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Russia accused of holding 20,000 Ukrainian civilians captive

Igor Burdyga
June 2, 2023

Desperate families are trying to secure the release of more than 20,000 Ukrainians held captive by Russia. Rights activists have said the Geneva Conventions are being violated.

Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) are seen after a swap
Russia and Ukraine have agreed to a number of prisoner exchanges since February 2022, including this one in the Donetsk region in MayImage: Yevhenii Zavhorodnii/REUTERS

"Everyone keeps saying: 'You have to wait.' We've been waiting for a year now. The conditions in captivity are not the best, to say the least," said Anton Chyrkov, inviting people into a living room where several women are sitting at a large table. He took a seat at the head of the table, a massive piece of furniture that his father, Oleksandr Chyrkov, a funeral director, made himself, like much of the furniture in the house.

The house is located on a pleasant housing estate not far from the village of Dymer on the shore of the Kyiv Reservoir, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Ukraine's capital. The Russian army occupied the area on February 25, 2022 as it planned to continue on to Kyiv.

In the first three weeks of the occupation, when the phone lines were down and there was no electricity, Oleksandr Chyrkov and the neighbor Dmytro Bohazhevsky kept life going in the village. Locals often crowded around the Chyrkovs' well. Anton suspects that is why the Russians thought his father, whom he has not seen for over a year, was the leader of the resistance.

"When they came to us on March 16, the first thing they asked for was weapons. Everyone here has some. We had three in the safe," said Anton, explaining that the Russian soldiers came to collect the arms the next morning. "And my dad was told to pack his things."

Bohazhevsky, a next-door neighbor, was also taken. When his mother Tatyana Bohazhevska heard, she rushed to the village council to find out where her son was being held. "The soldier just told me: 'Don't worry, they are enjoying excellent conditions,'" she recalled.

Ukraine condemns crimes against children in war

Detained in Dymer and Hostomel

All those arrested were taken to a foundry in the south of Dymer. About 40 people were forced into one room and accused of "resisting the special military operation," as Russia describes its war on Ukraine.

Some had to dig trenches, while others were beaten and interrogated about the resistance. A few were allowed to leave, but some were taken to an airfield in Hostomel where they were detained in huge industrial refrigerated containers.

These details were only revealed after the region around Kyiv was liberated once the Russian army retreated on March 28, 2022, leaving behind about two dozen prisoners.

"When we realized that our son Dmytro was not among them, my husband and I searched all the forests, ravines and buildings for him but in vain," said Bohazhevska.

Taken to a Russian prison

In April last year, Volodymyr Khropun, a Red Cross volunteer who had also been taken, was freed in a prisoner exchange. He said the retreating Russian soldiers had taken dozens of Ukrainian civilians with them, moving via Belarus to a prison in Novozybkov, a Russian town not far from the borders with Belarus and Ukraine.

"Prisoners of war who were exchanged are our main source of information," said Karina Malakhova-Dyachuk, the co-founder of the Civilians in Captivity organization that has brought together relatives of more than 350 prisoners from six regions of Ukraine.

When people found out where their relatives were, they started writing letters to Russia — to prisons, the army, the Interior Ministry and the domestic intelligence agency FSB. They asked what was needed to obtain the release of the prisoners. "Nobody got an answer," said Bohazhevska, who has a list of 42 missing people, six of whom have not been located. The others are mostly still in Novozybkov, where there are reportedly over 600 Ukrainians in detention, both civilians and military.

According to Dmytro Lubinets, the human rights commissioner in the Ukrainian parliament, Russia is holding more than 20,000 Ukrainian civilians, including those in Crimea, the self-proclaimed "Peoples Republics" of Luhansk and Donetsk and occupied parts of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. 

Emil Kurbedinov, a renowned lawyer and defender of Crimean Tatar activists, said some of these Ukrainians had been charged with espionage or terrorism under Russian law but many were being held without any justification.

Young men in front of a bus, holding the Ukrainian flag
Ukraine has said civilians should be released without prisoner exchangesImage: UKRAINIAN ARMED FORCES/REUTERS

Internment of civilians a war crime?

Ukrainian authorities consider the detention of civilians in Russian-occupied territories to be a war crime. In April, a report by the international NGO Human Rights Watch stressed that the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War permitted "the internment or assigned residence" of civilians only for "imperative reasons of security" and that protections include the right to contest the basis for detention, access to counsel and family members and the right to "be treated in a humane manner and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person."

And yet Ukrainians in Russian detention are not being granted these protections, said Malakhova-Dyachuk. Alexander Vlasenko, a spokesman for the Red Cross in Ukraine, added that because the detention of civilians and prisoners of war was regulated by different conventions, people were being subjected to different norms of humanitarian law.

Last winter, Russia began to register Ukrainian soldiers and civilians as prisoners of war. According to Bohazhevska, information pertaining to her son Dmytro appeared on the Russian website NemZida (Nemesis) on which the personal data of Ukrainian military and security forces are posted. DW also found information about Oleksandr Chyrkov on the site.

The Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War disagrees with Russia's approach and has said that civilians must be released without condition, not only as part of a prisoner exchange.

Negotiations for release of prisoners

"If you start exchanging civilians for soldiers, then all people in the occupied territories will become hostages," explained Malakhova-Dyachuk.

Some 140 Ukrainian civilians have been released through exchanges since February 2022, including Malakhova-Dyachuk's father. However, the Coordination Headquarters does not provide details.

"Our civilians are being held hostage in the Russian Federation to force Ukraine into political negotiations," said representative Oleksandr Kononenko, who added that talks were underway to make progress on their return.

The human rights commissioner in the Ukrainian parliament is also looking for ways to free Ukrainian civilians detained by Russia. At a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Tatyana Moskalkova, in Ankara this year, Lubinets proposed the repatriation of the elderly, women, wounded and seriously ill, but has yet to receive a response to this proposal.

In the end, the two did agree that visits to detained civilians should be allowed, and Lubinets is now hoping "that the practice we have started will lead to a process for releasing civilian hostages and prisoners."

This article was originally written in Russian.