Hundreds of women draped in Ukrainian flags filled the streets near the presidential office.
Blocked by policemen who blocked their way, they chanted the name of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
They took to the streets because their loved ones were lost in combat during the last more than 20 months of the war. And the Ukrainian authorities are not giving the survivors enough information.
The protest shows growing public frustration with the ever-increasing number of dead and missing Ukrainians.
In Russia, similar complaints have been a fairly common occurrence since last year’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. On the Ukrainian side, however, it is an unprecedented upheaval.
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Petro Jaceňko, a spokesman for the government’s Coordination Staff for the Treatment of Prisoners of War, said they were working to provide the families with information, but so far it has not been successful because Russia is uncooperative and refuses to release the names of those it has detained. Their families do not know if their relatives are in captivity or dead.
“We understand that people need to express their frustration,” he said in an interview with The New York Times on Wednesday. “The main problem is that Russia is not providing full information, even about the civilians it is holding illegally.”
We want to bring them home
Kyiv lacks information on 26,000 Ukrainians – 11,000 civilians and 15,000 soldiers missing in action.
Relatives of missing soldiers are increasingly frustrated by the government’s inability to provide answers. That is also why they came to Kiev from all over Ukraine. Many held placards or photos of their loved ones in the crowd.
One couple held a banner that read “We are proud of the heroes of the 81st Brigade. We want to find them and bring them home”. Their son Vadym Safronjuk belonged to the unit, he has been missing since August.
“The last time we heard about him was when he left for the top positions on August 1,” said Vadym’s father, Serhij Stěpanec. “7. On August we were told he was missing after a mortar attack.’
Other families, eager to share their stories, huddled around a team of The New York Times reporters, asking them to write their sons’ names. All were looking for news of men from the 81st Brigade who had gone missing in repeated Ukrainian attacks around Bilohorivka.
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The battles for Bilohorivka and other places on the Eastern Front rarely make the front pages of newspapers. The government also restricts the release of details of military casualties to avoid sharing such information with Russia, but also to prevent any lowering of morale at home.
This makes it virtually impossible for families to find out what happened to individual soldiers.
Ludmila Marchenko said her 37-year-old son Andriy enlisted and spent a month training in Britain last year, enjoying himself and sending selfies home. But within 10 days after returning to Ukraine, he was sent to the front. After the end of his first attack, he was declared missing. “He is my only son,” she said quietly. “It is very heavy.”
Many families cling to hope that their loved ones are still alive, captured by Russian forces and now held as prisoners of war. They write letters, visit offices, also search for news and photos on the Internet, sometimes getting tricked by Russian fraudsters.
Bone in neck
According to various human rights organizations, 10,000 Ukrainians are held in Russian prisons. Moscow continues to refuse to provide full records of detainees, the Ukrainian side only adding to the frustration of many families. Indeed, the government in Kyiv has refused to release the names of those confirmed to be in Russian custody as it seeks to negotiate a prisoner exchange.
Spokesman Jaceňko said that the government cannot publish the lists because sensitive personal data would become public. He added that Russia is contacting families and encouraging them to protest against the government in an attempt to destabilize Ukrainian society.
But the armed forces also sided with the protesters, who also made it clear that they wanted answers. The small group carried the red and black flag of the Ajdar Battalion, a little-known combat unit that has been at the forefront of the fight against Russia and separatist forces since 2014. In Russia, it is described as an extremist and nationalist group, which was one of the declared reasons for the invasion of Ukraine.
A deputy battalion commander, who used the call sign Hook, said Russia’s hostility toward the group stems from its mobilization of anti-Russian residents in eastern Ukraine. “Ajdar is like a bone in their neck,” he said.
Annexation of Crimea
The Crimean peninsula was annexed by Russia in 2014 after a Kremlin-led vote in which Moscow justified its appropriation. There were no representatives of recognized international organizations such as the UN or OSCE at the referendum, but people connected with various organizations close to the Kremlin did come.
The majority of countries evaluated the Russian annexation of Crimea as an illegal act that violates international law. Crimea thus remains the subject of disputes to this day.
The women with the Ajdar flag said that up to 100 men from the battalion are now missing. There was little information about their fate, although 18 soldiers from the battalion, including two nurses, appeared in a Russian court in July.
Pale, emaciated and with shaved heads, they appeared behind the defendants’ plate glass in a Russian courtroom. They were accused of membership in a terrorist organization, for which they face up to 16 years in prison. This has been condemned by human rights groups as a violation of international conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war.
But for friends and family, the sight was a bittersweet moment: relief that they were alive mixed with pain at their condition.
“They looked terrible,” said Lyuba, 27, a decorated combat medic who is a friend and close colleague of the two captives. “It was clear that they were tortured. They were very emaciated. They lost a lot of weight,” said her friend Maryna, also a nurse.
About the covert operation on Russian territory:
The 26-year-old commander of an artillery unit with the call sign Chichen said that among the captives was his best friend, 35-year-old Ihor Gayocha.
The battalion thought Gayocha, which is also his call sign, was killed in an ambush in March last year before he appeared on video being interrogated. His mother, who also attended the rally in Kyiv, has so far received no information or official confirmation of her son’s condition, either from Russia or Ukraine.
She fears that if her son is not written on the official list of prisoners of war, his chances of returning will be radically reduced. “He’s there at court,” she said disappointedly, “but he’s not on any list.”
Human rights organizations have warned against a similar scenario. Once soldiers disappear into the Russian prison system, it may be more difficult for Ukraine to bring them home, either in a prisoner exchange or general release at the end of the war.
After all, this was confirmed at the Georgian border, where a seven-member group of Ukrainians who were released from a Russian prison have been stuck for 14 days (more here).