When Russian troops arrived, their relatives disappeared

““Woman, calm down,” soldiers told Maruniak’s wife, according to Natali. “Maybe it’s the last time you see your husband.”

She saw her husband one more time, on March 24. He returned again with soldiers, though this time, they covered their faces. “Feed him, change his socks, and give him his medicine,” they ordered Maruniak’s wife. As she did, she noticed his legs were bruised blue. There was another bruise on his right temple, another on his arm. Maruniak said nothing, only that it was cold where he was being held.

That was the last Maruniak’s family saw or heard anything about him.

Maruniak is among dozens of local officials or community leaders who have been abducted or arbitrarily arrested by Russian forces as they seized territory in Ukraine, especially in the east and the south. These disappearances are both an attempt to coerce cooperation and atargeted effort to silence and intimidate Ukrainians who may oppose or organize against a Russian occupation.”  

“The United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has documented about 109 cases of suspected detention or enforced disappearances among civilians since February 24, including 48 local officials. The UN and other human rights groups have confirmed disappearances among other members of civil society: volunteers, activists, journalists, religious leaders, protesters, and former military veterans. (Vox reached out to the Russian Embassy for comment, but did not receive a response.)

Anastasiia Moskvychova, who has been tracking disappearances for ZMINA, says they have confirmed more than 100 arbitrary detentions since February 24; about 50 people are still missing.

But Oleksandra Matviichuk, a Kyiv-based activist and head of the Center for Civil Liberties, said these numbers are only the “top of the iceberg.” Her group is tracking dozens more suspected cases of enforced disappearances, but they are still trying to corroborate evidence, a task that’s all the more difficult in Russian-occupied areas. Other times, family and friends of the suspected victims fear making that information public.” 

” All of this foreshadows how Russia might try to consolidate control in Ukrainian areas it captures by force.”

“Extrajudicial arrests happen within Russia, but they are documented more frequently in Russia’s other territories, including Dagestan and Chechnya, where enforced disappearances became what Human Rights Watch described as an “enduring feature” of the conflict.

In Crimea, ethnic Tatars, who tended to oppose Russia’s annexation in 2014, were targeted, including one local activist and leader who was allegedly kidnapped by men in Russian traffic police uniforms in 2016. In the Donbas, militias kidnapped, tortured, and killed a local city council member who tried to take down a flag of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic. “They hunted after the activists, after the persons who supported the Ukrainian army, Ukrainian volunteers,” said Oleksandr Pavlichenko, executive director of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union.

“Now we see the same scheme,” Pavlichenko added, “and it’s only the beginning of this scheme.””

“Human rights watchers and experts say it is often difficult to say who is carrying out disappearances, or subsequent mistreatment — including in Ukraine right now. “The state actors are not interested in accountability for those kinds of abuses, so it creates this environment of impunity,” said Saskia Brechenmacher, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has researched Russian civil society.

That can make it hard to know exactly how organized these actions are, or whether they are directed top-down from Moscow, the work of local units or security services, or militias affiliated with Moscow.” 

“Ahead of the invasion, the United States told the United Nations it had credible information that Moscow was compiling lists of Ukrainians to be “killed or sent to camps.” Advocates do not have confirmation of such lists, or who may have compiled them if they do exist, but emphasized that this campaign of disappearances is not random.

“It’s not happening as some chaotic or spontaneous thing,” Andreyuk said. “This is very targeted detentions — and it’s a very targeted policy to get more control over society.””

“Added together, these disappearances help create a “Stalin-like” police state, a rule through terror and mistrust, and where nobody knows what — or who — might make them a target of disappearance. “If you just keep silent, it is also suspicious,” Pavlichenko said.”


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