Lost Souls from the Ukrainian War

Two years into the conflict, prisoners of war from both sides remain in limbo.

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The last thing Ukrainian soldier Oleksandr Lazarenko said to his wife as a free man was “I’ll call you back, dear.”

Lazarenko, a 25-year-old soldier in the Ukrainian Army’s 40th mechanized infantry brigade, had married Natasha less than two months earlier. On February 9, 2015, he called her from the front lines in eastern Ukraine, where he was fighting for the government against Russian-supported separatists.

Natasha heard yells and gunfire. Then the phone switched off. Later that day, she saw footage on a Russian news channel of three Ukrainian soldiers who had been captured by separatists. One of them was her husband. She realized that what she’d heard was the moment he was taken prisoner.

Lazarenko’s capture coincided with what was supposed to be a turning point in the 20-month conflict. On February 11, 2015, leaders from Ukraine, Russia, Germany, France and the pro-Russian separatist regions in Donetsk and Luhansk met in Minsk to sign a new agreement meant to end the fighting. In addition to other provisions, the Minsk II agreement, as it became known, included a general amnesty and release of all prisoners.

But Natasha didn’t hear from her husband for three more months, when he finally called back to let her know he was still alive — and still a prisoner. Since then, he has been able to periodically call his family from where he’s being held in a building in central Donetsk that used to house the Ukrainian security services (SBU). Over a year since Minsk II, he is one of hundreds of military and civilian prisoners being held by both sides, bargaining chips in a stalled political game.

The problem is that the warring parties have made prisoner exchanges contingent on the other points in Minsk II. That means the separatist republics refuse to release their detainees until Ukraine passes a general amnesty law which would cover those who had fought against it in the east and implements the agreement’s other measures. But an amnesty is deeply unpopular with Ukrainian politicians and the public. Instead, arguing that Russia is holding up the Minsk II process by refusing to implement its other points, such as returning control of the Russian border to Ukraine, Kiev is sentencing the prisoners it holds under Ukrainian law.

Before Minsk II, large numbers of prisoners had been successfully released though ad-hoc negotiations between informal Ukrainian organizations and separatist field commanders. In fact, Tandit was one of several volunteers who facilitated high-profile prisoner exchanges in 2014.

These organizations became mired in mutual accusations of extortion and bribery — but their work, though crude, was sometimes effective. Since the issue has been incorporated into Minsk II, exchanges have ground almost to a halt. In effect, “formalizing” the process has made freedom for prisoners like Lazarenko more distant than ever.

“When [Oleksandr] calls, I don’t know what to tell him anymore,” Natasha said. “His first question is always: When? What have you heard, what’s new? I could lie and say it’ll be in the near future, but he’s been there a year already; what near future? Or [I could] tell the truth, that he’s been forgotten — because sometimes that’s what it feels like.”

The Ukrainian government insists it is doing all it can to secure the return of its detained servicemen and other prisoners. “Our biggest priority is to get them back,” said SBU advisor Yuriy Tandit.

Minsk II calls for an all-for-all exchange of “hostages and illegally-held persons.” But neither side can even agree on how many detainees there are, much less where they are or what their legal status is.

The SBU lists close to 130 Ukrainian detainees, military and civilian, as being held by the other side. But in more than half of these cases, their whereabouts, and even whether they are still alive, remain unknown.

“We want them all to be alive,” said Tandit. Of “dozens” whose whereabouts are confirmed, he said 12 are in Russia, including former military pilot Nadiya Savchenko, who has just been sentenced to 22 years in prison for alleged involvement in the deaths of two Russian journalists.

On the other side, the human rights ombudsman’s office in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) has said that the DNR is only holding about 30 detainees, all of whom it considers combatants, not civilians. The office declined requests for an interview, but its latest report says that “around 1,106” individuals it wants returned to the DNR are being held by Ukraine. According to Tandit, however, many of those on the DNR list are not in Ukrainian detention, while others were sentenced for unrelated crimes long before the conflict started. He said that the actual number of detainees Ukraine holds is not public information, but is “in the hundreds.”

International organizations offer little clarity. From May 2014 to February 2016 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) gained access to more than 750 people held in Ukraine in relation to the conflict. Just four were held by the separatist republics; the rest were in Ukrainian custody.

One reason for the confusion is the multiple military and paramilitary groups taking part in the conflict. Lazarenko’s fate is a graphic example: He disappeared for those first three months because a rogue Cossack commander was keeping him in an abandoned shower room with no windows and just potato sacks to lie on.

In April, he was found by the DNR’s War Prisoner Commission and transferred to Donetsk. Here conditions are better. According to Oleksandr Makukh, a recently freed detainee, the 25 or so prisoners are kept in the former SBU archive room, and can call home when more tolerant guards lend them a mobile phone. But they have to work seven days a week as manual laborers, and international organizations have not been allowed access.

Another Ukrainian soldier released with Makukh in a February three-for-six exchange told me he’d been held for six months in solitary confinement, taken outside from his windowless cellar just four times. Horrifying cases of torture and mistreatment have been reported by freed prisoners on both sides.

Tandit acknowledges that, early in the conflict, Ukrainian volunteer battalions, too, sometimes mistreated detainees. But since these battalions have been incorporated into official structures, he said, such cases have been investigated and stopped.

Still, the conflict’s murky official status remains a key hindrance to prisoners being decently treated and released. The conflict has not been declared an international armed conflict by either Ukraine (which refers to it as an “anti-terrorist operation”) or international organizations such as the ICRC, despite ample evidence of direct Russian involvement. That means detainees cannot be considered “prisoners of war,” with all the protections of international humanitarian law that implies.

Instead, both sides describe their own people held by the other side as “hostages,” while the detainees they hold are criminals who must be tried by the courts.

The DNR said in February that its criminal code, which is based on the 1961 Soviet code, allows for the imposition of the death penalty. It has sentenced at least one member of a Ukrainian volunteer battalion to 30 years’ imprisonment. Meanwhile, Tandit said the SBU has identified more than 1,000 crimes against humanity committed by the separatists and insisted that they should be prosecuted.

Families of soldiers sent to fight in an undeclared war and taken prisoner are exasperated by Kiev’s argument that detained separatists must be sentenced because they have blood on their hands. “I don’t care what kind of hands they have, I just want our children back,” said Lazarenko’s mother Ludmila, who with his wife Natasha has campaigned tirelessly for her son’s release. “And anyway, it just means the other side can sentence ours in the same way. Our children didn’t go there to pick strawberries either.”

Although Ukraine has failed to adopt an amnesty law in line with Minsk II, some individuals held by the Ukrainian side have been pardoned by presidential decree before being exchanged. “We’re open to any compromise,” Tandit said. “But only compromises that can be logical and within the framework of Minsk,” he added.

That’s not enough for the separatist republics, who say the majority of their individuals held by Ukraine are political prisoners. “‘All for all’ exchange means that Ukraine has to stop all prosecution on political charges,” Olga Kobtsova, director of the Luhansk People’s Republic’s prisoner exchange working group, said.

While they’re being held, prisoners on both sides are being used as weapons in the ongoing “information war.” Ukraine seeks to prove Russian involvement by publicizing interrogations and documents of Russian servicemen apparently captured while on active duty on Ukrainian territory. On the other side, Ukrainian prisoners are publicly paraded — some apparently having been mistreated — and filmed confessing to alleged crimes committed by Ukrainian forces.

So long as the exchange process remains mired in the yet-to-be-implemented Minsk II process, there is little hope that Ludmila Lazarenko will see her son again anytime soon. “That side blames Ukraine, and Ukraine blames the other side, and no one knows where the truth is,” she said. “They started this game themselves, and our children are suffering for it.”

In the photo, Alexei Goncharenko, a Ukrainian legislator, carries a placard depicting Nadia Savchenko during a march in Moscow on March 1, 2015.

Photo credit: ALEXEY KRAVTSOV/AFP/Getty Images

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