Life After Donbas Captivity: Story of Football Fan Vladislav Ovcharenko
26 July, 2018

On October 10, 2016, Vladislav Ovcharenko was detained by Russia-led separatists in his native Luhansk. He was accused of “working with Ukrainian intelligence” and released in a big prisoner exchange between Ukraine and the occupied Donbas over a year later.

As we meet him on a football field in Kyiv on June 25, the place where he feels most comfortable (he’s been an ultra for Luhansk’s Zorya football club for a long time), he describes how his views on freedom have changed during captivity.

“I remember leaving Boryspil [airport] and seeing so much space, just go wherever you want,” the 21-year-old speaks of the time he and the other freed prisoners of war arrived in Kyiv on December 27. “[In prison,] I was confined to a room four meters wide, and eight meters long, which had 40 people in it.”

But freedom isn’t just about being able to go anywhere, Ovcharenko adds. It’s a different way of thinking altogether.

“[In the past seven months,] I’ve found work. I’m more confident about the future, I don’t have to spend the night at some train station. There’s a feeling of inner peace. And the feeling of freedom is irreplaceable.”   

READ MORE: Bringing Them Home: Inside Ukraine's Prisoner Exchange

Work and Play

After moving to Kyiv, Ovcharenko got a job at the Football Federation of Ukraine. He is involved with football-related projects for war veterans and children who have been internally displaced as a result of the conflict.  

Ovcharenko tells us how incredible the balance between sports and social work has been. The first competition he organized involved four teams of veterans of the government’s military operations in the east.

Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova/HROMADSKE

“It’s nice when people know you, and you know many of them. You’re organizing this event for them… People come here, relax, and relieve tension. Because you can feel that the veterans still have that post-war tension,” he says.

Despite now being less active in the ultra community, his loyalties still lie with Zorya FC.

“We’ve got everything ahead of us, we haven’t abandoned fanship because it’s impossible to abandon that. We support our favorite team. For Zorya everywhere,” he says.

Another advantage to his job is having Artem Akhmerov -– a fellow Luhansk ultra who was detained and tried with him on similar charges and freed on the same day – work in the same office.

“Maybe our relations were tense [in the past] but that period only strengthened our relationship,” he talks of the time spent in captivity and being forced to testify against each other.

“We work and spend time together. You could say our friendship has passed through fire, water, copper pipes, everything.”

Health and Help

Ovcharenko has now received 10,000 hryvnia ($3,800) in financial aid from the government, which was previously promised by the Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman. He says that, other than old problems with sight, his health is “fine.”

READ MORE: Freed Ukrainian POWs Face Homelessness and Money Troubles

“But nobody will help with this, and it isn’t right to wait for someone’s help. I have a job, so I’ll try to save up to correct my vision,” the freed POW says.

Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova/HROMADSKE

The psychological help offered by the government, however, has proven to be even less helpful.

“I’ve spoken to lots of people about that. The psychologists employed by the government don’t really help anyone,” he says.

Plans for the Future and Views on Ukraine

Ovcharenko recalls the words of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko about returning to a “completely different country, new and improved.” That, in his opinion, did not happen: there’s still corruption and the national police, launched in 2015, is yet to live up to expectations.

The one thing that did change, however, is the society.

“I noticed how society has changed, people’s attitudes towards the misfortunes of those around them,” Ovcharenko says. “If you were to ask for help on Facebook, if you really need it, within a day you could get some help. It’s really cool, not every country, and not every city, has that possibility.”

Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova/HROMADSKE

But despite the pessimism on most parts, he would be prepared to go and fight in the east should the war escalate further.

“How else are we going to return our home? I want to return to Luhansk. I’m following what’s going on and reading the news and different internal information,” Ovcharenko says.

But before anything else, Ovcharenko wants to continue with his studies, something he didn’t get to do because of his detention. There are some ways he believes captivity changed him.

“I can’t say that I’ve grown up, but I have become more reserved,” he says.

READ MORE: Freed Ukrainian Professor On The Hardest Two Years of His Life