Ukrainian civilians who are in captivity in “LNR” and “DNR” are one of the most painful problems facing Ukraine
Not all the Ukrainian citizens held captive in occupied parts of the Donbas are military prisoners whose release is regularly raised during negotiations in Minsk. Since the start of the war in 2014, millions of Ukrainian citizens suddenly found themselves in occupied territory. Thousands of them went missing or were imprisoned in basement torture chambers belonging to the illegal military groups, who accused them of a wide range of “acts.” Helping these civilians is much more difficult than the service personnel. Today, no one has any real idea how many civilians are in captivity, let alone their basic information.
With the military prisoners, things are relatively clear. According to Iryna Herashchenko, the President’s envoy in the Minsk process and member of its humanitarian subgroup, 128 have been confirmed. Kyiv knows their names, DOBs and so on and has sent these lists to the pseudo-republics. “DNR/LNR” responded that they were holding only about 50 of those mentioned on the list and that they were willing to consider a prisoner exchange.
Civilian hostages are in an entirely different situation. How many of them are currently being held in prisons and basements in the occupied territories is probably not even known by those holding them. The case of the military prisoners is a very clear example: the militants claim that they have only 50 prisoners, when the Ukrainian side knows the exact location of around 70. There is no open information about how many people are currently imprisoned in ORDiLO, the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. In some cases, even the person’s closest relatives have no idea where they are.
One unhappy case that The Ukrainian Week directly experience was the June 2 disappearance of one of our journalists, Stanislav Aseyev who used the penname Stanislav Vasin, while on “DNR” territory. When his family discovered that someone had gone through his apartment and taken personal items and his work laptop computer, they turned to the so-called police of “DNR”. But they said they knew nothing about what might have happened to the journalist. After that, relatives turned to the territory’s “Ministry of State Security (MGB)” but they got no further.
Hundreds of other people who live in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts have found themselves in the same situation. Unlike the disappearance of a journalist, these cases do not get publicized much, as a rule, and have become par for the course in the occupied territories. The only way a real figure for such unfortunate individuals who have disappeared without a trace can be established is if all the families turn to Ukrainian law enforcement agencies for help. Many of them do not, however, because they worry about making things worse for the captive.
Aside from the disappearance of Vasin, there have been other high-profile incidents with Ukrainian citizens who have simply disappeared: Makiyivka resident Volodymyr Fomichov and academician Ihor Kozlovskiy. Both were captured on “DNR” territory and are being held against their will. The “DNR court” sentenced both to several years in prison. Neither of the men is a military person and neither ever took part in any military action, yet the Russian proxies accused them of being saboteurs and of “state treason.” Expecting some basis for such accusations or a normal court process, where the accused have the right to defend themselves, is unrealistic in the marionette pseudo-states. The fate of these individuals is entirely in the hands of the illegal armed bands that are currently in charge in ORDiLO.
Another case is the incident with Luhansk judge Vitaliy Rudenko, who crossed into ORDiLO to attend his father’s funeral in the fall of 2016 and also ended up a captive of the militants in Luhansk. Initially, news of his kidnapping was not announced, because expectations were that he would quickly be swapped. In the end, no exchange took place and at that point the news was made public. Rudenko was also accused of “state treason,” on the basis that he had supposedly been responsible for a court ruling that arrested the director of the waterworks, which led to “LNR” territory being without water.
Similar repressive methods have been used by the militants not only against those who are somehow connected to Ukraine or support it, but to all “unreliable” residents of ORDiLO. Anyone who is not entirely pleased with what is going on in ORDiLO and is critical of the Zakharchenko-Plotnytskiy regime is accused of working for the “Kyiv junta.” Sometimes though, it’s anyone who accidentally happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and was deemed suspicious.
There have been hundreds of incidents where people who were simply walking down the street and talking on their cell phones were grabbed and accused of being spotters and helping adjust artillery fire. The militants themselves have written about such incidents. In some cases, such individuals were unfortunate enough to be killed on the spot. A widely-publicized case was that of Denys Butyrskiy, who was shot to death right in downtown Donetsk in the fall of 2014, because someone decided erroneously he was a spotter.
Ending up in a “basement” in ORDiLO has happened to people who simply complained about how hard life had gotten. Indeed, in 2016, a propaganda rag called Novorossiya that is run by the Russian proxies called on its readers in Issue 71 dated January 21 to turn in to the “MGB” any people they knew who were dissatisfied with life in the “republic.” An article entitled “Provocateurs are picking up pace,” the militants wrote: “Lately we can see the work of provocateurs become noticeably more active. Typically, these people show up in very crowded places and bother other individuals with conversations about how ‘hard’ their lives are and filled with ‘injustices’ or, on the contrary, suddenly express endless ‘empathy’ towards their collocutor, although it’s the first time the two have met. Provocateurs work in public. There are rare cases where they work in pairs and even in a group, so that one can start and another one, passing himself off as a stranger, supports them, attracting the attention of all those around them and trying to draw as many others as possible into the conversation.” At the end of the article as a phone number that “alert citizens” can use to report any “provocateurs.”
Without a list of those of its citizens who are being held captive in the occupied territories, Ukraine effectively has no opportunity to influence their fates. As practice has shown, it’s easiest to get captives released when there’s been a lot of publicity around the specific case. Specifically, Ukraine managed to do a swap for journalist Maria Varfolomeyeva, who had been held in a basement cell for a year in Luhansk after being accused of working for the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
What makes the situation with these civilian captives more complicated is that the militants declare them “citizens of LNR and DNR” and flatly refuse to exchange them. According to their logic, residents of Donbas are not citizens of Ukraine, so their fate can only be decided by the representatives of local administrations who have been appointed by Russia.
Obviously, the Ukrainian side will only be able to help all these people after it receives at least some information about these hostages and lists with their names. Still, how this data might be collected and systematized is no one’s guess, even those who have been involved in prisoner exchanges for a long time.
Maria Tomak, a rights activist and coordinator of the Media Initiative for Human Rights CSO, explains that rights activists cannot collect the information about ordinary residents who are being held by the militants. “We were involved in this over 2014-2015, but then we lost touch with the occupied territories and began to work exclusively with the Russian Federation and Crimea, where there is at least some possibility of influencing things or getting new information,” says Tomak. “The SBU lists also include civilians, but there doesn’t seem to be any way to confirm that they are all imprisoned there. At least I have no idea how we might do that. The SBU has taken on all the processes when it comes to the occupied territories and specifically civilian hostages. Meanwhile, the SBU tends to publish fairly inaccurate information regarding civilian hostages in the Russian Federation and Crimea, pulled out of thin air. In addition, the OSCE is working in ORDiLO and continually verify lists with the militants. In this way, they should be the ones controlling whether all those who should be are on the lists.”
In any case, those Ukrainian citizens who remained on occupied territory and have been taken captive by the militants are in a real fix. They can’t expect help to show up quickly. This means that everyone who is in ORDiLO today should consider one piece of advice: with a territory where laws and rules don’t work, the best thing is to leave as quickly as possible.