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38 thousand missing Ukrainians: how to find and identify people

The Unified Register of Persons Missing in Special Circumstances currently contains about 38,000 Ukrainians. The hot phase of the war complicates their search and identification. And the more time passes, the lower the chances of finding people. The experience of other wars evidences this. For example, in the city of Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the genocide of Bosnian Muslim men took place almost 30 years ago, the bodies of more than a thousand victims have not yet been found or identified.

Speaking about the missing Ukrainians, Olena Belyachkova, coordinator of the groups of families of POWs and missing persons at the MIHR, emphasizes that Russia mostly does not confirm the detention of Ukrainian service members or civilians. Moreover, it does not allow representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit them, constantly moves them and conceals them. Because of this, Ukraine cannot establish whether a person has died or is being held captive by the Russian Federation.

— “Ukraine needs the help of the international community to put pressure on the ICRC, which is not fulfilling its main humanitarian mission in Russia’s war against Ukraine!” Belyachkova emphasized. “It is the ICRC that should confirm the detention of civilians and prisoners of war, as well as the places where they are being held. The ICRC should visit these people to facilitate communication between them, their families, and the outside world. If this were done, we would know more precisely who is missing and dead and who is in captivity. In addition, it is the ICRC that should have helped to find the bodies of the dead and return them to their families. But this is not happening!

Olena Belyachkova, coordinator of the groups of families of POWs and missing persons at the MIHR (center)

The MIHR also states that Russia does not allow or guarantee security to groups searching for missing persons, including in the gray zone and in areas where fighting has been ongoing. For example, Olesia Aulina, a representative of the NGO United by the Sea and wife of Damir Aulin, the commander of the boat Sloviansk, has been unable to find out the fate of her husband for more than two years. After a Russian missile hit the ship on March 3, 2022, Damir was reported missing. Since then, Russia has ignored all of Ukraine’s requests about the fate of the missing sailors, and the boat remains underwater. Due to the danger of damage, divers cannot raise or examine it to try to find the missing sailors.

When presenting the OSCE with an analysis of Ukrainians missing in the context of the war, the MIHR team emphasized that many soldiers have been searched for for years. Among them is Oleksandr Yaremchuk, who was one of the very first to go to defend Ukraine in 2014. His sister Lyudmyla Samborska says they last spoke ten years ago. Telling the diplomats the story of her brother, Samborska noted that he was tasked with evacuating wounded soldiers from the occupied territory of the Donetsk region. Since then, she has had no information about her brother. Lyudmyla urges people to remember those who went missing at the beginning of the war and demands that the international community force Russia to return all the missing persons, both those on the lists and those who are not.

Oleksandr Yaremchuk (left) went missing in 2014, and Damir Aulin (right), commander of the boat Sloviansk, went missing in March 2022

As of now, according to Petro Yatsenko, a representative of the Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War, 51 exchanges have been conducted, and 3135 people have been released from Russian captivity. About a third of them were considered missing. This demonstrates how important it is for Russia to provide lists of prisoners and disclose their places of detention. To recap, the MIHR has created an interactive online map of places where Russia is holding Ukrainians. Currently, there are more than 100 of them.

The OSCE discussed the search for and identification of missing persons. The gold standard here is DNA testing. However, Ukraine lacks the capacity. The state was not ready for such a large number of missing persons and mass examinations. In this context, the experience of the International Commission on Missing Persons is essential, as it already cooperates with Ukrainian law enforcement agencies, the Ministry of Justice, and the Ministry of Health.

ICMP representative Alma Mašić, who also participated in the discussion, noted that the Commission works in many countries around the world, and the leading role in the search for missing persons belongs to the families of the missing. For example, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is the families who control the state authorities, so they continue to search for missing persons even 30 years after the war. And the country is doing this —  looking for graves, identifying bodies and remains. Commenting on the situation in Ukraine, Alma Mašić called on the international community to unite and help Ukraine find all the missing persons.

Speakers and participants of the special event of the Media Initiative for Human Rights in the OSCE

In conclusion, Olena Belyachkova of the MIHR emphasized several priority steps that need to be taken. First of all, we must find a way to pressure the International Committee of the Red Cross to force it to fulfill its obligations. Secondly, to ensure access to the places where Ukrainians are being held, to check their health and conditions of detention, and to facilitate the repatriation of the seriously wounded and seriously ill. Thirdly, to oblige Russia to provide objective and truthful information about those it is holding in the temporarily occupied territories and in the Russian Federation, as well as to ensure their right to make phone calls and correspond with their relatives.

The MIHR would like to thank our friends at the Permanent Mission of Ukraine and the International Organizations in Vienna for their support in organizing this special event at the OSCE. We are also grateful for the participation and support of all delegations of OSCE participating States, representatives of missing persons’ families, in particular the NGO United by the Sea, our partners from the Coordinating Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War and the International Commission on Missing Persons.


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