Their whereabouts are unknown. How Ukrainian women try to find their husbands who have gone missing during the full-scale war

A Ukrainian artist paints on the wall of a building covered with traces of bullets and debris, Kupiansk, Kharkiv Oblast, October 2022 (Photo: REUTERS/Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Author: Oleksandra Horchynska

Women whose loved ones have gone missing during the full-scale russian invasion explain how they are looking for their relatives and trying to bring them back from captivity.

Those who have not returned from the Luhansk Oblast

“On 15 March 2022, my fiancé Serhii Semena joined the territorial defence unit of Kyiv. He was admitted after the twelfth attempt as he really wanted to defend Ukraine and was motivated. At that time, they were based in Kyiv, in Obolon. In early June, they were informed that they would go to the Belarus border since an invasion threatened from that direction. They went there, but on the same day, they returned to Kyiv. And then they were immediately deployed to the Luhansk area,” Yelyzaveta Krasnichenko, a Kyivan, explains in an interview to NV.

Serhii Semena went to the front as a member of the 34th battalion of the 57th Separate Motorized Infantry Brigade named after Kost Hordiienko, a kish otaman. He was last contacted on June 16. Before that, he sent several relatives a photo taken near Bakhmut-Hlib to confirm that they were not taken to the Belarus border, but to the Luhansk Oblast. On the same day, he wrote that he would soon be out of touch. After that, we were unable to reach him. Later his fellow soldiers said that Serhii had been killed, but his body could not be taken away. The military unit sent a letter to his relatives saying that he “has gone missing”.

Before going to the front, Serhii Semena bought a separate push-button phone so that he could always be in touch. In addition, he had a smartphone with him. Both phones were later returned to his relatives: “His fellow soldiers first returned through Serhii’s brother his backpack, in which he used to keep his belongings for six months: T-shirts, trousers, spare knee pads, and other items necessary to protect life. A large bag, like a travel bag, but a military one, – remembers Yelyzaveta Krasnichenko.

A little later the wife of another missing soldier from the 57th brigade, looking for her husband, started making media noise. Immediately after that, another backpack with his belongings was brought to Serhii Semena’s relatives. It contained the keys to the apartment, a wallet with photos, bank cards, food, and dry rations. And both phones. Although I was told that this backpack was not there before when the boys’ belongings were described. Before they said that he had left his backpack somewhere in the battle positions. Later they explained that it was somewhere in a car all this time and was not noticed.”

Serhii Semena and Yelyzaveta Krasnichenko / Photo provided by Yelyzaveta Krasnichenko

Yelyzaveta Krasnichenko admits that she is surprised that all those belongings, which, in her opinion, Serhii Semena should have always kept with him, have returned to her. But Serhii hasn’t. She assumes that at least one of the phones and the keys to the apartment should have been with him all the time. So if he had been killed and his body, according to one of the versions, could not have been taken away for one reason or another, some of these belongings should have remained with him.

Serhii’s smartphone is locked, and Yelyzaveta was unable to unlock it to access the data. At a service centre where the woman went for advice, she was told that they could only offer to update the phone firmware. But then the data on it would definitely be deleted.

Now Yelyzaveta, being supported by other relatives of the soldiers of the 57th brigade, is trying, by all means, to find out at least some information about the whereabouts of her fiancé or any documented evidence of his death or captivity. She says that she had heard of cases when soldiers, whose death was verbally testified by other fellow soldiers, were later found in captivity. While waiting for information about Serhii, she and her friends opened an exhibition of his paintings in Kyiv.

Along with Yelyzaveta, Liliia Lukianiuk is also looking for her husband. Her husband Dmytro also fought in the 57th Separate Motorized Infantry Brigade, he was deployed to the Luhansk Oblast with Serhii Semena and other soldiers. He got out of reach on June 16 just like Semena. He wrote his last message to his wife that day at 09:35 saying that they were going to Lysychansk. She received from the Coordination Headquarters a letter about the registration of defenders in captivity as well as a letter about a missing person. Later, just as in the case of Serhii Semena’s family, she received a backpack with Dmytro’s belongings: a phone, a military ID, a wallet, clothes, and food supplies.

“Everything was intact; the canned goods were not used. He didn’t even have the time to get out his spoon. There was UAH 370 in cash in the wallet. I can’t believe that my husband, knowing that he was going to an area where, most likely, there would be no ATMs or possibility to pay by card, took so little cash with him,” Liliia Lukianiuk reflects.

As the women later found out, then the 34th brigade was sent to Toshkivka in the Luhansk Oblast. On 21 June 2022, Roman Vlasenko, head of the Severodonetsk District Military Administration, announced that russian troops occupied this community. In the battles for these territories, the fighters of Wagner Private Military Company, as well as the troops of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) fought against the Ukrainian troops.

Serhii Semena, Yelyzaveta Krasnichenko’s fiancé / Photo provided by Yelyzaveta Krasnichenko

“The Wagnerites had an order not to kill but to capture. However, almost none of the Ukrainian fighters who went missing during those battles in April and May have a confirmed captive status. They are not on the lists of captives, so they are not claimed, and accordingly, they are not exchanged. No phone calls are received from them. Captivity is proved either by the russian side, for example, if relevant photos or videos are made available, or by phone calls. I have unofficially obtained information from four sources that my husband is in captivity,” says Liliia Lukianiuk.

She has not yet managed to obtain any official confirmation of this information. The SBU chatbot replied that, according to their information, Dmytro is in captivity, but without a letter from the agency this information cannot be considered official. According to Liliia Lukianiuk, her husband can be either in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine or in the territory of russia. However, she does not know where exactly he is.

The families of the missing soldiers of the 57th brigade contacted a number of authorities: the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office in the Military and Defence Sphere of the Central Region, the Office of the General Prosecutor, the Commander of Military Unit А72/95, the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, the State Bureau of Investigation, and the Red Cross.

“There were two most common responses to our inquiries. Most often, we are told that the territory is occupied and the bodies can be recovered only after de-occupation as was the case of Izium, for example. Then exhumation works will begin and the bodies will be identified by DNA. We have already provided our samples. The second thing they tell us: there is no crime that the boys were sent to such a position, no crime. They say it’s a war. And in general, they joined the Territorial Defence Units willingly,” says Yelyzaveta Krasnichenko. The women also take part in rallies: the relatives of soldiers from the 57th brigade come out to the streets of their cities and towns to draw attention to their problems and call for help in finding their relatives.

“This is a war and it is always like this”

Following an operation in the Lysychansk area between 24 February and 01 July 2022, the 57th Separate Motorized Infantry Brigade recorded 212 dead and 177 missing servicemen – these statistics were disclosed in a commentary to NV by the Colonel of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Brigade Commander Oleksandr Bakulin. According to him, about a hundred of 177 missing soldiers disappeared during the battles for communities such as Novotoshkivka, Toshkivka, and Ustynivka. These three locations were among the hottest areas in those days. And the battles in the above period, he says, practically never stopped:

“The battles for Novotoshkivka took place in April. From February to April, the enemy attacked us unsuccessfully using the tactics of small groups, to which we responded qualitatively and did not lose our positions. In April, the enemy got infuriated because their war had been going on for two months without any success. So Novotoshkivka, which was defended by two companies of the 34th battalion, was attacked by the 4th motorized rifle brigade consisting of three motorized rifle battalions and a tank battalion of the so-called people’s militia of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR). They created groups strong enough to break through our defences, which they basically did. We held Novotoshkivka as long as we could – the 34th battalion retreated on orders.”

The 34th battalion left Novotoshkivka at night, says Oleksandr Bakulin. At that moment, the enemy had already broken through our defences and entered Novotoshkivka itself. Considering this, “there was a certain disorder in the battle formations.” The commander calls those battles “cruel and active”. He says: the Ukrainian military retreated through the enemy lines by fighting. That is why it was not possible to take away the bodies of many of those who were killed there.

“If a person got killed, we pass the information on to the enlistment centres, and they must hand over the death notice to the relatives. In principle, the same procedure is used in the case of missing persons. We provide an official document that a serviceman either went missing or was killed, – Oleksandr Bakulin explains the procedure for notifying relatives. Of course, it happens that people may be notified in an untimely manner. This is war. Sometimes it is simply impossible to get information in time when the fighting is going on or to know where a serviceman is at a specific moment. So all the statistics were processed after the battles.”

According to Ukrainian legislation, there are two categories: missing persons and missing persons under special circumstances. The Law of Ukraine “On the Legal Status of Persons Missing Under Special Circumstances” determines that the latter are granted special legal status by the state.

A person who has gone missing under special circumstances is defined as a person who has gone missing in connection with an armed conflict, hostilities, temporary occupation of a part of the territory of Ukraine, and natural or man-made emergencies.

Dmytro Lukianiuk, Liliia’s husband. Photos taken during a trip to Toshkivka / Photo provided by Liliia Lukianiuk

“After the first battles, I wanted to contact the enemy units that fought directly against us in order to take away our killed soldiers, etc. However, at that time fighting prevented us from doing this and they rejected our proposal. It was explained to me that the SBU was in charge of it. There are many situations when two or three servicemen say that they saw a serviceman die, and still several others claim to see him alive. And four months later he turned out to be in captivity,” says Oleksandr Bakulin in an interview to NV. When asked whether, in his opinion, the communication of the army officers with the families of the missing soldiers from the 57th brigade was appropriate, he answered as follows:

“I understand the position of relatives and wives. They need their husbands, but unfortunately, this is a very terrible war. People do not understand what is happening here, what the situation really is, and why we sometimes cannot take away the body of a dead serviceman. I understand that, in principle, people are not interested in this – they just need their husbands. Of course, they believe that everything is my fault, the fault of the battalion commanders, and so on. But this is war; it simply cannot be any other way, no matter what efforts we make.”

Bucha as a tragedy with no end

Bucha resident Olena Fokova left the town on the second day of the full-scale war – on 25 February 2022, at 5:20 a.m. She managed to profit from a period of time when there was relative silence around the town; two hours later the russians started firing at the cars of civilians who were trying to evacuate.

Olena and her daughter managed to leave for Poland while her husband stayed in Bucha. A few days later, on March 9, during the occupation of the town, the russians captured him.

“I would even say he was not in captivity but was taken hostage. When civilians are captured, they are hostages according to the Convention on the Protection of the Civilian Population in Time of War. We started looking for him. He was supposed to leave on March 9 in the first green corridor, but he disappeared. Later it turned out that the russians had set up a checkpoint in my house, and the neighbours wishing to leave were first brought to my house, searched, they didn’t want to let them out,” says Olena Fokova in an interview to NV.

She says that little damage was caused to her house; there are broken windows on the ground and first floors, destroyed appliances, and overturned items. They crushed and destroyed what they could not take with them. Russian soldiers lived in her neighbour’s house for a while. They kept their vehicles next to the houses, right in the yards of local residents. They broke fences to drive in.

“I had three cats. One was simply shot, the second cat was never found, and the third was found thanks to our neighbours and taken abroad, the woman says. – This is my daughter’s cat, and now it is with us in France. The cat is very afraid of men – this is its reaction after the events in Bucha. This is what they do – both with animals and with people.”

Olena Fokova in the yard of her house in Bucha before the full-scale war / Photo provided by Olena Fokova

The nephews of one of her neighbours were killed by the russian soldiers. This is the Chekmariov family, about whom the media wrote a lot at the time. In the presence of Oleksandr Chekmariov, the invaders shot the car with his family from an armoured personnel carrier – his wife Rita and two boys, 5-year-old Klym and 9-year-old Matvii, were killed. Oleksandr himself lost his leg as a result of a severe wound.

Thanks to her neighbours, Olena Fokova managed to find out that the car in which the man wanted to leave the town was parked near the house: this is how she understood that he had failed to leave Bucha. Almost two months later, the russians disclosed a list in which they noted that Olena Fokova’s beloved husband was in their captivity. His approximate whereabouts became known thanks to a man named Boris. He is a civilian, a local resident, too, who was captured by the russians together with other persons and kept at first in the territory of the military campus in Hostomel, and then was taken to Russia via Belarus. Boris was lucky to get on the exchange list in late April. Once free, he found Olena Fokova through social networks and told her that he had been in captivity with her husband.

“He said where they had been taken to. This was the Briansk Oblast, Novoziablivka, SIZO-2. But now I have information that some of our captives were taken to Sevastopol. So I don’t know where my husband is: in the Briansk Oblast or in Sevastopol? They don’t allow talking to him,” says Olena Fokova.

The only means of communication is a note she received from her husband in early September. Some general phrases were handwritten on a piece of paper: “I’m alive, I’m fine.” The woman recognized his handwriting. She says: all the letters and notes are carefully checked and moderated by the russian side, so the captives simply cannot write any details. Her husband wrote this note back in the spring, but it reached the recipient only a few months later.

Olena Fokova contacted the Red Cross in Geneva, Ukraine and russia, contacted the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission, russian human rights defenders, and the National Bureau for Searching for Missing Persons, and filed a report with the police. But she says: she is advised only to wait. It is impossible to get at least some details.

“This man, Boris, who managed to return home, said that the russians had taken civilians to the forest near Bucha. They dug pits there, kept people, and tortured them. Those who did not survive were left in the pit. Some were made captives. After his return, Boris, together with the law enforcement officers, searched for the pit in which he had been kept. He was able to find it after several attempts – It took several months. But when they did find the right place, they saw the bodies of two people in that pit,” says Olena Fokova.

She is certain: when the people who had been victims of these tortures return to Bucha, it is likely that they will be able to show more similar locations. And then, even more terrible discoveries await us all. After all, no one knows for sure how many more bodies are hidden in the local forests. The woman knows, for example, about two basements in Hostomel, where 52 people, including women, were kept during the occupation of the town.

Olena Fokova is one of hundreds whose loved ones went missing after the occupation of Bucha by the russian army. She mentions the Telegram channel, which currently has about a thousand families. These are people who are looking for their relatives, too. Even if it is possible to have these people back, they will face long rehabilitation – both psychological and physical. And this is another aspect that is currently not dealt with in Ukraine.

“This is a very urgent issue, and not only for those who got into such a situation after the occupation of the Kyiv Oblast. People from the Kharkiv Oblast, the Kherson Oblast, and other regions have the same experience, Olena Fokova reflects. – They are in captivity for several months, they are poorly fed, they can be beaten and tortured, and they do not receive proper medical care. Upon return, these people have the right to be treated with dignity and to be assisted.”

As of 01 November 2022, the National Police of Ukraine received reports of 8,150 civilians missing in connection with the armed conflict. Such data were provided to NV by the Chief Investigative Directorate of the National Police of Ukraine. Of this number, 317 people were found to be dead, and 1,917 more were searched and found to be alive by the National Police. The whereabouts of 4,876 people are still unknown.

According to the data announced by Deputy Minister of Defence of Ukraine Hanna Maliar on the telethon air, as of November 2, about 7,000 people are considered missing in Ukraine. She adds: any information containing the personal data of a serviceman who is in captivity or has gone missing can harm both his life and the exchange process. And she urges relatives not to post photos of missing Ukrainians on social media and not to make information about them publicly available.

Where to go if your relatives are missing:

Call centre for finding missing servicemen and civilians operating under the Commissioner for Persons Gone Missing under Special Circumstances.

It cooperates with the National Information Bureau under the Ministry of Reintegration in matters of information on missing persons.

  • call centre hotline – 0 800 339 247 is open from Monday to Friday from 9:00 to 18:00.
  • on Saturday and Sunday, the call centre operates in remote mode. Information is received in the form of messages to 095 896 0421 in Viber and Telegram.
  • You can also use the email address: [email protected] to contact the call centre employees
  • if there is a representative office of the Commissioner for Persons Gone Missing under Special Circumstances working in your region, please contact it. Information can be found on the Ministry for Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories website. The government plans to open such offices in all the Oblasts.

National Police of Ukraine:

A request for finding a person gone missing under special circumstances may be submitted by a relative of such a person, a representative of a military unit, a government authority, a local self-government body, a nongovernmental organization, or any other person knowing of a person who has gone missing.

  • Short telephone number — 102
  • Hotline of the National Police of Ukraine for advice on further actions: 0800500202
  • A written inquiry to the National Police can be sent to the e-mail address [email protected].

Coordination Headquarters Dealing with War Captives within the Central Intelligence Office:

Kyiv, 37 Spaska Str., phone: 095−412−74−24, 044−425−12−09

Chatbot for finding captives and missing soldiers:

A detailed algorithm of actions can be found on the Free Legal Aid website and in this note from the Ukrainian Helsinki Union for Human Rights.

Prepared under the auspices of the Association “Independent Regional Publishers of Ukraine” as part of the implementation of the grant project “The Women in News with WAN-IFRA”. The views of the authors do not necessarily reflect the official position of the partners.

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