Roman Abramovich gave iPhones to Britons to call their families after their release from Russian captivity

·4-min read

Former Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich gave iPhones to five Britons released from the captivity of Russian-backed separatists after he welcomed them on their flight out of Russia.

Shaun Pinner and John Harding were both freed alongside Aiden Aslin, Dylan Healy, and Andrew Hill.

They landed in Britain in the early hours of Thursday morning, after being captured by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in April.

Mr Abramovich provided all of the men with iPhones so they could contact family members at home during their flight from Russia to Saudi Arabia.

Mr Pinner's family told Sky News it was "just amazing how many people have been involved" in helping get the men out of Russia.

Voting begins in 'sham' referendums - Ukraine war latest

He had been living in Ukraine since 2018 and joined the National Guard, and eventually ended up joining the Ukrainian marines.

During this time, he also met his wife - the couple's wedding anniversary was on Thursday.

His family said they had good communication with him until he ended up in Mariupol.

His stepfather, Lyndon Price, said: "We were getting information about him from his other friends and it became quite desperate for us because we didn't know if he was going to survive.

"Somewhere along the line, we heard he'd been captured which was in a way a relief, but in another way, we didn't know what the consequences were for that."

'I couldn't believe he was coming home'

In the months that followed, Mr Pinner's mother, Debbie Pinner, says the family "couldn't live a normal life".

"When he first got captured, the circumstances were that they didn't have any water, they didn't have any food, and they didn't have any ammunition.

"The end result with that is you lose a lot of weight."

When she received the call to say her son was on his way home, she said: "I just couldn't believe it until they actually said no he's actually on a plane, and then we were just jumping up and down."

Mr Price said Mr Pinner came across "really chirpy, it was like he was on adrenaline" during a phone call, and when he finally arrived "it was just the most amazing feeling ever".

Read more on Ukraine:
Shrouded in secrecy: Ukraine's push south
The Ukrainian mothers who sent their children to a Russian holiday camp
Draft-age Russians flee country as plane ticket prices soar

Ms Pinner says her son doesn't regret being on the frontline: "He's always liked the army life, and the feeling you're making a difference."

His son, Evan Pinner, added: "The only regret he ever said was that he missed my graduation."

Similarly to Mr Pinner, Mr Harding had also been in Ukraine for four years.

His sister, Denise Harding, told Sky News his family is completely "overwhelmed" to have him back home.

He had been working as a combat medic, something his sister says is "close to his heart".

During the time he was held in captivity, Ms Harding says she was "absolutely shattered".

'I was so happy... and then he took his jacket off'

Ms Harding said when she was informed that her brother would be flown back home: "It didn't feel real, until I saw him in the hotel room.

"I was just so happy to see him… and then he took his jacket off."

That was the moment when she also realised just "how much damage they've done".

"At first I didn't see, I just saw John who looked pretty normal, but he had lost weight.

Click to subscribe to Ukraine War Diaries wherever you get your podcasts

"And then after it only took about a minute, two minutes, he was trying to put down a bag, and I saw the damage.

"It looks like he's got some sort of nerve damage to his wrist.

"His ribs, his whole torso is a mess, it's disfigured."

Daily beatings

Ms Harding says her brother endured "daily" beatings, one of which went on for around half an hour until the point "he just couldn't take it anymore".

Prior to this ordeal, Mr Harding had been planning to go and live with another family member in California.

However, Ms Harding says "everything has changed", the priority is to ensure that Mr Harding makes a full recovery.