Ukrainian Family Holds Out Hope Son Will Be Released by Russians

His makes an attempt to flee the Russian siege had failed. He and his fellow Ukrainian marines had been surrounded, dozens of miles from pleasant strains. They had been almost out of food and water. Some panicked, others quietly resigned themselves to what would come subsequent.

Then, a couple of day later, Serhiy Hrebinyk, a senior sailor, and his comrades emerged from their last holdout contained in the sprawling Ilyich Iron and Steel Works within the southern Ukrainian metropolis of Mariupol. He rapidly messaged his older sister: “Hi Anna. Our brigade surrenders in captivity today. Me too. I don’t know what will happen next. I love you all.”

That was April 12, 2022.

Nearly two years later, on the second anniversary of the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Serhiy, now 24, stays in captivity as a prisoner of conflict, held someplace in Russia. His household sits in purgatory, trapped between that day in April and the present.

The preliminary panicked flurry of calls and visits to the Red Cross, the Ukrainian navy and native officers rapidly subsided; official proof of life took months to return. The conflict dragged on, and now, like hundreds of different Ukrainian households with relations in captivity, the Hrebinyks wait.

“Life, of course, has changed. Almost every day is filled with tears,” Svitlana Hrebinyk, Serhiy’s mom, stated from her front room this month.

Waiting is as a lot the Hrebinyks’ conflict because the one audible from their dwelling in Trostyanets, a city in northeastern Ukraine. Their modest single-story home is just not removed from the Russian border, the place they will generally hear the whine of drones or the echo of distant explosions.

They move the times as greatest they will till Serhiy comes dwelling. Svitlana frequently goes to church together with her two daughters, Anna and Kateryna. They pray for his return and good health. Anna and Kateryna get up every day and scour messages on Russian channels on Telegram, hoping for the sight of him on the fringe of a blurry image or in a video. Their father, Ihor, checks Facebook teams, the place volunteers share updates on Ukrainian prisoners of conflict.

“Sometimes I think that maybe this happened to other people,” stated Svitlana, 48. “And then I ask: ‘Why Serhiy? Why did he have to be captured?’” The Ukrainian authorities stated 3,574 Ukrainian military personnel had been in captivity as of November.

April 12, 2022, was an attractive day on the outskirts of Trostyanets, 260 miles northwest of Mariupol. The solar was up. Winter had lastly retreated, as had the city’s Russian occupiers after the Kremlin’s failed makes an attempt to seize Kyiv, the capital. Just two weeks earlier, Trostyanets had been liberated by Ukrainian troops after a quick, however intense, battle that broken the hospital and ravaged the train station, the place Svitlana has labored for 26 years.

But down south, Russian forces had been ending their brutal siege of Mariupol.

“There was a feeling that the war would soon be over. And then the message came. I read it, and I was speechless,” Anna recounted this month, sitting beside her mom. “We all started crying.”

More than 1,000 marines from the 36th brigade had been taken captive in Mariupol, the Russian Defense Ministry introduced the following day, April 13. Roughly a month later, the Russian siege of the town ended when the final Ukrainian defenders lastly surrendered.

Anna, 27, despatched a message, however her little brother was gone, stripped of his belongings as a combatant. His tenure as a prisoner of conflict had begun.

“Serhiy, we love you,” she despatched. “Everything will be okay.”

Almost two years after Serhiy’s seize, the Hrebinyks have educated themselves to endure his absence by building a routine, however that was actually not the case in these early weeks as they frantically looked for him.

The day after Serhiy surrendered, Russian information clips confirmed the captured Ukrainian marines from his brigade, their uniforms soiled and matted. The household scoured the footage body by body till they noticed a partly obscured face, palms raised and arms half bent, a household trait. It was Serhiy, they thought.

“This is him,” Anna remembers saying. They submitted screenshots of the video and his passport to a nationwide coordination middle as proof. Three months later, the Ukrainian authorities known as the Hrebinyks to say the Russians had confirmed Serhiy was in captivity.

Serhiy’s path to the navy was an unlikely one. In college, he was a mean scholar. He performed soccer, wrestled and went fishing — usually with grand designs of a mighty catch, solely to return with sufficient just for the household cat. Serhiy stayed out of hassle, principally, stated Olha Vlezko, 51, one in every of his former lecturers. She spoke warmly of him.

Serhiy smiled lots. In his early teenage years, his face was boyish and spherical with welcoming dimples and a mop of brown hair. And he hardly ever talked to his siblings concerning the conflict within the east that started in 2014, not to mention preventing in it.

He was mobilized in 2019 for a yr of obligatory service that almost all Ukrainian males must undertake. Then, unbeknown to his household, he signed a contract with the navy six months later. His hair bought shorter, his cheeks sharper and extra pronounced. But in a single navy portrait, Serhiy nonetheless appeared like a toddler in his uniform as he gripped a Kalashnikov rifle that appeared a bit too huge.

“I was saddened, of course,” his father, Ihor, 51, sighed, recalling when Serhiy signed the contract. “He was young then. Why did he go to serve?”

By Feb. 23, 2022, the day earlier than Russia launched its full-scale invasion, Serhiy was a tank mechanic within the 36th Marine Brigade and aspired to climb the ranks. He had frolicked on the entrance on the outskirts of Mariupol as Ukrainian troops fought Russian-backed separatists there and was accustomed to the sounds of fight. Serhiy, then 22, all of the sudden appeared a lot older on the eve of a far larger conflict.

“When we called him on the 23rd of February, there was no expression on his face,” Anna stated. “We tried to cheer him up, but he didn’t show any emotion. He already knew there would be war.”

What occurred after Serhiy’s seize on April 12, 2022, stays murky, however the Hrebinyks have managed to scrape collectively a tough timeline from social media posts and from chatting with Ukrainian troopers who had been launched in prisoner exchanges. These transfers have freed more than 3,000 Ukrainians to date, however have been rare at greatest and had been paused for a lot of 2023. Nevertheless, two exchanges this yr have given the household hope that Serhiy could possibly be freed sooner reasonably than later.

One launched captive, a Ukrainian marine who spoke on the situation of anonymity to guard these nonetheless in captivity, stated that he was captured alongside Serhiy. The marine’s legs had been wounded by rifle and mortar fireplace throughout an try to interrupt by way of the siege.

He was Serhiy’s pal, he stated, and of their last days of preventing, the 22-year-old from Trostyanets shared what little rations he may together with his wounded pal.

“He brought crackers, cookies and canned food and asked how I was feeling,” the marine stated. “He helped me.” After they surrendered, the 2 had been taken to Olenivka, a jail in Russian-occupied Ukraine, the place they had been thrown into an open barracks room with round 90 different prisoners. They slept on no matter they may discover. They talked about cigarettes, dwelling and food.

And they waited.

Serhiy was taken away for questioning and returned, solely to be transferred to a different jail. Masked males took him from the cell. “He said goodbye to me, and that was it,” the marine stated.

A second Ukrainian captive handed on one other story to the Hrebinyks. He had met Serhiy in one other jail, in Kamyshin, a metropolis on the Volga River in western Russia. There, the story goes, many of the captives had caught tuberculosis, frequent in Russian prisons, however Serhiy had averted the illness. Instead, he developed again points from the beatings doled out by his captors.

The data was useful, however essentially the most concrete replace got here on Feb. 26, 2023. It was a video posted on Telegram from a Russian volunteer who visits Ukrainian prisoners. In it, Serhiy, who’s wearing a black collared shirt, stares on the digital camera together with his palms on each legs. His head is shaved and he appears to be like involved, as if he’s frightened about forgetting the script he’s about to recite.

“Hello Mom, Dad, sister, sister. Everything is fine with me. I am in Russian captivity. They do not beat me, they treat us normally. I have nothing against the Russian Federation. We are fed three times a day. I have enough. Good portions. I hope to return home soon. And everything will be fine with us,” he says earlier than the video cuts off.

It was the final time the Hrebinyks noticed him, and time has marched on since his seize. Anna had a baby boy and married. His grandfathers died. Svitlana is again working occasional nights on the train station, and Simba, a grey cat, joined the household.

“We haven’t seen him for so long, so this video helps us a little,” stated Anna, who generally watches it earlier than she goes to mattress. “Every day we wait, and sometimes we imagine what it would look like when he walks through that door.”

Daria Mitiuk and Natalia Yermak contributed reporting.

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