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War
“My daughter asks me every day: “Where is my dad?”. How people search for their relatives who went missing in the war
20 September, 2022
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By Olesia Bida

There are tens of thousands of members of social media communities about people who went missing in the war in 2022. Most of them are looking for their relatives — military personnel who went missing in combats.

But there are also posts about civilians who had nothing to do with the Armed Forces. Desperate relatives write and update their posts from time to time: He left home and didn’t come back, He was driving home and went missingWe lost touch back in March, He was taken somewhere, nobody can find him, There was only an empty car with no traces of blood left.

He went to get some milk and didn’t come back

On March 11, Anna had a day off. Together with her mother, she was cleaning her apartment in the Troieshchyna neighborhood in Kyiv, where she, her husband, and their two-year-old daughter moved in at the beginning of the full-scale war. 

At about 11 o’clock, Petro said that he was going to pick up the rest of their things from the apartment they had rented before and buy their daughter some milk.

I gave my husband the money for milk, which was difficult to find at the time, and he left. That was the last time I saw him and talked to him

Petro was absent for a long time and did not answer calls. Anna’s mother called her brother Oleksandr. He lived in the village of Zabuiannia, Makariv district, Petro’s native village, where his family lived. 

Uncle said that Petro visited him. But we couldn’t believe it. How did it happen that he went to the store and ended up in Zabuiannia village? How did he get to the area where the fighting was taking place? Why didn’t he warn us? How did he get there? We don’t have a car!

On March 13, Petro got in touch — he called his younger brother, and asked if everything was all right with their mother: the day before, they left Zabuiannia and went abroad. 

Of course, his brother was also surprised: why would Petro go to the village? Petro said that he got on the roof to catch a cell signal. And he came to Zabuiannia to protect the house. Petro’s brother also asked him if he had said anything to me. He said, “No, I don’t want Ania to worry.”

Oleksandr Hrokh, Anna’s missing uncle

Photo: hromadske

 

Between guesswork and gossip

With the outbreak of the full-scale war, Petro immediately went to the military enlistment office in Troieshchyna to join the territorial defense. However, they said to wait. They explained that they were not recruiting people yet — there was no equipment.  

And to be mobilized, the man had to go to the place of registration in the Makariv military enlistment office. I heard him call there, but there was no reception due to the fighting in the area,” says Anna.

At the same time, Petro did not say anything to his wife about specific intentions and plans. 

Only at the end of March, when the Ukrainian military liberated the Makariv territorial community from Russian invaders, Anna’s mother was able to call Zabuiannia. During this time, Anna’s uncle Oleksandr also went missing, they called him when Petro disappeared.

Local residents were giving various information about the fate of Petro and Oleksandr. Some said that they had allegedly gone somewhere in a white car with another man, Petro’s friend Maksym. Others said that they were found hanged, drowned, or killed. 

Anna also heard from people that Petro had gotten to the village to give some medicines to an old man. 

She had to listen to everything and check each version. 

“It turned out that her uncle had been hiding from shelling in a cellar with a neighbor until March 17. That night they had dinner together, and he went to his house because everything seemed to have calmed down. And then he suddenly ran back, brought the keys to his house and said that he was leaving with my husband, Petro Horbenko, to fight. People saw two other men with them in that white car. I can’t guarantee that this information is reliable, you know? Everyone says different things, and I still can’t get the whole picture. There is no real evidence. No one could find their documents, clothes, or bodies. All we got are just guesses,” Anna says desperately.

Listening to different versions, the woman still hoped to the last that Petro would return home. He couldn’t just leave like that.

“How could I know that he really wouldn’t show up?”

Anna reported her husband’s disappearance to all possible channels, State chatbots, and hotlines, and made posts on social networks in the communities for the search for missing persons. 

As Easter was approaching, she filed a statement to the Kyiv police. 

“They asked me why I was doing it so late. But how could I have known he wouldn’t show up? That he would be absent for so long? It was not that long…”

The police gave Anna a piece of paper about the opening of criminal proceedings, and she handed over DNA for identification. So far, these are all the results for the last six months — no clear answers, just guesses and a glimmer of hope.  

“If only there was some certainty... But all we got... When they find some bodies of the dead  each time I ask if Petro is one of them. He has a lot of identification marks: tattoos, and scars, and he had all the documents with him. But no, they don’t find him. I even asked some friends to check the bodies in the morgue. I am looking for my husband everywhere: among the prisoners as well as among those who disappeared in the Bucha district.” 

Recently, the woman started working with a lawyer who tells her what is the next thing she should do. Together, they filed a petition with the Prosecutor’s Office.  

The Bucha District Police Department answered hromadske that, according to their information, Petro Horbenko disappeared along with another man, Maksym, whom Anna recalls. Together they allegedly went to the neighboring village of Ferma, which is 8.5 kilometers away from Zabuiannia, in a white Renault car. No one saw them after that. 

Law enforcement officers were unable to find the car they were in, and no DNA matches were established with any of the bodies found. The police do not rule out that the men may be held captive by Russians.

Petro’s tattoo

Photo: Anna’s Facebook page

 

During the occupation, they would detain almost everyone: ordinary passers-by, people in basements. There was no logic in this

132 unburied bodies were found immediately after the de-occupation of the Makariv district. 

They were lying near the houses, on the street. Mostly those who were trying to leave and save their lives. Many of them had signs of torture. 

Later, law enforcement officers constantly reported about the dead civilians found. So, on May 2, the graves of two men with signs of torture were found in Kalynivka of the Makariv united territorial community. 

On May 9, three civilians were found near Makariv, killed by headshots. On May 17, three more were found, including a volunteer who was a citizen of the Czech Republic. On May 29, in a forest area near Makariv, law enforcement officers found the body of a man who had been beaten to death by the Russians. In general, as of September 1, 1,356 killed people were discovered after the Russian occupation of the Kyiv Oblast. 

207 people are considered missing.

The Russian military abducted not only pro-Ukrainian activists, volunteers, and local officials, but also ordinary people in the temporarily occupied Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy Oblasts. 

“In Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts, civilians are mostly detained to break the resistance and persuade them to cooperate. And during the occupation of the north, Russian troops would detain almost everyone: ordinary passers-by, people in basements. There was no logic in this,” says Olha Reshetylova, coordinator of the Media Initiative for Human Rights.

However, most probably, such actions of the occupiers were systematic, planned, and ordered “from above” by the military and political leadership. Different military units in different regions of the north acted in the same way, although they were not in touch directly with each other, Reshetylova concludes.  

When Russian troops withdrew from the northern regions at the end of March, they took some people with them. They were taken to the territory of Belarus to temporary places of detention prepared for them, and then to a penal colony and pre-trial detention center in Russia.

Anna’s missing husband, Petro Horbenko, with his daughter

Photo: hromadske

 

To add POWs to the exchange fund

After the de-occupation, human rights activists saw some of the missing civilians in photos on Russian Telegram channels. Either the people were dressed in the uniform of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, or the photo had an inscription that they had been detained with weapons in their hands.

“We interviewed witnesses who confirmed that these people had nothing to do with the Armed Forces of Ukraine. But the Russians would write under the photo that they had participated in hostilities, that is, they were combatants. We can conclude that the Russians needed these people for the exchange fund. Now they say that they have about 8 thousand prisoners of war. According to our information, this number can reflect reality if it includes the detained military and civilians. The problem is that the Russians do not distinguish between them, and this complicates the process of liberation for Ukraine,” says Olha Reshetylova.

In general, since the beginning of the full-scale war, we managed to return from Russian captivity about 600 people, and only 100 of them are civilians. 

Verkhovna Rada Commissioner for Human Rights Dmytro Lubinets notes that he turns to the Russian side when he receives requests about a missing person but does not receive a response: 

I have already reached out to Moskalkova (Russian Commissioner for Human Rights – ed.) three times about the facts of illegal detention of civilians. We also draw the attention of international organizations to the fact that the Russian Federation violates all the norms of the Geneva Conventions. The occupation authorities have no right to detain civilians at all. And the Russians say these people are either Ukrainian spies, or support the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and automatically consider them combatants. We do not receive any due response from the international community to these facts either.

We don’t know anything about the fate of people who didn’t pass filtering” 

According to the Media Initiative for Human Rights, Russians can hold several thousand Ukrainian civilians captive. As of May, the organization found more than 20 such places. Now there may be 40 of them. Moreover, according to the Commissioner for People Gone Missing Under Special Circumstances Oleh Kotenko, in addition to colonies and pre-trial detention centers, the detained Ukrainians can be held captive in filtration camps. Tracking and confirming their whereabouts becomes even more difficult. Russians can transport them, transfer them to a pre-trial detention center, conduct investigative actions, and return them. 

“According to many accounts, people who do not pass filtering are held until the circumstances are clarified. However, we keep receiving information from satellite images and international organizations about new burial sites.

This happened, for example, in the Olenivka penal colony. People who did not pass filtering were kept there for some time. They had a military or law enforcement background. But we don’t know anything about what happened to them,” says Alona Lunova, advocacy manager of the ZMINA Human Rights Center.

The Russians stopped calling them by their last names and assigned numbers

To get at least some information about civilians who are being held in penal colonies and pre-trial detention centers in the occupied territories or Russia, human rights activists interview those who are released from captivity by the occupiers. This is how they determine the approximate location of people since even Russian lawyers and volunteers are not allowed to visit them.

“After interviewing Volodymyr Khrypun, a Red Cross volunteer released from captivity, we found out that journalist Dmytro Khyliuk is being held in a pre-trial detention center in Bryansk. Volodymyr heard his last name when there were roll calls, he didn’t even see him. But when we started publishing this information, the Russians stopped calling them by their last names and assigned numbers to them,” says Olha Reshetylova.

It’s the function of the International Committee of the Red Cross to confirm the place where the prisoners are kept, but its representatives do not have access to penal colonies and pre-trial detention centers where Ukrainians are illegally held. 

“They [the UN, the Red Cross] come to Ukraine and perform monitoring. And when I ask why they do not act in the same way on the territory of the Russian Federation and the occupied territories, the only answer is: “the Russian side does not allow us to check the facts,” says Dmytro Lubinets.

It was only recently that, through the mediation of the Red Cross, relatives began to receive letters from prisoners, which are dated April-May. In some of them, people wrote two words — alive and healthy. It is now virtually impossible to find out whether this information is relevant or whether a person is still there. 

“At some point, the Russians stopped recognizing that they have civilian prisoners, and because of this, it is very difficult to confirm their place of stay. If we are lucky and the Red Cross verifies the place, this doesn’t mean that this person cannot disappear again and they cannot say that he or she is missing again. We are dealing with a terrorist country that does not comply with any requirements of international humanitarian law. And it is useless to hope for humane treatment of civilian prisoners and prisoners of war,” says Alona Lunova.

Where’s my dad?

In April, Ukraine adopted amendments to the law “On the Legal Status of Missing Persons”, which provides for a special search mechanism, the creation of a Unified Register of Persons Gone Missing Under Special Circumstances, and social guarantees for relatives of missing persons. 

According to the law, the Commissioner for People Gone Missing Under Special Circumstances is responsible for the search. In May, Oleh Kotenko was appointed to this position.

During this time, the commissioner’s hotlines have received more than 30 thousand calls, and 10 percent of them have been from civilians. 

“I don’t understand why, but civilians don’t come to us much. Most requests are from relatives of missing servicemen. But everything is more or less clear with them. We understand where they might have gone missing and where to look for them in the occupied territory or the Russian Federation. Civilians are difficult for us to track,” says Kotenko.

Anna can’t even remember if she contacted the Commissioner to tell him about her missing relatives. For her, all the days merged into one, the day when her husband left.

“People say a lot of different things. They even say to stop searching. Sometimes I think I’ve come to terms with it. But my daughter asks me every day: “Where is my dad?”

Hotline of the call center of the Commissioner for People Gone Missing Under Special Circumstances: 0 800 339 247. You can call from Monday to Friday from 09.00 am. to 06.00 pm. On Saturday and Sunday, the call center operates remotely. 

You can also send messages with information to the number 095 896 0421 on Viber and Telegram. Email address: [email protected]

*This article should have contained one more story about the search for the missing man, Dmytro. On February 24, he left Poland for Ukraine. For several days, he tried to get home  to the currently occupied village in Kherson Oblast. On August 17, his niece Svitlana informed us that Dmytro was found buried near Chornobaivka. A sign on the grave was saying “unknown”. Hromadske editorial staff expresses sincere condolences to Dmytro’s family.