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What challenges do civilian prisoners encounter upon release?

Ukraine has not yet resolved the issue of the treatment of civilians who have returned from captivity or who are still being held in basement cells in the occupied territory or in Russia. Why?

Estimated Reading Time: 7 min

This was discussed in the latest episode of the program «Free our relatives».

Civilian prisoners of war are non-combatants detained, abducted, and taken prisoner by Russians on the occupied territories. In December of last year, the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, Dmytro Lubinets, stated that there were approximately 28,000 Ukrainian civilians in Russian captivity. Nothing is known about their condition and whereabouts, as the occupiers mostly prohibit them from writing letters and contacting their families. Individuals are often detained in the streets, seized, and thrown into detention centers and improvised Russian torture chambers without any trial or investigation. Civilians are rarely returned as part of exchanges. The fact is that international law prohibits the detention of non-combatants, and accordingly, the prisoner of war exchange procedure does not apply to them. In the occupied territories, Russians sometimes release such hostages if they are no longer of interest to them. People find themselves in occupation without documents, and it is a difficult task for them to get to the territory controlled by the Ukrainian authorities. However, at home, civilians released from captivity also face challenges that they must overcome.

We discussed this topic in more detail with Svitlana Lungu, the civilian wife of a civilian prisoner of war, who is a member of the NGO Civilians in Captivity.

What happens immediately after a prisoner returns home?

Svitlana Lungu: After our civilians return home, they are provided with the same assistance package as the military. This includes two to three weeks of rehabilitation, food, clothing, and contact with their families. However, the military receive a certain salary that remains with them, while civilians do not have any money. Often, prisoners of war are not assigned the job they had before they were captured. Moreover, let’s imagine that a person is released home after rehabilitation, but their home and family are in the occupied territory, so this person simply has nowhere to go. There is no information on where to seek help and what to do next.

As families of such people, we also faced the same problem – not knowing what to do when a loved one is in captivity. So, we called the police, but what to do next? That’s why we created our NGO to communicate effectively with state authorities. However, many of the laws that have been written do not work.

Read also: The Kupyansk torture chamber: what residents of the de-occupied Kharkiv region still cannot forget?

«No one understands what to do with civilian prisoners even after their release»

Svitlana Lungu: There is a girl in our community whose brother is a prisoner of war. She knows for sure that he no longer has teeth because they were knocked out. And we do not understand what to do with this person when he returns from captivity. The Ministry of Reintegration responds to us that it is not competent in this matter. Quote:

«The Ministry of Reintegration is not the administrator of the requested information».

In other words, they will not provide any medical care after the rehabilitation of a person released from captivity.

In our organization, we have established a fund where we accumulate funds to assist those guys and girls who have returned from captivity and require comprehensive medical care. After all, during rehabilitation, those released from captivity receive only primary medical care.

As no country has ever had so many civilians in captivity during a war, and the Geneva Convention states that civilians cannot be taken prisoner, there is currently no authority dealing with this issue. Wherever we turn, there is no complete answer to our questions.

How should the state resolve the issue of civilian prisoners?

Svitlana Lungu: I am not a lawyer and cannot specify the exact steps that need to be taken, but I am certain that action is required. It is worth establishing an organization dedicated solely to this issue. Currently, no one advocates specifically for civilians. Once there is a person or a group responsible for this area, they should begin developing a mechanism to regulate the treatment of civilian prisoners.

Read also: Why do the occupiers release some prisoners and keep others — the story of a released prisoner from Kherson

Housing for the relatives of prisoners

Svitlana Lungu: There is a fund called the State Property Fund, but it is unclear to us how it works, as we lack the number of civilians who have been released to approach it. Regarding housing, the Ministry of Reintegration explained to us that a person returning from captivity is provided with temporary housing. However, the challenge lies in the fact that a person returns disoriented, with psychological trauma, meaning they may not understand where to go and that there is a fund that can provide housing.

It’s essential to note that one can apply to the State Property Fund only with sufficient paperwork – proving they were a prisoner of war, or that they lost their house in the occupied territory.

It seems to me that this should not be the responsibility of a person who has returned from captivity; it should be the responsibility of the authorities to prepare houses or apartments for those who survived captivity.

Problems of those not released through the official exchange procedure

Svitlana Lungu: There is a significant problem where people released by the Russians in the occupied territories cannot reach the free territory of Ukraine or abroad. There are cases where people returned from captivity and did not receive state assistance because they couldn’t prove they had been in captivity.

What do civilians need after being released from captivity?

Svitlana Lungu: In my opinion, those released from captivity should immediately receive some financial assistance. Yes, they have been rehabilitated and given some clothes for the season, but they need food, clothes for other seasons, hygiene products, etc. What should a person do while waiting for the 100,000 UAH provided for people who are in captivity or have been in captivity? Stand there with their hand out?

In our NGO, we have to raise funds for the released prisoners ourselves; one of our members recently needed them as her brother was released during the last exchange.

«Prisoners receive summonses from the Military Commissariats»

Svitlana Lungu: We have a woman in our organization with two sons in captivity. Both of them received a call from the military commissariat. She discussed it at the military commissariat. While her children were not confirmed, the guys who came back from captivity contacted their mother and informed her that they had seen her sons. The military commissariat does not pay any attention to this.

We have also frequently raised the question of what will happen to civilians returning from captivity. Every time, we receive different answers.

We would like to remind you that at the fourth meeting of advisers in Davos, the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, Dmytro Lubinets, called on the international community to urgently unite efforts to bring home all Ukrainians illegally taken by the Russian occupiers.

The Ombudsperson emphasized that the goal is to bring home all Ukrainians taken as prisoners of war and illegally deported by Russia. Therefore, he stated that the international community «must immediately consolidate its efforts in this direction».

«In Davos, our partners listened to the voices of Ukrainian children whom we have brought home, relatives of civilians abducted and illegally detained by Russia. They were shocked by what they heard», — Lubinets said.

In times of war, the program «Free our relatives» tells the stories of people, cities, villages, and entire regions that have been captured by Russian invaders. We discuss the war crimes committed by the Kremlin and its troops against the Ukrainian people.

The program is hosted by Igor Kotelianets and Anastasia Bagalika.

The coverage of war crimes resulting from Russia’s war against Ukraine is made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the framework of the Human Rights in Action Program implemented by Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union.

Opinions, conclusions and recommendations presented in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, the United States Government. The contents are the responsibility of the authors.


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