Civilians in captivity: In Oskil the invaders abducted a disabled man because of his diving suit

“Hello, my darlings. Hugs and kisses to you all. I’m alive and well and shall be back soon”. Tetiana received that short message from her husband in May 2023. She had not seen him since 19 June the previous year.
Iryna Skachko25 February 2024UA DE EN ES FR IT RU

© Жером Барбоса © Жером Барбоса

© Jerome Barbosa

That small scrap of paper is the most valuable object in the house, which stands in the midst of the burnt-out Oskil woods. It was a message confirming that Pavlo Leonidovych, husband, father and grandfather was still alive.

Pavlo Tovstokoryi from Oskil village in the Kharkiv Region’s Izium district never served in the army. Since childhood he has been disabled, having lost one eye. When the February 2022 invasion began, he had long been receiving an invalidity pension. What kind of threat, you might ask, could he possibly represent to the Putin regime? Yet when the Russian invaders came, they abducted him. Where exactly Pavlo is being held his family still do not know.

During the first days of the invasion Oskil village (pop. 3,127; 2021) found itself in a grey zone, almost on the frontline. The Russians seized part of the village on the right bank of the Oskil river in mid-March 2022; from there they fired at Izium and the left bank, which Ukrainian forces held right up until 25 April that year.

“We were heavily shelled,” says Pavlo’s wife Tetiana, “when the far bank of the river was occupied and our lads were based here. Then they were surrounded and withdrew and our part of the village was also occupied. Pavlo didn’t want to leave: ‘What could they take from us?’ he asked. … Anyway, we didn’t have the money to leave. The other bank was held by forces from Russia and the LPR[1]; gunmen from the DPR were on this side of the river. There was no kind of order. They came time and again, to check us. They looked at our documents and pointed guns at us while they searched us and the house.”

Згадуючи про чоловіка, Тетяна Товстокора ледь стримує сльози Вспоминая о муже, Татьяна Толстокорая едва сдерживает слезы

When she thinks of her husband Tetiana Tovstokora can hardly hold back her tears.

At first the invaders took no interest in Pavlo. He was already 58; not of fighting age. Once upon a time he’d been a gamekeeper, but he’d stopped working for the local forestry concern and started looking after things at home. Then, at 6 am on 19 July 2022, several automobiles drew up outside the family home: a black Jeep and a Tiger military vehicle.

“Men in masks got out and asked our surname,” Tetiana recalls.

“Pavlo had just come in from the garden, from the vegetable patch. We were not allowed to leave the house. Several men spread out and made a search. One went into the outdoor cellar: because of the shelling and bombing we were keeping all our valuables, food and documents, down there. The woods had gone up in flames and we were scared the house might also be burnt down. They brought up a basket full of medicines from the cellar, a packet of documents and a diving suit. In his youth Pavlo was a diver, an underwater hunter.

“I asked them at least to give back the documents about the house, our ID papers, birth certificates and so on. One told me: ‘Shut your mouth and get back in the house or you’ll be coming with us.’ I prayed to God they’d leave our girl alone. She was sleeping in her room, surrounded by soft toys with her head under the blanket. They didn’t touch her. But they pulled a bag over Pavlo’s head, wound tape round his hands, pushed him into the car and drove off. And that was that. Nothing else.”

[оскол, товстокора, зникнення чоловіка]

Tetiana showed us several photos of her husband. He didn’t like being photographed because of the loss of his eye. A friend photoshopped one of the snaps, and gave him back the eye. “Actually, he didn’t look quite like that,” Tetiana commented.

[оскол, товстокора, зникнення чоловіка]

At first, she tried to find out from the occupying forces what had happened to her husband. She went to Izium. It was no simple journey: during a search they took away her ID papers and didn’t return them — though you must always show them at every checkpoint.

“Pavlo wasn’t in Izium. I appealed to their soldiers at the village council offices: ‘Why ever did you take my husband?’ I asked. ‘He’s a pensioner, he’s disabled, he can’t see anything! Why did you keep those documents?’ They’d taken everything, my ID papers and our mobile phones. Certain ‘well-wishers’ suggested I apply for Russian papers. ‘Give my back MY papers!’ I said. But you can’t say much to them …”

In August 2022, while the Russians were still there, a fellow villager who was abducted earlier returned to Oskil and brought news. He’d seen Pavlo Tovstokoryi in the infamous Olenivka detention centre in the Donetsk Region [Destroyed in July 2022, with dozens of deaths and casualties and no independent investigation, tr].

The man soon died, before Tetiana had the chance to talk to him. “He stepped on a landmine and there was no one left to ask. But why should he lie?” said Tetiana.

“So they took Pavlo to the DPR. That was in August and in September, thank God, our village was liberated.”

Лист з неволі Письмо из неволи

A letter from captivity

A letter from Pavlo Tovstokoryi arrived in May 2023. A brief note, just a few lines, but it was certainly his handwriting, of that Tetiana was sure.

“I rang up the Red Cross. They said the location of detainees was not announced. Then there was no news for a long while … They were not exchanging civilian detainees.”

So why did the Russians take Pavlo Tovstokoryi? Tetiana suspects it was because of the diving suit.

“The Oskil hydro-electric station is nearby. They blew it up. Probably they wanted to pin the explosion on him,” says Tetiana. “The whole village knew that he used to be a diver. Some kindly folk probably dropped them a hint. That’s why the Russians came to us: they were after Pavlo. They were delighted to find the diving suit. But he was already almost 58 by then! He lost his sight in childhood. There are others that used to work with Pavlo: they were taken away and beaten up. They all came home again but not my man.”

Late in 2023 Tetiana Tovstokora got more recent news: the RF Ministry of Defence officially confirmed that “in November 2023 P.L. Tovstokory was detained and is presently in Russia.” And that’s it.

According to the information of the Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War (Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers) there are more than eight thousand Ukrainians whose place of detention has been confirmed. Tens of thousands more, among them many civilians, are today classified as “Missing” (location unknown).

In the T4P database there are records of 4,320 missing in the occupied territories since the full-scale invasion of February 2022. As the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG) noted in its analytical study this summer, “after their disappearance, relatives have not been able to obtain information either from the temporary occupation authorities or from official government sources in Russia. Confirmation that a missing person is in the hands of the Russian authorities may take place months, and sometimes a year, after they vanished. Even that confirmation, however, contains neither information about their exact location nor about their state of health.”

Let us remind readers that the KHPG has set up a hotline concerning those who are missing.

If you’re a relative or know about POWs, captive civilians, or civilians missing in the occupied territories, ring phone number 0800-20-24-02 (free of charge).

We can offer no guarantee to establish where your dear one is presently located. During past years, however, our specialists have found more than 30% of those you have asked us about.

The KHPG study referred to only exists in Ukrainian — “Enforced disappearances in Ukraine (Hanna Ovdienko, July 2023)”. A month later, KHPG produced a wider study based on the T4P database — “Over 24, 000 civilians killed, wounded, or missing, during 14 months of war” (August 2023).

[1] LPR, DPR — Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” in occupied east Ukraine.

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