As of today, 483 Ukrainians have been declared missing. Three soldiers from the Azov battalion—“Ramzan”, “Sevastopol” and “Yadro”— are among those who disappeared in the anti-terrorist operation area more than two years ago. Hromadske tried to find out whether these men are still alive and who exactly is conducting the search for them.
The Azov battalion was created in May 2014. It is a separate special purpose squad of the Ukrainian National Guard. Azov participated in military operations in the south of the Donetsk region in the Russian-Ukrainian military conflict. "The idea of the nation" symbol is an emblem of the battalion and most of its soldiers support Ukrainian nationalism. For Russian propaganda, Azov became a representation of fascism in Ukraine. In 2015, a civil body “Azov” was established; at the end of 2016 –the "National Corps" political party.
For Lyudmyla, August 2014 changed her life forever. Near the village of Rosa Luxemburg in the Donetsk region, during the height of the battle for Ilovaysk—a turning points in the war, when Ukraine lost positions in Donbas and suffered considerable losses—her son Roman Bilenkyi, nicknamed “Ramzan”, went missing. Two other Azov soldiers— Maksym Khudan, called "Sevastopol" and Mykola Samofalov, called "Yadro"— went missing that same day, on August 27th.
A soldier nicknamed "Nis" says that he had been serving in a unit with these men for three months when they went missing: "We had clear information that Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border near Novoazovsk along the demarcation line. The guys were on a combat mission, which was ambushed and they were taken into captivity."
"It didn’t happen by accident, because they disappeared suddenly. The idea that they caught them to kill them doesn’t seem logical," says Maksym Tokarev, a friend of Bilenkyi. He has been helping families who are searching for soldiers for the last two years.
Relatives of the missing soldiers first heard that they were killed. Later, the head of the group, Maksym Khudan, called his colleagues and said that he was in captivity, and the rest had been killed.
Roman Bilenkyi, 30 years old, born in Kyiv, lawyer, father to a young son.
He was a civil activist and took part in the Euromaidan. In April 2014, when Russia invaded eastern Ukraine, he went to the front as a volunteer and later joined the Azov battalion.
Roman Bilenkyi, photo from private collection
He spent no more than 3 months on the front. For a long time after “Ramzan” went missing, there was no information about him. After his mother shared a picture and message about her missing son on social media, she received an anonymous phone call, saying that he was in one of the Donetsk hospitals with head wounds.
“On September 30, 2014 a man called and said that my son was in Donetsk in the tuberculosis center, which separatist had turned into a hospital. He warned me of the danger and said they had to send the wounded soldiers somewhere in 2-3 days. On October 3, the radio announced that the wounded were being taken from the local hospitals in an unknown direction," says Lyudmyla.
Later, Olena Vasylyeva, a Russian human rights activist, founder of the group "Gruz-200 from Ukraine to Russia" informed Hromadske about the hospitalization of "Ramzan" in Rostov-on-Don, Russia:
“When I had heart surgery in 2014, the doctors came to that hospital and gave me information about Bilenkyi. He was among the first sent to Russia. Traces were found, but then were lost.”
The Ukrainian consul in Rostov-on-Don, Oleksandr Kovtun, informed Hromadske that they received no requests from Ukraine about the search for Roman Bilenkyi.
According to "Ramzan’s" mother, a year after her son went missing on August 7, 2015 she received a warning from the military commissariat that Roman had avoided enlistment.
Maksym Khudan, 36 years old, born in Sevastopol, Crimea
He used to work for the Sevastopol police and took part in the "Revolution of Dignity". When the war started, he went to the front.
Maksym Khudan, photo from private collection
An Azov soldier nicknamed “Nis” says that Maksym Khudan reached out to the battalion himself a couple of days after disappearing. “Nis” says that the soldiers tried to negotiate the terms of an exchange with people who introduced themselves as Kalmius battalion soldiers (an illegal armed formation, part of the first army corps of the Russian Federation). According to him, Azov offered money for Maksym and they agreed on that:
"Then they offered their prisoners as an exchange, but it looked like they were trying to find out what kind of person and how important he was," says "Nis". “Then they suddenly disappeared.”
A week after the disappearance of the soldiers, the Russian channel "Tsargrad TV" showed a video of “Sevastopol”, with a wounded leg, being interrogated.
"Tsargrad TV" refused to give us information about the soldier and the circumstances under which the interview was recorded.
In May 2015, “Shuster LIVE” TV showed a member of the Radical Party Igor Mosiychuk saying that "Sevastopol" was in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison.
In a comment to Hromadske, the MP said that he had received information from his sources, but didn’t specify any names.
“At that time, he really was in Lefortovo. Where is he now? I don’t know,” says Mosiychuk.
Maksym is registered as a resident of Crimea, that’s why they recognize him as a Russian citizen and do not consider him to be a Ukrainian hostage in Russia. Immediately after the annexation of Crimea, Russia started issuing passports to the residents of Crimea. Those who didn’t want to receive them had to write a refusal.
Friends of "Sevastopol" asked “Euromaidan SOS” to help inquire about Lefortovo. Human rights activist and head of the organization Oleksandra Matviychuk says: "I have asked Russian colleagues to check this and they said that there was no Khudan on the official list of people held in Lefortovo."
Lilya, Maksym Khudan’s wife, lives in Berdyansk, a city in southern Ukraine, raising a child born after the disappearance: "We have a son, Maksym. A week after he went missing I found out that I was pregnant."
In the fall 2016, she repeatedly asked two friends in Moscow to visit the Lefortovo prison to find out if her husband was there: "They were told that there wasn’t such a man, and then the social network accounts of these friends disappeared for some time.”
The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Hromadske that they appealed several times to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, but received a reply that there were no people with such names on Russian territory.
Mykola Samofalov, 27 years old, Mariupol
He is a shot put athlete, member of the Ultras movement, and supports the “Illichivets” football team from Mariupol. In the spring of 2014 he joined the Azov battalion.
Mykola Samofalov, photo from private collection
The Azov battalion declared Mykola dead. A month after he went missing, the former deputy commander of the regiment Vadym Troyan called on the authorities to rename a street in honor of the "dead" soldier. Later, colleagues presented a memorial movie about him in one of the city's schools.
Oleg Petrenko, a member of the “Azov” civil corps and a Ukrainian MP also mentions the likely death of “Yadro”: "In the Minsk lists he is declared unidentified. This information is important to the search groups responsible for the search and identifying the remains".
However, there is no evidence of his death.
In "active search" of soldiers
The National Police of Ukraine is officially responsible for the search for the soldiers. Hromadske hasn’t received information on who is administering the criminal cases. Police departments in the three regions, where cases were initiated, gave similar responses regarding the investigation:
"A criminal proceeding was instituted in the case of the missing person. The investigation department has conducted all the necessary urgent investigative actions..."
In the responses they highlight that the disclosure of the cases is complicated due to the fact that, according to the testimony, there is every reason to believe that the men disappeared in the temporarily occupied territory.
"In fact, the search is only conducted by voluntary organizations. They can answer your questions. I mean "Officer Corps", "Patriot of Ukraine". All relatively big organizations know about the soldiers," says Maksym Tokarev.
They were not mentioned in the first lists published by Ukrainian MP Nadya Savchenko, but recently all three names have been added to the list.
"According to the latest information,"Ramzan" and "Yadro" were taken from the so-called DPR to the so-called LPR,” says the friend of "Ramzan" Maksym Tokarev.
He is convinced that the men are alive: "We have no actual evidence, no documents that would prove that they are in some colonies. Nor is there is any information proving that they died. All relatives took DNA tests, the results were put in the database, but the information on their deaths wasn’t confirmed”.
/Translated by Olga Kuchmagra