Tears, smiles, hugs… Many of them still can’t believe that they’re free now. “We had many thoughts, couldn’t sleep, we still cannot believe it.” These are the first impressions and words after the monumental events of 27 December. It was a prisoner exchange: in total 233 people were released at the request of the so-called “DNR” and “LNR”, and 73 released at the request of Ukraine.
The operation happened in two stages. The first took place at the Mayorsk checkpoint on the Ukrainian government controlled side. Negotiations lasted several hours. Why? Valeriya Lutkovskaya, the ombudswoman for human rights in Ukraine, explains that from an initial list of 306 names, 43 had earlier been released after completing prison sentences, and about 30 from the “DNR”/”LNR” list who were still detained by Ukraine. Simply refused the exchange – they would rather stay in Ukrainian prisons than go to the occupied territories. One of the prisoners said, “I was there (in the “DNR”/”LNR”) by accident. I made a mistake. My advice is to stay away – nothing there is good.”
Finally, the first buses from the self-proclaimed “republics” brought Ukrainian prisoners to the checkpoint. Starting with the “LNR”, as 73 people crossed to the occupied side, 16 returning Ukrainian heroes were met with applause. Ruslan, a fan of the Luhansk Zorya football team, was imprisoned for more than a year, his “crime” was burning an “LNR” flag in occupied Luhansk. In a similar story, Anton spent eight months in prison for singing an Okean Elzy song in a karaoke bar. “I became a spy for them, they were telling me that Ukraine didn’t care about me and no one would take me back.”
In the second stage, the operation moved to the occupied territory in Horlivka for the exchange of prisoners between the “DNR”. In this phase, 57 people were freed and returned to free Ukraine, while one person decided to stay in order to care for elderly relatives in Donetsk. At the same time, 160 prisoners were released from Ukrainian custody. Igor, a scholar of religion from Donetsk, couldn’t hide his emotions: “I went two years without my family, my friends, my teaching activities… Of course I missed all that.” Then we see a military intelligence officer called Oleksandr, who had been in prison for more than two years after being caught in an ambush near Debaltsevo.
The president himself met the freed prisoners at the zero checkpoint, ushering them to safety on nine helicopters to fly them to Kharkiv. There they were met with hugs and cries from relatives. The next stop is Kyiv. Oleksandr’s mother arrived at the airport five hours before his plane was due to land. “When I heard him say, ‘Mom, I’m here,’ I passed out,” she says. “It’s hard for me to say what I feel now. Probably only mothers can understand, mothers who haven’t seen their sons for such a long time.”
And yet, 103 people are still being held. The president says he will continue to fight for those detained in Makiivka and Horlivka, because Ukraine doesn’t forget its people.