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Captured female pilot becomes symbol of Kiev’s resistance to Kremlin

Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko has been held in detention in Russia since June 2014
Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko has been held in detention in Russia since June 2014 AFP / Dmitry Serebryakov

Upon hearing that Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, held in a Moscow jail for nearly nine months, was ending a hunger strike that had threatened her life, the national parliament in Kiev broke into a spontaneous applause.

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“Nadezhda Savchenko stopped her strike, thank you God!" lawmaker Sergiy Vlasenko said as he announced the news on Thursday, speaking from the rostrum and calling her a "hero".

It was a sign of just how much the 33-year-old’s plight has captured the hearts of Ukrainians, who have come to see Savchenko as a symbol of resistance in Ukraine's war against pro-Russian separatists in the east and of the Kremlin itself.

Savchenko, a helicopter navigator as well as a Ukrainian lawmaker, was charged with involvement in the deaths of two Russian reporters in a mortar attack during the war in east Ukraine on June 17 last year. She denies the charges.

A day later, she was captured by pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine and, she says, brought across the border to Russia – though the Kremlin insists she crossed the border voluntarily. She has been kept in detention in Russia ever since.

‘On the brink’

Her hunger strike in protest of her imprisonment began on December 13 and, her lawyers say, brought her close to death.

"She had been on the brink," one of her lawyers, Mark Feigin, told AFP.

"Three weeks ago, she was examined by German doctors. They said the point of no return would be around March 8,” said another, Nikolai Polozov.

Feigin said that the pilot's weakening health had seen her blood pressure fall sharply while she was suffering seizures and vomited even after drinking water.

It was not until authorities threatened to transfer her to a civilian hospital and force-feed her that Savchenko finally decided to start eating again, said Feigin.

"She would not be able to resist. That was the choice," he said

On Thursday, the 83rd day of her strike, Savchenko agreed to eat some chicken soup, he said.

"I am happy that Nadezhda listened to my advice to end her hunger strike," the lawyer separately wrote on Twitter.

Despite international pressure, Russia has repeatedly refused to release Savchenko and the Kremlin apparently refused to change tack, even after 11,000 people petitioned President Vladimir Putin.

But Savchenko, used to battling against the odds as one of Ukraine's first women to train as an air-force pilot, remained defiant throughout and despite her increasingly poor health.

At each of her public appearances at court hearings in Moscow, she has worn a Ukrainian trident, the country’s national symbol, and on occasion has left the room with a shout of "Long Live Ukraine".

‘A symbol of the struggle for Ukraine’

Such defiance against the might of the Kremlin quickly won her hero status back home.

“Savchenko is a symbol of the struggle for Ukraine,” said Poroshenko in July last year.

“While in captivity she has demonstrated the true, strong, martial Ukrainian spirit of a serviceman who doesn’t betray the Motherland.”

In October last year, she was placed on the electoral list for Yulia Tymoshenko Batkivshchyna party and was elected to the Ukrainian parliament. She signed her parliamentary oath from her Russian jail cell and passed it to Ukraine through her lawyer.

But as her hunger strike went on and her health grew worse, her supporters in Ukraine begged her to start eating again.

"Nadezhda, my dear, it no longer makes sense to continue your hunger strike. Russia is not a country with principles of humanism," Prominent Soviet-era dissident Mustafa Dzhemilev, who is also a Ukrainian lawmaker, said in a letter to the young woman.

"We in Ukraine will save you for sure but through other means," said Dzhemilev, who himself refused food for more than 300 days while in a Soviet prison and was kept alive by forced feeding.

Ultimately, it was the desire to carry on fighting on behalf of her supporters that led her to give up her strike.

"I will fight!” Savchenko said in a letter released by Feigin on Thursday.

“Together with you! And at your request, thankful for your support, I am remaining alive for you."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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