Stuck in the dark:

Ukrainian civil­ians who are in cap­tiv­ity in “LNR” and “DNR” are one of the most painful prob­lems fac­ing Ukraine

The Ukrainian Week - - CON­TENTS - Denys Kazan­skiy

Civil­ian hostages in the oc­cu­pied parts of the Don­bas

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.

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