BELBEK, Crimea Ukrainian Colonel Yuliy Mamchur spent four days under Russian custody in Crimea in an empty single room, deprived of sleep and under constant pressure to switch sides, his wife said on Thursday, a day after he was unexpectedly released.
For many Ukrainians devastated by Moscow's seizure of Crimea, the 42-year-old commander of a Ukrainian tactical air brigade became a symbol of resistance, refusing for weeks to surrender his base to heavily armed Russian special forces.
"He called me last night. He said he was alive and healthy, that everything was fine and that he was now waiting for all of us," Larisa Mamchur told Reuters outside her husband's former base in Belbek, which now flies a Russian flag.
Mamchur, a military pilot, was taken away by Russian troops on Saturday evening after they stormed into the base with armored vehicles, firing stun grenades and machine guns.
"At first they were trying to convince him to switch to the Russian side. Later they put him under psychological pressure. They did not let him sleep, made noises around him by banging on the door, kept him in complete uncertainty in an empty single cell," Larisa Mamchur said.
Ukraine has ordered its remaining troops in Crimea to return to the mainland, effectively surrendering without a fight.
Mamchur is now in northern Crimea. His wife said she was working with other families and servicemen from Belbek to organize transport to leave on Friday morning, meet the commander and move on together.
During the storming on Saturday, Mamchur's soldiers fired no shots and no one was hurt. They were outgunned from the moment Russian troops surrounded them a month ago. Their refusal to leave or join Russian forces made them heroes back home.
"Oh no, he simply could not have joined the Russian army. We are Ukrainians, this is our nation, our land, our country. How could he do that? That is unrealistic," Larisa Mamchur said.
"We will stick with our people no matter what comes next."
In the morning on the day of the Russian assault, her husband presided over a wedding ceremony for two of his soldiers in the base, calm and composed.
He first hit headlines earlier in March, leading a group of unarmed troops towards the base's airport that was held by Russians. The Russians fired in the air. The tense incident was filmed by journalists and shown around the world.
"I don't think this is particular heroism: everybody was just doing their duty to be still able to feel self-respect when it all ends," Larisa Mamchur said of her husband's act.
Russia formally annexed Crimea on March 21, a week after the 2-million strong peninsula voted to separate from Ukraine. The crisis has pit Russia against the West in the worst stand-off since the Cold War.
Before all that, the Mamchurs were bringing up their four-year-old granddaughter in the boarding house by the base, their daughter coming in for weekends from the regional capital Simferopol where she studies medicine. Their daughter and grandchild left for mainland Ukraine earlier during the crisis after they began getting threats.
Asked about the family's plans, the colonel's wife sighed.
"I don't know what future holds, whether this will prove to have brought us closer together or the opposite," she said. "I feel Yuliy has changed. He has become much harder.
"No matter what exactly comes next, we will need to be strong, the situation in the country is not simple at all. We will try to go through all of it together."
(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Peter Graff)