Kateryna Serhatskova, a 26-year-old Russian reporter for the Ukrainian news website Ukrainska Pravda, is becoming one of the main documenters of the “dirty war” for control of the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine. Serhatskova, who lived for several years in Crimea, travels regularly to some of the most violent and fearful towns in the Donbas conflict – Donetsk, Kramatorsk, Mariupol and others.
Serhatskova and a few other volunteers are keeping a list – about eighty names long, now – of local residents whose detention by the Russian-backed rebels in Donbas they have confirmed. But some families are afraid to permit documentation of their missing relatives, and the investigators believe that the rebels hold probably several hundred captives, most of them local people, Serhatskova said.
In the town of Horlivka, 26 miles northeast of Donetsk, rebels hold about 100 local residents, according to Viktor Maystrenko, a Russian journalist who has done research for the Open Dialog Foundation, a Warsaw-based pro-democracy and human rights group. Maystrenko is one of the volunteers working to free rebel-held captives and recently obtained the release of three of them. Horlivka has been a center of violence and intimidation, including the rebels’ abduction, killing and mutilation in April of Volodymyr Rybak, a city council member who had tried to remove the rebels’ flag from the city offices and replace it with the Ukrainian national flag.
Abductions and disappearances have been used by the forces and allies of the former president, Viktor Yanukovych, almost since the beginning of the mass protests last fall that led to his ouster in February. At one point, more than 660 people went missing amid the Kyiv protests, according to Euromaidan SOS, a volunteer group that formed in the capital to track their cases. The group’s website still lists thirty-seven people from across the country who remain missing following their disappearance amid the Kyiv protests.
The abductions have helped to create a climate of fear that has emptied the streets of Donetsk, the region’s largest city, and of other towns, according to Serhatskova. Donetsk and other rebel-dominated cities and towns “feel like empty movies sets that you’ve suddenly stumbled into” Serhatskova said in a telephone interview from Kyiv. “People who live there are now terribly afraid,” she said. “A month or so ago they behaved differently. People attended public rallies, talked with their neighbors, argued politics. Today the streets of Donetsk are quiet. No mothers stroll with baby buggies, no one walks their dogs through the city.”
Slaviansk, about 70 miles north of Donetsk, is the one city reported to be fully in the rebels’ hands, and serves as their major military headquarters. It has seen some of the most intense fighting, and is almost completely deserted. Those who have stayed face outages of power, water, and telephone connections.
Those who chose to leave are also afraid, for departure carries its own dangers. Rebel militiamen man the checkpoints surrounding their strongholds, Ukrainian military personnel man checkpoints on roads they control. Members of the Russian-backed movement have begun renting or selling the apartments of people who flee, advertising them, with photos, on social media, Serhatskova says.
The leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk province “people’s republics” seem themselves to no longer feel in control of the situation, Serhatskova said. “They are also afraid, they know this is a very serious situation, there’s an ongoing war and they understand that they are partially responsible for the victims of this war. I think that the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic representatives, particularly those who are in leadership positions now understand that they have committed serious offenses.”
Denys Pushilin, the-self proclaimed speaker of the Donetsk republic’s non-existent parliament has been in Moscow for over a week, having fled a shooting incident in Donetsk that killed his assistant and may have been an attempt on his life, she points out. “I think he will be in Moscow for a long time, if he ever comes back at all.” Other men who are leading the insurgency are Russian citizens — its military commander, Russian Army Colonel Igor Girkin, and Donetsk republic “prime minister” Alexander Borodai — notes Serhatskova.
The Ukrainian Security Service is quietly working to negotiate releases of hostages, a spokeswoman for the agency said.
Ransoms in cases that Serhatskova has researched ranged from $30,000 to $200,0000, she said. Rebels have targeted owners of businesses or vehicles for abduction as a way of providing funding or transport for their operations.
Recently the friends of a Slaviansk policeman raised $40,000 to buy his freedom, Serhatskova said. In another case the separatists asked for $50,000 for the release of a local businessman. After the money was delivered, they continued to haggle, threatening to keep the hostage and the money, before setting the man free.
“The militants want people to talk about them and they want to use these hostages as bargaining chips”, says Serhatskova. A prominent Ukrainian theater director, Pavlo Yurov, and an art curator, Denys Hryshchuk, both Kyiv based (although born in Donetsk and Luhansk respectively) have been in captivity in Slaviansk since late April, held in the basement of the rebel-occupied Ukrainian Security Service building. They were last seen about May 2 by Serhiy Lefter, a journalist held hostage by the miltants but then released. Yurov and Hryshchuk are “star hostages,” says Serhatskova. Prominent cultural figures in Ukraine and Russia have called for their release, but the rebels hold them as what the journalist described as hidden aces in the contest.
The elected mayor of Slaviansk, Nellie Shtepa, was arrested by the rebels shortly after she spoke out publicly two months ago against their seizure of her town. She has not been seen since, and her fate is unknown. Last month, the man who claimed to have replaced her, rebel leader, the “people’s mayor” Vyacheslav Ponomariov, announced that the separatists were holding Shtepa under protection from an unidentified threat, and said that she was ill but being cared for by the rebels. Since then, Ponomariov, too, has disappeared, on June 10 the separatists’ military commander Russian Army Col. Igor Girkin announced Ponomariov was no longer the mayor of Slaviansk. He has not been seen or heard from since.
As Serhatskova travels and reports in locales such as Slaviansk or Donetsk, she must move warily, to avoid becoming another number on the list of the disappeared that she is compiling. “Fear gets in the way of work, so I try not to be afraid,” she said, laughing. “Very few Ukrainian journalists are in the east, so it’s important for me to be there.”
In the growing atmosphere of fear, those who remain in the conflict zone just want the war to end, says Serhatskova. “I think people now understand that nobody is going to welcome them into Russia and they simply want all of this to end. They are angry at everyone and just want their lives back.”
Last month, thousands in the east came out to show support for self-determination for their provinces in a “referendum” organized by the rebels. Those people “expected some sort of social and economic boom afterwards, but none came. They thought the referendum would prevent a war and the opposite turned out to be true.”
Irena Chalupa covers Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the Atlantic Council.