At last

The best news of the year comes right at the end. Ukraine and its separatist eastern regions yesterday exchanged around 350 hostages who had been held prisoner for up to three years because of the conflict.

herasimenko

Natasha and Mykola Herasimenko on their way home (not my photo obviously, thanks to Perviy Krivorozhsky) 

Since 2015, I’ve got to know four families of Ukrainian soldiers held in Donetsk. I’ve written about them several times: Natasha Herasimenko, Natasha and Ludmila Lazarenko, Nadia Kalyn and Viktoria Pantyushenko. It’s a strange thing to come to know their stories so well when the central character is missing – just a face in a photograph which the wives and mothers carried with them everywhere they went: to the local administration, the regional administration, to Kyiv, to separatist-controlled Donetsk, to Paris. From 2015, the demonstrations the women organised and brought the photos to grew, from meetings in the local park that no one was interested in, to a flight to Paris last week to meet diplomats and politicians.

“I can’t not do it,” Luda Lazarenko told me, one of the times I met her in Kyiv outside the presidential administration or parliament, when as usual no one bothered to came out to speak to them. “At least I know I’m doing all I can to make sure they are not forgotten.”

From summer 2015 the women got regular phone calls from their men captive in Donetsk. In summer 2016 the phone calls stopped and it was only infrequent letters. It got harder to know what to talk or to write about, after so long. Sometimes there were videos on YouTube made by Russian and separatist propagandists, where relatives could catch a glimpse of  their captive husbands and sons answering loaded, disingenuous questions. But the photos stayed the same. In one vital relationship these families have been frozen for up to three years. Children have been growing up, grandparents dying, parents splitting up, mothers falling ill. But the photos stay the same.

“In a thousand days other people have children, work, travel, live,” Viktoria Pantyushenko said, last time I met her. “While you’re just hanging. You’re alive but you’re just existing, constantly waiting, just wanting each day to go quickly so that the release will come. Sometimes I appreciate that I’m free, I go to work, I have support, but at the same time everything is closed off, like prison. I just think about one thing: when will he be freed? How can I make it happen quicker?”

I can’t say how happy I am for these families who never gave up. These amazing, determined, courageous women, who kept going to meetings and knocking on doors and sending messages, nagging and insisting and standing out in the rain and hoping, hoping, hoping.

lazarenko

Natasha and Aleksandr Lazarenko (photo Perviy Krivorozhsky)

Like the last really good news from Ukraine two months ago, of the release from politicised charges in Crimea of Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov, this latest exchange is bittersweet. Viktoria Pantyushenko’s husband Bohdan was not released yesterday. Last time I saw her, after the announcement that there would be an exchange before New Year, Viktoria said she believed Bohdan was second on the list for exchange, because he’d been in prison in Donetsk for the second-longest time. She was so bright with hope.

This is the biggest east Ukraine prisoner exchange, after 15 months of deadlock, but there are still confirmed prisoners on both sides and in Russia who have not been released. And then there are all the missing ones, whose relatives hope and believe they are also somewhere in captivity, waiting to be found.

And there is the question of afterwards. Ukraine has promised rehabilitation and financial support for families of conflict-related and political prisoners. To date, it has failed to provide either. Instead former hostages have found themselves denied medical care and under suspicion from the police and security services. Some of these released prisoners can’t go home, because their home is on the wrong side of the frontline. Like Chiygoz and Umerov, political prisoners from Crimea, who were exchanged by Russia and flown to Kyiv under very murky circumstances.

I saw Ilmi Umerov a few days ago; he said “in all the scenarios I ran though about what might happen, I never thought of this one; that I’d be exiled from Crimea.” As with Viktoria today, hard to grasp their feeling, for which disappointment is a completely inadequate word.

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