Men abducted by Russia in occupied Kherson

Roman Ishchenko (left) and Serhiy Arefiev. (Credit: Courtesy)

Instances of kidnapped men have become a common occurrence in occupied Kherson and its region. It is difficult to calculate how many have been kidnapped – some cases are not being reported officially due to fear or lack of knowledge about how to act in the situation.

Forty-six-year-old Roman Ishchenko was captured by the Russian army on 19 April, according to his daughter Oleksandra. The Russians visited their home and abducted Roman, who used to work for the courier service of Ukraine’s State Special Communications Service but was now retired.

“It was obvious that this was a planned operation,” Oleksandra said. “We had simultaneous visits by military men to both our house and the house of my grandfather and grandmother.”

Seven men came to each house, with all but one person wearing a military uniform.

“The one without the uniform had his face covered. That was the person who searched the house and looked for a ‘stock of weapons’ in our home,” Oleksandra explained.

She said that her grandmother was staying in Roman’s house that night and had to witness his abduction.

“The soldiers held my father outside. They surrounded our house from all sides, all entrances and exits, while the man wearing civilian clothes searched the house. They tried to do everything quietly but failed,” Oleksandra recalled.

“They ordered them to sit quietly and threatened them with a gun. The soldiers ended up taking my father, his two phones, and a laptop. We have not been in touch with him since,” she added.

The woman said that the Russian army keeps changing its accounts. One moment it says that Roman is alright and they have him, the other that it doesn’t know anything about him.

Roman’s family asked the Ukrainian government about Roman and were told that he was added to the list of captives who were to be exchanged. But there are issues with that.

“Volunteers told us on Telegram that these people are neither captives nor dead according to Russia,” Oleksandra explained. She added that she was told that Russians only deem captives those they hold in Crimea or Russia.

Meanwhile, Roman’s family has not heard from the Russian army recently. No demands or messages. He’s now been gone for more than a month.

“They didn’t even explain why he was detained,” Oleksandra said. “It’s the worst thing, when you don’t know what’s happening to him,”

Another man, Serhiy Arefiev, has been held captive for nearly 70 days . He is an engineer who loves his family and baking. Serhiy’s wife Polina heard the abduction story from Serhiy’s friend who was there.

“A car suddenly stopped next to them. A couple of people got out and put black sacks over Serhiy and his friend’s heads. They were both shoved into the car. The friend said that everything happened so quickly that they couldn't react. They were taken for interrogation,” Serhiy’s wife Polina said.

According to her, the two men were interrogated in separate rooms. Serhiy’s friend could only hear that Serhiy was provided with a translator because he doesn’t speak Russian.

“They were asking them about pro-Ukrainian demonstrations. The Russians were looking for people who organised the demonstrations and supposedly ‘paid’ Kherson residents to attend. They just couldn’t grasp that Kherson residents attended these protests by their own will,” Polina said.

A couple of days later, Polina was contacted by the Russian military, who asked her to give Serhiy’s documents to them.

“They said that this was to establish whether Serhiy had anything to do with the military activities. And if he did, he would have been taken to the Russian courts,” she said.

While speaking to the Russians, Polina saw one of them hold the keys to her home that belonged to Serhiy.

“(They) refused to give them to me. When I objected, the soldiers said that there was no threat for me and nobody would come to our home with these keys,” she recalled.

Polina has already appealed to all the necessary authorities. She visited the occupying authorities’ offices in Kherson and even all the places in Kherson that held captives. All she heard back was: “You will be contacted”. She still doesn’t know where Serhiy is and whether he’s ok.

Most of the abductions in Kherson are not followed by a disclosure of the place where the captive is held. The families and loved ones are not told about the health of the captive. No information bureau has been created for the matters concerning prisoners of war, which is a violation of the Geneva Conventions. The conditions in which the captives are being held are also unclear.

The families are left to only hope that the men are alive and well.

According to the Ombudsperson for Human Rights in Ukraine, Lyudmyla Denisova, some abducted men are being taken to Russia-occupied Crimea. Others are being held in besieged buildings of Kherson.