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'I'm Tired Of Waiting': Relatives Fight For Hundreds Of Ukrainian Civilians Held For Years In Russian-Occupied Areas

Tetyana Matyushenko's husband, Valery, has been held by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine since 2017. (file photo)
Tetyana Matyushenko's husband, Valery, has been held by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine since 2017. (file photo)

In 2018, the Russian-backed forces controlling part of Ukraine’s Donetsk region sentenced Valeriy Matyushenko to 10 years in prison for “espionage” after holding him in detention for 10 months and conducting what they called a trial.

In the years before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Matyushenko was allowed to make two local telephone calls of up to two minutes each per week.

“It was only a couple of minutes, but at least we heard from him,” his wife, Tetyana Matyushenko, who lives in government-controlled territory, told RFE/RL. “I had a friend there who would call Valeriy locally and then connect to me on Messenger so that we could speak directly a little. But now they have taken that away.”

Since Moscow launched its massive attack in February 2022, Matyushenko’s jailers have canceled such telephone calls.

“In six years, my husband has not been visited by the Red Cross even once,” Tetyana added, “no matter how many times I have asked. We have to do everything ourselves.”

Matyushenko is one of more than 200 Ukrainian civilians who have been held for years in jails and prisons in the Donbas, where war broke out in 2014 between Ukraine and Russian-backed forces who had seized parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Their conditions behind bars have worsened since the invasion last year.

Tetyana Matyushenko fears her husband, Valeriy, has cancer, which is not being treated while he is in prison. (file photo)
Tetyana Matyushenko fears her husband, Valeriy, has cancer, which is not being treated while he is in prison. (file photo)

Although Russia and Ukraine have exchanged thousands of military prisoners over the last year, imprisoned civilians have gotten little attention. Moscow refuses to discuss them and often does not even confirm basic information about their condition or whereabouts. At the same time, the families of the prisoners say the Ukrainian government is not doing enough to force the issue.

“They aren’t fighting for our relatives the way we’d like them to,” Tetyana said. “I think that, if the Ukrainian government really wanted it, then our loved ones would be free. They keep telling us there is no mechanism for releasing civilians.”

30 Kilos Less

Matyushenko is being held in correctional facility No. 32 in the Donetsk region city of Makiyivka, not far from the front line. It has been hit by shells several times since the February 2022 invasion.

His wife fears that he may have cancer, but has not been able to secure the medical treatment he needs to confirm a diagnosis.

“In 2019, through acquaintances, we were able to arrange an ultrasound to check his organs,” she recalled. “A disease of the thyroid gland was discovered. Now we are trying to arrange a blood test, but they won’t let Valeriy go anywhere.”

“I need to find a person in Makiyivka who will go to a laboratory and get the sample kit and then arrange with the prison to take the sample first thing in the morning and then take the samples to the laboratory before 10 a.m.,” Tetyana said. “Organizing all that in a place that is being shelled is quite difficult.”

Since the Russian invasion, the separatists have only allowed prisoners to receive one 20-kilogram parcel every three months.

“The last time we were able to send him food was on April 17,” Tetyana said. “But what is 20 kilograms of food over three months when they are hardly fed there at all? My husband now weighs 50 kilograms. In pretrial detention, he was 78 kilos. Now he weighs nearly 30 kilos less.”

'I Have No One Else'

Olena Pekh, a cultural researcher and museum guide from Horlivka in the Donetsk region, was handed a 13-year prison sentence in 2019 for allegedly recruiting people to work for Kyiv. She is being held in prison No. 127 in the Donetsk region city of Snizhne.

Olena Pekh (file photo)
Olena Pekh (file photo)

Her daughter, Isabella Pekh, told RFE/RL that her mother was abused and tortured in pretrial detention, including with electric shocks, which gave her seizures. Isabella fears her mother was exposed to tuberculosis.

“She has seizures,” Isabella said. “She has a strong cough that never stops. She loses consciousness often. Unless she gets medical attention, I will lose my mother. She is my only relative -- I have no one else.”

“Mom is holding on,” she added. “She is a fighter. A hero. One of those people who say -- ‘Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.’ But I know how hard it is for her.”

Isabella said she hasn’t seen her mother since her abduction. Although earlier they spoke by telephone occasionally, the phone calls have now been stopped.

“Parcels are limited to 20 kilograms every three months,” she added. “But that is nothing at all. It is impossible to eat the food there. There are worms in the food.”

Isabella Pekh (left) with her mother, Olena. (file photo)
Isabella Pekh (left) with her mother, Olena. (file photo)

Isabella also urges the Ukrainian authorities to do more to secure the release of people like her mother.

“I believe that the priority now is people Russia has detained since February 24, 2022,” she said. “Those people have a chance, unlike our relatives.”

“But imagine how strong their faith in Ukraine must be,” she added. “After so much time and after enduring so much torture, knowing every day could be their last, they still believe they will be freed. They still believe in Ukraine.”

“My fight for my mother continues,” she said. “But I always meet indifference. No one hears us.”

'I'm Holding On'

Bohdan Kovalchuk was 17 years old when Russian-backed separatists abducted him in 2016. He was illegally sentenced to 15 years in prison for allegedly blowing up cars used by the anti-Kyiv fighters. In 2019, he was offered a pardon on the condition of confessing, expressing repentance, and pledging not to leave separatist-controlled areas. He refused and is serving his time in a prison in the Donetsk region city of Chystyakove.

“I have not communicated with my grandson since 2019,” said Tetyana Vots. “Over all this time, I saw him only once. My daughter has seen him three times, two of them through glass.”

“He tells me, ‘Grandma, everything is fine. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine,’” she added. “He doesn’t want to upset me, so he is holding back.”

Tetyana Vots holds a picture of her grandson Bohdan Kovalchuk.
Tetyana Vots holds a picture of her grandson Bohdan Kovalchuk.

As her grandson approaches the seventh anniversary of his abduction, Tetyana struggles to remain hopeful.

“Unfortunately, the Ukrainian authorities do not communicate with me,” she told RFE/RL. “They do not tell me what I can expect.”

“I’m holding on,” she added. “I know that I just have to fight for him and wait.”

Tetyana Matyushenko, who suspects her imprisoned husband has cancer, expressed similar frustration.

“I’m tired of being told to be patient,” she said. “I’m tired of waiting.”

“At the age of 38, I was left alone with my infant son in my arms,” she said. “My mother is sick. My father has died. I haven’t seen my husband in six years. I have the right to happiness. My husband has the right to be free.”

Adapted by RFE/RL’s Robert Coalson based on reporting by correspondent Olha Modina of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service.

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