Since the full-scale war has begun, the Russians terrorized the population in the territories they captured. The local residents often told journalists that the occupiers tortured, killed and raped civilians. In addition, some of them were kidnapped and forcibly relocated to Russia and Belarus. And not just under the guise of so-called refugees, but actually as prisoners.
Such cases of kidnapping are not unique. The authorities claim at least 1,500 Ukrainian civilians to be held in Russian detention centres, and there may be many more such hostages.
Slidstvo.Info tried to find out what could happen to the civilians who fell into the hands of the Russians and how to free a person from captivity – the video has English subtitles.
KIDNAPPED BY RUSSIAN OCCUPIERS
The village of Prybirsk in the north of Kyiv oblast is located only 50 kilometres from the Belarusian border. From the first days of the full-scale invasion, it was under Russian occupation. Locals were forced to move to neighbouring villages to find some mobile connection and call their relatives.
It was from here during the occupation that the Russians kidnapped five residents: Anatolii Nepomniashchyi, Oleksandr Kuchai, Taras and Volodymyr the Pavlenkos, as well as Denys Batrov. This happened two weeks before the liberation of Kyiv oblast. On March 19, five local residents went to get the mobile connection, but never returned. They were kidnapped by the Russian military and taken out of the country.
Slidstvo.Info talked to Valentyna, the mother of one of the abducted people, Denys Batrov. The woman said that during the occupation there were problems with mobile connection in the village. To be able to make a phone call, you had to go to the neighbouring village of Fruzynivka. This is exactly what Denys and his mates did on the morning of March 19. Neither in the evening nor in the morning of the next day did the boys return home.
“I thought that they should have enough time, they could go there and back. I was on edge. I was sure that something was wrong, the soul was cracking, and no one was coming back. I didn’t sleep at night at all, I was walking around, I’ve already started having all sorts of crazy dreams,” Valentyna recalls.
The relatives of the men began to sound the alarm and search for the missing ones. On the third of April, already after the de-occupation of the oblast, the daughter of one of them wrote a post in which she asked for help in finding her father and his comrades. A little later, at the end of April, a similar announcement about the search for the son appeared on the regional portal “Zhytomyr online” on behalf of Denys’s mother, Valentyna.
Later, the men’s relatives managed to establish that they were detained in the nearby village of Hocheva and taken away. Allegedly due to a recording of the movements of Russian equipment which that the occupiers told they found in their phones. According to the resident of the neighbouring village Orane Larysa, the mother-in-law of the abducted Volodymyr Pavlenko, at first the boys’ documents were checked and everything was fine. However, then someone began to shout and accuse the Russians of the fact that a mutual acquaintance of the disappeared men had a heart attack because of them. After that, the occupiers called the brigade and took them away.
TAKEN TO CHORNOBYL TO LOAD THE LOOT
After being detained at the checkpoint, the men were taken to Chornobyl. There they were forced to load Russian equipment and things stolen by the occupiers.
“They said that in Chornobyl it was like unloading some wagons at the station, as they were taking out a lot of things. We ourselves saw how they were carrying a lot of things, and they asked for some help with loading and unloading them. And then we found out that they were also digging trenches there,” says Larysa.
Despite the fact that some fellow villagers told the relatives that their loved ones would be returned home, the men did not return from Chornobyl. On the contrary, they were then forcibly sent to Belarus. Besides, as military, not civilians. The major at the Russian checkpoint in Hocheva told their relatives that for the Russian side all the abducted are considered to be prisoners of war. Although these are ordinary Ukrainian civilians.
“AS THERE WAS A ROLL CALL, THEY HEARD THAT THEY WERE SITTING TOGETHER”
Abducted civilians are then taken to Russia. The relatives managed to find this out from two other residents of Kyiv oblast, who were lucky enough to get out of Russian captivity and return to Ukraine.
At first, the relatives of the abducted boys thought that if they were taken to Belarus, they were there. But later, two men from Kyiv oblast, who managed to return from Russian captivity, said that the abducted were in the city of Bragino, Oryol oblast in Russia.
“Pavlenko, a young man, was sitting with one of those men, and Kuchai was with a second one. There were five people in a cell. And when there was a roll call – they weren’t allowed to go anywhere – and these men who were replaced, they said that when the roll call was called, they heard that they were sitting there together,” says the mother of prisoner Denys Batrov.
Valentyna received another proof that her son is in a Russian prison a little later. The woman recognized Denys from a video about Ukrainian prisoners, which was shot by a propaganda media before the Russia National Day. And then the relatives of the missing were called by Ukrainian experts who look for kidnapped civilians.
Larysa, the mother-in-law of the abducted Volodymyr, told Slidstvo.Info that more than a month ago, Volodymyr’s parents received a call “from the centre of Iryna Vereshchuk” and said that the boys were in Novozybkivskyi Sizo No. 2 in Bryansk. At that time they were on the lists for exchange.
The human rights activists say that since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, they have not yet recorded the abduction of civilians to make them work on them, as it happened to the residents of Prybirsk. However, it is assumed that this is possible.
“It could be a real fact that they used them as slave labor. If we were to talk about prisoners of war, then it is forbidden to engage them in any kind of work, except for the arrangement of the settlement. If we talk about civilians, they don’t consider them prisoners, they just consider them… well, as locals who have to do something, and then they will decide whether to release them or not,” says Serhiy Movchan from the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union.
However, the Russians have already used similar practices in Donbas.
“There were such cases in Donetsk. The most common way to use people like these, who were simply grabbed, was to force them to dig trenches on their positions. They were too lazy to dig themselves. It is easier to take civilians who will dig these trenches for them. There were times when people were even involved in street cleaning, body cleaning, and exhumation, but again, this is in Donbas,” Serhiy Movchan explains.
DESTRUCTION OF UKRAINIANS AS THE NATION
Currently, the structures of the Ministry of the Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories are engaged in gathering the information and compiling lists of prisoners – both military and civilian, and the exchange is carried out directly by the Main Directorate of Intelligence. Iryna Vereshchuk, Minister of Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories, said at a briefing on June 20 that more than 1,500 civilians are currently placed in Russian prisons. These people are doing time in pre-trial detention centres in Bryansk and Rostov as prisoners of war, although they are not ones. Civilians, according to International Humanitarian Law, have no status at all, and therefore must be released.
Human rights activists say that even if a person recorded the movement of Russian equipment or otherwise helped the Armed Forces to adjust fire, he or she still remains a civilian, not a combatant, that is, someone who directly participates in hostilities.
“If a person was directly a spotter, he or she is not a combatant. This person still remains a civilian and should be treated like a civilian. We also have people who adjust the fire for Russian missiles on the territory of Ukraine. We do not judge them as combatants. In this case, they act for treason and as accomplices of terrorism,” says Movchan.
It means that those peaceful Ukrainians who are currently doing their time in Russian prisons should be released.
It is difficult to understand what specific goal the occupiers pursue while kidnapping civilians. Human rights defenders point out that there may actually be several such goals, and they often differ depending on the region. According to Serhiy Movchan, at the end of March, when the Russian army withdrew to Belarus and Russia from the north of Ukraine and left Sumy, Chernihiv and Kyiv oblasts, civilians were used as human shields to cover the invaders’ equipment.
From the south of Ukraine – Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Donetsk oblasts – Ukrainians are forcibly relocated to the territory of the Russian Federation. It happens that some do not pass their filtering, and some are sent to the occupied territories. All conditions are also being created to forcibly relocate people to Russia through Crimea and Donetsk oblast.
“This is how an illusory picture of the Russian Federation as a humane country that is ready to accept everyone appears,” says Movchan.
In general, human rights defenders define several categories of kidnapped people. Someone can be kidnapped and returned a few days later. Someone can become a victim of forced kidnapping: such people are kidnapped with the use of physical force and can be kept in places of deprivation of liberty – basements, cesspools, etc. Another category includes people who were used as human shields during the withdrawal of Russian troops. In addition, there are deportees who were taken from the territory of Ukraine and taken to the territory of another state.
However, it seems that the purposes of these kidnappings are the same. Human rights activist Serhiy Movchan believes that Russia is waging a war for the physical destruction of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people as such. “I would classify them (civilians – ed.) as hostages. And then we can really say that Russia is a terrorist state,” Movchan reflects.
IS THERE A MECHANISM FOR THE RETURN OF KIDNAPPED CIVILIAN UKRAINIANS HOME?
According to the data presented at the briefing by Iryna Vereshchuk, 14 exchanges were conducted since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. As a result, 409 Ukrainian prisoners were released, 103 of whom were civilians. Russia does not want to recognize abducted Ukrainian civilians, but the aggressor country did give one document with a list of such people to the Red Cross in April. This list contains the surnames of 120 people, including not a single woman.
The international legislation only includes the articles regarding the exchange of combatants – military personnel who took part in hostilities, but there is no mechanism for exchanging kidnapped civilians. In fact, the kidnapped Ukrainians, who continue to be physically held, are hostages of the Russian army.
“It is impossible to put formal pressure through, for example, the Geneva Conventions, because we do not exchange civilians. There is no such format as a civilian exchange. That is, Russia captured them like a terrorist in order to keep them, and then extract something from them,” explained Iryna Vereshchuk at the briefing.
However, human rights activists say that there is still a way to exchange civilians for civilians. Ukraine has practised such exchanges during the war in Donbas since 2014. Serhiy Movchan explains that there are people who were detained for the assistance of the activities of “L/DPR” and for whom it is probably possible to exchange kidnapped Ukrainian civilians.
“This is the mechanism previously used by the Office of the Ombudsman. The first large exchanges took place after Ilovaisk. Even later, we had certain categories of civilians, many of whom were released in December 2017, and they were also exchanged for civilians who were accused of aiding and abetting the so-called republics in Ukraine, on the controlled territory,” says the expert.
Slidstvo.Info requested a comment from the Office of the Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, but so far we have not received a comment on the possibility of such exchanges. The new ombudsman, Dmytro Lubinets, told us that he needs two to three weeks to get up to speed. But as of now he refused to comment on the situation.
RUSSIA’S RESPONSIBILITY FOR ITS TERRORIST ACTIVITIES
On April 14, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine adopted a law recognizing Russia as a terrorist country with a neo-Nazi regime. Subsequently, Lithuania called the Russian Federation a terrorist state, and very recently, at the end of June, the US Senate supported the Resolution recognizing Russia as a sponsor of terrorism.
Russia carries out missile and bomb attacks on peaceful Ukrainian cities, supports the so-called “L/DPR”, which are recognized as terrorist republics in Ukraine, and also supports the terrorist regime in Syria. The kidnapping of the civilians can be added to the already extensive list of terrorist crimes commited by the Russian Federation. In particular, it is possible for the Russian Federation to blackmail the Ukrainian side during the exchange of the prisoners of war.
According to a human rights expert, Russia is organizing a cultural genocide in Ukraine, kidnapping and dispersing the Ukrainian people.
“Russia probably copied it perfectly from Nazi Germany, which deported civilians. There, the goal was more about the concentration camps and forced labour, so far there is no such information about Russia’s actions – about directly forced labour. But the same people sent to pre-trial detention centres are the same concentration camps, because we do not know what the conditions of detention there are and whether they meet any norms and standards. At some point, they (civilian, – ed.) become unnecessary for them, they lose their significance. It’s good that they give them back but don’t kill them,” says Movchan.
Germany at one time bore responsibility for the war crimes it committed during the Second World War. The same thing should happen to Russia. Experts are already talking about violations of the rules and customs of war – abductions, potential murders and outright torture, kidnapping, removal and deportation of people, as well as forced displacement and enforced disappearance. As well as the inhuman treatment of those civilians who fell into the hands of the Russians. Experts also point to violations of the Geneva Conventions – they explain the rules and regulations for the treatment of civilians in the occupied territories.
Documenting evidence of Russia’s war crimes is not only on the Ukrainian side. On June 30, the United Nations announced 270 cases of abduction and captivity of Ukrainian civilians by the Russian military. This confirms the fact that the Russian occupiers committed the war crimes on the territory of Ukraine and also approaches their probable punishment.