“No one got an answer”: Desperate search for kidnapped Ukrainians

Why did the Russian army capture thousands of civilians in the occupied territories of Ukraine? What happened to them afterwards? Family members are desperate for answers.

“Everyone just says, ‘You have to wait.’ We’ve been waiting for a year now. The conditions in captivity are not the best, to say the least,” says Anton Chirkov and invites them into his living room. There are several women sitting at a large table. Anton sits down in his father’s chair at the head of the table. The 49-year-old undertaker Oleksandr Chirkov made the massive piece of furniture himself, just like much of the other furniture in the house.

The Chirkovs’ house is located in a cozy residential area near the village of Dymer on the banks of the Kiev reservoir – about 30 kilometers north of the Ukrainian capital. The Russian army occupied the place on February 25, 2022 when they wanted to march towards Kiev.

For the first three weeks of the Russian occupation, when there was no telephone or electricity, Anton’s father, Oleksandr Chirkov, and his neighbor Dmytro Bohajewskyi kept the town alive. In those days, residents often crowded around the Chirkovs’ fountain. Therefore, his son suspects, the Russians considered Oleksandr Chirkov to be the leader of the resistance against the Russian occupation. “When they came to us on March 16, they first asked about weapons. Everyone has some here. We had three in the safe,” says Anton. The Russian soldiers picked up the weapons the next morning. “And my dad was asked to pack his things,” reports Anton, who hasn’t seen his father since.

On the same morning, Dmytro Bohayevskyj was taken from the house next door. When his mother Tatiana found out about this, she ran to the village council and wanted to find out where her son was being held. “The soldier just said to me: ‘Don’t worry, they’re enjoying excellent conditions,'” the woman recalls.

Ukrainians kidnapped in Russia

All those arrested were taken to a foundry in southern Dymer. About 40 people had to stay in one room. All were accused of “opposing the military special operation,” as the war against Ukraine is called in Russia. Some had to dig trenches, others were beaten and questioned about the resistance. Only a few were allowed to leave, others were taken to Hostomel airfield, where they were held captive in large industrial refrigerated containers.

But the relatives of those arrested mostly only found out about all this after the liberation of the Kiev region. On March 28, the Russians fled from the shelling by the Ukrainian army. They simply left about two dozen prisoners behind. “When we realized that our son Dmytro was not among them, my husband and I searched in vain for him in all the forests, ravines and buildings,” recalls Tatyana Bohajewska.

In early April 2022, Volodymyr Khropun, a Red Cross volunteer, was released in a prisoner exchange. He reported that the retreating Russian army took numerous Ukrainian civilians with it. They were brought via Belarus to the prison in Nowosybkov, a Russian city in the border triangle between Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Other prisoners were later released. They looked for relatives of their ex-cellmates and told them about their condition. “Prisoners of war who have been exchanged are our main source of information,” says Karina Dyachuk, co-founder of the organization “Civilians in Captivity”, founded in December, which brings together relatives of more than 350 prisoners from six regions of Ukraine.

Russia is said to be holding 20,000 Ukrainian prisoners

When the people of Dymer found out about the whereabouts of their relatives, they wrote to Russia – to prisons, the army, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the domestic intelligence service FSB. They wanted to know what it takes to release the prisoners. “No one got an answer,” says Tatjana Bohajewska, who keeps a list of 42 missing persons. Six of them have not yet been located. Most of the others are still in Novozybkov, where over 600 Ukrainians, both civilians and military, are reportedly being held.

According to Ukrainian Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets, Russia is detaining a total of more than 20,000 Ukrainian civilians, including those detained in Crimea, in the self-proclaimed “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics,” and in the Russian-occupied parts of the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions. Some of them are charged with espionage or terrorism under Russian criminal law, says lawyer Emil Kurbedinov, a well-known defender of Crimean Tatar activists. However, many civilians were being held without any justification.

Prisoners of war are made of Ukrainian civilians

The Ukrainian authorities consider the detention of civilians in the Russian-occupied territories to be a war crime. An April report by Human Rights Watch emphasizes that under the Geneva Convention for the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, “internment or assignment of forced residence to protected persons may be ordered only where the security of the power in whose hands these people are, absolutely required”. Access to a lawyer and family members and the right to challenge detention must also be guaranteed.

All of this, according to Karina Djatschuk from the organization “Civilians in Captivity”, is being withheld from the Ukrainians. And the representative of the Red Cross in Ukraine, Oleksandr Vlasenko, underlines that the detention of civilians and prisoners of war is regulated by different Geneva Conventions and therefore different norms of international humanitarian law apply to them.

Nevertheless, last winter Russia began registering Ukrainian civilians and soldiers alike as prisoners of war. According to Tatyana Bohayevska, in January the relevant data of her son Dmytro first appeared on the Russian website Nemesida, which publishes personal data of Ukrainian military and security forces. DW was also able to find data on Oleksandr Chirkov there.

Of course, the Ukrainian coordination staff dealing with the exchange of prisoners of war does not agree with such an equation. Russia must release civilians unconditionally and without exchange. “If you start exchanging civilians for soldiers, then everyone in the occupied territories will become hostages,” says Karina Dyachuk.

So far no regulation for the repatriation of prisoners

However, since February last year, 140 Ukrainian civilians have been released through exchanges, including Karina Dyachuk’s father. The Ukrainian coordination staff does not provide any details on this. “Our civilians are being held hostage in the Russian Federation to force Ukraine into political negotiations,” says Oleksandr Kononenko of the Coordination Staff. He said talks are ongoing to make progress on returning civilians.

The office of the Ukrainian Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets is also looking for ways to free Ukrainian civilians detained by Russia. Earlier in the year, at a meeting with Russian Ombudswoman Tatyana Moskalkova in Ankara, he proposed repatriating the elderly, women, the wounded and the seriously ill, but the proposal received no reaction from Russia. In the end, the sides were able to at least agree on initial visits to captured civilians. Lubinez now hopes “that the practice we have started will lead to a process for the release of civilian hostages and convicts.”

Hank Peter

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