Missing At War
ZAKITNE, Ukraine — Among the tall and fragrant grass in a ravine by a wheat field, Oleksiy Yukov found a fragment of a human rib bone.
Yukov and his colleague from the Black Tulip humanitarian organization, which searches for the bodies of missing people, spent the next few hours combing the site. They uncovered several dozen human bones, live bullets, syringes, scraps of camouflage, and a sweater with holes from shrapnel and old stains of blood.
Yukov reckoned the remains belonged to a Russian-backed fighter killed near the village of Zakitne, some 640 kilometers southeast of Kyiv, in fighting with the Ukrainian army in the summer of 2014.
Locals told Yukov that three fighters had been left there unburied for several months. Dogs had started carrying some of the bones away before officials, presumably from Ukraine’s SBU state security service, collected the remains.
Yukov decided to examine the site, knowing that state forensics specialists often miss parts of dead bodies and fail to identify them correctly.
“Nobody really cares about this,” Yukov said. “And the mother of this guy is probably still looking for him.”
There are many such mothers: The three-year-old Russian-instigated war in eastern Ukraine has already taken about 10,000 lives, according to the United Nations.
And some 1,000 to 2,000 people are missing — neither dead nor alive — according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which collects missing person reports from families on both sides of the front line.
There are no exact numbers because several government bodies, the Russian-backed occupying authorities in the Donbas, international organizations, and volunteers count them separately, and they rarely cooperate.
The toll of missing people includes the Ukrainian and Russian soldiers, Ukrainian fighters that collaborated with the Russian-led forces, and civilians. Most went missing in action, were abducted from their homes, or from the streets, or at checkpoints, during the bloodiest periods of the war in 2014 and 2015.
But the war still rages on, and even in 2017 people are continuing to go missing.
In early June, a colonel from Ukraine’s National Guard, Oleksandr Boiko, went missing in action near the town of Zolote in Luhansk Oblast, the press service of National Guard reported.
Searches for missing people are mainly left up to their families, who often become victims of mistakes and fraudsters. They lose health and money in the process, living only with the hope that they will someday find their loved ones.
“For the families of the missing there’s no peace until the moment they find their relative,” Fabien Bourdier, a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross on missing people, told the Kyiv Post. “Time doesn’t help you. The lives of these families go on between hope and despair.”
Olena Sugak looks through the window of her house in the village of Khrystoforivka in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. She has been searching for her son Ruslan, who went missing in action in August 2014, for almost three years. (Anastasia Vlasova)
The walls of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery in Kyiv have over 3,000 portraits of Ukrainian soldiers killed in the ongoing war. But there are more than 80 blank spaces among them, with the words “missing” or “still not identified” or “parents don’t acknowledge the death of their son.”
Soldier Vitaliy Remishevsky, who fought in the 95th airborne brigade, went missing in Donetsk airport in late January 2015. The army declared him killed in action. A page on Wikipedia about him indicates that his body was identified by DNA tests.
But his wife Oksana Remishevska said she has never seen the DNA match for her husband. Neither she received his body to bury.
“I keep on lighting candles for his health in church, and hope someday he returns to us,” she said.
Many relatives are skeptical about the DNA identification of the dead bodies because of frequent errors in the process. Up to 1,000 dead bodies of both soldiers found on battlefields, and civilians found in bombed out ruins, still remain unidentified, Bourdier said.
The unidentified bodies of Ukrainian soldiers have been buried in military cemeteries in the cities of Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia. There are also unmarked graves of civilians and soldiers from both sides in almost every city in the Donbas, Black Tulip volunteers say.
Oleksiy Yukov and his colleague from the Black Tulip humanitarian organization, which searches for the bodies of missing people, uncover a dead body – presumably that of a separatist fighter – near the village of Zakitne in Donetsk Oblast. (Anastasia Vlasova)
Remishevska said she had received phone calls from her husband’s mobile number back in 2015. A man with a voice she didn’t recognize demanded that she pay a ransom for her husband, but after the caller found out that she has three children, he told her to “keep the money for them.”
Olena Sugak, whose son Ruslan Sugak went missing after the Battle of Ilovaisk in August 2014, paid about $600 to people who called themselves “volunteers” and promised to look for her son in the separatist-controlled area. Nothing ever came of it.
Oleksandr Kudinov, a human rights activist who helps the families of the missing in cooperation with the Ministry of Defense, said he knows several cases of people being abducted in the war zone for ransom, or to steal their property.
Donetsk businessman Oleg Shevandin disappeared at a separatist checkpoint when he was driving a Toyota Highlander in May 2015. In May 2016, his car was found on the border with Russia, being registered using forged papers supposedly issued in Mariupol. Oleksiy Shevandin, the son of the missing businessman and owner of the car, is still looking for his father, Kudinov said.
Kudinov said he had helped to release dozens of people from captivity in 2014, many of whom had been counted as considered missing. But the process of prisoner exchanges practically stopped from the spring 2015 after it was linked to the Minsk peace agreement’s Contact Group negotiations between Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Minsk, Belarus.
Some 132 Ukrainian prisoners are being held in the Russian-occupied zone, according to lawmaker Iryna Gerashchenko, Ukraine’s humanitarian representative at the talks in Minsk. But the Russian-backed occupying authorities say they have less than half of this number.
The real number of Ukrainian prisoners is unclear, since international humanitarian organizations have been able to make only a few visits to prisons in Makiyivka in Donetsk Oblast and the city of Luhansk, both occupied by Russia.
The human rights activists claim that there are many other sites where the prisoners are being kept by the occupying authorities.
“The places of detention are often changed,” said Kudinov. He added that searching for missing people was practically impossible without cooperation from both sides.
Not enough searching
As of June 1, the official number of people missing in the war zone was 494, the National Police told the Kyiv Post. Some 102 people went missing in the war zone in 2016 alone.
The number only includes Ukrainian soldiers and civilians that Ukrainian police are officially looking for.
But the families of the missing accuse the police of doing little or nothing.
According to Vyacheslav Kryvopalenko, his grandparents went missing in the war zone in November 2014. The two pensioners, from the city of Slavutych, in Chernihiv Oblast, had driven to the war zone to bring warm clothes and medication for the Ukrainian soldiers but went missing there in November 2014.
“The SBU told me it’s a police job, but the police said it’s up to the SBU to look for them,” Kryvopalenko said. “For almost three years since then, I haven’t seen any results. The police detective even refused to show me the criminal case on this issue.”
Kryvopalenko filed a lawsuit with the European Court of Human Rights in the winter of 2015, complaining that Ukraine’s law enforcement bodies weren’t searching for his grandparents.
The SBU itself was also accused of abducting dozens of people back in 2014–2015. One of them, Mykola Vakaruk, a miner from Donetsk Oblast, said he spent nearly 600 days in secret captivity of the SBU, being held so as to be exchanged for Ukrainian soldiers. Then the SBU secretly released him in July 2016 thanks, as he believes, to reports by international organizations about secret detainees.
SBU spokespeople failed to respond to requests from the Kyiv Post for comments on this story.
Bourdier of the International Committee of the Red Cross there is insufficient cooperation between the police, who are responsible for searching for missing people all over the country, and the SBU, which is responsible for investigating killings and abductions in the war zone.
Bourdier said Ukraine should form a single government body that would coordinate all missing person searches and the identification of remains.
In fact, the creation of a special commission on missing people is envisaged in two draft laws submitted to the parliament at the end of 2016 — the first by a group of pro-government lawmakers, and the second by reformist lawmaker Mustafa Nayyem.
Tetiana Berehova, an officer of the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, said Nayyem’s draft law is closer to international standards. In particular, it includes holding the police themselves responsible if they carry out “abductions by force.”
However, Nayyem’s draft law has less chance of being passed than the pro-government lawmakers’ one, Berehova said.
Unfound and unburied
Yaroslav Zhylkin, the head of the Black Tulip mission, points to Ilovaisk, Amvrosiivka, and Shakhtarsk on a map. He says a lot of dead bodies of Ukrainian soldiers probably still in these Russian-occupied cities.
But since his organization is presently not allowed to work in the Russian-occupied area, they can now only inspect burial sites in frontline cities.
“Most of the bodies we find now are those of civilians who were abducted at checkpoints and killed right there,” Zhylkin said.
He believes that there are still around 1,000 bodies in unmarked burial sites.
Near a checkpoint in Sloviansk, once a separatist stronghold, Yukov shows the spot where his team found a dead body bearing a tattoo of the 45th Russian paratrooper brigade. He said he believed the body was that of a Russian soldier from a special operations group who was killed there in 2014.
In Yampil, a small town in Donetsk Oblast, which experienced fierce fighting in late June 2014, local resident Liudmyla Yakovenko showed Yukov three graves, slightly to the side of the cemetery, which are believed to belong to Russian-backed fighters killed there in clashes in June 2014. The middle grave has the inscription “Unknown man.”
Yukov took pictures of the grave and took down information about it. He next plans to check with the police and morgues.
He is also thinking about where to look for two residents of Yampil who were abducted by Russian-backed fighters from their homes in 2014.
“After seeing the war and piles of corpses, I realized it doesn’t matter who these people were. They all deserve a proper burial,” Yukov said.