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Prisoners of war

57th Brigade Soldiers Missing in Action: Heavy Combat, Death, Captivity, and the Search

On the very first day of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the entire territory of the Luhansk region became a battlefield. At that time, the soldiers of the 57th Separate Motorized Infantry Brigade, named after the Kish Otaman Kost Hordiienko, were stationed in the area of Triokhizbenka. A significant number of the brigade’s soldiers were captured during that period, and most of them are still held by the Russians, with some considered missing in action. Since then, many families of the 57th Brigade soldiers have been struggling to find and bring back their loved ones. On the second anniversary of the fierce battles for the towns of Novotoshkivka and Toshkivka in Luhansk, MIHR tells the stories of several soldiers of this brigade who are missing in action.

Battles for Novotoshkivske

The village of Novotoshkivske became a zone of combat operations back in 2014. In February 2015, it was left without electricity and water, and most locals abandoned their homes. For nine years, the village has been under constant artillery shelling by Russian forces.

Near Novotoshkivka, on the Bakhmutka highway, is the 29th checkpoint—a frontline position where fighting has been ongoing since 2015. In mid-April 2022, the 17th and 34th battalions of the 57th Separate Motorized Infantry Brigade repelled a Russian advance from the settlements of Zolote, Rikhove, and Donetsk. Witnesses mostly reported clashes with Wagner Group forces.

Entrance to the village of Novotoshkivske

Viktor Pertsyukh was mobilized on March 7, 2022. He was sent to train at the military training ground in Yavoriv. Just a few days later, on March 13, Russia attacked the training center with missiles. One of them hit the barracks where Viktor lived.

“Fortunately, he was on guard duty at the time, so he survived the attack,” his wife Lesya recounts: “In early April, Vitya was transferred to Kropyvnytskyi.”

She didn’t immediately learn about her husband’s next destination. On April 21, he called her and told her that he was heading to the front.

“He said they were taking 40 people to Novotoshkivske. When we talked, the connection was breaking up, I heard explosions,” says the woman.

The next day, Viktor Pertsyuk lost contact.

“This was after the liberation of Bucha and Irpin. At that time, Russia had moved all its equipment and troops to the Luhansk direction. All this was thrown at our guys. We read in reports that the artillery shelling would start at 4—5 in the morning, and by 10 am, the enemy infantry was already advancing to clear the area,” recalls Lesya Pertsyuk.

Viktor Pertsyukh, missing in action

Regarding the events in Novotoshkivske, a serviceman of the 57th Brigade, Bohdan, speaks out. He was there in April 2022. He says that for a long time they managed to repel attacks, but it was extremely difficult to withstand the enemy artillery.

“The Russians bombarded us with everything they had: “Grads,” “Uragans,” cluster munitions. Sometimes there would be a 40-minute break, and then it would all start over. The guys had just dug a trench—they were spotted and shelled. They dig again, a new trench—and the same story repeats. It was like this all the time,” the soldier recounts.

Through social networks, Lesya Pertsyukh found her husband’s comrade—Alexander, who survived that battle. He told her that he saw Viktor die, but due to intense shelling, he couldn’t reach the body. The woman knows no other details.

“Viktor’s brother talked to Alexander. He said he was in shock from what he heard, so he didn’t remember everything. The next day he tried to contact him again, but Sasha did not respond. Later, we learned that he had died in battle,” says Lesya.

On April 25, 2022, Russian forces, using artillery and aviation, captured Novotoshkivske; the settlement was completely destroyed.

The Bloody Pocket in Toshkivka

From May 2022, heavy fighting ensued for another point in Luhansk—Toshkivka. This settlement, in the direction of Severodonetsk, where the Russians were pushing. An eyewitness believes that the unsuccessful defense of Novotoshkivka and attempts to hold the 29th checkpoint led to the collapse of the defense of Toshkivka and its surroundings.

The defense of the settlement was also held by the 57th Brigade, where Denis Shiyan served. His wife Anastasia says that her husband was mobilized in March 2022 and immediately sent to the Luhansk direction.

“I communicated with him quite often, every three days. If he knew he couldn’t make contact, he would warn me. On June 10, we talked at six in the morning. There were artillery strikes, heavy fighting. And in the evening of the same day, I learned that my husband did not retreat with his comrades; he stayed there,” Anastasia shares.

She says that Denis Shiyan went missing near the five-story buildings on Tsupyka Street, 42. The brigade was scattered throughout Toshkivka in various positions.

All that remains of Toshkivka. The Russians leveled the settlement to the ground

Another serviceman of the 57th Brigade, Vladyslav Yurkuts, was stationed between Toshkivka and the village of Ustynivka. A year before, he had finished his conscription service and got a job. When the war began, he was mobilized.

“When Vladyslav was directed to Toshkivka, he wrote to me that the fighting there was very intense, there was no equipment, it was very tough. He said he would be out of contact for some time and if he was out of contact for too long, we should look for him,” shares Taisiya, Vladyslav Yurkuts’ sister.

Vladyslav Yurkuts, missing in action

The last time she spoke to her brother was on June 13, and on the 16th, she learned that he had gone missing after heavy fighting.

“We found all the people who came out of that position. They were in shock, talked about a very intense fight, and most likely, those who did not come out had died. They told us this from the beginning. Later, the military unit conducted an official investigation, stating that there is no evidence of their deaths. Therefore, Vladyslav is considered missing in action,” says the sister.

In June 2022, the 112th Separate Brigade and the 129th Battalion of the Territorial Defense of Kyiv were also assigned to the fighters of the 57th Brigade. Among these soldiers was Dmytro Lukyanyuk. He arrived in Toshkivka on June 15. On its outskirts, along with his comrades, he held the defense towards the town of Hirske. But on June 16, after intense artillery shelling, contact with him was lost.

“When the war broke out, Dmytro enlisted in the Territorial Defense, where he was immediately mobilized. Initially, he was in Kyiv on the front line. Later, he was transferred to Toshkivka, where he soon went missing. About ten people disappeared with him,” says Liliya, the serviceman’s wife.

Dmytro Lukyanyuk, missing in action

At that time, intense battles were ongoing in the area of responsibility of Dmytro Lukyanyuk. Russian forces used all possible weapons against Ukrainian soldiers, including “Grads” and phosphorus bombs.

“We had very little equipment. Yes, our fighters helped us, but against enemy artillery, we could do little,” says Oleksandr, who was assigned to the 57th Brigade: “That five-story building was completely destroyed, the local school was leveled with the ground. We were all transferred to the direction of Toshkivka – Ustynivka, there were fields and plantations. Other positions were somewhere across the road. No one remained in the buildings.”

At Oleksandr’s position, there were 13 people. Only five managed to escape.

“I was providing cover fire when I stopped hearing the guys’ voices. I decided to go back to the position. Then I saw that they were pulling the captain out of the trench. Another soldier was with me, he rushed to check if anyone else could be pulled out, but the shelling was very intense. They were shooting at us with everything, phosphorus bombs were dropped on neighboring positions by the Russians,” the serviceman recalls.

From June 10 to 16, the battles around Toshkivka were the hardest. Soldiers of the 57th Brigade and attached units covered the border of Ukraine, significantly outmatched in equipment. On June 16, the enemy created an encirclement between Toshkivka and Zolote, that day more than 100 fighters went missing in action.

Five-story buildings in Toshkivka, where fierce battles took place

On June 21, the head of the Luhansk Regional Military Administration, Serhiy Haidai, reported that Russian forces had broken through the defense — Toshkivka was occupied, Ukrainian soldiers, who had held the defense at the cost of their lives for several months, had to retreat. However, not everyone managed to escape the encirclement. It is still unknown how many soldiers were captured. MIHR managed to talk to one of the fighters of the 57th Brigade, who was captured by the Russian “Akhmat” unit in the area of the five-story buildings in Toshkivka. According to the young man, he was the only survivor from his group. The Russians held the severely wounded soldier in the Luhansk SIZO (pre-trial detention center) and denied him medical assistance. Later, he was exchanged.

Search for the missing in Luhansk

Relatives of the missing soldiers from the 57th Brigade do not know their fate for certain. The territory where the fighting took place is occupied. It is impossible to reach there to at least retrieve the bodies of the fallen warriors.

Regarding those captured, there are no exhaustive lists. Most families learn about the captivity from Russian Telegram channels. They also independently question soldiers who managed to escape from Novotoshkivske and Toshkivka.

“I contacted my husband’s comrades, but they tell different stories. Some say it was covered by artillery and it was impossible to reach them, others — that they saw them being captured,” explains Liliya, the wife of the serviceman Dmytro Lukyanyuk.

“From the position where my brother was, eight people went missing. We are almost sure that they are all alive because we found a local resident who went to that position and, according to him, there were no bodies there, just abandoned bulletproof vests,” shares Taisiya, sister of Vladyslav Yurkuts.

Meanwhile, neither the Red Cross nor Russia confirm most of the missing Ukrainian soldiers in that area as prisoners. The chances that some of them survived are given by photos and videos of the soldiers of the 57th Brigade posted on Russian Internet resources. There is no other evidence.

According to the latest information, 120 fighters are considered missing in action in the Luhansk direction. However, the International Committee of the Red Cross has confirmed only 12 soldiers as prisoners.

Liberation of Kherson Region

From August 2022, fighters of the 57th Separate Motorized Infantry Brigade participated in the liberation of the right bank of the Kherson region. One of the toughest battles occurred on August 29, 2022, in the settlement of Sukhyi Stavok. On that day, Ukrainian forces liberated the territory, but the enemy destroyed the village itself.

Marina, the mother of Yuriy Azarko, a serviceman of the 57th Brigade, talks about the events of that day. In May 2022, Yuriy voluntarily joined the military, and in June, he covered the retreat of his comrades from the Severodonetsk direction. On August 24, 2022, he and his comrades went to liberate the Kherson region, and by August 29, he went missing during the battle, with many of his comrades killed.

“He never told me anything, always said that he was fine. On August 28, he wrote that they were preparing for an attack and that he would be out of contact. Three days later, his comrade’s wife called me and said that Yura was missing,” Marina recalls.

After that call, the woman began searching for people who could tell her what happened to her son:

“I had no contacts, I didn’t know who to turn to. There were no military members in our family; Yura hadn’t been in the military long, having joined as a volunteer because he felt it was his duty to protect the Motherland. So, I tried on my own to find out anything about what happened that day.”

Yuriy Azarko, missing in action

Marina found her son’s comrades who managed to escape from that battle. They told her that the armored personnel carrier (APC) in which her son was located was hit; of the 13 people, only two survived — the driver and the medic. Yuriy is still considered missing in action. According to witnesses, he managed to get out of the vehicle, but it is unknown what happened to him afterward.

After the liberation of parts of the Kherson region, many bodies of soldiers from the 57th Brigade were returned and buried. According to family information, 22 individuals from the Kherson direction are still considered missing in action, and two more soldiers are in Russian captivity.

Subsequently, battles began in the Donetsk region, where fighters of the 57th Brigade, in particular, fought in the Bakhmut direction. According to relatives, despite successes in battles, the brigade suffered significant losses.

“During the defense of Bakhmut, we lost almost a hundred fighters. We know they fought against Wagner Group forces, many of our boys were then captured, a few of whom we managed to return from captivity, but many remain there. After the Wagner Group left Bakhmut, we do not know where they took the prisoners,” explains Yulia, a representative of the families of the 57th Brigade.

The 57th Brigade also suffered heavy losses in the battles for Bohdanivka in the Bakhmut district. Thus, for many families, a new struggle continues — to find and return the bodies of their loved ones.

Background:

the 57th Separate Motorized Infantry Brigade named after Kish Otaman Kost Hordiienko was created in the autumn of 2014 on the basis of the 1st Special Brigade of Territorial Defense in the city of Kropyvnytskyi. The brigade was formed from the 17th, 34th, and 42nd separate motorized infantry battalions, which had previously been battalions of the territorial defense of the Kirovohrad region. In 2015, tank companies and an artillery division were added to the motorized infantry battalions. Since the summer of 2018, the brigade was based in Nova Kakhovka, Kherson region. On September 24, 2022, President Volodymyr Zelensky awarded the 57th Brigade with the honorary distinction “For Courage and Bravery.”

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