While Russia claims that 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.
Friends and family of Saadoun have called for his freedom, telling the Guardian he was an active-duty marine and not a mercenary as claimed by Russian media and pro-Russia officials in eastern Ukraine who announced the sentence.
The 21-year-old is a former aeronautics student who was well liked in Kyiv’s underground techno scene. He moved to Ukraine in 2019 to study as an engineer but joined the army to fight “injustice”, deploying to Mariupol just months before Russia invaded.
Friends and family in Ukraine and Morocco are rallying under the banner #SaveBrahim to raise awareness for the soldier, whose fate is tied to the two Britons, 28-year-old Aiden Aslin, from Newark, 48-year-old Shaun Pinner, from Watford, also sentenced to death by the self-proclaimed republic in 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 that he met Saadoun at a party in 2019 and they had 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 had eventually joined the armed forces, Khrabtsov said, because “he had a deep sense that injustice was being committed against Ukraine”.
According to Khrabtsov, Pinner had helped Saadoun over Facebook to join the armed forces.
Saadoun appeared alongside Pinner and Aslin in a show trial last week, which ended with a Russian proxy official sentencing the three men to death. While Russia may seek to trade them for its own soldiers convicted of war crimes, the threat of a firing squad or long imprisonment has horrified his friends and family in both 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 alleged by Russian officials and their proxies.
One close friend, Muiz Avghonzoda, told the German broadcaster DW that he had “all the copies of his documents, all those contracts signing with the armed forces of Ukraine”. He had called Saadoun “a victim of DPR [the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic] playing games, a victim of Russia, a victim of this war”.
Saadoun’s friends were also concerned as media attention focused on the fate of several Britons in east Ukraine, mostly mentioning the Moroccan in passing.
They say the outpouring of support that he has received since his arrest has shown how he was integrated into Ukrainian society.
He is a “really good person”, said Khrabtsov. “You see by the way people in Ukraine react to his imprisonment that he has touched a lot of lives in a positive way.”
Friends say that he had had few job prospects and wanted to gain military experience while going where he felt he was needed.
“You could see he was never going to be working in an office; he had the mentality of an adventurer, defender. He was very perceptive, had a strong sense of justice.”
Saadoun’s friends and family found out that he had been captured in a hostage interview conducted by Alexander Sladkov, an employee of Russian state television.
“I can see in some moments that he is trying to choose his words wisely when he speaks in these videos,” said Oleynik. “I’m pretty sure he is held in very bad conditions. This is how it looks, but we don’t know any details.”
Since then, he has not been given an opportunity to contact his family or friends.
“They haven’t spoken,” said Oleynik. “It’s incredibly hard for us and of course for his family.”
Saadoun had called Oleynik regularly even after he joined the military, where he had served as a driver before being deployed to Mariupol in November.
On the first day of the war, as helicopters were flying toward Kyiv, Saadoun called Oleynik and told her 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 tell me that he sees helicopters moving to Kyiv,” she said. “He called me to say, ‘I see those helicopters, please hide in the bomb shelter …’ It was obvious that he didn’t have much time and that he was calling from some random number, but he still took time to call.”
She said she hoped bringing attention to his fate could encourage western governments to find a way to bring him home.
“We’re really suffering a lot because of no contact with him,” said Oleynik. “I can see how he’s tired and exhausted. I wish he knew how much support he actually has … how many people care, 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.”