Ochicken Russia Bucha, a Kyiv suburb, in February most residents fled. But a baker named Matviy stayed behind to help his neighbors. (The names of the missing and their families have been changed for their protection.) On March 18, Russian soldiers broke into his home and took him away at gunpoint, his sister Natalia said: “We don’t Haven’t heard from him since. Ukraine’s overwhelmed police, prosecutors and human rights groups have been unable to help.
Bucha is the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of Ukrainians have been abducted from Russian-occupied areas, including activists, journalists and aid workers. Journalists Serhey Tsyhipa and Oleh Baturin were arrested on March 12 while reporting on atrocities committed by Russian forces. “They were taken to an unknown place with bags over their heads,” says Anastasia, Mr. Tsyhipa’s daughter-in-law. Mr. Tsyhipa finally appeared on the Russian state TV looking skinny and spouting Kremlin propaganda.
“The Russians kidnap people to silence dissent,” says Nadia Dobryansk of Zmina, a Ukrainian human rights group. Torture has been widely documented. Mykola Panchenko, an activist who had taken part in demonstrations in the occupied territory, was kidnapped while shopping. His wife Svitlana says masked men brought him to their home a few hours later and searched for weapons, then took him away again. The Russians released Mr. Panchenko a month later with broken ribs. Other victims have died.
Disappearances in Ukraine are not new. Between 2014 and 2021, more than 2,000 people have disappeared; pro-Russian forces and Ukrainian security services were involved. Russia has deployed such terrorist tactics for decades. After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Crimean Tatar activists and community leaders disappeared en masse. During the two Russian wars in Chechnya in the 1990s, disappearances were so widespread that Human Rights Watch declared them a crime against humanity.
“We know more than ten thousand are missing, but that’s definitely an underestimate,” says Katya Osadcha, a Ukrainian. TV presenter who created a Telegram group called Search for the Missing. Police submitted more than 9,000 missing persons reports from February 24 to May 24, mostly from the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. The government says hundreds of thousands of its citizens have been deported to Russia. Soldiers in filtering camps often confiscate people’s papers. “If we don’t have information, we can’t find people,” says Ms. Osadcha.
Ukraine’s systems for dealing with missing persons are uneven. In 2018, the country passed a law establishing procedures for documenting and locating people missing since the start of the conflict with Russia, but it has become mired in bureaucracy. The new war could give a new impetus. “We had to discover new procedures for registering and searching for missing persons,” explains Alyona Lunova from Zmina.
Families like Anastasia’s are trying everything to get their loved ones back. “The state did nothing,” she said. She applied for a UN working group on enforced disappearances and submits a case to the European Court of Human Rights. “We don’t know when Matviy will return, but we will wait and he will return. There is no other way.” ■
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