Freed Ukrainian POWs Face Homelessness and Money Troubles
31 January, 2018

Yevhen Chudnetsov, a 27-year-old Ukrainian volunteer soldier, is wondering where he’ll sleep tonight. It’s December 28 and he — along with 73 other Ukrainian soldiers and civilians — has just been freed from captivity in the Russian-occupied region of Donetsk. Now he is on a flight to Kyiv.

In captivity, many of the prisoners were subject to horrible conditions and torture by Russian-led separatists. As a result, the welcome they received at Kyiv’s Boryspil airport from dozens of journalists and ordinary Ukrainians felt overwhelming.

Photo credit: Anastasiia Vlasova/HROMADSKE

“Indeed, it was a very warm reception. I am very grateful for it,” said Ihor Kozlovsky, a prominent Donetsk-based scholar of religious studies who was released alongside Chudnetsov. “I talked to [the other released prisoners], we still talk over the phone, everyone was shocked in a good way.”

After their arrival in Kyiv, the former prisoners were transferred to the Feofania hospital outside the city, where many are still being treated to this day.

But while public and state support for the ex-prisoners is high, many are not receiving everything they need. Having returned from the occupied east, they often find themselves homeless and without any source of income.

Hromadske takes a look at the struggles of freed prisoners.

Hospitals and Volunteers

The day after the former prisoners arrived at Feofania hospital, volunteers began raising money for clothes, mobile phones, and SIM-cards for them.

“After being in those cells, the [hospital] rooms feel fantastic. [The former prisoners] receive attention and respect, the volunteers visit them,” Kozlovsky said. “Some even try to stay in the hospital for a bit longer so that they have something to eat and can escape the conditions they used to be in.”

Photo credit: Anastasiia Vlasova/HROMADSKE

But while volunteers have been a great help, Kozlovsky emphasizes that they “can’t do everything,” and the state must create a unified system of help.

“When you get out of the hospital, where do you go?” he said. “I’ve heard there is some kind of program, but I haven’t been introduced to it.”

Some freed prisoners received help from their employers and contacts. For example, the Azov Battalion has provided Chudnetsov, who served in its ranks, with accomodations, while the Zorya football club provided a freed Luhansk soccer fan and his parents with a place to stay in the capital. But many others find themselves without accommodations.

Vadym Svyrydenko, the presidential commissioner for rehabilitating Ukrainian servicemen, said that the government won’t be able to provide permanent housing to the freed prisoners because the is no foundation for it in Ukrainian law.

Photo credit: Anastasiia Vlasova/HROMADSKE

“[But] I know that [the government] is obliged to provide some sort of temporary accommodation because there definitely won’t be financial compensation,” he said.

Still, the situation has improved since March 2016, when Ukrainian journalist Maria Varfolomeyeva was released from separatist captivity. She was forced to stay at her friends’ apartments for several months until she could find a job.

“I was forced to stand in queues for a new passport and personal identity number. At least now we’re being helped with documents,” she says. “But just like previously freed prisoners, they don’t have any legal status. I only have a note from Ukraine’s State Security Service that I’ve been held in the [self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic’s] basements. That’s not a [legal] status,” she said.

Varfolomeyeva said that some prisoners were offered places to stay at dormitories and even Mezhyhirya, the luxurious former residence of fugitive Ukrainian ex-president Viktor Yanukovych.

“Maybe it wouldn’t be the most comfortable thing, but it’s something.”

Government Help

Vitaliy Muzychenko, social assistance department director of Ukraine’s Ministry of Social Policy, told Hromadske that, before the government can provide any help to the former prisoners, their legal status must be established.

“We need to distinguish between soldiers and civilians,” he said. “People from the uncontrolled regions of the Donbas are a separate category. We need to establish their status because, essentially, they are internally displaced persons (IDPs) and there isn’t another legal status they could claim [at the moment].”

Ukraine’s Ministry of the Temporarily Occupied Territories and IDPs told Hromadske that the Presidential Administration is also working on helping the prisoners, but this help will mostly concern soldiers, not civilians.

Photo credit: Kostyantyn Reytskiy/HROMADSKE

Just days before New Year’s Eve, Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman said that the authorities had prepared a draft decree on financial help for freed prisoners. According to the Ministry of Social Policy, each person may receive 100,000 hryvnia ($3,600).

“We’ll help to register them as IDPs and, afterwards, local government will be able to provide them with social housing and benefits according to the corresponding laws,” Muzychenko said.

Rehabilitation commissioner Svyrydenko stressed that medical help is also critical.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

“First of all, it’s rehabilitation. Medical help and then a compulsory health check-up — some of the boys might need additional treatment or psychological help,” he told Hromadske, “A team of military psychologists is working with them. I go to the military hospital every day. The boys seem to be doing quite well today.”

Lawyers are helping those who lost their passports or army documents. But Svyrydenko says providing housing is not among his department’s responsibility.

The Future

While steps are being taken to provide assistance, the government claims that, sometimes, helping former prisoners is no small feat.

“These people are under stress,” Muzychenko said. “And when every institution calls them and asks them what they need, they start refusing this help.”

Photo credit: Anastasiia Vlasova/HROMADSKE

“We want to teach people how to fish instead of giving them fish,” he adds. “Maybe some of their children need support, need kindergartens to go to, there is an issue of social adaptation, employment.”

If there will be a need, the government will provide financial support, Muzychenko said. “But it’s better to help people support themselves instead of giving them a one-off sum.”

/By Maria Romanenko, Anastasiia Stanko and Anna Tokhmakhchi