Families of Ukrainian POWs say they fear that future prisoner exchanges may be in danger and loved ones could stay imprisoned as Russia and Ukraine trade accusations over this week's plane crash.
Even the basic facts are being debated. Russian officials accused Kyiv of shooting down the plane Wednesday and claimed that 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war were on board as they headed for a prisoner swap.
The Ukrainian side said it had no evidence of POWs and that Russia was just playing with Ukrainians' psyche. It did say, however, that an exchange had been due to take place on Wednesday.
Neither side provided evidence for their accusations, leaving the relatives and loved ones in vulnerable states with no answers. Many Ukrainians were already in distress before the incident and had heard nothing from their loved ones in captivity for months.
Yevheniia Synelnyk's brother has been in captivity for over a year and a half. She cried and worried through Wednesday as conflicting items appeared on the news.
“You don’t understand which of these is true,” she said.
The next day, exhaustion set in.
“There is no strength left to shed tears,” she said in a tired voice.
Synelnyk is also a representative of the Association of Azovstal Defenders’ Families, which was created in June of 2022, shortly after around 2,500 Ukrainian servicemen surrendered to Russia on the orders of the Ukrainian president during the siege of the Azovstal steel mill in May.
According to the association, around 1,500 fighters from the steel mill remain in captivity. Thousands more taken in other battles also are being held in Russia, Ukrainian officials said.
Yevheniia Synelnyk says relatives' concerns keep growing as returning POWs talk of torture and abuse.
Now, many families fear the exchanges will stop, Synelnyk said. Soldiers who returned usually shared any information they had about other captives with prisoners' relatives. The last time she heard anything about her brother was a year ago.
The families supported each other throughout Wednesday.
“We’re together, we must stay strong because we have no other choice,” Synelnyk said, emphasizing they will keep organizing rallies. “As long as there is attention on these people, they are still alive there.”
A 21-year-old former prisoner of war, Illia, who uses the call sign Smurf and didn’t provide his surname because of security concerns, attends the rallies weekly and tries not to miss any. He feels it’s the least he can do for those who remain in captivity.
He vividly recalls his final day at the penal colony in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky in the Rostov region. It was 15 February 2023 when he heard his name being read aloud.
He didn't know he had been included in the exchange lists. First, he and a group of other POWs rode in a prisoner transport vehicle for three hours.
Later, he was blindfolded and transported by plane for approximately four hours. The plane then made a stop to pick up more POWs whom he couldn’t see, but he understood as he heard the hands of other prisoners being taped. The trip finished with a four-hour bus ride toward the meeting point.
“These are emotions that I cannot convey in words, but I will never be able to forget,” he said of the moment he realized he had been exchanged.
After his return, he went through rehabilitation, yet the echoes of ten months of captivity linger in his daily life. He recently started losing weight and doctors cannot find the reason. He now weighs only 44 kilograms.
Illia said he thinks that the incident puts future exchanges in danger, which would dash endless hopes.
“It’s a dream of every prisoner of war,” Illia said.