Mariupol volunteers were in Russian captivity for 100 days. Now the released are helping to find those who may still be in Olenivka. Here are two stories fo search and help and a (rough) walkthrough

Author:
Oksana Rasulova
Editor:
Yuliana Skibitska
Date:
Mariupol volunteers were in Russian captivity for 100 days. Now the released are helping to find those who may still be in Olenivka. Here are two stories fo search and help and a (rough) walkthrough

The colony in occupied Olenivka is one of the places of detention for Ukrainians captured by the Russians. Currently, this is the most famous and brutal torture prison among those created after February 24. Military, law enforcement, and civilians get there. Among the latter are volunteers who brought humanitarian aid to besieged Mariupol and evacuated people. In March, the occupiers kidnapped 33 volunteers, more than twenty of them were held in Olenivka, ten more in Donetsk. They were released at the beginning of July, after a hundred days of captivity. Exactly one month ago, three of them created a channel to search for people staying in Olenivka. They call it "psychological self-help" because they currently do not receive help from the state. Rehabilitation is mandatory for ex-POWs, but not for civilians, even though they also go through brutal conditions and torture. Deficiencies in the system of assistance to former prisoners have existed since 2014, but now the scale of the problem has increased — thousands of people are being held captive by the Russians. Oksana Rasulova tells two stories about captive volunteers and mutual aid.

Alevtyna and Vitaly

In Mariupol, 32-year-old Alevtyna Shvetsova worked on television, sometimes she was a presenter at events at the "Alaska" entertainment center. There she met the instructor Vitaly — he was fond of rope jumping and the history of Mariupol. Later, the man resigned from the entertainment center and started working as a taxi driver. They were not friends, rather just acquaintances.

"On the eve of February 24, my family and I were sure that nothing would scare us and we were ready for anything," Alevtyna recalls.

She spent 21 days in occupied Mariupol. And on March 16, one air bomb hit the drama theater near which the woman lived, and another hit their house. Neighbors died in the yard, with whom Alevtyna was cooking food on the bonfire — she went away at the moment of the airstrike, and this saved her. On the same day, Alevtyna left the city on foot with her eight-year-old son, her husband, his parents, and her grandmother. Her parents and 12-year-old brother stayed in Mariupol because of her motherʼs health.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

"The more I moved away from the city, the less chance I had of ever seeing my parents again," says Alevtyna. — Therefore, as soon as there was a connection outside Mariupol, I started calling my friends and asking if anyone was evacuating people.

By the time the family reached the village of Portivske, it turned out that Vitaly was doing the evacuation. And it was him who was requested to take her parents. However, in the village, Alevtyna met another driver who agreed to take them out, and Vitaly meanwhile saved another family. Even earlier, Alevtyna had seen how he delivered water and food for free, checked whether someoneʼs relatives were alive upon request, and took out the families of former colleagues.

"He said he was not afraid of shelling, asked if he needed to visit someone, bring something, spent hours persuading people to leave," says Alevtyna. — For me it was heroism. The volunteer driver as a phenomenon became something extraordinary for me then.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

Alevtyna and her family left for friends in Kryvyi Rih. Later, Vitaly took his relatives to the Dnipro and from there he looked for a volunteer initiative for evacuation. Alytynaʼs colleague Denys Minin was collecting money for buses and looking for drivers from Mariupol, because only locals could find their way around the destroyed city. Alevtyna introduced Denys to Vitaly.

And so on March 28, Vitaly left Zaporizhzhia for Mariupol — and the connection with him was lost.

"We were ready for this, so we did not rush to sound the alarm," says Alevtyna. — Two weeks later, Denys said that Vitaliy was "under examination", which should last a month. It didnʼt seem like something terrible — it wasnʼt torture, it wasnʼt prison. We were afraid that the publicity would hurt, so we just waited.

At the end of April, the "check" was extended for a month. At that time, Alevtyna was already communicating with Vitalyʼs mother and sister in the chat room of the families of the detained volunteers. They found each other thanks to the man who, at the beginning of April, left the colony in Olenivka, and remembered the names of the volunteers and contacted their relatives.

In May, the volunteers were still in captivity. The relatives of one of the freed men learned that they were facing 15-20 years in prison for "terrorism". Then Albina, the girlfriend of one of the prisoners, started a public campaign "Volunteer is not a terrorist."

Алевтина Швецова / Facebook

Time dragged on for a long time — the term of captivity reached a hundred days. At the beginning of July, one woman wrote that her husband called from Donetsk — several volunteers were released. The next day, others were also freed. Vitaly left the "DNR" in July and now lives with his family in one of the western regions. He was not offered rehabilitation or financial assistance as a captive volunteer. Instead, he was given the conscription notice — Vitaliy is not against going to the Armed Forces, but he would prefer to recover physically and mentally. They donʼt give him time for that. Alevtyna says that he cannot recover after being captured. At first, he gave comments to the media, but his condition worsened due to constant reminders of what he had experienced. So in the end, the man recorded a nearly hour long video of the captivity to put an end to it.

Віталій Ситников / Instagram

"I know that Vitaly would have gone to Mariupol anyway, but I still blame myself for his capture," says Alevtyna. — No one blames me for this, but this feeling is with me until the end of my days.

Kostiantyn

The executive director of the IT company Kostiantyn Velychko has lived in Mariupol almost all his life, 41 years. And on February 24, a friend from intelligence called him and told him to take his family out. The man gathered his ex-wife, daughter, girlfriend, mother, a friend with his wife and went to Zaporizhzhia.

"I said that we would stay at our relativesʼ country house for a few days," says Kostyantyn. — I thought that everything would end quickly.

In March, Kostiantynʼs relatives left for Germany, and he began to look for ways to get colleagues and friends out of Mariupol. Some of them had already managed to leave the city on foot to the villages and towns along the coast of the Sea of Azov, and Kostiantyn and his colleague set out to take them from the occupied territory. At first, only women and children were taken away, then entire convoys were taken out, and eventually they began to engage in official evacuation in the Zaporizhzhia region.

A volunteer helps a woman after she got off a bus that arrived with a large convoy of cars and buses to an evacuation point carrying hundreds of people evacuated from Mariupol and Melitopol on March 25, 2022 in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine.

On the twenty-eighth of March, Kostyantyn, as a navigator, boarded an evacuation volunteer bus. The driver was Stas from Berdyansk. They didnʼt take humanitarian aid. There were volunteer stickers on the bracelets, the men had documents and name badges with them.

Kostiantyn already knew well how to behave at roadblocks. Be calm. Carefully search for an answer to the question about supporting the Ukrainian army. Undress for examination. Allow the bus verification. Give razors and cigarettes, but not in blocks or whole packs, so as not to be insolent. To remind that they are "peaceful". Control facial expressions. Be vigilant with the Buryats, who oppress psychologically and seem to sense fear by smell.

Everything seemed to go smoothly. But the Russians stopped them at the last checkpoint near the city. They ordered to drive away the bus and go to the wagon for questioning.

"They began to accuse us of taking people out for money," says Kostiantyn. — Then — that we adjust the fire. That we are taking out the military. That we give badges to someone, but we stay in the city. They refused our offer to go with us to the evacuation and follow. They pointed the guns and said that they would shoot us on the spot if we didnʼt get into a bus with them and leave.

I had to obey. In the Mariupol pre-trial detention center, we were fingerprinted, photographed and thrown into a cold cell without water, food and with a bottle instead of a toilet. They assured that they would be released if no violations were found. The supervisors, taking with each other, said that they would finally press the volunteers — Kostyantyn thinks that they wanted to create a picture of Ukraine that "forgot about its people."

The next day, the volunteers were put in bags on their heads, handcuffed, beaten on their legs and put in a car under machine guns and taken to Starobesheve.

- At that time, we still thought that we could state about our rights because we are civilians. It was not a very good decision, says Kostyantyn. — The supervisors were told that we are "too smart" and that we should be "treated as correctly as possible."

Kostiantyn was hit against a pillar, against a door, and lowered down the stairs. Together with the others, they kneeled facing the wall, pulling the bag over their heads. They threatened to bury them, some were forced to dig their own graves, but in the end, everyone survived that day. In the cell, they received a piece of bread, water and cigarettes, which other prisoners paid for.

In the morning, everyoneʼs hands and eyes were wrapped with tape, and they were taken to Donetskʼs UBOP [Administration in Fight with the Organized Crime] in a car. There they were not beaten, but they were interrogated for hours while the officers repeated the same questions: "Who pays you? How is it free? Where did you get the money for buses?" The screams of the tortured could be heard behind the wall. In the end, Kostiantyn signed a fake protocol without a date — about administrative detention under the article "terrorism".

The next day, the volunteers were taken to the temporary detention center and another day later to the colony in Olenivka. There they were ordered to run out of the car park and squat down, holding their hands behind their heads. Those who tried to change their position a little or fell were beaten. They sat like that for an hour and a half, until they were ordered to get up and run to the disciplinary detention center. No one could feel their legs.

Kostiantyn Velychko at a rally for the Independence Day of Ukraine.

Костянтин Величко / Facebook

The detention center had no windows — there was concrete, tiles, and feces on the walls. There they were forced to squat undressed and were interrogated. A doctor approached each of them and reassured them — after every two or three words she spoke, blows could be heard.

So they were taken to the cell: concrete, metal bunks, a table, two windows, a piece of bread and 170 ml of dirty water per day. They were taken to the toilet twice a day. In a few days, the volunteers were transferred to a separate cell. The supervisors reported that it is for 30 days. Some were actually released after a month, and through them Konstantin was able to convey the news to his relatives. They gave him medicine, most of which the guards took to the "colony fund".

- Two weeks later, I was called to the "headquarters" and asked to fix computers — Iʼm an IT technician, — says Kostyantyn. ― In return, I asked the head of the operational department to improve our conditions. Two days later, he said that we would be transferred to a barrack if I found two laptops and a printer for the colony.

For this, he and Stas were transferred to a barrack, where they could sleep on chairs, and later on beds with mattresses, as well as go out into the yard and use the toilet. They were made "staff" — they took pictures of prisoners and filled in the database of personal data. Within two weeks, Kostiantyn dragged all the volunteers to the barracks in exchange for construction materials and repairs to the premises.

"Probably, we were just lucky with this census of prisoners, illiteracy and laziness of the leadership," says Kostiantyn. ― The workers of the colony are so ignorant that they did not know how to use computers. Usually one or two people were brought to them a month, and now in a day there could be 300-800 people in the stage. They did not have time to process the information and simply did not understand how to do it.

The photo shows some of the prisoners from Olenivka.

Тетяна Печончик / Facebook

Kostiantyn and his assistants received allowances for portions and transfers, so they shared food and cigarettes with others and passed on information from relatives. They freely walked around the colony, explaining it as "work", getting to know the new arrivals. All documents for the "prosecutorʼs office", "questionnaires", and requests from the "investigative committee" went through the volunteers for almost three months. They decided to remember as many names as possible and take as much information as possible out of the colony. The digital ignorance of the management only contributed to this.

"We held on because we saw what happened to broken people," says Konstantin. — They were thrown into solitary cells, where they finally went insane. In fact, I also got there several times "for impudence", but I knew that I had to drive away depressive thoughts.

Prisoners of war were treated much worse in the colony — they were thrown from the bus, beaten with feet, hands, batons, batons, wires, belts, deliberately aimed at wounds, and beaten to death. 800 people were crammed into a room for 120 people. They were not allowed to eat. Wounds were sewn up with fragments inside, due to which the body rotted. Screams from torture could be heard around the clock. From time to time, they were forced to sing the national anthem of the Russian Federation and Soviet songs.

But everything changed when prisoners from "Azovstal"; arrived in May. Two days before their arrival, the Russian tricolor was raised on the territory, and almost the entire staff was changed — only a few "DNR" people were left to knock out shows and management. Instead of the rest, they brought Russians, who were then changed every month. The "Azovstals" were demonstrably not beaten — instead, they were beaten in separate cells with loud music to drown out the screams and blows.

The group of prisoners from "Azovstal" was the largest — about 2,700 people. Several hundred prisoners were usually brought. Kostiantyn calculated based on the base that at the beginning of July, about six thousand people passed through Olenivka, and two thousand of them remained in the colony in July. The rest were released, sent to Donetsk or Russia.

- We had an antenna and an old TV set from other prisoners, and we tuned the Freedom channel to it. When the inspection came, they were "knocked down" and told that the TV was not working, says Kostiantyn. ― Once, during a briefing, Vereshchuk said that she did not know how to free the volunteers because there is no exchange procedure for them. It was depressing.

Nevertheless, one day at the beginning of July, Kostiantyn was told to prepare a replacement and pack his things, and a document was issued on the refusal to open a criminal case against them. It was written on a piece of paper that they were arrested on June 6 — the detention protocols of the prisoners were forced to be re-signed every month in order to maintain the appearance of legality. They took 19 people out of the gate and left them there with their stuff. At first they did not understand what had happened. Then they contacted the wife of one of the prisoners, who was waiting for him in Donetsk and went to the city. Two more were released the next day. One volunteer is still in captivity.

In Donetsk, volunteers received a "filtering certificate". Four of them, including Kostiantyn, left for Poland through the Russian Federation and Belarus. Friends raised the money for it. The information saved in mind and in other ways, was transferred to the prosecutorʼs office and the Security Service of Ukraine. Now Kostiantyn and his family are in Germany.

Return

"At the Warsaw railway station, a person from the Ministry of Transport and Communications met us and gave us 350 euros in compensation for the trip — this is all the help from the state," says Kostiantyn. — The embassy in Warsaw said that they have a lot to do besides us. Neither rehabilitation nor funds for medical examination. In fact, we did not expect anything from the country because we knew how the state system works — if it worked as it should, we would not have to become volunteers in March.

The system of assistance to those released from captivity still exists, but currently only in the form of payments — only military personnel undergo mandatory rehabilitation. And in order to receive funds, the freed people themselves must take the initiative, the state, relatively speaking, does not follow them.

On May 18, 2022, the first "law on political prisoners"; appeared in Ukraine. It provides for social and legal protection of people captured by the Russian Federation. The law prescribes three categories of people: prisoners of war, civilian hostages, and political prisoners.

Tetyana Pechonchyk, head of the ZMINA Center for Human Rights, explains: according to the law, prisoners can receive several types of financial assistance — annual for those who are still in captivity, one-time for those released earlier, and assistance for the family in the event of the death of a prisoner. The amount is 100 thousand hryvnias. Medical, psychological, legal assistance, education, and work, temporary or permanent housing are also provided. Communities themselves can provide some help from their own budget.

"But this law was written, and its financing was approved last year when 400-500 Ukrainian citizens were in captivity," says Tetiana Pechonchyk. — Now there are thousands of them. There are not enough funds in the budget for everyone.

Prisoners and their families can apply for assistance to a special commission that has existed since 2014 and meets monthly. Due to the full-scale invasion of Russia, there was a pause in the meetings, but they resumed in July.

Tetiana Pechonchyk (right) near the Prosecutor Generalʼs Office

Тетяна Печончик / Facebook

The fact is that the commission is governed not by the new law on political prisoners, but by the old Cabinet Resolution No. 328. Olga Skrypnyk, head of the Crimean human rights group and a member of the commission, says:

- The law on political prisoners has been adopted, but the Cabinet of Ministers has not yet developed and adopted a resolution to implement its provisions. So this law, in fact, does not work. For example, the law states the right to rehabilitation, but civilians cannot get it yet, because there is no mechanism. Of course, when these resolutions appear, the commission will be guided by them.

In order to apply for assistance from the state, a prisoner or his family must submit an application to the Ministry of Military Affairs and a package of documents confirming the identity of the prisoner and the fact of captivity, as well as the tax number and bank account number. Documents are submitted in paper form in person, they have 10 days to transfer them to the commission.

And if everything is clear and understandable with the rest of the documents, then those that must confirm the stay in captivity can be very different. These can be decisions of the occupation "courts" and "administrations", certificates from the colony, confirmed lists of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the National Information Bureau, exchange lists of the Ministry of Defense, open proceedings and appeals to law enforcement agencies where the prisoner is recognized as a victim, links to publications in the media, photo, video — an exhaustive list simply does not exist. "Certificates about filtering", which were received by prisoners in Olenivka, are also suitable.

So far, those released from Olenivka have not received help. But they continue to volunteer. Kostiantyn, Stas Hlushkov, and Yevhen Malyarchuk are working on the creation of a public organization and helping with the search for the families of other prisoners in their own Telegram channel "Olenivka" searching for prisoners!".

- Our relatives had the same experience. We try to provide information and provide psychological help and support, says Kostiantyn.

To find out about the fate of relatives, you need to send a photo, full name, and date of birth to the chat. The three volunteers recall whether they saw this person and the data about him in the questionnaires, connect them to the search for other people released from captivity, check social networks. The channel has only existed for a month, volunteers receive hundreds of applications every day — three people do not have time to process them physically, so they have already suspended reception several times. The search result is published on the channel.

There is still a communication channel with "Olenivka", but it is not possible to talk about it. But Kostiantyn says that the relatives of the identified prisoners contacted them in the colony, so such a search gives results. Despite this, of course, it is not possible to recognize all of them. Then, a standard message is added to the photos of the unidentified people: "Unfortunately, we did not see these people during our imprisonment. Donʼt lose hope."

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