On February 26, 2016 in Schastie, Luhansk region, an exchange of prisoners took place between Ukrainian and representatives of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic. At the boundary line, Ukraine handed over six people. So-called LPR representatives, in turn, released three Ukrainians. Leonid Mazanko, Vitaly Chuprinin and Rostislav Mavrin all gained their freedom and returned to the territory under Ukraine’s control.
Passing the Ukrainian boundary roadblock, the representatives of the Contact Group, Deputy Irina Herashchenko, Daria Olifer and Yury Korobov, along with SSU employees were moving towards the separatists’ roadblock. Before that the parties agreed that they would stop at a distance of 40 meters from each other for the exchange, as reported by Informator correspondents present at the scene.
SSU employees covered the group of negotiators near the sides of the broken roads. At the junction the enemy was already waiting for the Ukrainian group for the exchange. The so-called LPR representatives arrived in several cars, among them there were armed men. Four women dressed in civilian clothing and two men in camouflage uniforms were moving towards Luhansk. It was the group of people to be exchanged for Ukrainian hostages.
The OSCE staff was present during the exchange. The so-called LPR representative, dressed in a Russian military uniform, came to the group ready for the exchange. He checked the documents of those who were handed over to separatists by the Ukrainians. The representatives of Ukraine also checked the captives then the necessary formalities were settled.
The exchange itself took place very quickly and the groups of captives went separate ways. Three Ukrainians who had been captured and detained by the separatists for a long time were coming towards us. Despite the fact that the danger of interference of the exchange had passed, the representatives of the Ukrainian Contact Group were restricted as the presence of the military from both sides did not help to remove anxiety.
Vitaly Chuprinin had been detained for seven months. When answering Informator’s questions as to how he came to be captured he just said, “I’m a citizen of Ukraine and believe that I fulfilled my duty.” He also said that he had seen Maria Varfolomeyeva just this morning and she was to be exchanged with this group, but only three people had been brought.
“We’ve been waiting for a long time and we are surprised how quickly everything occurred.” said the former hostages. They were thankful for their freedom. Irina Herashchenko gave them her mobile phone so they could call their families.
“I was captured in 2015. Nearly the whole eight months, I had been in the Ministry of State Security’s temporary holding facility, a detention center and the ‘Commandant’s Office,’ set up by the Zhovtneviy district’s executive committee. I was charged with cooperating with foreign intelligence (SSU). During my stay in the occupied territory I did not hide my political beliefs. Maybe, I conducted myself aggressively and gathered much attention. There were hundreds of people like me in the ‘cellars’. In the ‘Commandant’s Office’ where I was detained, there were three captives, among them was Maria Varfolomeyeva. I am very sorry that Maria was not exchanged; we should give them dozens of people for the Ukrainian patriots. If a person supports Ukraine, we should save him by every means possible. Varfolomeyeva is very tired; she has been in the cellar for more than a year. The conditions are very poor. There is no light at all in the cell, she is not allowed outdoors, she weighs around 66 pounds.” Leonid Mazanko said.
“On the 12th of June I was detained and thrown into a ‘cellar’ in the MSS, and on the 16th a film crew from channel Russia 24 came with a reporter, Irina Kuksenkova, and made a report stating that the ‘militias’ detained ‘an SSU spy,’ with a ‘prompter’ behind her controlling my words,” added the former hostage.
“How am I doing now? I cannot believe what has happened. I believed till the end that the exchange would take place.” Vitaly Chuprinin said. “Thanks to all who helped to release us from captivity. Glory to Ukraine!”
The former prisoners said that the local people were under the control of Russian propaganda and there were no Ukrainian channels present. Ukrainian journalists cannot get to the occupied territory while the personnel of the channel Russia24 are there all the time.
“Conduct an experiment, watch Russia 24 for two weeks and you will lose your marbles. You will feel like the people of the occupied territories.” Vitaly Chuprinin said.
The former hostages said that that the prisoners of the camps and detention centers in the so-called LPR wanted to be transferred to Ukraine. According to Mazanko, “nobody works on this issue.”
Irina Herashchenko stated that this week in Minsk the parties agreed on the exchange of four Ukrainian hostages, but only three were released.
“Vitaly Chuprinin and Leonid Mazanko had been captured by separatists and charged with espionage. Military man, Rostislav Mavrin, had been mobilized as early as in 2014 and in the summer of the same year had been captured. Today we are finalizing the details and hope that the fourth hostage will be released.” Herashchenko said.
According to Gerashchenko, Ukraine insists on the fact that women and seriously ill hostages should be released first. Four more women are held in the occupied territories; Maria Varfolomeyeva and nearly 20 people with serious diagnoses are among them as well. All these cases are under the personal control of Petro Poroshenko, and Ukraine is ready to compromise and to demonstrate good faith.” the Deputy said.
“Today’s release is the result of hard work that involved the Ukrainian President, the Interdepartmental Center of the SSU, the Minsk humanitarian groups, where Victor Medvedchuk works, and Leonid Kuchma.” Herashchenko noted.
“Our goal is to release prisoners. Currently, the 6th paragraph of the Minsk Agreements is not being implemented. At the upcoming meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs in the Normandy Format this issue should be raised. The release of hostages is a priority for Ukraine,” she continued.
Currently, 131 Ukrainian citizens are being held captive by separatists. 694 people are considered missing.