolutely no doubts about the choices that he’s made.
– Vitaliy often appeared in court in an embroidered shirt…
– It was his decision to wear an embroidered shirt. One, embroidered with red and black threads, was gifted to him on his birthday by his wife Diana. The second, embroidered with blue and yellow threads, was presented to him by the Ukrainian community from Brescia. Despite the reaction of the Italian press (which called the embroidered shirts nationalist symbols-Ed), Vitaliy wore these shirts at every hearing. Moreover, he saw Ukrainians in the courtroom also wearing embroidered shirts and felt this overwhelming wave of support.
– Does your son ever talk about plans for the future or is this topic still taboo?
– Like every normal person, he looks forward to the future. He regrets that he’s missed three years at the Kyiv Military Academy, where he studied for a year. He plans to return to the ranks of the Kulchytsky Battalion of the National Guard of Ukraine, build a military career and a family in Ukraine. He and Diana plan to live in Ukraine, not abroad.
– Besides working and fighting for your son’s release, you’re also involved in volunteer work in Italy…
– Thanks to my son, I met many volunteers in Ukraine. We collect medicine, hygiene products, clothes and other necessities for the soldiers and their families.
– Have any of your friends, either in Italy or Ukraine, turned their backs on you?
– Yes, but it doesn’t really upset me. You discover your true friends in times of trouble. On the contrary, I’m very happy that so many good people have joined my family: the people I’ve met, who’ve travelled 600-800 km to attend the hearings, who’ve lost working days, but have all become our family and will be with us forever. This support is very important for Vitaliy. We’ve all become one big family; we need to be together in difficult times.
– In the courtroom, Rocchelli’s family was comfortably seated on one side, while Markiv’s family was forced to stand in the spectator area. The families obviously didn’t talk to each other. If you had the chance, what would you say to Andrea Rocchelli’s parents?
– As a mother, I would tell them that I’m very sorry that their son died. I’d tell them that their son died along with 14,000 of our sons, brothers and fathers who have been killed in the Russian-Ukrainian war. I’d tell them that in 2014, our community honoured Andrea Rocchelli’s memory in Ancona. I’d ask them: after these 18 long court hearings (where Rocchelli’s parents and all the spectators heard about the lack of evidence) and the final verdict, are they really satisfied with this “truth”?
– When the verdict was announced in Ukraine and around the world, the Ukrainian diaspora came out more strongly in support of Vitaliy. But, some people say that your son’s image has been heroized. How do you perceive such mass protests and rallies?
– We didn’t ask or force anybody. The National Guard of Ukraine and the Ministry of Internal Affairs headed by Minister Arsen Avakov provided Vitaliy’s lawyers with all the necessary information for the court hearings. They said: “We don’t abandon our people and we’ll be at your side to the end.” They decided to draw more attention to Vitaliy’s case so that foreigners and tourists in Ukraine would learn about it and spread the news. In Italy, there’s little or no news about this case.
– Some people say that your son is just a scapegoat or that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or that he’s a victim of Russian special services in Italy. Which definition do you prefer?
– From the very beginning, it was obvious that the case was fake and far-fetched. We’re convinced that this is still true. Even an ignorant person will laugh when he reads the case file. Even Italian military experts argue that technically Vitaliy couldn’t have been involved in the deaths. We hope the court will understand this at the appeal hearings.
– What lessons have you and Vitaliy learnt from this tragic story?
– The lesson is that we’re strong if we stand together; we believe that the truth will win out in the end. Whatever decision or choice you make, you make it only once and you must stick by it… no matter how difficult the circumstances. They should not change your mental state or your inward beliefs, your role in life.