For a week, Sergeyeva’s kidnappers beat her and stabbed her, threatened her with rape and murder. She thought she would die in captivity, when all of a sudden her captors let her go. “If you come back, we will shoot you,” they said.
Haunted by memories of torture and pain, Sergeyeva had to flee from the only life she knew and start anew — with no place to live, no job and no support from the government.
“The hardest part was when the euphoria (about being released) wore off. When it dawns on you that you have no place to return to, you don’t want to do anything at all,” Sergeyeva said in an interview earlier this year. “In many ways, life after captivity is a much bigger challenge than life in captivity.”
Sergeyeva’s situation is hardly an isolated case. In the five years that eastern Ukraine has been embroiled in bloodshed, between 3,000 and 10,000 people, according to different estimates, survived unlawful detentions and captivity.
Almost half of them were civilians. Armed groups from both sides of the conflict held them in underground dungeons and often used them to extort ransom from or somehow leverage the other side. Hundreds of people still remain locked up.
Civilians who went through captivity say that there is effectively no support system for them — once released, they are on their own with their injuries, psychological traumas and financial hardships. Occasionally, Ukrainian authorities offer survivors help with health care and financial support, but aside from standard social benefits for those who served in the military, there aren't any state programs to help former captives.
For many, helping other former captives is often a way to advance their own recovery. They form support groups, nongovernmental organizations and raise money for other survivors.
“I consider it my duty to do everything in my power for these people not to feel discriminated against in their own country,” said Polyakov, who has been living in Ukraine since 2013.
Zoya Shu set out in August to take portraits of some of the former captives in an effort to shed light on their situation. She eventually became friends with the people she photographed — getting them to open up required Shu to open up to them in turn.
“To do this work, you should be open, sincere and warmhearted," Shu said.