Ukraine’s disappeared cast a long shadow over a divided nation
Search for the missing and dead could last years and hamper any reconciliation efforts
A separatist soldier at a building shelled by the Ukrainian army: The Red Cross says more than 1,000 people are missing as a result of two years of fighting, which has killed almost 10,000 people and displaced some two million. Photograph: NurPhoto/Corbis/Getty Images
Svetlana Sarzhevskaya, whose husband Pavel was abducted, and is believed to have been murdered, by pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine in summer 2014. She now works for the Halo Trust de-mining group in the region. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
It is two years since Ukrainian forces retook the strategic eastern town of Slovyansk and surrounding areas, boosting the morale of a nation rocked by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for a separatist revolt.
But it was also the time her husband Pavel vanished, probably forever.
One week before the army liberated the couple’s village of Yampil, 30km from Slovyansk, gunmen came late at night for Pavel, who had openly denounced the militants and supported Ukraine’s troops.
Sarzhevskaya has not seen her husband since, and the quest to discover his fate has taken her to Donetsk and Crimea – places now run by those violently hostile to Ukrainian patriots like her – as well as to Kiev, the capital of a country still in flux.
That a single woman should have to do this, with no state help and using her own slim resources, speaks of the peculiar nature of Ukraine’s war, and of the country’s struggle to provide for some of those who have sacrificed most for it.
It also highlights the growing number of civilians and servicemen who have gone missing during the conflict, and how finding and identifying them – alive or dead – will be crucial to reconciliation efforts when the fighting finally ends.
“Lots of people in Yampil supported the separatists,” says Sarzhevskaya (41). “Others joined them for a few bottles of vodka, and stood with a gun at a checkpoint. We knew them; they were our neighbours. Our kids went to school together.
Food for soldiersRussia
Sarzhevskaya hoped the militants were only holding Pavel, but she knew their reputation for ruthlessness – Russian nationalist Igor “Strelkov” Girkin has admitted that his men executed several people during the occupation of Slovyansk.
“The police said they couldn’t do anything,” Sarzhevskaya says. “I went to Kiev and knocked on all the doors I could. I didn’t know where to turn for help.”
So, at great personal risk, she set out for Russian-controlled Crimea and separatist-held Donetsk to find out what had befallen her missing husband.
Finally, she tracked down men from Yampil, now living in Donetsk, who claimed to know what had happened on the night Pavel was taken.
They said he had been abducted by militants led by a Chechen, who had beaten and murdered Pavel before dumping him in a river near Yampil.
Sarzhevskaya believes them. She has heard nothing from her husband for two years, and he has not been listed among the captives who are periodically exchanged by government and rebel sides.
But without Pavel’s remains there can be no death certificate or funeral, and Sarzhevskaya cannot seek any compensation or receive his pension; she feels like a widow but is stuck, emotionally and practically, in a nameless limbo.
Ukraine has struggled on all fronts to cope with conflict, including recovering and identifying its dead.
But the sister of one crewman had doubts from the moment she learned of his apparent death.
“I read on the internet that a helicopter had been hit, so I phoned Igor’s commander,” recalls Irina, who asked for her surname not to be published.
“He said: ‘My condolences – they were shot down and your brother’s dead’. But no one could get to the place where the helicopter crashed, so how could he be so sure?”
Irina is tormented by what Slovyansk’s then separatist “mayor”, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, said about the crew: that “one is dead, one escaped across the fields, and another is floundering in a lake” near where the helicopter was hit.
“There was no proper investigation into what happened, and local people weren’t questioned.” Irina says. “What if Igor was concussed, lost his memory and was taken captive?”
“The military say they found only fragments of his body – how can we be sure they handled them properly? And why won’t they let me see his case file?”
It has largely fallen to volunteer groups to retrieve the dead from Ukraine’s battlefields. The country’s morgues and DNA labs have struggled to cope during the fiercest fighting, raising the risk that remains could be misidentified.
The International Committee of the Red Cross provides supplies and training to boost Ukraine’s DNA identification capacity, and tries to help people find relatives who have disappeared in government or separatist-held territory.
The Red Cross says more than 1,000 people are missing as a result of two years of fighting, which has killed almost 10,000 people and displaced some two million. Ukrainian officials say about 3,015 people captured during the conflict have been freed.
But reliable figures are elusive: neither Ukraine’s government nor the militants have reliable lists of all their fighters, and Russia flatly denies the obvious involvement of its soldiers in the war.
To further muddy the waters, all sides have been accused by rights groups of abduction, illegal detention and torture.
No closureAlina Murzaeva
“Their anxiety remains with them for years after the fighting has subsided and peace returned. They are unable to move on to personal or community rehabilitation and reconciliation.”
Svetlana Sarzhevskaya is proud to live in liberated territory, but she grieves for her missing husband.
“Pavel didn’t live long enough to see Ukraine take back our area,” she says. “He was a brave man and a patriot. And he paid dearly for that.”