Saturday, July 13

Ukrainian Family Holds Out Hope Son Will Be Released by Russians

His attempts to escape the Russian siege had failed. He and his fellow Ukrainian marines were surrounded, dozens of miles from friendly lines. They were nearly out of food and water. Some panicked, others quietly resigned themselves to what would come next.

Then, about a day later, Serhiy Hrebinyk, a senior sailor, and his comrades emerged from their final holdout inside the sprawling Ilyich Iron and Steel Works in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. He quickly 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, remains in captivity as a prisoner of war, held somewhere in Russia. His family sits in purgatory, trapped between that day in April and the present.

The initial panicked flurry of calls and visits to the Red Cross, the Ukrainian military and local officials quickly subsided; official proof of life took months to come. The war dragged on, and now, like thousands of other Ukrainian families with relatives in captivity, the Hrebinyks wait.

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

Waiting is as much the Hrebinyks’ war as the one audible from their home in Trostyanets, a town in northeastern Ukraine. Their modest single-story house is not far from the Russian border, where they can sometimes hear the whine of drones or the echo of distant explosions.

They pass the days as best they can until Serhiy comes home. Svitlana frequently goes to church with her two daughters, Anna and Kateryna. They pray for his return and good health. Anna and Kateryna wake up each day and scour messages on Russian channels on Telegram, hoping for the sight of him at the edge of a blurry picture or in a video. Their father, Ihor, checks Facebook groups, where volunteers share updates on Ukrainian prisoners of war.

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

April 12, 2022, was a beautiful day on the outskirts of Trostyanets, 260 miles northwest of Mariupol. The sun was up. Winter had finally retreated, as had the town’s Russian occupiers after the Kremlin’s failed attempts to capture Kyiv, the capital. Just two weeks earlier, Trostyanets had been liberated by Ukrainian troops after a brief, but intense, battle that damaged the hospital and ravaged the train station, where Svitlana has worked for 26 years.

But down south, Russian forces were finishing 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 mother. “We all started crying.”

More than 1,000 marines from the 36th brigade were taken captive in Mariupol, the Russian Defense Ministry announced the next day, April 13. Roughly a month later, the Russian siege of the city ended when the last Ukrainian defenders finally surrendered.

Anna, 27, sent a message, but her little brother was gone, stripped of his belongings as a combatant. His tenure as a prisoner of war had begun.

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

Almost two years after Serhiy’s capture, the Hrebinyks have trained themselves to endure his absence by building a routine, but that was certainly not the case in those early weeks as they frantically searched for him.

The day after Serhiy surrendered, Russian news clips showed the captured Ukrainian marines from his brigade, their uniforms dirty and disheveled. The family scoured the footage frame by frame until they saw a partly obscured face, hands raised and arms half bent, a family trait. It was Serhiy, they thought.

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

Serhiy’s path to the military was an unlikely one. In school, he was an average student. He played soccer, wrestled and went fishing — often with grand designs of a mighty catch, only to return with enough only for the family cat. Serhiy stayed out of trouble, mostly, said Olha Vlezko, 51, one of his former teachers. She spoke warmly of him.

Serhiy smiled a lot. In his early teenage years, his face was boyish and round with welcoming dimples and a mop of brown hair. And he rarely talked to his siblings about the war in the east that began in 2014, let alone fighting in it.

He was mobilized in 2019 for a year of compulsory service that most Ukrainian men have to undertake. Then, unbeknown to his family, he signed a contract with the military six months later. His hair got shorter, his cheeks sharper and more pronounced. But in one military portrait, Serhiy still looked like a child in his uniform as he gripped a Kalashnikov rifle that seemed a little too big.

“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 before Russia launched its full-scale invasion, Serhiy was a tank mechanic in the 36th Marine Brigade and aspired to climb the ranks. He had spent time on the front on the outskirts of Mariupol as Ukrainian troops fought Russian-backed separatists there and was accustomed to the sounds of combat. Serhiy, then 22, suddenly looked much older on the eve of a far bigger war.

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

What happened after Serhiy’s capture on April 12, 2022, remains murky, but the Hrebinyks have managed to scrape together a rough timeline from social media posts and from speaking to Ukrainian soldiers who were released in prisoner exchanges. These transfers have freed more than 3,000 Ukrainians to date, but have been infrequent at best and were paused for much of 2023. Nevertheless, two exchanges this year have given the family hope that Serhiy could be freed sooner rather than later.

One released captive, a Ukrainian marine who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect those still in captivity, said that he was captured alongside Serhiy. The marine’s legs were wounded by rifle and mortar fire during an attempt to break through the siege.

He was Serhiy’s friend, he said, and in their final days of fighting, the 22-year-old from Trostyanets shared what little rations he could with his wounded friend.

“He brought crackers, cookies and canned food and asked how I was feeling,” the marine said. “He helped me.” After they surrendered, the two were taken to Olenivka, a prison in Russian-occupied Ukraine, where they were thrown into an open barracks room with around 90 other prisoners. They slept on whatever they could find. They talked about cigarettes, home and food.

And they waited.

Serhiy was taken away for questioning and returned, only to be transferred to another prison. Masked men took him from the cell. “He said goodbye to me, and that was it,” the marine said.

A second Ukrainian captive passed on another story to the Hrebinyks. He had met Serhiy in another prison, in Kamyshin, a city on the Volga River in western Russia. There, the story goes, most of the captives had caught tuberculosis, common in Russian prisons, but Serhiy had avoided the disease. Instead, he developed back issues from the beatings doled out by his captors.

The information was helpful, but the most concrete update came on Feb. 26, 2023. It was a video posted on Telegram from a Russian volunteer who visits Ukrainian prisoners. In it, Serhiy, who is dressed in a black collared shirt, stares at the camera with his hands on both legs. His head is shaved and he looks concerned, as if he is worried about forgetting the script he is 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 before the video cuts off.

It was the last time the Hrebinyks saw him, and time has marched on since his capture. Anna had a baby boy and married. His grandfathers died. Svitlana is back working occasional nights at the train station, and Simba, a gray cat, joined the family.

“We haven’t seen him for so long, so this video helps us a little,” said Anna, who sometimes watches it before she goes to bed. “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.