Their attempts to escape the Russian siege had failed. He and his fellow Ukrainian Marines were surrounded, dozens of kilometers from friendly lines. They were almost out of food and water. Some panicked, others quietly resigned themselves to what would come next.

Then, about a day later, Serhiy Hrebinyk, a high-ranking sailor, and his comrades emerged from their last stronghold inside the sprawling Ilyich Iron and Steel Factory in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. He quickly messaged his older sister: “Hi Anna. Our brigade surrenders in captivity today. Me too. I don’t know what will happen next. I love you all.”

That was April 12, 2022.

Nearly two years later, on the second anniversary of the start of the full-scale Russian invasion, Serhiy, now 24, remains in captivity as a prisoner of war, held somewhere in Russia. His family is in purgatory, trapped between that April day and the present.

The initial panicked flurry of calls and visits to the Red Cross, the Ukrainian military, and local officials quickly subsided; Official proof of life took months to arrive. The war dragged on and now, like thousands of other Ukrainian families with relatives in captivity, the Hrebinyks wait.

“Life, of course, has changed. Almost every day is filled with tears,” Svitlana Hrebinyk, Serhiy’s mother, said this month from her living room.

The wait is as much the Hrebinyks’ war as it is the one heard from their home in Trostyanets, a city in northeastern Ukraine. Their modest one-story house is not far from the Russian border, where they can sometimes hear the hum of drones or the echo of distant explosions.

They spend the days as they can until Serhiy comes home. Svitlana frequently goes to church with her two daughters, Anna and Kateryna. They pray for her return and good health. Anna and Kateryna wake up every day and check messages from Russian channels on Telegram, hoping to see him on the edge of a blurry image or in a video. His father, Ihor, checks Facebook groups, where volunteers share updates about Ukrainian prisoners of war.

“Sometimes I think maybe this happened to other people,” said Svitlana, 48. “And then I ask: ‘Why Serhiy? Why did he have to be captured?’” The Ukrainian government said that, in November, 3,574 Ukrainian servicemen were in captivity.

April 12, 2022 was a beautiful day on the outskirts of Trostyanets, 420 kilometers northwest of Mariupol. The sun had risen. Winter had finally retreated, as had the city’s Russian occupiers after the Kremlin’s failed attempts to capture kyiv, the capital. Just two weeks earlier, Trostyanets had been liberated by Ukrainian troops after a brief but intense battle that damaged the hospital and leveled the train station, where Svitlana has worked for 26 years.

But in the south, Russian forces were ending their brutal siege of Mariupol.

“There was a feeling that the war would soon end. And then the message arrived. I read it and I was speechless,” Anna said this month, sitting next to her mother. “We all started crying.”

More than 1,000 Marines from the 36th Brigade were taken captive in Mariupol, the Russian Defense Ministry announced the next day, April 13. About a month later, the Russian siege of the city ended when the last Ukrainian defenders finally surrendered.

Anna, 27, sent a message, but her little brother was gone, stripped of his belongings as a combatant. His term as a prisoner of war had begun.

“Serhiy, we love you,” he sent. “Everything will be fine.”

Nearly two years after Serhiy’s capture, the Hrebinyks have trained themselves to cope with his absence by creating a routine, but that was certainly not the case in those first weeks as they frantically searched for him.

The day after Serhiy’s surrender, Russian news clips showed captured Ukrainian marines from his brigade, their uniforms dirty and disheveled. The family examined the images frame by frame until they saw a partially obscured face, hands raised and arms half bent, a familiar feature. It was Serhiy, they thought.

“This is him,” Anna remembers saying. They submitted screenshots of the video and his passport to a national coordination center as evidence. Three months later, the Ukrainian government called the Hrebinyks to tell them that the Russians had confirmed that Serhiy was in captivity.

Serhiy’s path to the army was unlikely. At school, he was an average student. He played soccer, wrestled, and fished, often with great intentions of getting a big catch, only to return with just enough for the family cat. Serhiy stayed out of trouble, said Olha Vlezko, 51, one of his former teachers. She spoke warmly of him.

Serhiy smiled a lot. In her early teens, her face was youthful and round with welcoming dimples and a mop of brown hair. And he rarely talked to her brothers about the war in the east that began in 2014, much less about fighting in it.

He was mobilized in 2019 for a year of mandatory service that most Ukrainian men must perform. Then, unbeknownst to his family, he signed a contract with the military six months later. His hair grew shorter, his cheeks sharper and more pronounced. But in a military portrait, Serhiy still looked like a child in his uniform while he wielded an oversized Kalashnikov rifle.

“It saddened me, of course,” sighed his father, Ihor, 51, remembering when Serhiy signed the contract. “He was young then. Why did he go to serve?

On February 23, 2022, the day before Russia launched its full-scale invasion, Serhiy was a tank mechanic in the 36th Marine Brigade and was aiming to rise through the ranks. He had spent time on the front lines outside Mariupol as Ukrainian troops fought Russian-backed separatists there and he was accustomed to the sounds of combat. Serhiy, then 22 years old, suddenly looked much older on the eve of a much larger war.

“When we called him on February 23, there was no expression on his face,” Anna said. “We tried to cheer him up, but he didn’t show any emotion. “He already knew there would be war.”

What happened after Serhiy’s capture on April 12, 2022 remains murky, but the Hrebinyks have managed to put together a rough chronology from social media posts and conversations with Ukrainian soldiers who were freed in prisoner exchanges. These transfers have freed more than 3,000 Ukrainians to datebut they have been infrequent at best and were on pause for much of 2023. However, two exchanges this year have given the family hope that Serhiy could be released sooner rather than later.

One freed captive, a Ukrainian marine who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect those still in captivity, said he was captured along with Serhiy. The Marine’s legs were wounded by rifle and mortar fire during an attempt to break the siege.

He was a friend of Serhiy, he said, and in the final days of fighting, the 22-year-old from Trostyanets shared what few rations he could with his wounded friend.

“He brought crackers and canned food and asked me how I was feeling,” the sailor said. “He helped me.” After they surrendered, the two were taken to Olenivka, a prison in Russian-occupied Ukraine, where they were thrown into an open barracks along with around 90 other prisoners. They slept on what they could find. They talked about cigarettes, home and food.

And they waited.

Serhiy was taken for interrogation and returned, but transferred to another prison. Some hooded men took him out of the cell. “He said goodbye to me and that was it,” said the sailor.

A second Ukrainian captive told another story to the Hrebinyks. He had met Serhiy in another prison, in Kamyshin, a city on the banks of the Volga River in western Russia. There, the story goes, most of the captives had contracted tuberculosis, common in Russian prisons, but Serhiy had avoided the disease. Instead, he developed back problems due to the beatings inflicted by his captors.

The information was useful, but the most concrete update came on February 26, 2023. It was a video posted on Telegram of a Russian volunteer visiting Ukrainian prisoners. In it, Serhiy, dressed in a black collared shirt, stares into the camera with his hands on both legs. He has a shaved head and looks worried, as if he’s worried about forgetting the script he’s about to recite.

“Hello mom, dad, sister, sister. Everything is fine with me. I am in Russian captivity. They don’t hit me, they treat us normally. I have nothing against the Russian Federation. They feed us three times a day. I have enough. Good portions. I hope to return home soon. And everything will be fine for us,” she says before the video cuts out.

It was the last time the Hrebinyks saw him and time has passed since his capture. Anna had a child and got married. Her grandparents died. Svitlana returns to work occasionally at the train station and Simba, a gray cat, joins the family.

“We haven’t seen it in a long time, so this video helps us a little,” said Anna, who sometimes watches it before going to bed. “Every day we wait and sometimes imagine what it would look like when he walks through that door.”

Daria Mitiuk and Natalia Yermak contributed reports.

By Sam