His makes an attempt to flee the Russian siege had failed. He and his fellow Ukrainian marines have been surrounded, dozens of miles from pleasant traces. They have been almost out of meals 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 Metal Works within the southern Ukrainian metropolis of Mariupol. He rapidly messaged his older sister: “Hello Anna. Our brigade surrenders in captivity at present. Me too. I don’t know what’s going to occur subsequent. I really like you all.”

That was April 12, 2022.

Practically two years later, on the second anniversary of the beginning 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 current.

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

“Life, after all, has modified. Nearly day by day is stuffed with tears,” Svitlana Hrebinyk, Serhiy’s mom, mentioned from her front room this month.

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

They cross the times as greatest they will till Serhiy comes residence. Svitlana often goes to church along with her two daughters, Anna and Kateryna. They pray for his return and good well being. 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 Fb teams, the place volunteers share updates on Ukrainian prisoners of conflict.

“Generally I feel that perhaps this occurred to different individuals,” mentioned Svitlana, 48. “After which I ask: ‘Why Serhiy? Why did he should be captured?’” The Ukrainian authorities mentioned 3,574 Ukrainian military personnel have been in captivity as of November.

April 12, 2022, was a ravishing 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. Simply two weeks earlier, Trostyanets had been liberated by Ukrainian troops after a brief, but intense, battle that broken the hospital and ravaged the prepare station, the place Svitlana has labored for 26 years.

However down south, Russian forces have been ending their brutal siege of Mariupol.

“There was a sense that the conflict would quickly be over. After which the message got here. I learn it, and I used to be speechless,” Anna recounted this month, sitting beside her mom. “All of us began crying.”

Greater than 1,000 marines from the thirty sixth brigade have been taken captive in Mariupol, the Russian Protection Ministry introduced the subsequent day, April 13. Roughly a month later, the Russian siege of town ended when the last Ukrainian defenders finally 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. “Every little thing can be okay.”

Nearly two years after Serhiy’s seize, the Hrebinyks have educated themselves to endure his absence by constructing a routine, however that was definitely 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, arms raised and arms half bent, a household trait. It was Serhiy, they thought.

“That 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 referred to as the Hrebinyks to say the Russians had confirmed Serhiy was in captivity.

Serhiy’s path to the navy was an unlikely one. At school, he was a mean pupil. He performed soccer, wrestled and went fishing — typically with grand designs of a mighty catch, solely to return with sufficient just for the household cat. Serhiy stayed out of hassle, largely, mentioned Olha Vlezko, 51, certainly one of his former lecturers. She spoke warmly of him.

Serhiy smiled loads. 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 in regards to the conflict within the east that started in 2014, not to mention combating in it.

He was mobilized in 2019 for a yr of obligatory service that the majority Ukrainian males should undertake. Then, unbeknown to his household, he signed a contract with the navy six months later. His hair received shorter, his cheeks sharper and extra pronounced. However in a single navy portrait, Serhiy nonetheless appeared like a baby in his uniform as he gripped a Kalashnikov rifle that appeared a little bit too massive.

“I used to be saddened, after all,” his father, Ihor, 51, sighed, recalling when Serhiy signed the contract. “He was younger 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 thirty sixth 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 a sudden appeared a lot older on the eve of a far greater conflict.

“After we referred to as him on the twenty third of February, there was no expression on his face,” Anna mentioned. “We tried to cheer him up, however he didn’t present any emotion. He already knew there can be conflict.”

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 have been launched in prisoner exchanges. These transfers have freed more than 3,000 Ukrainians to date, however have been rare at greatest and have been paused for a lot of 2023. Nonetheless, two exchanges this yr have given the household hope that Serhiy may very well 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, mentioned that he was captured alongside Serhiy. The marine’s legs have been wounded by rifle and mortar hearth throughout an try to interrupt via the siege.

He was Serhiy’s good friend, he mentioned, and of their last days of combating, the 22-year-old from Trostyanets shared what little rations he may along with his wounded good friend.

“He introduced crackers, cookies and canned meals and requested how I used to be feeling,” the marine mentioned. “He helped me.” After they surrendered, the 2 have been taken to Olenivka, a prison in Russian-occupied Ukraine, the place they have been thrown into an open barracks room with round 90 different prisoners. They slept on no matter they may discover. They talked about cigarettes, residence and meals.

And so 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 mentioned goodbye to me, and that was it,” the marine mentioned.

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, a lot of the captives had caught tuberculosis, frequent in Russian prisons, however Serhiy had prevented the illness. As an alternative, he developed again points from the beatings doled out by his captors.

The knowledge was useful, however probably 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 digicam along with his arms on each legs. His head is shaved and he seems involved, as if he’s nervous about forgetting the script he’s about to recite.

“Hey Mother, Dad, sister, sister. Every little thing is ok with me. I’m in Russian captivity. They don’t beat me, they deal with us usually. I’ve nothing in opposition to the Russian Federation. We’re fed 3 times a day. I’ve sufficient. Good parts. I hope to return residence quickly. And every thing can be nice 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 child boy and married. His grandfathers died. Svitlana is again working occasional nights on the prepare station, and Simba, a grey cat, joined the household.

“We haven’t seen him for thus lengthy, so this video helps us a little bit,” mentioned Anna, who generally watches it earlier than she goes to mattress. “Daily we wait, and generally we think about what it will seem like when he walks via that door.”

Daria Mitiuk and Natalia Yermak contributed reporting.




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