Examining civilian hostage-taking in wartime Ukraine, with help from DW Akademie | Europe/Central Asia | DW | 12.06.2024
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Europe/Central Asia

Examining civilian hostage-taking in wartime Ukraine, with help from DW Akademie

Olha Volynska's career spans human rights and journalism. She applies both in a documentary on Ukrainian civilian hostages abducted during Russia’s full-scale invasion, and her new book features civilian survivors.

In the first several minutes of the documentary “Invisible,” an attractive, middle-aged couple discuss food and clothing for the hundreds displaced in eastern Ukraine. They matter-of-factly go over the inventory in a small but well-stocked warehouse, sorting baby carriages and diapers, cooking staples and jackets, and walkers for the elderly and disabled.

For Yurii Trehubko and his wife, Natalia, the war is never far off from their hometown of Kherson. This volunteer work may well be a constant reminder of ever-present deprivation and desperation. On this day at the warehouse, the goods will help civilians driven from their homes in a flooded area after the nearby Kakhovka Dam break on June 6, 2023.

The sorting and labor, however, are therapeutic for both of them, a means of triumphing over an atrocity that feels unspeakable – the war itself – but terribly personal.

Months prior, Yurii Trehubko, who in peacetime had worked as an activist against corruption, found himself held captive in one of the four torture chambers set up in and around Kherson. His wife would also later be abducted and placed in a cell. But while her husband would be accused of spying and terrorism, she was never told why she was imprisoned. He endured electric shocks and beatings, she sexual assault. Their teenage son would remain clueless as to their whereabouts.

“The stress and shock I experienced,” Natalia Trehubko murmurs in the film, “cannot be described.”

Civilians as hostages

But doing so is exactly what filmmaker Olha Volynska intended in interviewing the couple, along with a teenager, his mother and uncle, and a man from Mariupol who shuttled residents out of the bombed city. What they all have in common is having been abducted by Russian soldiers  ̶  without provocation or reason  ̶  and held without explanation or any formal accusation.

Olha Volnyska | ukrainische Filmemacherin

Olha Volysnka, a Ukrainian filmmaker and author, chronicles civilians who have survived Russian aggression in her home country.

“Each of them had applied to [a human rights organization],” said Volynska, who was working for the organization, called SICH, at the time. After being granted permission from her supervisors, she approached the victims with her idea of a documentary, which eventually became her work for DW Akademie’s MediaFit, a support program for independent regional media producers in Ukraine.

Her 42-minute film “Invisible”would later be selected as one of the best documentaries released within the Creator’s Fund of MediaFit since the project’s start in 2021. Since its release in 2023, the film has been screened in Rome, Vilnius, Prague and Warsaw, among other cities.

She said that while working in the field of human rights, she was drawn to the stories of indiscriminate hostage-taking of civilians in Ukraine, as opposed to military maneuvering and prisoners of war.

Dokumentarfilm Invisible | von Olha Volnyska | Vorführung in Vilnius

Volynska's film 'Invisible' reached audiences beyond Ukraine, including here, in Vilnius, Lithuania.

“Russian forces have also done this in Syria, Chechnya and Georgia,” she said. “But in Ukraine, it’s the largest scale of this kind of crime. It’s a tool of total fear, just to keep civilians silent and under control. There is no real mechanism within the Geneva Convention that applies to releasing civilians.”

Trauma and memory

Making “Invisible” also gave Volynska practice in verifying sources and fact-checking. The sources, she said, gave affidavits about their experiences, and Ukrainian law enforcement organizations have since opened investigations into the film’s allegations. This is critical, she said, in making a film that touches on torture and imprisonment.

“I know that when victims are tortured, that their memories are impacted,” she said. “They can unwillingly forget what happened because the experience has been horrible.”

Buch | Wie der Krieg uns verändert | von Olha Volnyska

Volynska has written essays for her book "How War Changed Us," introducing readers to 12 Ukrainian civilians who have surved Russian wartime aggression.

But it is the topic of trauma and memory that continues to inspire her work. In October, Volynska published “How War Changes Us,” a collection of 12 interviews with Ukrainian citizens, including doctors, a journalist, a priest, and a writer, who all describe their personal encounters amid war.

A wider audience

The book has received encouraging reviews, including from Austrian critic Christoph Hartner in the Kronen Zeitung who writes that it is “deeply touching...in equal measure a contemporary document, an indictment and a plea for humanity.”

Volynska points out that her work is an effort to report stories that would otherwise likely escape being made known to the world, stories about everyday lives caught up in war and terror. This is why, she added, her support from DW Akademie has been so important.

“My goal has been to get this film outside of Ukraine,” she said. “And outside of Europe. In fact, it will be screened at universities in the United States. Without funding from DW Akademie, that wouldn’t have happened. It helped us reach a much wider audience. When you have a heart, it will hurt, and it doesn’t matter what part of the world you live in.”

MediaFit, funded by the European Union with support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), assisted media professionals in Ukraine between 2021 and 2024. The new "Strengthening independent media for a strong democratic Ukraine" project will continue to focus on supporting niche media in the country, media and information literacy programs for younger audiences and will cooperate with the Ukrainian public broadcaster Suspilne.