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Prisoners of war

16 sailors missing: where are the service people from the sunken Sloviansk and Stanislav boats?

Last spring, two Ukrainian military boats, Sloviansk and Stanislav, were drowned in battles with the Russian invaders in the Black Sea as a result of missile strikes. Only part of the crew was rescued from each. What became of the other 16 sailors remains unknown. Their relatives have reasons to believe that they are still alive.

The history of the Sloviansk patrol vessel dates back to 1988. It was one of the 49 US Island-class boats designed for patrol and search-and-rescue operations in coastal waters. Its original name was Cushing.

On March 8, 2017, the boat was decommissioned from the US Coast Guard, but its life continued. In September 2018, a solemn ceremony was held at a Baltimore base to hand over the boat to Ukraine. After a refit, it got a new name, Sloviansk, in honor of the fallen marines Roman Napriahlo and Serhii Maiboroda (one born in Sloviansk, the other close to this town).

On November 13, 2019, the boat was introduced to the Ukrainian Navy during an official ceremony. Senior Lieutenant Damyr Aulin, 24 at the time, was appointed as its commander. Five years before Russia occupied Crimea, he was one of the cadets at Nakhimov Naval Academy (Sevastopol) who refused to join the aggressor’s side. As Ukrainian flags were replaced with Russian ones, Aulin and several other cadets demonstrated their attitude by chanting the national anthem of Ukraine. He completed his studies in Odesa.

Damyr Aulin, Commander of the Sloviansk boat. Photo by RFE/RL

The soldier was given the honor of leading the Sloviansk for his high professionalism. The boat had a crew of 19. Nikita Sherishorin was the youngest member, aged as little as 19 at the start of the full-scale Russian invasion. He came to serve on the boat as a conscript in September 2021 and signed the contract as soon as in October.


Oscar, Hirka, Zhuzha, and the tarantula

The wife of the Sloviansk commander, Olesia Aulina tells MIHR that her husband was very appreciative and proud of his crew. The menagerie that the boys assembled on their boat was a great joy. The dog brought by Damyr Aulin was the first to appear.

“We took it from a shelter, but the dog was later tragically killed by the wheels of a car. Then we were given Oscar, a Doberman who became a team member. He kept trying to steal food from them. If the boys lost track of him, they would end up with nothing to eat,” smiles Olesia.

Later, the crew got new members. The team of sailors was joined by the chihuahua Hirka, the cat Zhuzha, and a tarantula brought by Anatolii Sytnyk. “The boys loved the animals, who were a source of emotional release. But they would leave animals behind when going to sea for a long time or in bad weather. They just didn’t want them to suffer,” says Olesia Aulina.

Damyr Aulin and the Doberman Oscar on the Sloviansk. Photo by Olesia Aulina

On the evening of February 23, 2022, Damyr Aulin unexpectedly brought the Doberman home. This alarmed his wife, who was in the second month of pregnancy at that time. But Damyr calmed her down by inventing a story that the boat was to be inspected. Other animals were also taken from the boat the same day. That was the last evening Damyr Aulin was at home.


The sailors became the eyes and ears for the Command

Starting in the first hours of the Russian Federation’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, populated areas of the Black Sea region, including Odesa and Ochakiv, came under massive missile fire. Boats, including the Sloviansk, were taken out to sea. The sailors were on duty around the clock. At 2 AM on March 3, 2022, the Sloviansk went to the Kinburn Spit for reconnaissance and defense of the ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk, and Pivdennyi.

“At that time, Russia severely damaged the navigation system in Ochakiv Port. With the navigation complex set up on the boat, our sailors became the eyes and ears for the Command and reported on the situation,” — says Olesia Aulina. “On the morning of March 3, my husband and I talked on the phone. Everything was fine and quiet on their boat.”

Around 12:30 an air-to-ground anti-ship missile launched by a Russian plane hit the right side of the Sloviansk near the engine room. As a result of the impact, the boat sank, and only eight of the 19 crew members were rescued. Olesia learned about what happened almost right away. Her husband’s peers called her to say that the sailors were calling for help on the radio.

“I call my husband, but can’t get through. Then I text him that their rescue is on the way. But there is no connection anymore,” she recalls.

Yulia, the sister of 24-year-old Seaman Ivan Kalapishchak, felt anxious on the eve of the tragedy. Ivan had not been to his parents’ house in Lviv since 2020. In October 2019, he was demobilized after military service. He came home and then went to Odesa as early as in March. In October 2021, he signed a contract to serve in the Navy of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, on the Sloviansk boat.

“I would always call him ‘little one’,” recalls Yulia. “Since he went to Odesa, we haven’t seen each other for two years and only kept in touch by phone. On February 24, my mom exchanged a word with my brother. He wrote, ‘I’m fine. I love you and miss you very much.’ I also thought that I should call him, but something distracted me, got in the way. Suddenly, a friend calls me, saying, ‘Yulia, I put your mom in a taxi, gave her a sedative.’ I feel something is off and ask, ‘What happened?’ My friend says that my mom learned from her daughter-in-law that the little one went missing. I immediately packed my stuff and went to my parents. But I went to a church nearby instead of their home. So, I go in and see my mom and dad there, kneeling and praying.”

Seaman Ivan Kalapishchak


The
Sloviansk boat: the first naval combat loss

After getting the tragic news, the relatives started a search. “We know to the smallest detail what, where, and how it all happened. But we know all of this only thanks to our persistence. Neither the command of our sailors, nor other government authorities give us any clarity confirming the death of our relatives. However, we have enough unofficial information giving us reason to believe with a probability of at least 90% that our relatives are alive and in captivity,” says Tetiana Sherishorina, the mother of Nikita Sherishorin, the youngest sailor.

Seaman Nikita Sherishorin

The women made an investigation of their own to find out that the tragedy had occurred between the Kinburn and Tendrivska Spits, about 2 km off the coast. Once the missile hit, the boat began to sink quickly, taking a vertical position at first. The impact threw the sailors back. On coming to their senses, they began an emergency evacuation by putting on life jackets and throwing life rafts into the sea. Water was 4–5 degrees Celsius. Only eight sailors reached the rafts. What became of the other 11 crew members remains unknown.

The boat sank in less than 10 minutes. The sailors who managed to evacuate were in the top of the boat. The cabins of the captain and captain’s mate and the galley, potentially with some sailors, were submerged. However, the sea is not very deep here, so the mast still rose above the surface. According to the rescued sailors, they could not get down to the other crew members, because the missile collapsed the passage and flattened the cabins of the captain and the captain’s mate. On reaching the rafts, the soldiers circled the boat at a distance of a few hundred meters for two hours until rescue arrived. During this time, they did not spot other crew members or fragments of their bodies.

The search and rescue did not answer the question of what had happened to the 11 sailors.

“This was a very quick overnight mission, because the divers were constantly in the cross-hairs of enemy ships and planes patrolling the water area. The divers’ leader told us they had examined everything except the commander’s and mate’s quarters. No bodies or remains were found. Cabins that have not been inspected are small. So it is very doubtful that 11 adult men could be there,” says Tetiana Sherishorina.

In addition, according to the divers, air could be trapped in the sealed rooms of the sunken boat in the shallow sea where the sailors who were inside could breathe.

Anatolii Sytnyk, Starshyna 1st Class. Photo by Viktor Kovalchuk

The women also found out that the sailors’ command had conducted an official investigation into the tragedy. Although its findings are not disclosed, their family members know that the report refers to “missing” rather than “killed” sailors. It is missing sailors that are referred to in notifications delivered to the families by the military commissariats.

In April 2022, President Volodymyr Zelenskyi awarded the Order for Courage 3rd Class (posthumously) to ten missing crew members (except the captain). Missing boat captain Damyr Aulin was awarded the Order of Courage 3rd Class even before the tragedy, on February 28, 2022.

The Sloviansk became the first combat loss of the Navy of the Armed Forces of Ukraine during the Russian Federation’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine.


The
Stanislav that sank in 20 seconds near Snake Island

On May 7, there was a second loss. The Stanislav armored assault boat was sunk by a missile strike. This is 58503 Centaur-LK, a domestic project developed by the Shipbuilding Research and Design Center in Mykolaiv. The boat was built in Kyiv at the “Kuznia na Rybalskomu” factory. Its construction lasted for two years and concluded with an ancient maritime tradition, where it was solemnly launched into the water and a bottle of champagne broken against its bow.

A year later, the boat got its name in honor of Junior Sergeant Serhii Sonko, a marine from Stanislav, Kherson Oblast, killed in 2017. Senior Lieutenant Oleksandr Sukhorukov became the commander. Another leader was Captain Lieutenant Serhii Tukmachov. It was he who attended the launching ceremony of the boat and transferred it from Kyiv to Odesa, where it was tested and completed.

On the eve of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Tukmachov was added to the crew because he knew the boat perfectly. From February 24, 2022, the Stanislav crew, just like that of the Sloviansk, lived on the boat. On the day of the invasion, the Russian military occupied Snake Island on the border. It was then that the world public witnessed the Ukrainian soldiers’ courage, who responded to the aggressors’ demand to surrender with the phrase “Russian warship, go f**k yourself!”

It is right near Snake Island that tragic events unfolded for the Stanislav and its crew. “Since February 24, my son and I met only once, on May 1, when he stopped by for two hours. When parting, I hugged him tightly, kissed him, and could not let him go. I tell him, ‘Why am I hugging you, as if for the last time?’ So I push him away and say, ‘We’re going to meet again, cry, kiss each other!’” Tetiana Tukmachova, Serhii Tukmachov’s mother, shares through the tears.

Captain Lieutenant Serhii Tukmachov

One night, crew commander Oleksandr Sukhorukov came briefly by his home. He had dreamed of being a sailor since childhood, but never bragged about his occupation. That night, his mother Inna Sukhorukova felt the change and pride in her son. She recalls, “My son came home at night. I was very surprised and asked how he passed patrolmen and security forces swarming the city. And he said, ‘Self-defense forces protect Odesa, and we protect the whole of Ukraine!’ And I broke into tears.”

Senior Lieutenant Oleksandr Sukhorukov, the Stanislav commander

On May 7, 2022, the Stanislav crew of eight headed on a combat mission to Snake Island. Around 10:30 AM, the boat was attacked by a Russian plane 20 meters off the island. An air-to-ground missile hit the engine room, making the boat sink and reach the bottom 20 meters deep within 20 seconds. Only three sailors surfaced, to be rescued by boats that came to help. Due to the danger, divers have not yet explored this area.


No bodies were found. The sailors might still be alive

There have been no clear reports on the Sloviansk sailors for more than a year and on the Stanislav sailors for ten months. During this time, the two family “crews,” the Aulins and the Liashkos, had sons born. The sailors’ mothers, wives, and sisters created their own “crew”—United by the Sea NGO.

Sailors’ families meeting with the MIHR team. Photo by Viktor Kovalchuk

“Our boys loved the sea, breathed the sea, were lost to the sea. The sea and these tragedies brought us together. That’s why we chose this name,” Olesia Aulina, head of United by the Sea NGO, explains. “Until then, each of us was searching for our loved one on her own. But our boats are from the 30th Surface Ship Division based in Odesa. So, we gradually got to know each other at meetings with various state officials and started organizing trips together. We were aware that it was easier and more effective to collaborate, so we joined forces and created a non-governmental organization.”

“Military commissariats suggest we obtain documents that our sailors were killed. This would make it possible to get money from the government. But we don’t agree, we feel that our boys are alive! No amount of money will make us give up the search for our loved ones,” says Tetiana Tukmachova.

Tetiana Tukmachova, mother of Captain Lieutenant Serhii Tukmachov. Photo by Viktor Kovalchuk

The hope that the sailors are alive is not unfounded. Svitlana Liashko, the wife of the missing Volodymyr Liashko, remembers calling her husband on the afternoon of May 7. There was no connection. But at 7 PM, that is, a few hours after the Stanislav sank, a text came that the man was online. “It was this fact that triggered our search.”

Volodymyr Liashko, Starshyna 2nd Class

“We know that on the same day our military intercepted radio traffic from a Russian plane, whose pilot said he could see a raft and sailors—‘foe.’ Another interception was on May 9. The pilot said that he saw three empty rafts, that they already bombarded this area the day before yesterday, and that ‘foe is no longer there’,” adds Tetiana Tukmachova.

These and other facts that the families are not yet prepared to disclose give them reason to believe that the missing Stanislav and Sloviansk sailors are still alive and held in Russian captivity. So, the first mission of the newly created United by the Sea NGO is to have the status of the 16 sailors changed from missing to POW. This will mean a victory for their relatives in itself.


List of the missing
Sloviansk sailors:

Missing Sloviansk sailors

  1. Damyr Vasyliovych Aulin, born on 2/6/1994, Captain Lieutenant
  2. Ivan Volodymyrovych Kalapishchak, born on 1/17/1998, Seaman
  3. Volodymyr Serhiiovych Katolichenko, born on 12/15/2000, Seaman
  4. Vladyslav Vadymovych Lebid, born on 5/22/1998, Leading Seaman
  5. Dmytro Leonidovych Makhlin, born on 5/14/1983, Starshyna 1st Class
  6. Anatolii Ihorovych Sytnyk, born on 4/3/1992, Starshyna 1st Class
  7. Denys Vitaliiovych Solomko, born on 9/6/2001, Seaman
  8. Yaroslav Ivanovych Tanasiichuk, born on 12/22/1999, Leading Seaman
  9. Yurii Mykolaiovych Tymchenko, born on 6/7/1986, Staff Starshyna
  10. Dmytro Yevhenovych Tolkachov, born on 3/6/2002, Seaman
  11. Nikita Pavlovych Sherishorin, born on 10/18/2002, Seaman

 

List of the missing Stanislav sailors:

Missing Stanislav sailors

  1. Oleksandr Yuriiovych Sukhorukov, born on 6/26/1998, Senior Lieutenant
  2. Serhii Ivanovych Tukmachov, born on 11/8/1989, Captain Lieutenant
  3. Volodymyr Andriiovych Liashko, born on 12/24/1997, Starshyna 2nd Class
  4. Vladyslav Serhiiovych Kostkiuk, born on 7/9/2002, Seaman
  5. Andrii Serhiiovuch Sitiavin, born on 12/14/1998, Seaman


Lidia Tarash, MIHR

 

 

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