Ukraine. Wives & mothers search for the missing soldiers in the donbass area

May 22, 2018

Wives and
mothers are fighting for the return of soldiers who went missing in the conflict
between the Ukrainian military and separatists in the Donbass.
clouds rippled low across the winter sky as Lubov Konopatska led a procession
of mourners to the coffin of her son Serhiy. An old lady with a shaky gait, she
wore a thick grey coat to protect her from the chill, a black cloth draped over
her hat, and grief on her face.
Her son’s
coffin was propped up on wooden legs, and flanked by a quartet of soldiers. It
stood on a stretch of gravel next to the graveyard on the edge of Shyroka
Dacha, an ugly, decaying town somewhere on the vast expanses of the Ukrainian
people face tough living conditions
was killed in the fierce fighting in the summer of 2014, when the Ukrainian
army and Russian-backed separatists clashed in the east of the country.
pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by the Maidan protests in
Kyiv in 2014, ethnic Russians in the Donbass
region rose in revolt
. The Ukrainian army was sent in to crush the
separatists, but Russia poured men and military hardware across its borders,
and the Ukrainian advance was soon brought to a halt. The conflict simmers on
as a stalemate that occasionally splutters
into deadly skirmishes
unit had been badly mauled in the town of Ilovaisk, where separatists ambushed
retreating Ukrainian troops after promising them safe passage. The day before
the ambush, Lubov had spoken to her son on the phone one last time before her
calls went unanswered.
for their sons
The army
could not tell Lubov what had happened to Serhiy, so she got in touch with
comrades who had survived the battle, and volunteer groups looking for missing
soldiers. She was told that Serhiy had been wounded and brought to the in
hospital in the city of Kryvyy Rih. He had been captured by the separatists,
others said.
traveled to Kryvyy Rih, but could not find her son. Eventually, she went to the
hospital in the city of Dnipro, where the bodies of soldiers killed in the
Donbass region are brought to the morgue. The hospital officials dismissed
hopes that Serhiy was still alive.
showed me pictures of very badly burned bodies lying in the morgue. They were
all in a sitting position. I could see only bones and scalp, and didn’t
recognize my son,” Lubov told DW.
officials also handed her a charred mobile phone that they said was Serhiy’s,
and Lubov finally accepted that her son was dead when presented with DNA tests
conducted at the Dnipro hospital.
In the
confused fighting of 2014, soldiers often died in areas that remained in
separatist hands. Ukrainian soldiers do not wear dog tags, making it difficult
to identify badly burned corpses. Many of the men who fought during the height
of the conflict were volunteers, who were not registered with the ministry of
defense at the time.
in the living room of a modest flat in a crumbling apartment block in Kryvyy
Rih, Victoriya Markina smiles as she turns the pages her wedding photo album, a
reminder of happier times.
husband Andriy, a factory worker, was drafted in 2014 and sent to the Donbass,
leaving Victoriya to take care of their two children. Like Serhiy, he went
missing in Ilovaisk. During their last phone call on the eve of the retreat,
Victoriya could hear the sounds of battle in the background.
“I felt
like he was calling to say goodbye. I heard two other guys on the phone also
trying to call their relatives. I told him not to say goodbye and said: ‘The
guys next to you have to make a promise to visit our house, when this is
After the
phone went dead and the news of the disaster at Ilovaisk emerged, Victoriya
despaired, believing her husband was dead. Then, a few days later, she saw
captured Ukrainian soldiers in a report by a separatist TV station. One of
them, she says, was Andriy. Victoriya threw herself into the search for her
hasn’t given up hope of finding her husband despite receiving little help from
the authorities
No help
from the authorities
She got
hold of the number of a separatist leader who had also featured in the TV
report. He told her her husband had been taken to a village with other
prisoners after the battle, but refused to help her. Then, one night, her phone
rang. A man at the other end of the line told her to pay 10,000 hryvnia, around
€300 ($375), or else Andriy would be sent back in pieces. Comrades of her
husband told her it was a scam, and not to send any money.
with the Ukrainian
 was little better. Victoriya was shocked by the
lack of compassion she encountered when she visited the state security service
in search for information on her husband’s whereabouts. “One officer told me,
‘There is a truck with dead bodies, go and pick one,’” she recalls.
met other women who were searching for their men. They set up a Facebook
group to organize protests and pressure government officials together, and call
each other to give advice or comfort.
camaraderie has given Victoriya the strength to continue her search. “I am
going to believe to the end that my husband is alive,” she says.
In a
large reading room of a library in the port city of Odessa, Elena Suhak sits
cradling a poster-sized picture of her son. After he disappeared in the Donbass
in 2014, Elena relied on volunteers and bribes to separatist fighters to find
out that the young soldier had been captured. Elena believes he might be used
as forced labor in a coal mine in the city of Luhansk.
vents her anger at those she holds responsible for the fate of her son.
“My main
feeling is disappointment, because we trusted the government with our most
precious thing, but the government is not doing everything it can to free our
boys,” she says.