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Thousands of Ukrainians live in agony as they search for missing loved ones

ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                Daryna Herasymenko, 26, waits for her missing husband Serhii in an apartment in Kyiv, Ukraine.
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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Daryna Herasymenko, 26, waits for her missing husband Serhii in an apartment in Kyiv, Ukraine.

YIV, Ukraine >> Iryna Reva stares at her phone, replaying the last video her 25-year-old son Vladyslav sent her from the front line before the volunteer soldier disappeared 19 months ago in a battle with Russian forces in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region.

Reva is one of the thousands of Ukrainians desperately seeking news of loved ones who have disappeared in the two years since Russia’s full-scale invasion began. According to Ukraine’s National Police, more than 30,000 people have been reported missing in the last 24 months.

“Up to this day, I am searching for my son,” Reva said. “He is alive to me. Regardless of the circumstances, there is no evidence that he has perished.”

The last time Reva spoke to her son, she begged him not to take part in a battle the next morning. “Don’t go, say your arm hurts,” she told him over the phone.

“Mom, I’m sorry. I love you very much,” Vladyslav replied. “I’m going into battle. I don’t know if I’ll be back.

“I’ll be out of touch. Pray,” were his last words to her.

The missing include soldiers like Vladyslav lost on the battlefield, but also civilians and children who have vanished in a variety of circumstances. For many relatives, the agonizing uncertainty and relentless search for answers has already gone on for two years with no end in sight.

Inna Usenko left her hometown of Mariupol on a business trip the day before the war began in 2022. She lost contact with her brother, Herman Sikorskyi, on March 1 as Russia laid siege to the eastern city and thousands of civilians were trapped. Several weeks later, a Russian airstrike hit the house where he had lived.

“I don’t know what to think, whether he’s alive or not,” she said. “I understand perfectly well that if I were there, he would have come to me, and maybe something would have been different, so I feel guilty all the time.”

In an attempt to find her brother, Usenko filed a missing person’s report with the occupation authorities, the Russian Federation and the Russian Red Cross. From her home, which is now in Spain, she came to Ukraine to file a police report and provide DNA to Ukrainian authorities. Despite the efforts, neither side was able to provide her with any information.

“I would like, of course, to believe that he is alive,” Usenko said, adding that the uncertainty not only drains her but also affects close friends, relatives and his children.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says since February 2022 its team has been contacted more than 100,000 times by families searching for their loved ones.

“That doesn’t mean a hundred thousand missing people. But this gives you an idea of just the amount of suffering that this creates on both sides,” Achille Després, a spokesperson at the ICRC in Kyiv, said.

For relatives looking for information, the official search often begins with submitting a DNA sample. Andrii Levytskyi, head of forensics at the National Police’s main investigation department, said more than 18,000 DNA samples of relatives of servicemen and civilians have been collected and processed.

DNA is a vital part of establishing the status of the missing person, especially if they are military. Even if fellow soldiers said they witnessed a soldier killed in battle, it’s not enough to confirm the death, said Petro Yatsenko, the head of a press office at the Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of POWs.

“Until we have the body, until we have DNA analysis, this person will have the status of missing,” he said. He said they have had cases in which soldiers were found wounded in captivity, despite testimony from their comrades that they were killed in battle.

Over the past two years, numerous volunteer projects have arisen to aid in the search for missing people, often serving as a last resort for relatives who receive no official information from authorities.

Mariia Reshetova, who runs the Search for the Missing project under the Kateryna Osadcha Foundation, said they have around 1,000 open cases and have already closed hundreds.

She said that while they receive new applications daily, the influx has dwindled compared to the initial months of the war when the project was launched. However, the geography of missing civilians has not changed. Cases originate from both liberated regions like Kyiv, and those still occupied. Many open cases relate to people missing in Mariupol.

“You can’t stop searching … because there is always a chance that some information will be found,” Reshetova said.

Tetiana Khvostenko’s husband Oleh was last seen in the summer of 2022 in the occupied city of Dniprorudne in the Zaporizhzhia region when the Russian military detained him as he went to pick up his car. From that point, he vanished.

Oleh’s relatives, who remained in the occupied territory and therefore can’t be named for security concerns, tried to get information about why he was detained. They visited the military commandant’s office many times learning he’d been handed over to the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB. From there, the trail went cold.

For the past year and seven months, Tetiana and her son Klim have been living in limbo, devoid of any new information about Oleh’s fate.

“For 36 years, I’ve had a man by my side. And now he is gone. It’s like being without an arm or a leg, I don’t know. It’s hard,” Tetiana said.

The Khvostenkos hope that Oleh is alive, perhaps detained like thousands of other civilians from occupied territories held without charge in Russian prisons and areas of seized territories as an investigation by The Associated Press conducted last year found.

The family contacted the relevant institutions on both sides, international organizations including the Red Cross, and even directly inquired into places of captivity, to see if Oleh was being held there.

“We’ve actually reached out to a lot of places, and the responses are pretty much the same,” said Oleh’s son Klim.

“And that’s what makes it all the more difficult because there’s no result. We’re not a step closer,” he said.

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