While Russia claims Brahim Saadoun was a foreign fighter in Ukraine, the 21-year-old Moroccan sentenced to death alongside two Britons last week had spent years making the country his home.
Saadoun’s friends and family have called for his freedom, telling the Guardian he was an active-duty sailor and not a mercenary, as claimed by Russian media and pro-Russian officials in the east. Ukraine who announced the sentencing.
The 21-year-old is a popular former aeronautical student in Kyiv’s underground techno scene. He moved to Ukraine in 2019 to study as an engineer, but joined the military to fight “injustice”, deploying to Mariupol just months before Russia invaded.
Friends and family in Ukraine and Morocco are mobilizing under the banner #SaveBrahim to raise awareness of the soldier, whose fate is linked to the two Britons, Aiden Aslin, 28, from Newark, Shaun Pinner, 48, from Watford, also sentenced to death by the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk.
“Basically everyone who met Brahim, they all loved him,” said Dasha Oleynik, a friend who has known Saadoun for several years and kept in touch with him during his deployment. “Everyone who knows him is heartbroken.”
Dmytro Khrabtsov, another friend, said he met Saadoun at a party in 2019 and they spent half the night discussing aerospace engineering. The Moroccan had come to Kyiv Polytechnic Institute because Ukrainian education was “very good for the price you pay”.
He eventually joined the armed forces, Khrabtsov said, because “he had a deep feeling that an injustice was being done against Ukraine.”
According to Khrabtsov, Pinner had helped Saadoun on Facebook to join the armed forces.
Saadoun appeared alongside Pinner and Aslin in a show trial last week, which ended with the three men being sentenced to death by a Russian proxy. While Russia may seek to swap them for its own soldiers convicted of war crimes, the threat of a firing squad or long imprisonment has horrified friends and family in Ukraine and Morocco.
Two friends and a relative of Saadoun confirmed to the Guardian that he was a member of the Ukrainian marines and had not served as a mercenary, as claimed by Russian officials and their proxies.
A close friend, Muiz Avghonzoda, told German broadcaster DW that he had “all copies of his documents, all these signed contracts with the Ukrainian Armed Forces”. He called Saadoun a “victim of the DPR [the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic] playing games, victim of Russia, victim of this war”.
Saadoun’s friends were also concerned as media attention focused on the fate of several Britons in eastern Ukraine, most mentioning the Moroccan in passing.
They say the outpouring of support he has received since his arrest showed how integrated he was into Ukrainian society.
He’s a “really good person,” Khrabtsov said. “You see by the way people in Ukraine are reacting to his imprisonment that he touched a lot of lives in a positive way.”
Friends say he had had few job prospects and wanted to gain military experience while going where he felt needed.
“You could see he was never going to work in an office; he had the mentality of an adventurer, a defender. He was very insightful, had a strong sense of justice.
Saadoun’s friends and family discovered that he had been captured during a hostage interview conducted by Alexander Sladkov, an employee of Russian state television.
“I can see at times that he tries to choose his words wisely when speaking in these videos,” Oleynik said. “I’m pretty sure he’s being held in very poor conditions. This is what it looks like, but we don’t know any details.
Since then, he has not had the opportunity to contact his family or friends.
“They didn’t talk,” Oleynik said. “It’s incredibly difficult for us and of course for his family.”
Saadoun had called Oleynik regularly even after joining the army, where he served as a driver before being deployed to Mariupol in November.
On the first day of the war, as the helicopters were flying towards Kyiv, Saadoun called Oleynik and told him to run to a bomb shelter as quickly as possible.
“The day the war started, he was in a hotspot and he called me to say he saw helicopters heading towards Kyiv,” she said. “He called me and said, ‘I see those helicopters, please hide in the air-raid shelter…’ It was obvious he didn’t have a lot of time and that he was calling from a random number, but he still took a while to call. ”
She said she hoped bringing attention to his plight could encourage Western governments to find a way to bring him home.
“We really suffer a lot because of the lack of contact with him,” Oleynik said. “I can see how tired and exhausted he is. I wish he knew how much support he actually has…how many people care about it, how many people write about it, how many people post about it…so he has a reason to hold on, to know that he is not alone.