Kremlin-backed militants’ resort to wholesale and merciless hostage-taking
Anna Mokrousova was very briefly held hostage together with fellow Civic Sector activist Oleksy Beda by Kremlin-backed militants at the beginning of May. As reported, they were released almost immensely, something which happens very seldom these days. Since then Mokrousova has been active in attempts to find and secure the release of others taken hostage in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
In an interview for Gordon.ua, she explains that people are disappearing in huge numbers. This is no longer to dig trenches for the militants or because the latter want to find out why a person loves Ukraine, who they support etc. People are being seized as hostages.
“On July 21 15-year-old K. Kulinchenko disappeared. She left [her flat] at 14.00 and has not returned, and does not answer her phone.
On July 22 at 17.00 people in camouflage gear and armed with machine guns took O. Rodichev, b. 1977, from his home by force, put him in a car and took him away”.
There are hundreds of such messages on the Internet, with a person’s fate and the desperation of their family behind the dry details. Mokrousova is in contact with many of those searching for their loved ones. She says they ring early in the morning, late at night.
She and the others working virtually without sleep to help first place information in the social networks with any details that they know. She stresses that it is not always as bad as feared. Mobile communications are all but down in Luhansk and it may simply be that a person can’t get in touch. Or they really have been abducted.
In that case, they give step by step instructions to the family. They are advised to report the disappearance to the police. Even if the latter are unlikely to look for him or her, the information should be logged in the Interior Ministry’s database. They must also approach the SBU [Security Service]. If it’s clear that they’ve been taken hostage, the information is passed to international organizations and to negotiators. These are in general SBU officers who negotiate with the terrorists to try to secure the people’s release.
The situation is changing and it’s impossible to say what levers may be tried in any individual case. It depends on the region where they were taken prisoner, of the group that seized them, and where they were taken.
It has also changed radically over the past 3 months. At the beginning, she explains, relatives might be able to get a person released without negotiators, offering a ransom perhaps, or simply pleading tearfully. Back in May – June you could still try to appeal to the militants’ human side and in 90% of the cases, she says, that worked. Those militants then were also different, more often than not locals. They might be bandits and could beat you up, but they were still Ukrainians and you could penetrate. They treated mothers more or less with respect.
Around the end of June they began seizing people according to denunciations. You don’t like your neighbour so ring the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic hot line and tell them that he or she is ‘for Ukraine”. There was also a new wave of militants, more like armed fighters, she says, who would drive to specific addresses and without any explanation take people away.
Even then, Mokrousova says, you could still get somewhere through personal channels. If you had friends of friends, a couple of calls could get a person out of imprisonment in a basement. Relatives would go themselves, talk to the militants, explain that the person had been slandered. Or there were types of ransom.
The next wave was when the military operation began and then they started seizing people on the streets. The so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics began what they called mobilization, but was really seizing men who had supposedly infringed the curfew (this being their official explanation). The men were taken to work. People disappeared then at any time of the day and from anywhere.
Some were beaten, some not, but they were formed to work, digging trenches and erecting barricades. Relatives still came even then, would find which of the commandants to approach. Such captives were hold from a week to three but then released.
In the last two weeks or so the situation has changed radically. It’s not just men that are seized, but whole families. They are taking huge numbers of people as hostages.
Mokrousova stresses that this has not stopped the witch hunt on Ukrainian patriots, nor the denunciations, however the new wave is about taking hostages to use for exchanges of prisoners. Here no pleas or contacts can help. “The terrorists have changed. If a month ago they could be touched by a mother’s tears, no longer”.
This is particularly frightening since the situation is not like with soldiers taken prisoner. There is hope that an exchange but be organized. With civilians the terrorists tell relatives to find their own possible exchange arrangements. As if a woman from Luhansk is going to be able to find some militant who can be exchanged for her son!
There are huge differences in treatment depending on who the captors are. In Donetsk for example, people taken prisoner by Bezler’s group are treated more or less OK, whereas those seized by ‘Oplot’ are likely to be beaten, tortured.
Mokrousova knows two girls who were brutally beaten for calling out “Glory to Ukraine!”
Fighters from volunteer battalions are treated worse than ordinary soldiers. In Luhansk the terrorists treat prisoners much better than in Donetsk, Mokrousova says. There are more prisoners in Luhansk, but also more chance of being released unharmed.
With respect to torture, earlier it was more sophisticated with the militants trying to get confessions. That a person was a member of Right Sector, for example. Any patriot was accused of spying, of coordinating the shooting, etc. In Donetsk people were severely tortured, being released with gunshot wounds to the legs, with needles under their fingernails.
Two months ago the ransom could be as much as 20 thousand dollars. Now it may be a thousand, but there’s no guarantee, even if the money is brought, that the person will be released. Probably not, since they’re mainly interested in exchanges.
Asked how to avoid being captured, Anna Mokrousova had one piece of advice. Leave the area of military action. And not only to save your life, but in order to allow the Ukrainian army to carry out their offensive more actively and finally end this war.