In Borodyanka, the search for the missing has been ongoing for three months — relatives submit DNA and write requests to the Russian pre-trial detention centers. Hereʼs the story of the disappearance of three families

Author:
Ghanna Mamonova
Editor:
Tetyana Lohvynenko
Date:
In Borodyanka, the search for the missing has been ongoing for three months — relatives submit DNA and write requests to the Russian pre-trial detention centers. Hereʼs the story of the disappearance of three families

Getty Images / «Babel'»

Borodyanka in Kyiv oblast was liberated from the Russian occupants on April 1. In three months, destroyed high-rise buildings were dismantled, and the bodies of more than 40 dead people were found there. Half a hundred bodies of those killed by the Russians were exhumed from mass graves. Contacts were established with those whom the Russian military took to Belarus. However, 19 residents, including three children, are considered missing. Most of the cases of disappearances are related to air bombing — Russian pilots dropped dozens of bombs on Tsentralna (Central) Street from March 1 to 3. Many houses burned down, and seven high-rise buildings collapsed along with their residents. One of them is house No. 326. Babel journalist Ghanna Mamonova collected the stories of the search for three families who lived there and disappeared. One family was identified only two months later with the help of DNA testing. Only the passport remained from the second one — one document for two persons. The third family disappeared without a trace, there is a version that five of its members were captured and are being held in a pre-trial detention center in Russia.

1

Aviation bombed a five-story panel building — house No. 326 on Tsentralna Street — on March 1 at approximately 8:20 p.m. People from nearby houses heard two loud explosions and a quieter one. The version of the investigation did not change during the three months of its work: Russian pilots dropped unguided FAB free-fall bombs on the first entrance and the area near it. It The charge is 250 or 500 kilograms. Half of the building was completely destroyed by them, a mass of concrete and iron fell into the basement. If people were hiding there, they would have no chance of survival. However, when the rescuers dismantled the rubble, they did not find the dead in the ruins.

It was unexpected. Three families said that 10 people, including three minor girls, could be hiding there. After the bombing, the relatives of the residents of building No. 326 found each other and told the State Emergency Service that shortly before the explosion there were people in the apartments on the first, second and fifth floors.

Three relatives of Anna Matviienko disappeared in the house: her mother, 57-year-old Valentyna Andriivna Odynoka, 63-year-old aunt Lyubov Andriivna Myakysh, and 39-year-old cousin Kyrylo Viktorovych Myakysh.

«Babel'»

"They were in apartment No. 1 before the bombing," says Anna. “The last time I talked to them was shortly before the explosion. Mom sent a message at eight in the evening that they would be fleeing Borodyanka in the morning. We drew and sent them a map with the route to Kyiv. At 8:12 p.m, connection with them disappeared. When we were still communicating, they were in the apartment, and I donʼt know what happened next.

Annaʼs mother did not live in this house, she came to live with her sister: the women were close. Annaʼs father was hiding in another house during the bombing. This building was damaged, but not destroyed.

“After the explosion, dad ran to the ruins. Shouted: ʼValya! Valya!ʼ, but no one answered. I tried to move something with my hands, but there are massive blocks — itʼs impossible,” says Anna. “Brotherʼs girlfriend, Daryna, organized the boys, they broke the door to the surviving side of the house, but immediately ran into the blocks. And on March 3, when my father went to the destroyed house again, the Russian invaders came and drove everyone away. They told me not to come there, as well to the town center — otherwise they would kill me.

“The movement of the civilians is prohibited!”, inscribed on the gate near house No. 326.

«Babel'»

Annaʼs father lived with a friend in a private house for a month during the occupation. The men were saved by the fact that there was a well and a supply of food in the yard. He could not find his wife in the lists of evacuees or in other basements where people were hiding.

"The ruined part of the house was dismantled from April 7 to 9," says Anna. “I stood there the whole time — I was worried that the rescuers might not notice something among the wreckage. A few days later, on April 11, we were sent photos of the two victims who were found not far from house No. 326. Kyryloʼs friends recognized his brotherʼs T-shirt on the man, and his motherʼs colleagues recognized clothes and a bracelet. Neither I nor dad recognized them. Mom dyed her hair brown, and in the photo it was light. Now I think that it may have lightened, because my mother was lying outside under the snow for more than a month. And the manʼs body — there was only a torso, no limbs. Father said that we will bury the bodies after the results of the DNA examination. At the end of May, we were confirmed that it was mother and brother. We donʼt know where Aunt Lyuba is. I donʼt consider the option that mom and aunt split up. I guess we just didnʼt find her body there.”

The first time Anna gave a DNA sample to the police in Bila Tserkva city, they took saliva. This is a free procedure. The investigator said to wait more than three months for the results. Therefore, the family turned to the Kyiv Research Institute of Forensic Examinations. Two analyzes cost 10,500 hryvnias, and the tests were ready in two weeks.

"Everything is very poorly organized on the part of the police and local authorities," says the woman. “If I hadnʼt been in Borodyanka when the house was being dismantled, I wouldnʼt have known that no one was found in the basement. The bodies of my brother and mother were first sent to the morgue in Bila Tserkva, we went there several times, then suddenly the case was transferred to Bucha, and we were sent there. We called Bucha [responsible authorities] and were told to go to the hospital of the Kyiv-Sviatoshyn district. We arrived there, just to be sent to Bucha again. It was like that, in a circle. It was impossible to find a responsible investigator. We were told to wait at least three months for the results of the free DNA test. If we didnʼt the other one for money, we would still be living without knowing if our mother is alive or not.”

2

Tamara Ivanova had to take a DNA test twice. Her sister Larysa Bronyslavivna Ponomaryova, born in 1954, and nephew Yevhen Mykolayovych Ponomaryov, born in 1980, lived in house No. 326. After March 1, they are considered missing.

House No. 326 on Tsentralna Street.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

"The investigator called the mother because of the search for the nephew," says the niece of the missing Tetyana Ivanova. “He didnʼt explain anything, he said that if the previous analysis showed a match, then it should be resubmitted. We donʼt know what to think. Mom gave her DNA for the first time in Bucha, where the French specialists worked. The police then said their analysis didnʼt quite fit. The mother and aunt are sisters and a DNA test may show a match. Yevhenʼs father has been dead for a long time, his brother had no children, so it is unlikely to find his body using a DNA test. There is no one to match with.

The last time the family spoke to Yevhen was an hour before the bombing. The mother and son were in the apartment, they wanted to go to bed to rest, and in the morning to walk to their relatives in Zhytomyr oblast (itʼs more than 50 kilometers).

“Larysa said that the house was shaking due to the shelling all day. So much so that she fell off the stool she was sitting on in the bathroom,” says Tamara Ivanova, the sister of the missing woman. “I told her: ʼLarisa, take only water and walk through the forest to us.ʼ"

After the liberation of Borodyanka, the relatives wrote a statement to the police about the disappearance of Larysa and Yevhen, appealed to the National Information Bureau, the International Committee of the Red Cross. There were no answers.

«Babel'»

Zhenya was socially inactive, he is not connected with either the ATO or TrO [military operations in Donbas or Territorial Defense],” says Tetyana. “We hoped for a long time that they were taken to Belarus, but the more time passes, the less hope there is that they are alive. Later, Zhenyaʼs passport was found. It smells of burnt matter and was in the house at the time of the explosion.”

The manʼs passport was taken out along with the metal and concrete debries ouut of Borodyanka — it wasnʼt noticed when the rubble was being dismantled. Then, on those piles, other people looked for photographs, some remnants of their past life, and found a document.

“These were other people, not connected to our family. We asked to take the passport to the police in Borodyanka,” Tetyana continues.

After three months of investigation, the family has neither a death certificate nor a document that Yevhen and Larysa are missing. Because of this, it is impossible to open an inheritance case and make a grave.

“Their house fell apart, we have nothing even for the memories,” says Tetyana.

3

Until March 1, the Melnychenko family lived on the fifth floor of building No. 326 — Olga, Yuriy, and their three daughters: 16-year-old Dasha, 12-year-old Anya, and 5-year-old Masha. After the bombardmentfom the plane, they disappeared.

“On February 28, Dashaʼs eldest granddaughter turned 16. At nine oʼclock in the evening, I called them and congratulated them. I could no longer come to them from Boyarka,” says the father of the missing man Oleksandr Melnychenko. “Dasha said that everything is fine with them, dad brought a cake, they were in the basement. The next day I called the son. He said, "Dad, Iʼm at a roadblock." I hear shots. At 1:45 p.m., he called me: "Dad, I was concussed. They are taking me to the basement." These are the last words I heard from my son.”

«Babel'»

Oleksandr is a police colonel, for 15 years he worked in the criminal investigation department of Kyiv. But even with this experience, he does not find answers to where his relatives are. He has little hope for an official investigation, so he conducts his own. He learned that half an hour before the explosion, the son wrote to a friend that he was going to take the family out in the morning. The daughter-in-law was active in Viber an hour before the bombing. The rest of the information is at the level of hearsay. Someone saw how, a few minutes before the explosion, a woman climbed up from the basement to the apartment, according to one version, to feed the cat. If this really happened, she died. But where are the girls and their father? Another rumor is that after the explosion, the family was taken prisoner, taken to Russia through Belarus and put in the Bryansk pre-trial detention center.

“I have to go to Borodyanka again and find the policewoman Tanya, I donʼt know her last name. She seemed to see my children alive after March 1,” says Oleksandr. “My Yura is a veteran of the anti-terrorist operation [of the Ukrainian forces on Donbas], so we think that he and his family were captured. Russians kidnapped men, especially veterans. Five people could not disappear just like that — without the bodies, without documents. Although the guys from the special services say that the bomb hit the childrenʼs apartment. That it was a direct hit. If they were there, nothing can be left [after such an explosion].”

Ukrainians in Russian captivity are being sought by the International Committee of the Red Cross and Ukrainian special services, which receive appeals from the National Information Bureau and the police. Oleksandr called on their hotlines — no result so far.

“For three months, people have been telling me rumors: someone seems to have been released from captivity and saw my children in Bryansk city. One of my colleagues found out that there is a family with the surname Melnychenko in the pre-trial detention center in Bryansk. In May, there was a call: they asked for a thousand dollars for information about Yura. I said Iʼd give them two, but if they donʼt say anything, Iʼll find them in the jail. I immediately understood that these were convicts," says Oleksandr. Olyaʼs mother went to Bryansk, wrote requests, but did not find out anything. She was told to leave the city, otherwise she would be imprisoned.”

«Babel'»

How Borodyanka was occupied and liberated

  1. Occupation military vehicles with the V letter appeared in Borodyanka — the Russians fired at a music school, the police, the village council, and grocery stores. But Territorial Defense stopped their movement.

  2. The family that lived on the outskirts of the settlement was the first to be killed. The house was hit by a tank. Seven people died, including a two-year-old child. Territorial Defense responded by shooting back, burning trucks with ammunition and some military equipment of the Russians.

  3. A column of tanks, APCs, BMPs, Grads, Solntsepyoks broke into the town. They entered from the side of Ivankiv, moved along Tsentralna street towards Makariv, some of the Russians remained in Borodyanka.

    There were three groups in the settlement: Kadyrovites, servicemen of the 234th Airborne Assault Regiment stationed in Pskov, and 36 separate motorized rifle brigade stationed in the village of Borzya in the Trans-Baikal Region.

    The Russians entered the settlement with a fight, shooting along the road at private and multi-story buildings.

  4. Borodyanka was bombed from airplanes. Tsentralna Street was the most affected. 86 multi-apartment and private buildings that are subject to major repairs or demolition are 30% of all Borodyankaʼs buildings in an emergency condition.

    After the aerial bombardment, the Russians forbade local residents to appear in the center.

  5. The Kadyrovites took over the Borodyanka psychoneurological boarding school along with 500 patients and staff. People were freed on March 15 during the evacuation.

  6. Borodyanka was liberated from the occupiers.

4

The investigation establishes how many people from Borodyanka were taken to Belarus by the Russians, under what conditions it happened — voluntarily, under pressure or taken prisoners, and whether everyone managed to return to Ukraine. Babel is aware of three such cases. The route ran through Ivankiv and Chernobyl to the Gomel oblast in Belarus, from where Ukrainians were sent to Belarusian sanatoriums or boarding schools for the elderly.

The families of the missing have long hoped that their relatives are in Belarus. They went to ask about it the local priest — the abbot of the Archstrategist Michael archpriest Victor Talko. During the occupation, he communicated with the Russian military and propagandists. There is a video of him saying that there is debauchery in Kyiv, and Nazism in the Ukrainian army. On March 18, the Russian military took more than 20 people (according to various reports, 21 or 22 people) to Belarus on a ZIL-157 from the church yard — this is the largest case.

The Security Service of Ukraine communicated with Talko after the de-occupation of the town. What exactly was the conversation about is not revealed, as this may harm the investigation. The archpriest told Babel that he passed a polygraph test at the SSU, that the occupying Russian military only came to the church to get water, the propagandists did not say that they were recording his interview on a video camera, and people from the church yard were taken to Belarus at their own request and that was only once. Although earlier he told journalists about three cases. Talko assures that he has not seen Oleksandr Melnychenkoʼs family, Yevhen and Larysa, or other wanted people after March 1.

“I went to the priest. The feeling is that he does not tell everything — heʼs afraid,” says Melnychenko. “Three months have passed, and there is nothing but rumors. I want to say that nobody is searching for the people at the state level. There are just talk and promises. I have worked in the police for 29 years, there have been all kinds of things, but I have never met such an indifferent attitude as there is now.”

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

5

85-year-old Hryhoriy Ovadenko is one of those who left the church for Belarus during the occupation and returned to Borodyanka. Babel wrote about him. According to Hryhoriy Ivanovych, Talko did not force anyone to leave, but the conditions in Borodyanka were such that it was impossible to stay there. At the border with Ukraine, they were met by the Belarusian Red Cross. After checking the documents, people filled out questionnaires, then they were taken to the Golden Sands sanatorium. No one from his group was detained, but in the sanatorium, the man heard that special services had previously visited some Ukrainians.

Babel called the Belarusian Red Cross Society, but they refused to talk and said that only media outlets accredited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus give comments.

Belarusian volunteers, when it comes to helping Ukrainians in Belarus, write in Telegram channels: "The family is verified." This means that the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus checked the documents and identified the persons, Victoria, a volunteer from Gomel oblast (she refused to give her last name), tells Babel. According to her, she and other volunteers help only those who have passed the inspection. The woman does not know what happens to people who did not pass it, but she said that her friend was looking for an uncle and aunt from Bucha, who were taken to Belarus. For two months, she wrote requests to the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs and local hospitals, then received a reply that her uncle, who is a veteran of the Donbas ATO, is in Bryansk pre-trial detention center. There was no information about the aunt.

6

The International Committee of the Red Cross is among the organizations involved in the search for Ukrainians held captive in Russia. The duty of the ICRC is to establish broken contacts, search for missing persons and request access to prisoners of war and civilian hostages. Oleksandr Vlasenko, the spokesman of the ICRC in Ukraine, told Babel how this is happening.

“There are two main institutions to which relatives should report the disappearance of a person. It doesnʼt matter if you are a military person or a civilian. The family should contact the International Committee of the Red Cross and the National Information Bureau, which was created in Ukraine. The International Red Cross must be informed of three things: the name, patronymic and surname of the missing person, date of birth, date of last contact with him or her. Other information is additional, but not superfluous. One can report rumors, suspicions, any incidents or strange calls, whether a person in captivity can be called by another name or surname, for example, maiden name or motherʼs name. Information can be submitted by phone or through an online form. The form is more convenient — the probability of errors is lower.

According to Vlasenko, national search bureaus have been created in Ukraine and the Russian Federation. Each side of the conflict is obliged to register prisoners of war, dead, interned, missing persons, etc. Data about a person can move from category to category, but must be in the database and provided to the ICRC upon request.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

"I cannot assume that one of the parties is hiding information about people," says the spokesman of the ICRC in Ukraine. “If there is a suspicion that a person is being held in custody, for example, as you talk about the Melnychenkos, then the ICRC makes a request to the Ministry of Justice of Russia. The answer will be communicated only to the person who applied for the search, usually it is a relative. You need to be patient — itʼs never fast, especially now when there are so many requests.”

7

The police of Kyiv oblast told Babel that they are not in contact with the police of Belarus and Russia on any issues. However, they know that Ukrainians privately write requests to them when they are looking for missing relatives.

“We had 38 appeals regarding Borodyanka residents who disappeared during the occupation. Nineteen people from the list have not yet been found, there is a suspicion that they have died,” Iryna Pryanishnikova, head of the police communication department in Kyiv oblast, tells Babel. “Regarding the family you are asking about [Melnychenko], it is possible that they were forcibly taken to the territory of Russia.”

According to Pryanishnikova, Borodyanka is in third place in Kyiv oblast in terms of the number of dead, the first two are Bucha and Irpin. The specifics of Borodyanka is the houses destroyed by aviation, but there are no such mass graves as in Bucha. 123 bodies were found in the town after the de-occupation, about half of the people were shot, the rest died during aerial bombardment and shelling.

“In the mass graves in Borodyanka, for example, we found the bodies of two young men. As we found out, they were shot when they were crossing the road,” Pryanishnikova says. “In another grave, found a woman and a man crushed by an armored personnel carrier were found. A fifteen-year-old girl, who was in the grave next to him, was shot. In Kyiv oblast, 4,375 war crimes were recorded, but the data is updated daily, because we are still finding mass graves. We hand over most cases to the prosecutorʼs office and the SSU — especially everything related to murder and torture.”

8

The Civil Liberties Center organization helps the relatives of the missing in the search, and for this purpose it uses its connctions with human rights defenders in Russia and Belarus. According to the chairman of the board of the organization, Oleksandra Matviychuk, in March, the Center began to maintain a database of civilian hostages. It currently has more than 400 names.

“But this is just the tip of the iceberg. We record cases when relatives of the missing contact us or we visit such families, — says Matviychuk. — The arsenal of actions to find and release a person is very limited. It must be admitted that even with the help of the entire UN system, no one can get a Ukrainian out of a Russian pre-trial detention center, because Russia, a member of the UN Security Council, blatantly ignores legal norms. We suggest that relatives take several legal steps: we write complaints to the UN working groups on enforced disappearances, we apply to the European Court of Human Rights. Until September 16, this court still works in the Russian Federation, although the country was expelled from the Council of Europe. With the consent of relatives, we transfer information on people to the office of the General Prosecutorʼs Office of Ukraine. And there are Russian lawyers who, despite the obvious risk, are ready to look for people in pretrial detention centers. There are cases when we know for sure that a person is in a Russian pre-trial detention center, but the lawyers are informed that he or she is not there. And we are not even talking about prisoners of war, but about civilian hostages, who should not have been there at all.

Kate Ban / «Бабель»

Russia holds many civilians captive in order to manipulate or pressure Ukraine, the human rights activist believes. And she gives an example: the last exchange until February 24, 2022 took place in December 2019. Then journalist Stanislav Aseev and 75 other people from the occupied territory in the east were released then. Instead, Russia demanded that Ukraine release five former Berkut [riot police squad] fighters accused of shooting Euromaidan [pro-European mass rallies in 2013-14] participants. It would seem that the Berkut people have no connection with the captives in the east. However, Russia demanded them in order to break the historical court process.

The Center for Civil Liberties began maintaining a civilian hostage base with the start of enforced disappearances and illegal arrests in the newly occupied territories in March. In order to maintain control over the captured territories, the Russians kidnapped representatives of local self-government, religious leaders, cultural figures, volunteers, journalists, rally participants — anyone who could influence society and organize resistance. For example, the first kidnapped person in Melitopol was the director of the local history museum, Lieyla Ibrahimova, who was an influential Crimean Tatar activist in the city and a participant in rallies against the occupation. But very quickly, Russia began to kidnap ordinary people who are not public, donʼt have influence and do not go to rallies.

“They switched from persecution tactics to terror. When we talk about political persecution, we understand who is more or less at risk and what the logic is. For example, to force the organizers of protest rallies to leave the city. When we talk about terror, it has a mass character — anyone can become a victim of persecution and there are not even any approximate rules on how to survive. They can kill you, rape you, kidnap you just because they can. Terror suggests that the Russian occupying forces are trying to control the occupied territories by using fear to suppress any will to resist. Russia has been using terror as a method of waging war in Ukraine since 2014. It has a systemic nature and is a model of the behavior of the occupying forces, which is legalized by Russian propaganda and the highest command of the Russian Federation. Therefore, there is a huge probability that relatives of missing persons will be given false information in Russian pre-trial detention centers — as if such people are not in their custody,” says Matviychuk. However, this does not mean that people do not need to write queries. Appeals indicate the mass of kidnappings and leave legal traces. They will become a part of the description of every Russian war crime in Ukraine and in the future will help establish the entire chain — from the names of the organizers of the invasion to those who carried it out and committed kidnapping, torture, murder, and looting.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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Where to go if a person has disappeared during the war

National Information Bureau of Ukraine: nib.gov.ua/uk/

Call the hotline 1648, for calls from abroad +38 (044) 287-81-65, you can submit information via Telegram, Viber, e-mail or Google form — how to do this is indicated on the NIBU website.

National Police of Ukraine

You need to write a statement about the search for a missing person at the nearest police station, you can also call 102, the hotline — (0894) 200-18-67, or e-mail: [email protected]

International Committee of the Red Cross: https://blogs.icrc.org/ua/2022/06/14/poshuk-znykli-bezvisty-chervoniy-hrest-2022/

Information can be submitted by phone: +380 800 300 155, through the online form or by email: [email protected]

Commissioner for issues of persons missing under special circumstances

Hotline +380 800 339 247 from Monday to Friday from 09:00 to 18:00, on weekends the call center works in remote mode. You can also send a message on Viber or Telegram to the number +380 95 896 0421 or write a letter to the e-mail: [email protected]

Hotline of the Ministry of Internal Affairs for relatives of Ukrainian soldiers who died or went missing: +380 894 201 866.

The police will register the statement in the journal of the Unified Accounting and enter the data into the ERDR. Within three days, the Commissioner for Issues of Persons Disappeared Under Special Circumstances will be informed about this.

Author:
Ghanna Mamonova
Editor:
Tetyana Lohvynenko
Tags:
Borodianka

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