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108 days in Olenivka and no compensation for captivity from the state

Serhii Lin, a freed civilian hostage of the Russians and a volunteer from Mariupol, tells his story.

108 days in Olenivka and no compensation for captivity from the state
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Serhii Lin, a resident of Mariupol, a volunteer, and a former civilian hostage of the Russians, spent 108 days in captivity. Prior to the full-scale invasion, Serhii was an entrepreneur, owning a taxi service. When the invasion began, he relocated his family to safety and returned to Mariupol to aid in the rescue efforts.

On the decision to return to Mariupol

Serhii Lin: Since February 24, when I left the city with my family, I’ve been closely monitoring the situation through daily news updates.

I came to a decision—no one but us, the people of Mariupol, could provide assistance to our fellow citizens. I resolved to return at the earliest opportunity to aid in the evacuation efforts, recognizing that many residents were unable to leave on their own.

On March 18th, I learned that reaching Mariupol was feasible. I traveled to Zaporizhzhia in search of an organization requiring drivers for evacuating people from Mariupol. Coincidentally, my friends approached me, revealing their need for a driver. Without delay, we acquired a bus, and on March 20th, we embarked on our inaugural journey to Mariupol.

The trip spanned two days. Upon arrival in Mariupol, we spent the night there and distributed humanitarian aid. Naturally, our bus wasn’t empty; we loaded it with as much humanitarian aid as possible: food, medicine, diapers—everything, as every necessity was crucially needed in Mariupol.

After distributing the humanitarian aid, I visited evacuation sites across the city, prioritizing the evacuation of seriously wounded civilians, children, and the elderly. In this endeavor, I managed to evacuate 33 individuals using a 17-seater bus in two trips. Among those evacuated were bedridden individuals and those with cerebral palsy who couldn’t move independently. The process was time-consuming, especially when assisting individuals with cerebral palsy down from the 7th floor and ensuring their comfort for the 7-8 hour journey through over 20 checkpoints.

Read also: The «Chameleon» — a course about avoiding captivity and the psychology of survival in captivity


Serhii Lin: This was my third trip. I arrived on the 26th and stayed overnight. On the 27th, while I was distributing humanitarian aid, people wearing military uniforms without any insignia approached me in a car. They inquired about the bus driver, and I confirmed it was me. They instructed me to unload the humanitarian aid and accompany them. Initially, I didn’t give much thought to it, focusing on the people in need as there was a lengthy queue for assistance. A few minutes later, they approached again: «Didn’t you understand us or what? Unload the humanitarian aid». I expressed concern that doing so abruptly could lead to chaos among the waiting crowd. They assured me they had everything arranged. Reluctantly, I unloaded the aid onto the pavement as instructed. They then instructed me to follow their car, warning that any deviation would result in immediate shooting without warning.

I followed them to the district police station. The military personnel immediately boarded the bus without providing any explanation. They insisted on inspecting everything, claiming there were «bugs», and accused me of being a «gunner». Subsequently, they escorted me to an office with my hands restrained behind my back. A man in civilian attire was present, but he did not introduce himself. He commenced questioning me regarding my purpose there, the reason for my visit, my activities, who had sent me, whether I was collaborating with the military, and why I was traveling around the city. I truthfully explained that I was engaged in a civilian, humanitarian mission—my role involved evacuating and delivering humanitarian aid. He confiscated my phone and searched it for evidence, again without offering any explanation.


Serhii Lin: No explanations were provided: no reasons, objectives, or destinations. It wasn’t until we were being transferred from Starobeshevo to Donetsk that I realized I was truly detained. We were instructed to keep our heads down and avoid looking around during the bus journey.

We stopped at a certain checkpoint. They asked who we were. The driver replied that he was carrying prisoners. He said: «Give us a few, we need them here». The driver said he couldn’t, they were accountable. When I heard this, I realised I was a captive.

«Accountable» prisoners were those who were monitored and tracked throughout their entire transfer to their destination. In contrast, «unaccountable» prisoners, mostly civilians intercepted at checkpoints, were destined for forced labor or could potentially disappear or be executed.

We were taken to Donetsk SIZO where we underwent interrogation. The interrogators remained obscured behind a large partition, devoid of any identifiable rank or position. Only their voices, that of a man and a woman, were discernible. They posed standard inquiries regarding our identities, whereabouts, and activities. Subsequently, we were assigned to cells where we remained for a day before being abruptly transferred to Olenivka without any explanation or communication. We encountered an information blackout and isolation; our inquiries went unanswered. It wasn’t until April 1st that I reached Olenivka.

Our detention in Mariupol was evidently a meticulously orchestrated operation. With the city accessible and humanitarian aid pouring in, numerous volunteers and civilians, driven by a strong civic commitment, rushed to assist the residents of Mariupol.

However, witnessing this surge in Ukrainian humanitarian aid and the evacuation efforts, the occupiers decided to intervene. Suddenly, a clear directive was issued to apprehend all volunteers present in Mariupol at that time.

Upon regrouping later, approximately 30 of us found ourselves in a collective unit. We exchanged introductions, discussing our backgrounds and intentions. Each of us was a volunteer, arriving with a dedicated mission to deliver humanitarian aid and facilitate evacuations.

Serhii Lin. Photo: Radio Liberty

Read also: «We need help with publicity» — sister of Oleksiy Kyrychenko, civilian hostage held by the Russians

About Olenivka and Prisoners of War

Serhii Lin: In reality, Olenivka was a disused prison, completely ill-equipped to accommodate prisoners of war. There were no provisions for basic necessities such as light, electricity, or facilities like toilets and kitchens. Instead, we were coerced into serving as unpaid labor, ostensibly to improve our living conditions. The choice presented was stark: endure these dire conditions or opt for slightly better ones by undertaking repairs to the barracks at our own expense.

We were assigned two barracks. While one was renovated by police officers, the other was designated for us civilians.

One day, a commotion erupted in Olenivka. Suddenly, flags were being changed. When we arrived in April, the flag of the «Donetsk People’s Republic» (DPR) flew, but now it was replaced with the Russian flag. Everyone switched their insignia to Russian equivalents. Initially bewildered, we eventually pieced together the reason behind these developments.

From the vantage point of our cell window, we witnessed a convoy of buses, armored vehicles, and a helicopter on the horizon. Russian riot police accompanied by dogs emerged. It became apparent that they had brought in a substantial number of prisoners of war, though their origins remained unknown to us.

Read also: How the state intends to release civilian hostages

On the Maintenance of Azov Soldiers

Serhii Lin: The Azov Battalion members were segregated from other detainees, from the Armed Forces of Ukraine, marines, and border guards. They were housed separately in different barracks. This process unfolded over several stages, spanning approximately three to four significant phases. The prison was originally designed to accommodate 1,200 individuals. However, by June, it held a staggering 3,500 occupants, indicating the overcrowded conditions we endured.

We were tasked with conducting inventories of all military personnel within the barracks. They (the occupants – ed.) feared to enter certain areas, particularly those occupied by the Azov Battalion. Their barracks were under constant guard by riot police accompanied by dogs, and they were provided separate meals. The apprehension surrounding them made others hesitant to approach. Our duties included photographing each individual from front, left, to right, documenting their rank, surname, first name, and verifying their documents.

Some detainees were assigned to barracks maintenance, while others worked in the kitchen. We also participated in cleaning the surrounding area. Upon our release, some individuals managed to relay information about the captives to law enforcement. Thankfully, all detainees, regardless of rank—be they sergeants, privates, officers, or senior officers—were documented and recorded in the relevant registry.

Regrettably, civilians present in captivity were a resource entirely beyond the control of the Ukrainian authorities. Their whereabouts remain uncertain, as they were not documented in the same manner. Without further information from the Russian side, their fate remains unknown.

To the Russians, civilians are merely a resource to be exploited as they see fit, without fear of repercussions.

Read also: «As long as there is no mechanism for the return of civilian prisoners, people will continue to die»


Serhii Lin: They simply opened our cell and began calling out names according to a list. Frankly, we initially assumed we were being transferred once again. However, as we approached the headquarters and the prison exit, it dawned on us that we were being released. There, we were provided with copies of the necessary documents and set free.

In my personal analysis, the significant outpouring of support played a pivotal role in our release. Our families rallied together online, the media covered our situation, influential bloggers brought attention to our plight, both domestically and internationally.

Though I am not a citizen of Ukraine, I have held a residence permit in the country since 2012, effectively making me a resident. According to the Constitution, the only right I lack is the ability to vote. Otherwise, I possess all other rights afforded to Ukrainian citizens.

I compiled a package of documents, submitted them as required, only to be informed that I wasn’t recognized as a citizen of Ukraine. Despite the fact that had I been a contracted soldier engaged in combat, I would have been eligible for compensation for time spent in captivity. However, due to my non-citizen status, I was deemed ineligible for such compensation.

I pursued legal recourse all the way to the Supreme Court. My argument stemmed from the UN Convention of 1949, which stipulates that individuals officially present on a state’s territory and subsequently taken prisoner should be entitled to support and compensation, irrespective of citizenship.

I possess all pertinent documentation, including records from the Security Service of Ukraine and the Red Cross, affirming my status. Today, I am prepared to submit a comprehensive set of documents to the Supreme Court of Ukraine. My aim is for the court to adjudicate my case in accordance with international laws and conventions, thereby ensuring a just outcome.

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 Ihor Kotelyanets and Anastasia Bagalika.

This publication is made possible by the generous 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.

USAID is the world’s premier international development agency and a catalytic actor driving development results. USAID’s work demonstrates American generosity, and promotes a path to recipient self-reliance and resilience, and advances U.S. national security and economic prosperity. USAID has partnered with Ukraine since 1992, providing more than $9 billion in assistance. USAID’s current strategic priorities include strengthening democracy and good governance, promoting economic development and energy security, improving health care systems, and mitigating the effects of the conflict in the east.

For additional information about USAID in Ukraine, please call USAID’s Development Outreach and Communications Office at: +38 (044) 521-5753. You may also visit our website: http://www.usaid.gov/ukraine or our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/USAIDUkraine.


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