Two things motivated Yekaterina Sergatskova to put together her list of people abducted during the past three months of unrest in eastern Ukraine: a lack of interest in the problem by Ukrainian media, and almost no mention of the rising wave of disappearances by state officials. Some people had vanished without a trace; others were given a chance to place a phone call and negotiate their freedom. One night last April, Sergatskova, 26, and an aide sat down and put together a database, to catalogue the victim’s name, and the date and place of abduction. All in all, she counted more than 100 cases. The names included businessmen, bureaucrats, journalists, editors, city council members, and regular citizens.
Since that night, Sergatskova has taken many trips to Donetsk, Kramatorsk, Sloviansk, Luhansk, and a number of other Ukrainian towns gripped by the civil war, to interview heartbroken relatives and take the testimony of abductees who managed to escape or were released from jails in the basements of former state buildings seized by pro-Russian militias.
So far, Sergatskova’s list contains 89 cases that can be made public. Dozens of others were not included, she said, since some families wanted their stories to stay anonymous. As the death toll from Kiev’s anti-terror crackdown grew bigger, so did Sergatskova’s list.
She received her first call in mid-March: friends in Donestk, bearing news about pro-Ukrainian activists rapidly leaving the city after three colleagues were killed by separatists during an anti-war rally. Soon, there were no civil society groups left to monitor the deteriorating situation with hostages and abductions. “I decided to put together the list of abducted because I could not find anybody paying enough attention to the epidemic,” Sergatskova told The Daily Beast in a recent interview in Moscow.
On April 25, she met with Vice journalist Simon Ostrovsky, who had just been released after a week of captivity in a basement in Sloviansk. The prison was controlled by the city’s self-proclaimed mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, whose armed militia had special orders to capture Ostrovsky for his critical stories about the Russian separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. For days, nobody knew where Ostrovsky was being held.
Ostrovsky told her that other Ukrainian and Western reporters detained with him had been shoved against a wall with plastic bags over their heads and subjected to a mock execution. While bound and blindfolded, Ostrovsky managed to glean that at least 40 people were in the jail with him, including two famous figures in Kiev cultural circles—theater director Pavel Yurov and artist Denis Grushuk. Both are still presumed to be in the Sloviansk jail.
“We know of several places were people are kept to be either exchanged for pro-Russian activists, or to be used as slaves for building barricades along highways, Sergatskova said. “The worst were the stories about three dead abductees found in a river in Sloviansk with their stomachs cut open.”
Senior human-rights defender Oleg Orlov, from the Moscow-based human-rights center Memorial, has also traveled to eastern Ukraine to collect evidence of abductions. “The practice we see in eastern Ukraine can be compared to the cases of abductions that we documented for decades during two wars in Chechnya,” Orlov told The Daily Beast. “We urge DNR to release abducted people kept at the seized building of the Donetsk regional administration right now.”
Families in Ukraine are counting on the energy and courage of activists like Sergatskova and Orlov as the practice of kidnapping continued into the summer months. According to some accounts, up to 200 people have gone missing—including eight OSCE observers, who were detained in May by separatists and who have still not been found.
Still, Sergatskova is adamant that the state should not pay ransoms for the disappeared. “Absolutely not,” she says. “Abduction epidemics beginning in Ukraine should not become a trade practice. There are other mechanisms that authorities should use to negotiate the freedom for abducted people.”