Forced disappearances in the Kharkiv Region: analytical review

In the period from 24 February 2022 to 31 March 2023, we recorded 1, 874 cases of disappearances in the Kharkiv Region. A total of 2, 025 people were missing.
Hanna Ovdiienko18 April 2024UA DE EN ES FR IT RU

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Among the missing people, 1,137 were men (56%), 819 were women (40%), and 69 were children under 18 of both sexes (4%).

Gender analysis shows that, in general, men were more often subjected to forced disappearances, but we cannot conclude the crimes were directed exclusively against them. The relatively small number of missing children indicates that they were not the main targets of crime but were nonetheless occasionally subjected to coercion.

The analysis suggests that the vast majority of these children disappeared along with their parents or one of their parents. However, older children, particularly teenagers, have been exposed to criminal acts separately from their parents. Most often, such crimes were committed against 15-17 year old boys.

Most of the disappearances took place in territories that were under temporary occupation by the Russian military for a long time. The most cases were recorded in the Izyum district of the Kharkiv Region (825 cases), the Kupianskyi district (258 cases), the Kharkiv district (227 cases), and the Chuhuivskyi district (119 cases). The large number of forced disappearances in the Izyum district of the Kharkiv Region can be explained by both the large size of the territory and the large population.

Determining the time of disappearance was important enough to find a person. However, due to the war, in some cases, relatives of the missing do not even know when exactly the person disappeared. Sometimes, they indicate a relatively long period, measured in weeks or days. There are very few cases where it is possible to determine a specific part of the day or a more precise time. The same also applies to the place of disappearance — in many cases, an entire settlement or last place of residence is indicated. It was possible to establish the exact location, time, and circumstances of the disappearance in sufficient detail, covering all contextual elements only in cases where direct eyewitnesses or the disappeared were found.

Most cases of disappearances were isolated (1,771 cases, relative to 1,771 victims); that is, it was not groups of people who were subjected to disappearance but individuals. The policy of individual forced disappearances was traced in all the actions of the Russian military. In the Kharkiv Region, they collected lists of people who might be particularly loyal to the Ukrainian authorities, including government officials, members of pro-government political parties, and people who could organize public campaigns against the Russian authorities — journalists, public figures, and volunteers.

There were also cases of forcible deportation of writers, religious figures of denominations other than the Moscow Orthodox Church, athletes, and famous personalities, namely, everyone who could influence the masses with their opinions.

Some missing persons were offered cooperation before committing a crime against them. They were encouraged both financially and through threats. Common targets were former military personnel, former law enforcement officials, former judges, etc. Enforced disappearances of former border guards have become typical for the border region.

In the temporarily occupied territories of the Kharkiv Region, a policy of denunciations against neighbors, relatives, and former colleagues was extensively pursued and strongly encouraged. There are widely known cases of denunciations against those closest to them, which created an atmosphere of terror and mutual distrust among the local population. This tactic made it possible to avoid mass resistance and organization of partisan detachments.

Relatives, in particular, parents and children of active Ukrainian military personnel, also became victims of forced disappearances in the temporarily occupied territories.

We established a precise causal link between the disappearance and occupation of 14 civil servants, 9 former military personnel, 1 journalist, and 18 volunteers.

On the other hand, in many cases, an apparent connection between the profession of a person or their relatives and the disappearance could not be established. We concluded that some of these crimes were committed with the aim of terrorizing the local population so that not a single person would feel secure in the future.

Among the disappearances, 101 cases of collective disappearances were recorded (committed to 256 people). In most cases, two or three people related to each other disappeared together: families, friends, colleagues, and companions who moved from place to place in the same vehicle. The most considerable recorded quantity was about eight people missing simultaneously.

The grounds for the forcible arrest and disappearance of a person were generally accusations of cooperation with Ukrainian authorities, transfer of information, guiding Ukrainian military, photographing Russian military equipment or military personnel, refusal to cooperate with the occupation authorities, etc.

The scenarios for forced disappearances were repetitive and boiled down to two main ones.

The first included a targeted visit by Russian military personnel or associated persons to the victim’s house. A search was carried out in the house, during which something was found that, according to the military, could be incriminating. Among such things were chevrons of the Ukrainian military uniform, photographs in military uniform, any items of military-colored clothing, weapons (including hunting), and the Ukraine’s flag or coat of arms. A personal search was also carried out, during which the targets were asked to undress to search for tattoos on the body. The review of mobile phones included checking instant messengers, media sent through them, and contacts. According to this scenario, at least 71 people disappeared (in 70 cases).

The second scenario involved a person disappearing on the street or at a checkpoint. When checking documents and belongings of travelers, the Russian military often arrested victims, who were subsequently subjected to enforced disappearances. At least 60 people disappeared in this way (in 51 cases).

In 133 cases (committed against 145 victims), physical force was used during arrest. Such detention (arrest) preceded an enforced disappearance and included physical violence, provoked or (more often) unprovoked by the actions of the victim. Such violence included beatings, the use of small arms, etc.

Due to limited sources, we were able to establish the probable involvement of the Russian military in the crime committed in 140 cases (152 victims). In another 9 cases, the participation of persons associated with the Russian army, such as military personnel mobilized by the quasi-state entities “LPR” and “DPR,” was established.

Thus, based on these data, we can assert that enforced disappearances are likely to be widespread and systematic in the Kharkiv Region.

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