"My son's status is missing or probably in captivity" — the story of a marine who defended Mariupol

"My son's status is missing or probably in captivity" — the story of a marine who defended Mariupol

22-year-old Denys Kharchenko was born in Chernihiv. The guy is a fourth-generation serviceman. He chose the military path after finishing 9th grade when he decided to enter Chernihiv Lyceum with intensive military and physical training, although his parents did not insist on it. After graduating from the lyceum, he continued his studies at the Ivan Kozhedub National Air Force University, where he studied to become a pilot until his 4th year. 

After graduation, Kharchenko was assigned to the 36th Separate Marine Brigade. The beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine found him in Vodiane, Donetsk region, where he went to defend Mariupol. 

In mid-April 2022, Denys Kharchenko, trying to save the lives of his subordinates, was captured by the Russians. His family learned about this from Russian propaganda news. For more than 200 days, the guy, and his colleagues have been in captivity, but he has not been able to obtain the status of a prisoner of war. 

Svidomi talked to the mother of Denys Kharchenko, Tetiana Kharchenko, and his fiancée Kateryna Tsareva.

Fourth-generation military man

Denys Kharchenko is the eldest son in the family. The boy's mother, Tetiana, says he has been obedient and responsible since childhood. 

"I could never think anything bad about him because he never argued with me," the woman says.

Tetiana is convinced that her son's choice to become a military man was influenced by his grandfather, always distinguished by his prudence and discipline. Denys is the fourth serviceman in the Kharchenko family. However, the woman herself wanted her son to choose a civilian profession. 

After finishing 9th grade, Denys decided to apply to Chernihiv Lyceum with intensive military and physical training. His father supported his decision, and his grandfather only warned that it would not be easy. Then Denys and Tetiana were late with the deadline for submitting documents, but the lyceum director noticed the boy in the corridor and invited him for an interview. 

"Deep inside, I was glad that we were late. But during the interview, Denys' persistence impressed the director, and he gave written permission to accept his documents and allow him to take the exams," says Tetiana. 

After graduating from the lyceum, Kharchenko entered Kharkiv Air Force University. He decided to become a pilot, which became another challenge for Tetiana. 

"To be honest, when we passed the medical commission, I wanted Denys not to be allowed to study at the Faculty of Flight. At that time, I could not imagine how my child would lift this machine into the sky", - the military's mother says.

As early as October 2019, the guy made his first flight. 

In the fourth year, Denys transferred to the Faculty of Air Defence for health reasons. At that time, he met his future bride Kateryna. She recalls that the guy was upset that he could not become a pilot. "The teachers did not want Denys to transfer," says the girl. 

Before graduating from the university, Denys had an internship in the 93rd Separate Mechanised Brigade Kholodnyi Yar; he expected to be assigned there after graduation, as he had proved himself well and had already conducted classes for the brigade's personnel. But a month before graduation, he was informed that he would go to Mykolaiv to the 36th Brigade.  

The youngest commander of the anti-aircraft missile platoon

Denys Kharchenko became the youngest commander of an anti-aircraft missile platoon in the 36th Brigade. His subordinates were servicemen of the same age as his parents and already had combat experience.

"They treated him like a little boy. But he was able to make them respect him, and for some time, he even performed the work of a company commander," says the bride. 

As a member of the 36th Brigade, Denys was deployed to Urzuf, Donetsk region, and Zmiinyi Island, and on the eve of the full-scale invasion, he served in Vodiane.  

Denys wanted to take a vacation for the New Year holidays but was not allowed to go because of the alarming situation. Kateryna came to him in Mariupol to spend the holidays together.  In January, the guy called more rarely. 

"He sent only voice messages. I think he was protecting me. Even then, there was shelling on the contact line, and Denys did not want me to hear it," says Tetiana.

I felt that I was sending my son to war

In late January, the guy was given a 10-day leave, and he and Kateryna came to Chernihiv. The last time the women saw Denys was on February 4. "We saw Katia off, and Denys's train was in an hour. My son asked me not to wait with him and go home, but I felt that something bad was coming," says Tetiana.

The woman put her son on the train and waited around the corner for it to leave. 

"I understood that I was sending my son to war. That was the last time I saw him," she says. After that, they communicated even less often.

"+" means "everything is fine; I am alive"

On February 24, Denis called his mother and asked her to leave Chernihiv with her family. The woman and her daughter went to a village nearby but, after a while, found themselves under occupation. Then she lost contact with her son. Whenever possible, Denys and Tetiana sent each other "+", which meant "everything is fine; I am alive". To receive or send messages, Tetiana would go out into the field. 

Tatiana's husband and Kateryna lied to the woman that they were in contact with the boyfriend, although they had not heard anything from Denys. 

"I am grateful that they did not tell the truth. If I knew then that I had no contact with my son, I am not sure if I would have survived it," says Tetiana. 

Denys called Kateryna on March 5. He said that the amulet she gave him had cracked. 

"Then I realised that there would be a disaster. I asked him to hold on and said that we were waiting for him. That was our last conversation," Kateryna says. 

After that, Kateryna had no information about the boy for a long time. She contacted his friends and military doctors to see if Denys was on the list of dead or wounded. 

On April 7, Denys got in touch again — he wrote that he was holding on and sent a "+". 

"In Christianity, April 7 is the Feast of the Annunciation. For me, the fact that my son got in touch on this day is also good news", — the woman says.

"I learned about my son's captivity from Russian news"

On April 16, Tetiana Kharchenko received a call from her friends in Russia who said they had seen Denys on the news. The woman found the story and watched it several times to study the minor details. 

"I carefully watched his movements to see whether he was okay or injured. From the story, we understood that Denys was somewhere in the occupied territory of the Donetsk region," says the prisoner's mother.

"Fill in the form and wait for an answer"

After Denys’s captivity had come out, the family decided to appeal to the police, the Security Service and the National Information Bureau to have the soldier included in the lists of prisoners. However, a video interview is not enough for Denys to receive this status. The International Committee of the Red Cross must confirm that Denys is indeed in Russian captivity. For this, the Russians must allow ICRC representatives to enter the territory where the prisoners are held. Now Denys's status is missing or probably in captivity. 

"We have already applied to the ICRC offices in eight countries, but everywhere we are asked to fill out a form and wait for an answer," says Tetiana. 

The fact that Denys Kharchenko is in captivity is confirmed in private conversations by the servicemen who were exchanged on September 21. 

"They saw Denys in Olenivka. They said he was skinny," says Kateryna.

However, the military warned that the Russians could take the prisoners to unknown destinations. Now neither Tetiana nor Kateryna know the exact information about Denys's whereabouts.