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KIEV, Ukraine — In Slovyansk, the police are still finding mass grave sites with unidentified bodies. In Luhansk, a retirement home is picking up the pieces after shelling killed five of its elderly residents. And in Poltava, Tatiana Efremova is praying that her mother, who has been missing for more than a month, is still alive somewhere in territory held by pro-Russia rebels.
“I’ve heard so many different versions about what might have happened to her that now I have no emotional reaction. Nothing comes as a surprise anymore,” Efremova said. “But no one seems to be working to find just regular people — volunteers — like my mom. What happens to them doesn’t seem to matter, and we’re the ones supporting Ukraine.”
As frustrations in the international community mount over stalled investigations into the cause of the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, there is a growing sense in Ukraine that the toll on the civilian population is bearing in this violent conflict is being ignored. The feeling is especially true as Ukrainian government forces tighten the military noose around the major rebel-held city of Donetsk amid fears that an attempt to recapture it could spark a major humanitarian crisis.
A United Nations report on the Ukrainian crisis released on July 28 speaks volumes about the impact the war is having across the country’s population. At least 1,120 have been killed since mid-April, more than 800 of them civilians, with some 3,442 wounded. More than 100,000 internally displaced persons have fled violence in the east. And officially 375 people, like Efremova’s mother, are still missing.
Both sides of the conflict – the Ukrainian military and the separatists are fighting for independence – have pointed their fingers at each other for the toll the war has taking on Ukrainian civilians. The rebels accuse the Ukrainian forces of bombing their own people, while Kiev says the rebels are firing heavy artillery into residential areas to discredit the Ukrainian forces.
At least 1,120 have been killed since mid-April, more than 800 of them civilians, with some 3,442 wounded. More than 100,000 internally displaced persons have fled violence in the east. And officially 375 people are still missing.
When it comes to abductions and beatings, both sides are guilty, although cases in which rebels have tortured, held and even executed detainees are more prevalent, according to watchdog groups such as Amnesty International and the U.N. Human Rights Monitoring Mission.
Abductions have been a terrifying component of the crisis in Ukraine since the start of the Euromaidan protests in November of last year, when anti-government protesters took to the streets and eventually toppled the Moscow-favored President Viktor Yanukovych. At the time, a volunteer group called Euromaidan SOS collected statistics about hundreds of protesters who would go missing for days, only to turn up later beaten and bruised. Today, the organization says there are still 37 people missing from those street demonstrations in central Kiev.
When pro-Russia separatists took control of many cities in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, hundreds of reports emerged of abductions of pro-Ukrainian activists, journalists, Ukrainian soldiers and civilians who were deemed to be enemies of the self-declared Donetsk or Luhansk “people’s republics.”
In Slovyansk, a rebel stronghold until it was retaken by the Ukrainian forces on July 4, the basement of the city’s security services building held dozens of prisoners who were repeatedly beaten and kept for weeks in its damp, dark cellars, according to prisoners who have since been released. Ukrainian police now charge that some of the prisoners may have been killed on orders of the rebel leader then in charge of the city, Igor Girkin, who goes by the nom de guerre Strelkov, meaning “shooter.” Strelkov is now based in Donetsk as the defense minister for the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.
Since the Ukrainian flag was once again raised on the roof of Slovyansk’s city hall, police investigators have uncovered at least 14 bodies from a mass grave and identified other sites they believe contain more of the missing from Ukraine’s war.
“Officially, we have 11 missing persons reports on file, but there are probably more out there. Many people may be too scared to come to us,” said Mikhail Khyzhnyak, the acting chief investigator for Slovyansk. “We’re still working on this problem.”
Getting accurate numbers for those who are still missing and information on where they might be is extremely difficult in those areas still under the control of the separatist rebels. Ukrainian authorities have no ability to investigate in these areas, meaning various volunteer groups and human rights organizations are doing what they can to keep track of those who have disappeared or whom they believe have been captured by the rebels.
“Part of the problem is that everyone has a different list of missing people, and no one is comparing their lists and trying to work together,” said Enrique Menendez, a Donetsk businessman who has teamed up with two journalists and a local city councilwoman to try to mediate the release of people who have been taken by the rebels. “We’re trying to coordinate this, because unfortunately, I can’t see any systematic work from the Ukrainian government on this.”
For Efremova, the search for her mother started almost a month and a half ago on June 20. On that day, her mother, Irina Boiko, left Poltava with three other volunteers and headed for the Luhansk region to help with the evacuation of several women and children from the volatile area, where heavy shelling has claimed hundreds of lives since Ukrainian forces began the anti-terrorist operation in April. The volunteers traveled with basic food supplies in the trunk, which they planned to give to Ukrainian army checkpoints along the way.
The food donations are probably what got Boiko and her traveling partners in trouble with the rebels, Efremova said.
Efremova got the first bothersome call a few hours after the group left Poltava, when her 48-year-old mother phoned to warn her daughter that they had been detained by rebels and accused of supporting the “enemy” Ukrainian army. A few hours later, a rebel called and said it was over: Efremova’s 48-year-old mother had already been shot dead. But hours later came another call, this one saying Boiko had been released. When Efremova asked frantically where she could come to collect her mother, the caller hung up. Another agonizing dead end, and Efremova’s seemingly endless nightmare of uncertainty dragged on.
In the course of the next few days, small clues trickled in. Boiko’s bankcard was used somewhere in Luhansk region to withdraw 20,000 Ukrainian hryvnia ($1,650). The state security service said they were able to track Boiko’s cell phone’s battery, but the SIM card must have been removed.
“I feel like I’m being tortured psychologically by the rebels with the way they are telling me something different every day,” Efremova said. “They tell me to call in one hour or call tomorrow. Sometimes they answer, sometimes they just hang up on me.”
Efremova now believes that her mother is being held as a prisoner in Horlivka, a rebel stronghold in the Donetsk province that has recently seen violent fighting as Ukraine encircles it and attempts to retake it from the rebels. A Russian named Igor Bezler, nicknamed “Demon,” commands the city.
A man who was recently released from Demon’s control told a family friend that he saw Boiko in the basement prison of the rebel’s headquarters. For now, that’s the best information Efremova has to go on, so her search is focused there.
“The government prioritizes the release of journalists or military personnel, but hardly mentions the volunteers who are missing,” Efremova said. “It’s really discouraging. It’s very dangerous for Ukrainian volunteers because often they are doing the job of the government, which makes the rebels hate them the most.”