Anton Chyrkov expresses frustration, stating, “There’s a constant refrain of ‘You have to wait.’ We’ve already been waiting for a year, and the conditions in captivity are far from ideal, to say the least.” He invites people into a living room where several women are gathered around a large table. Taking a seat at the head of the table, Anton points out the significant piece of furniture, which was handcrafted by his father, Oleksandr Chyrkov, who works as a funeral director and has made much of the furniture in the house.
The house is located on a pleasant housing estate not far from the village of Dymer on the shore of the Kyiv Reservoir, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Ukraine’s capital. The Russian army occupied the area on February 25, 2022 as it planned to continue on to Kyiv.
In the first three weeks of the occupation, when the phone lines were down and there was no electricity, Oleksandr Chyrkov and the neighbor Dmytro Bohazhevsky kept life going in the village. Locals often crowded around the Chyrkovs’ well. Anton suspects that is why the Russians thought his father, whom he has not seen for over a year, was the leader of the resistance.
“When they came to us on March 16, the first thing they asked for was weapons. Everyone here has some. We had three in the safe,” Anton said, explaining that the Russian soldiers came to collect the arms the next morning. “And my dad was told to pack his things.”
The next-door neighbor Bohazhevsky was also taken. When his mother Tatyana Bohazhevska heard, she rushed to the village council to find out where her son was being held. “The soldier just told me: ‘Don’t worry, they are enjoying excellent conditions,'” she recalls.
All those arrested were taken to a foundry in the south of Dymer. About 40 people were forced into one room and accused of “resisting the special military operation,” as Russia describes its war on Ukraine.
Some had to dig trenches, others were beaten and interrogated about the resistance. A few were allowed to leave, but some were taken to an airfield in Hostomel where they were detained in huge industrial refrigerated containers.
These details were only revealed after the region around Kyiv was liberated: The Russian army retreated on March 28, 2022 leaving behind about two dozen prisoners.
“When we realized that our son Dmytro was not among them, my husband and I searched all the forests, ravines and buildings for him but in vain,” Bohazhevska said.
Taken to prison in Russia
In April last year, Volodymyr Khropun, a Red Cross volunteer who had also been taken, was freed in a prisoner exchange. He said that the retreating Russian soldiers had taken dozens of Ukrainian civilians with them. They had been taken via Belarus to a prison in Novozybkov, a Russian town not far from the borders with Belarus and Ukraine.
“Prisoners of war who were exchanged are our main source of information,” said Karina Dyachuk, the co-founder of the Civilians in Captivity organization that brings together relatives of more than 350 prisoners from six regions of Ukraine.
When people found out where their relatives were, they started writing letters to people in Russia — to prisons, the army, the Interior Ministry and the domestic intelligence agency FSB. They asked what was needed to obtain the release of the prisoners. “Nobody got an answer,” said Bohazhevska, who has a list of 42 missing people, six of whom have not been located. The others are mostly still in Novozybkov, where there are reportedly over 600 Ukrainians in detention, both civilians and military.
According to Dmytro Lubinets, the human rights commissioner in the Ukrainian parliament, Russia is holding more than 20,000 Ukrainian civilians, including those in Crimea, the self-proclaimed “Peoples Republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk and occupied parts of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.
Emil Kurbedinov, a renowned lawyer and defender of Crimean Tatar activists, said that some of these Ukrainians had been charged with espionage or terrorism under Russian law but many were being held without any justification.
Ukrainian authorities consider the detention of civilians in Russian-occupied territories to be a war crime. In April, a report by the international NGO Human Rights Watch stressed that the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War permitted “the internment or assigned residence of civilians only for ‘imperative reasons of security'” and that protections “include the right to contest the basis for detention, access to counsel and family members, and humane treatment at all times.”
And yet Ukrainians in Russian detention are not being granted these protections, said Dyachuk. While Oleksandr Vlasenko, a spokesman for the Red Cross in Ukraine, added that because the detention of civilians and prisoners of war was regulated by different Geneva Convention, people were being subjected to different norms of humanitarian law.
Last winter, Russia began to register Ukrainian soldiers and civilians as prisoners of war. According to Bohazhevska, information pertaining to her son Dmytro appeared on the Russian website NemZida (Nemesis) on which the personal data of Ukrainian military and security forces are posted. DW also found information about Oleksandr Chyrkov on the site.
The Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War disagrees with Russia’s approach and says that civilians have to be released without condition, not only as part of a prisoner exchange.