On December 27, Ukraine is scheduled to exchange 306 prisoners of war for 74 prisoners held by the separatists of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic.” Provided all goes according to plan, this will be the largest prisoner exchange in more than three years of war in Ukraine.
One of the prisoners held by the Russia-led separatists is Valentyn Bohdan, a 22-year-old contract soldier. In winter 2016, Bohdan was captured by militants in Luhansk region. Almost immediately after his capture, Bohdan’s parents were issued a document confirming his capture. However, in June 2017, the Ukrainian Security Service’s Interdepartmental Center for Prisoner Exchanges reported that Valentyn was not on the prisoner exchange list.
Although Bohdan has since made contact with his parents and said he will be released through a prisoner exchange, it remains unclear whether that will happen. And his disappearance has sent his parents on a ten-month odyssey to force the authorities to locate their son — or do it themselves.
First, the Zolochivskiy police department opened a criminal investigation into Bohdan’s disappearance. The case was then transferred to the Lviv Department of the National Police. And, from there, Bohdan’s parents write to Ukrainian Military Prosecutor Anatoly Matios and convinced him to take the case upon his department.
Oleksandra Bohdan. Photo credit: Hromadske
But seeing as the authorities were unable to locate Bohdan, his mother, Oleksandra Bohdan, decided to travel independently to the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic” on June 11 to search for her son herself. She spent one day there: June 15.
One month after her trip, Hromadske traveled to the village of Yelykhovychi in Ukraine’s Lviv region to find out whether she had made any progress in her search for her son.
The following text is Oleksandra’s story in her own words.
We live in the middle of the forest. Valentyn was born and grew up here. He was a happy boy. He learnt so much at school and he got up to all kinds of mischief. He graduated from the Zolochivske vocational college as a car mechanic. In September 2014, aged 19, he went to serve in the army as a contract soldier in the town of Zolochiv.
I asked him not to do it, but he had decided that he was going.
He later said that he went to the Yavoriv military training facility. It turned out that he had applied for a transfer to the 24th Mechanized Brigade in Yavoriv.
In December, while he was there, his fingers were torn off. He has no phalanges on his right hand. He told us that a lighter exploded in his hand. His fingers did not heal well, but in February, they sent him to eastern Ukraine.
First, he was in Krymske, in the Lysychansk district [of Luhansk region], and then they sent him to Popasna, Novooleksandrivka. He called us a few times, he always said everything was fine.
His phone was out of service after December 26, 2016, the last time he spoke to his wife. He said that he would call back when he was at the base because he can’t talk in the car. After that, the connection broke.
On December 31, Sergeant Romanyuk, who introduced himself as Valentyn’s commander, called us and explained that our son was being held captive. Valentyn called us himself in January and said that everything was ok: “Mama, I’m alive. I can’t say where I am. I can’t say anything.” It was a two-minute conversation.
Later, on January 26, we were called to the Anti-Terrorist Operation center and given a certificate stating that he was being held hostage. They said they were thinking of a way to free him by saying that he was an ordinary soldier traveling without weapons in a light-duty vehicle with the medical unit when they had lost their way.
According to them, the guys were traveling from Popasna to Lysychansk for dental treatment. For 70 kilometers… I asked [the military representatives] how they could have lost their way if they’d been traveling on the same road for several months. “We cannot know,” they told me.
Valentyn Bohdan. Photo credit: Hromadske
When we were in Kyiv, soldiers who had returned from captivity warned us to be careful, because the simplest thing would be [for the military] to say that [Valentyn] had taken unauthorized leave. Then the commander renounces his responsibility. Literally two weeks after the trip, the military informed us: “Your son took unauthorized leave. Until we have a full explanation, there is nothing we can tell you.” We did not expect to hear that.
Volodymyr Fityo, the press officer for the 24th Mechanized Brigade, told Hromadske that the guys were part of the brigade. According to the results of the official investigation, they had established that they did not arrive at the location at the time stated.
“According to our information, they had asked the commander if they could take a trip to another town on the train. Instead, without the commander knowing, they went in their own car, and, on the way back, they got lost,” Fityo said.
He also stressed that unauthorized leave is not a criminal offense, and that the details of the misdemeanor will be explained when the guys return from captivity.
On June 8, they told me that Valentyn was not on the prisoner exchange list, and neither was the other guy, Artem Vidnyuk, who was driving the car.
The Security Services’ interdepartmental center told us, “Maybe they went to the disco?” I said, “Sure, they’ve been out dancing for half a year and haven’t called home.”
You see, they should probably think a little more about what they say to parents who are missing their children and don’t know where they are.
We rang the number from which our son called us, and we received an answer two times. The first time, a man picked up and said he was from Kyiv and had no connection to Luhansk. The second time, he said he was from Kharkiv. He didn’t pick up the phone again after that. The Ukrainian Security Services didn’t want to investigate the number because they said they had no open criminal case — the military prosecutor is handling [Valentyn’s] case.
“Valentyn Bohdan is on the exchange list in the hostage category. We have checked their numbers — his and that of Artem Vindyuk, who fell onto territory not controlled by the Ukrainian government. However, the ‘LPR’ will not confirm this [list]. To date, we have confirmed that 70 individuals are on the list. That is still great progress,” the SBU’s interdepartmental center told Hromadske.
Valentyn's father and sister during a rally in Kyiv. Photo credit: Hromadske
Travelling to the “LPR”
Artem Vindyuk’s brother told us that it was possible to travel to the “LPR.” Together with his mother, we decided to meet with representatives from the other side to find out the truth and ask what happened and why the guys were captured.
I went with Halyna, Artem’s mother. At the “LPR” checkpoint, Halyna was let through immediately, but they started to ask why I was going. “My son is in prison,” I replied. There was some trepidation, they took my passport and went off somewhere. I thought they weren’t going to let me in, but the senior officer came over and said: “You can go.”
We drove 10 minutes from Stanitsa Luhanska to the commandant’s office. The first question the guys asked us: “Who let you in?” We then waited for two hours for the commandant. He came and made a call to Olha Kobtseva, the head of the “LPR’s” prisoner exchange task force, who invited us to the so-called “government building.”
When we arrived she said: “Why did you come here, your sons are not here,” and added that if they did find them, she would report it to Viktor Medvedchuk [a Ukrainian politician and oligarch involved in prisoner exchanges] or Yury Kachanov [the head of the SBU’s Interdepartmental Center for Prisoner Exchanges]. They say Kobtseva has behaved rudely in front of the prisoners’ parents, but she spoke to us quite calmly.
Luhansk is a normal place. The people go to work and get around. We were treated like residents of the city. The only thing was the language, they speak more in Russian. Since we were used to Ukrainian, there were maybe some words that we couldn’t say — before the trip, we were warned to try and speak in Russian. Maybe someone looking at us could tell that we weren’t one of them. But I wouldn’t have said it was obvious.
We traveled back at six o’clock in the evening. They said to us: “Do you want to stay the night in a hotel?” But they take Russian money and we only had Ukrainian. Maybe we could have found a way to pay, but I said, “Why would we sit here if our boys aren’t here?”
I later thought that maybe we should have stayed a second day to ask Kobsteva something… Well, if after a month she still tells us that they aren’t there, then it’s obvious that they aren’t actually there.
A month has passed. There has been no information. My only thought is my son’s whereabouts. In a village, life goes on…But I have just one question: Where is he now and when will this all end? Just for a moment, I’d like to be able to see him and know that he’s alive.
In November 2017, ten months after their son’s disappearance, Valentyn Bohdan’s parents managed to make contact with him thanks to the Red Cross.
“The Red Cross passed us our first letter from Valentyn,” father Serhiy Bohdan told Hromadske. “That was the first message from him. Only the Red Cross is allowed into the prison in Luhansk. So that’s how we found out that our son is there. Then I found a small photograph on the internet of a boy that looked like Valentyn, I showed my wife and daughter and it really was him.”
Then, on November 22, militants from the “LPR” allowed captured Ukrainian soldiers their first chance in months to call home. Independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a video of six of the prisoners, including Valentyn Bohdan, calling their loved ones.
“We sent out a message on Facebook among families of prisoners of war, maybe someone knew something. A wife of one prisoner of war called me and sent a video with them sitting at a table and their photo. And by the Sunday he had called us,” Serhiy Bohdan recounted.
After a year of uncertainty and worry, Serhiy and Oleksandra are relieved to finally have confirmation of their son’s whereabouts.
“The hardest thing for us was when we didn’t know where he was and what was going on with him,” Serhiy said. “There were rumors going around that they had taken him to Chechnya. They also said that, if he had been captured by a Russian sabotage group, then they would have taken him to Russia. We went and looked for all the bits of information, we went to all the demonstrations in Kyiv, we asked veterans, maybe someone had heard something.”
In November, the Bohdan family also found out about the planned prisoner exchange scheduled for December 27. However, after a year of false hope and dead-ends, Serhiy is cautious in his optimism.
“We hope that the boys return soon. At the moment, our moods have lifted. But sometimes you achieve something, and then you have something unpleasant happen. After good news, bad news can come. The very long days of waiting for the [prisoner] exchange have now begun.”
/Original reports by Darka Hirna and Anna Tokhmakhchi
/ Translated and Adapted by Sofia Fedeczko