A relative disappeared in the war. What should I do? Who will help find him/her and why is everything so confusing? — detailed instructions for families of missing persons

Ghanna Mamonova
Yuliana Skibitska
A relative disappeared in the war. What should I do? Who will help find him/her and why is everything so confusing? — detailed instructions for families of missing persons

Ангеліна Коткова / Kateryna Bandus / «Бабель»

Tens of thousands of people went missing during the full-scale war in Ukraine. International organizations call the number at least 15 thousand, but these are data only about the civilian population. Data on missing servicemen are not made public. This is explained by the fact that it is difficult to establish whether a person died or is in Russian captivity. Despite the fact that the number of missing people is large, there is no single body to which the family can turn and submit all the documents for the search. You have to go around different instances, submitting the same information. This process is complicated and raises many questions — how to do it as quickly as possible, what mistakes do families make when looking for a missing person, how to provide psychological support to themselves and their loved ones, and what payments from the state can families of missing people expect? "Babel" correspondent Ghanna Mamonova researched the Road Map of the Coordination Headquarters on the treatment of prisoners of war for families who have missed a relative and spoke with the coordinator of the "Legal Hundred" hotline Victoria Oliynyk, the human rights defender of the Center for Civil Liberties Nataliya Yashchuk, the speaker of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Ukraine Oleksandr Vlasenko and psychologist and manager of "Blue Bird" Hanna Mokrousova.

We acknowledge that many women serve in the Ukrainian defense forces, but to ease the understanding of the article in case of a prisoner or a missed person weʼll use the male gender here as most of these cases refer to men.

My relative disappeared in the war zone. We canʼt get in touch for several days. How to find out what happened?

Mobile communication may not work where your relative is, or the phone may be dead and there is no way to charge it. If a soldier has gone on a combat mission, he will not communicate until the return from it. Therefore, it is necessary to wait three days from the last conversation. While you wait, write down the phone number from which the person called — the police will need it in case of a search.

If three days have passed and the person hasnʼt called, contact his comrades or commander. If they say the person is missing or hasnʼt returned from a combat mission, take action. Immediately ask them what happened when the soldier was last seen, where he was — ask for the coordinates of the places. Find out as many details as possible — what he was wearing, what things were with him, where his documents are.

Next, call the military commissariat from which the person was drafted and the military unit where he serves. If they say that he is not on the list of missing, missing, captured, dead, wounded — keep calm and wait a few more days. Then call the department again — during this time they should understand where the person is. Next, you need to contact any department of the National Police and submit a report on the disappearance of a person under special circumstances.

How to find out the phone number of the commander or comrades?

It is better to find out about this immediately after the person was mobilized. It is best to make a notebook in advance, where you write the name and number of the military unit, position, rank, specialty, badge number, names and callsigns of comrades and the commander. Thatʼs not all the information you need to collect— hereʼs the full list. Often, relatives start looking for a missing person and do not even know the number of his military unit. In this case you can call the military commissariat from which the person was mobilized, they will tell you how to act. Their phone numbers are on the website.

Who can contact the police, what to report?

Anyone can file a missing person report, but mostly relatives do it. It is best to come to the station in person, but you can call the hotline: 089 420 18 67, send a letter to the e-mail address [email protected] or to the chatbot https://t.me/poshuk_znyklyh.

The investigator will open a criminal case on the disappearance of a person, will give a blank where its number will be indicated, and later — an extract from the Unified Register of Pretrial Investigations. Save it. Write down the contact phone number of the investigator for communication. He will also ask for a DNA test. Bring him a notebook with information about the missing person and tell him everything you know about the disappearance. Think about special signs — scars, tattoos, piercings, special things (mobile phone, jewelry).

From the moment you filed a report with the police, a person receives the status of a missing person. It is important to understand that this does not mean that the person died. On the contrary, Ukraine is starting a search, and it will not end until a person is found. A third of those who return from captivity are considered missing.

What to do next? I canʼt just sit and wait.

Next, you need to submit applications to five Ukrainian organizations and two international ones. First of all, contact the National Information Bureau online by filling out the questionnaire or call the hotline 1648 in Ukraine. Contact the SBU, there is a Joint Center for the Search and Release of Prisoners. They are also looking for missing persons. Fill out their questionnaire or write a letter to [email protected]. Call the Ministry of Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine — the phone number where they receive information about the missing IS +38 099 792 01 26.

The next step is to notify the Office of the Commissioner for Missing Persons under Special Circumstances. You need to contact them by phone +380 800 339 247 or send a letter to the address [email protected]. The Commissioner forms search groups that exhume bodies in the de-occupied territories, and negotiates with Russia on the transfer of the bodies of the dead. Also call the public organization Patriot, it is looking for missing persons — +380 800 339 247 or +380 95 896 04 21.

Contact international structures. First of all, fill out the questionnaire of the UN Human Rights Council Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (RPL)here is how to do it. Then contact the International Committee of the Red Cross at +380 800 300 155, but it is better to fill out their questionnaire. International organizations are looking for Ukrainians held captive in Russia. They are the only ones who can get there.

I have to apply there, here... It feels that we are just running in circles! Why canʼt I just go to one place to start the search?

The search for a person will start, even if a statement is filed only with the police. However, the law enforcement system is overloaded. Each investigator conducts more than 300 criminal investigations, he/she physically doesnʼt have time to do everything necessary for the search — to submit new information that has become known, to understand what data is missing, and to ask relatives to provide it.

We have been waiting two months for the results of the DNA test, why is it taking so long? At that time, we were sent to the morgues of Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia, and Kyiv to identify the dead by photographs. Why were we forced to go through this?

DNA tests take a long time — from two to four months — because there are not enough laboratories. And there are extremely many families who are looking for relatives and handing over biological material. The investigator understands that recognizing a person by looking at photographs of the dead is traumatic. But he proposes to do it, because the military unit reported that the dead from a certain section of the front were taken to the Zaporizhzhia or Dnipro morgue. Maybe the one you are looking for is right there.

If the missing person has no relatives, then who will look for him?

Anyone can turn to the police — friends, brothers, the commander. The military unit is also investigating what happened to each defender.

There are many channels for searching for missing people in social networks. Can they be used? Are they safe?

The first three days, when a person does not get in touch, it is absolutely not necessary to publish anything. There are different situations — a fighter went on a mission and fell behind, got injured and returns to his comrades on his own. To protect himself, he changed into civilian clothes. The main thing at this moment is not to reveal all this, because Russia monitors all messages in social networks and uses them.

Even when the official search has begun, donʼt provide unnecessary information — do not write how long a person has been in the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and in which troops. Donʼt leave your contact numbers. Fraudsters may call you, promising to tell where a person is for a reward. Threaten that they will torture him if you do not transfer the amount of money to them. They can even promise to “buy” him out of captivity. All this isnʼt true.

The Russians are trying to provoke relatives to go to rallies and protests. They say that Ukraine does not plan to exchange prisoners, that people have been forgotten, they tell how soldiers are tortured in captivity. The Coordination Headquarters constantly receives such information from families. Therefore, it is advised to use only official search channels.

Is it also dangerous to contact human rights organizations or volunteers?

The coordination headquarters cooperates with human rights organizations. For example, the Center for Civil Liberties and Search — POLON, which search for people in Russian prisons, send requests to the Russian Penitentiary Service. It is necessary to contact human rights defenders or volunteers, but check the information about them. How long has the human rights organization or volunteer association been working? If since 2022, it could be scammers. Find out if they cooperate with the Coordination Headquarters or other authorities. Reliable human rights and volunteer organizations do not disclose information about those who have contacted them. They help submit documents to international organizations or to the General Prosecutorʼs Office of Ukraine and the SBU. Military units are also contacted to speed up the search.

I have submitted data wherever possible. And now what? Should I call morgues, hospitals, find out if a DNA test is ready, write requests to Russian prisons?

Contacting someone in Russia without the help of human rights defenders or the Coordination Headquarters is dangerous. To go there and look for a relative is even worse decision. In the best case, no one from the colony or pre-trial detention center will answer you, in the worst case, fraudsters will start calling or you yourself will end up in captivity. But you can find out if there are matches by DNA test, call morgues and hospitals. It happens that a family finds a relative in this way faster than the law enforcement officers.

We received a call from the occupied territories and offer to buy out a relative. What shall I do?

In the occupied territories, prisoners are not released for money. Those who suggest this are fraudsters. The Russians even kidnap civilians — they take them hostage in order to have more prisoners and put pressure on Ukraine during exchanges. Itʼs logical that they will not allow anyone to disappear.

Do families of missing persons have benefits or financial support from the state?

All the time, until the person is returned from captivity or declared dead, the family receives his salary. It will also be given a one-time payment of 100,000 hryvnias. If a person dies, the state will pay 15 million hryvnias. Payments must be made at the military office where the person was mobilized. But it is possible to do this after an official investigation, which will be conducted by a military unit. The purpose of the investigation is to establish the cause of the disappearance. If a soldier is a deserter or defected to the enemy, the state does not compensate for anything.

I am losing my mind from despair. I scream at my children, quarrel with my relatives. How to support myself and my loved ones?

When people experience painful emotions, even in their family there are no words of support for each other. Often everyone closes in their grief. They begin to quarrel, because, experiencing their pain, they do not always have the strength to see the pain of another. Understand that all your emotions are normal in such a situation. It also hurts not only you, but also the family. Prepare for the fact that the search will be long and difficult. Applications to law enforcement officers and international organizations can be completed in a week or two. Then the most difficult thing is the long wait for news. At this time, it is important to take care of yourself, your children, and your parents. Eat warm food every day, take care of your health. Donʼt beat yourself up for being relatively safe and not doing enough to find someone close to you.

If you want to speak out on social networks, then do it. But donʼt indicate the phone number, do not tell about the rank and specialty of the military. Do not refuse the help of colleagues, neighbors, friends. Find other families where military personnel have disappeared. Discuss the quest with them, go to the Coordination Headquarters together.

If you feel that you need the help of a psychologist, it is better to contact him. There are public organizations that provide social, psychological and legal support to families of missing persons. Most often, people call there just to listen to them. There is also free psychological support in volunteer organizations and charitable foundations.

It seems my friends hate me and turned away because I keep talking about the search.

The fact that you canʼt stop talking about finding a loved one is a normal state in such situations. But those around you, just like you, cannot live in your pain all the time. This doesnʼt mean that they turned away from you. Most often, people do not know how to support, what to say, they think that they are annoying with their insistence. Ask them for help — to prepare documents, to go together for identification or to the Coordination Headquarters. Ask if you can call them to talk.

Is it necessary to talk to children about the disappearance of a relative and how?

Many families avoid talking to their children about this topic. They say that there is no connection with father or mother, a person is on a combat mission. But children see the state of those around them and understand that something is happening. It is important to be honest and tell everything as it is. Clarity of what happened, which means the person is missing. Say what you do to find him, and share your experiences. Answer the childʼs questions openly.

Children in the families of the missing are often not noticed. Adults do not have the strength to worry about them. Therefore, their behavior changes: children become very obedient or vice versa. By his behavior, the child draws attention to himself and tries to rescue loved ones from a state of grief.

Neighbors and colleagues have had soldiers go missing. Do you need to talk to them about it and how? How to help them?

People whose relatives have disappeared need constant support. They are in such pain that no matter how much they are supported, it will always be a drop in the ocean. Constantly call, ask if there is news. Even if there are none, a person feels that he is not alone. Offer to be called whenever there is a desire to talk to someone.

If there are children in the family, then remember that they are often left without gifts for the holidays — they are forgotten. Keep an eye on it, congratulate and give gifts. Ask the elderly about their health — heart, blood pressure, sleep. Offer to take them to the doctor. Help them in household matters — go to the store, bring groceries. This is something that the family may not have enough strength for.

A person who has lost a loved one experiences an internal struggle between hope and despair. There is no need to encourage him or her to do this or that. Be there, support their decisions, show that you accept them in any condition.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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