Over a year has passed since the defenders of Mariupol left Azovstal Iron and Steel Works and the terrorist attack in Olenivka. The international investigation yielded no results due to Russia’s denial of access to the site of the tragedy. In Ukraine, the process was moving slowly until recently. Maria Alekseevich, the wife of the captured Azov soldier, shared the story of her husband Serhiy, whom she last saw in one of the Russian videos after the attack. How the families of the Olenivka prisoners are trying to uncover the truth about the crime and bring their loved ones home — read on Espreso media outlet.
From love to captivity: the story of Azov soldier Serhiy Alekseevich
It was the year 2018 when they met on social media. Both were studying psychology in Khmelnytskyi. Maria liked this field, but she didn’t really want to work in that specialization. On the other hand, Serhiy was passionate about his future profession: he bought various books, attended lectures, worked on self-improvement, and aimed to become a certified psychologist. Additionally, he was interested in IT technologies and programming. Thanks to his help, Maria mastered a new field in which she currently works. She says that Serhiy constantly tried to motivate her, assist her, and encourage her to explore new things.
They wanted to get married, create a family, and have children. They were choosing cities where they would live together. But everything came to a halt on February 24 when Russia launched a war on Ukraine, and Serhiy became one of the steel defenders of Mariupol within the ranks of the Azov regiment.
“On the evening of February 24, Serhiy messaged me that he was okay and told me to focus on learning programming. Of course, I couldn’t concentrate on studying, even though I wanted to. But that was the first day of a full-scale invasion. I didn’t know where Serhiy was, what was happening with him, even though he was messaging me. Still, it was so stressful. I just couldn’t comprehend what would happen next,” the girl says.
While the young man was fighting in Mariupol, they maintained communication. The last message from Serhiy came on May 13, three days before leaving Azovstal.
“He didn’t tell me about the plan to leave Azovstal, he never mentioned that such an option was possible, and he never spoke about the possibility of it. Back then, he just told me that he loved me and asked me not to worry if he went silent for a long time. Our conversation was quite brief. I told him that I loved him too and that I would wait, but he never got to read that message,” Maria recalls.
Serhiy Alekseevich, along with over 2000 other defenders, surrendered and laid down their weapons to Russians from the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works. Ukrainian soldiers were sent to Olenivka. Since then, Maria, like the rest of the Ukrainians whose loved ones ended up in Russian captivity, constantly monitors Russian news, hoping, even if faintly, to catch a glimpse of his familiar face and reassure herself that he is alive.
Then, after the defenders left Azovstal, Maria saw her Serhiy three times in videos filmed by Russians. The first time was on May 19 when the Russian troops showed the conditions of the captives in Olenivka. There was another video where he accidentally appeared in the frame. She says these videos were short, but even if it’s just a few seconds, she can always recognize her Serhiy. The third and final time the girl saw her husband was after the tragedy at the Olenivka detention facility.
“After the terrorist attack in Olenivka, Russians published lists on July 30, and in the list of wounded, I found Serhiy’s name. Of course, at first, they told us not to believe these data, that it’s not true. I had doubts too because it seemed like some Russian manipulation, that maybe they were trying to scare us, and that all of this wasn’t real, that everyone was safe and sound. But then, on August 3 of last year, I saw a video from a Donetsk hospital, and in that video, there was Serhiy: wounded, in a room, and they were questioning him about what he heard, saw, and how all of this unfolded. The video itself is also short, less than a minute. I still have no contact with Serhiy; I don’t know in which detention facility he is held, his health condition, or how he’s feeling,” Maria shares her feelings with the journalist.
Overall, according to the girl’s words, Serhiy is very kind and sensitive. During walks, he always helped animals. Once, he even picked up a kitten from the street and brought it home. That cat still lives with Maria. The young man always tried to develop himself, and he supported his loved one in that aspect too. He is cheerful, and even when he was in Mariupol, hell on earth, amidst heavy battles. He would uplift Maria, try to lighten the atmosphere, and that impressed her, the girl says.
“He was in the very midst of the war, surrounded by the Russian army, with combat actions taking place, but Serghiy tried to support me so that I could detach myself from it a little. He always supported me in any ideas, thoughts, and morally as well. While he was in Mariupol, he would ask if I had everything I needed, if I had food, money, if I was safe, if I didn’t experience frequent air raids, if everything was okay. He constantly asked me not to worry, to take care of myself, and to stay strong,” Maria Alekseevich recounts.
Serhiy never told her about the combat actions; on the contrary, he wanted to shield her from the horrors of war. When she would inquire or ask him to share what was happening there, he would change the subject, never wanting to talk about it. In the end, Maria is grateful to him for such care, saying that if she had known everything as it was back then, she probably wouldn’t have been able to handle it.
Serhiy is from Khmelnytskyi, and Maria is from the Khmelnytskyi region. Even before the full-scale invasion, when they were choosing a place where they wanted to live in the future, Serhiy wanted it to be a village. He said he was tired of city life. At that time, the girl wasn’t thrilled about that idea, but now, with her beloved in Russian captivity for over a year, she says she would gladly move to a quiet place, create their own corner, and live happily and peacefully together.
“In the summer of 2021, we also talked about the possibility of moving to Mariupol, living there. We discussed it a lot, probably for about three months. We were considering how to do it right, and at some point, Serhiy said, ‘Wait until it’s necessary.’ He didn’t explain why he said that to me, but now I think that he had some kind of intuition. In general, when we talked about the potential full-scale invasion, he said that most likely there would be massive combat actions in Mariupol, and he mentioned that he would go there almost immediately once it’s known that Russians are gathering. Serhiy told me that he would go in any case: whether it’s in two months, a year, or five years. He was preparing me that when a major war breaks out, he won’t stay at home; he will leave everything and go to defend Ukraine. Because otherwise, he couldn’t and wouldn’t want our future children to fight against Russians,” says Maria Alekseevich, the wife of the captured Azov fighter.
Investigation of the tragedy in Olenivka and the Olenivka Families Community
The terrorist attack in Olenivka occurred on July 29. Over 50 Ukrainian prisoners of war were killed, and more than 130 defenders were wounded, including Serhiy Alekseevich. After the tragedy, the UN established a commission to investigate the circumstances of the tragedy in the colony in the occupied Donetsk region. However, the Russian authorities have still not allowed any international representatives to access the site of the tragedy. Consequently, in January 2023, the United Nations discontinued the work of the commission. At that point, the families of the victims of the Olenivka attack decided to create their own community to independently push forward the process of establishing the facts of the killing of Ukrainian prisoners of war by Russians.
“We have three main goals: the return of the wounded prisoners of war from the time of the terrorist attack, honoring the memory of those who died as a result of the attack so that these individuals are known as real people — they left Azovstal under orders and were promised to have their lives spared, but unfortunately, they will never be able to embrace their loved ones again. And the third goal is the restoration of an international investigation,” states Maria Alekseevich.”
By the way, a month ago, she registered a petition requesting the initiation of days of mourning and remembrance for the defenders who were executed in Olenivka. This is an extremely significant gesture for all the families of the killed Ukrainian prisoners of war. The signature collection is currently underway, and as of August 13, the document has been supported by 13.5 thousand Ukrainians out of the required 25 thousand.
Initially, only the families of the fighters wounded in Olenivka were part of the community. Later, relatives of the deceased soldiers also joined because they also needed assistance, and they themselves possessed a lot of valuable information crucial for establishing the truth.
As of today, there are 140 members in the Olenivka Families Community, but this is far from all the relatives of the defenders from Mariupol who ended up in Olenivka. It’s difficult to locate the majority of their relatives since not everyone, especially the wounded, made it onto the lists published by Russians. For instance, there were over 130 Ukrainian defenders who were injured on the night of July 29 in the Olenivka detention facility, but Russia published a list of 73 individuals. This likely indicates that Russian military didn’t include those who had suffered minor injuries and were not hospitalized, Maria Alekseevich says. These individuals are still being sought.
“When we started our activities, we learned that proper investigations were not being carried out in Ukraine either. This was because witnesses of the attack who were present in that barrack or other buildings and possessed valuable information were not interviewed at that time. It seems they were only questioned a month or a month and a half ago. We even wrote an appeal to the deputies who helped us push this matter forward. The issue is that the Olenivka attack is being investigated in Ukraine by the Security Service and the Prosecutor General’s Office. However, the Security Service is only handling cases related to the deceased, and there is no information regarding the wounded in their records. Now, after numerous meetings, the Prosecutor General’s Office assured us that they would review the cases of the wounded. In other words, they would only review them; whether they will further investigate them is still unknown to us, unfortunately,” notes Maria Alekseevich, the wife of the captured Azov fighter.
The Olenivka Families Community also regularly holds meetings with the coordination headquarters regarding the handling of prisoners of war and the return of the wounded from the attack. However, Maria Alekseevich points out that only consultants come to them, whereas the higher leadership of the headquarters, including Secretary Dmyto Usov, does not participate, citing a lack of time.
“We constantly emphasize that we are ready to cooperate, that we are open to various proposals, and we can assist in various ways. For example, they could include us in delegations to speak about the wounded, prisoners of war, etc. We have asked for meetings with Dmyto Usov several times, as he is involved in many tasks related to the exchange of prisoners of war. Unfortunately, he does not attend our meetings. He explains that he doesn’t have time, but then, on the pages of the coordination headquarters, the next day or every other day, photos appear showing that he had meetings with the families of some other brigades,” the girl emphasizes.
The Olenivka Families Community also requested a meeting with the Office of the President to discuss the investigation of the Olenivka attack and the exchange of prisoners of war but it also received a refusal from there. As explained in the response, the Office of the President does not meet with citizens during a state of war.
At the same time, the relatives of the prisoners and deceased Ukrainian military personnel in Olenivka receive active assistance from the Human Rights Commissioner of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, Dmytro Lubinets. With his support, as Maria Alekseevich mentions, two significant meetings have already taken place, attended by representatives of the Security Service, the Prosecutor General’s Office, the coordination headquarters, as well as representatives of the Red Cross Committee and the UN.
“Do these meetings yield any results for us? If we talk about investigations, then yes. For example, in April, we had our first meeting with Dmytro Lubinets, focused specifically on the investigation regarding those who died as a result of the Olenivka attack, and on expediting DNA testing. Because as of April, very few bodies had been identified among those returned in October 2022. The families didn’t understand why there was a delay. They hoped that their loved ones were in captivity, so this anticipation made their pain even greater. After this meeting, the process of conducting the expert examinations sped up, and as of now, almost all the bodies have been identified — according to the official version, 52 individuals, with 5 or 7 more yet to be identified,” says Maria.
As for the exchange process, progress is minimal. The last time, 22 people were returned from captivity, and over the course of a year, just over 500 individuals were exchanged. Meanwhile, around 2,500 individuals, including 700 Azov soldiers, were released from Azovstal alone.
According to the wife of the Azov regiment, Serhiy Alekseevich, it’s important not to remain silent about those held by Russians — maintaining constant awareness and keeping the topic of what happened in Olenivka alive, highlighting each Ukrainian soldier who ended up there. Over a year ago, after the defenders of Mariupol left Azovstal, the authorities requested maintaining information silence initially, so as not to harm the prisoners of war. However, then the tragedy in the colony occurred, and the girl deeply regretted her silence before that, even though at that time, she didn’t understand what to do and how to act.
“After the tragedy, we were assured: look, we are conducting negotiations, it’s a very complex process, soon there will be good news, don’t say anything anywhere, maintain information silence. Well, we waited, and now it’s been over 15 months since they’ve been in captivity. Of course, it’s the choice of each individual — to speak about the prisoners of war or not. Everyone listens to their heart, intuition, whether it could harm or perhaps help them survive and return as soon as possible. I believe that speaking out will help bring Serhiy back to me alive; I have great hope for that,” says Maria Alekseevich.
Yes, we don’t know about many of the soldiers; we’ve only seen those who returned home. The fate of the rest of the military is unknown. That’s why it’s important to talk about each soldier, to show their faces. This wasn’t captivity on the battlefield; it was a planned exit from the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works. Therefore, the country’s leadership should be responsible for these people because there were agreements that everything would be fine.
“After four months of captivity, 215 people were exchanged (referring to the exchange in September 2022), and all the others are still held by Russians, including the wounded. I believe their wounds are already festering. Everyone knows that our soldiers are still dying in captivity. That’s why the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should primarily focus on the international arena. There are leverage points of influence; if they weren’t there, there wouldn’t have been the exchange last September. The question is how these levers are used and whether they want to use them at all,” notes the wife of the captured Azov fighter, Maria Alekseevich.
Originally posted by Yulia Osym on Espreso. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website