They chanted “Freedom to political prisoners!” and “Russia, out of Ukraine!” and carried portraits of people, both military and civilians, who are being held for years as hostages by the Kremlin.
Russia’s war against Ukraine, which is now in its sixth year, has so far cost at least 13,000 lives.
The exchange of captives by the “all for all” principle is a central component of the second Minsk peace agreement signed in early 2015. Despite that, the last mass exchange took place late in 2017, when 74 Ukrainians were released from the prisons of Russian proxies in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in exchange for 233 pro-Kremlin individuals held on Ukrainian government-controlled territory.
The election of a new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has brought some optimism to hundreds of families who have nearly lost hope of seeing their loved ones.
Zelenskiy met with the relatives of some captives on May 30 during his second week in office.
Viktoria Pantyushenko, the wife of prisoner Bohdan Pantyushenko, says that it was much easier to meet with Zelenskiy than it was with former President Petro Poroshenko.
On May 1, the relatives of prisoners, human rights activists and representatives of the C14 nationalist group came to the Presidential Administration to demand that Zelenskiy appoint his representative responsible for prisoner exchanges and support a draft law that would grant Ukrainians imprisoned by Russia the official status of captives. Official status would mean state support for the imprisoned Ukrainians and their families.
“We have a new president. We came here today to show him that the release of people from captivity should be his priority,” Pantyushenko, whose husband has been in prison in the Russian-controlled part of Donetsk Oblast for the last 4.5 years, told participants of the rally.
Forty-seven-year-old soldier Kim Duvanov is one of the most recent Ukrainian prisoners taken captive by Russia.
He was captured by Russian proxies on May 22, when a military truck with eight Ukrainian soldiers erroneously crossed the frontline and drove into the Russian-controlled part of Donetsk Oblast near the town of Novotroitske, some 30 kilometers southwest of the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk.
His wife Olena Duvanova briefly spoke to him for the last time by phone on May 21, when he promised to call her back later. On the following day, she received a phone call from military officials telling her that Kim was captured.
She was told by representatives of the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, that her husband is included in a prisoner exchange list and his release will be discussed at the next meeting of the peace negotiation group in Minsk on June 5. The military officials also told her that her husband is now being held in Russian-occupied Donetsk.
“They told us: wait. But what should we wait for?! They are now probably being tortured,” Duvanova told the Kyiv Post, standing with the portrait of her husband.
She took several days off from her work as a kindergarten teacher and traveled about 580 kilometers from her native city of Izium in Kharkiv Oblast to Kyiv for the rally, hoping it might help her husband.
“I don’t understand how it could have happened that he was captured,” she said. “My husband volunteered and signed a contract with the army in 2017 because he’s a patriot of Ukraine.”
Twenty-four Ukrainian sailors were captured on Nov. 25 by Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, when they tried to approach the Kerch Strait on three navy vessels. On May 25, The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea based in Hamburg ordered Russia to release both the sailors and the vessels and said Russia had violated the immunity granted to warships and naval vessels.
But Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry claimed that Russia will not abide by the ruling and will not release the prisoners, who are now held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison.
There are at least 115 Ukrainian nationals who are currently illegally held in prisons in Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea. Another 129 Ukrainians are illegally imprisoned by Russian-proxy forces in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, according to estimates by Maria Tomak, coordinator of the Media Initiative for Human Rights watchdog. Sixty-three of the prisoners are Crimean Tatars, the indigenous people of Crimea. Thirty-eight of the captured Ukrainians have already received their prison sentences.
A representative of Zelenskiy’s administration came to speak with members of the rally when activists reached the administration’s building. The representative took their written demands and promised that the president would consider them.
A representative from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Kyiv promised the relatives of the captives to create a special joint working group and attempt to get more access to the captured Ukrainians.
It is still not known who will be in charge of the prisoner exchange after Zelenskiy admitted that Viktor Medvedchuk, a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was informally coordinating prisoners exchanges during Poroshenko’s presidency, would no longer be involved.
“This is good that Zelenskiy pays attention to prisoner exchange issues,” Tomak said. “But it’s also very important to appoint the right person to do this.”