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Russia is disappearing Ukrainian civilians. Their families want answers


Editor's note: This story includes descriptions of violence.

NOVYI BYKIV, Ukraine — She is fair, and she is stubborn. Those are the words Viktoria Andrusha's mother and sister use to describe her. Russian soldiers took the 25-year-old Ukrainian teacher away in late March.

Andrusha and her three older sisters grew up in the village of Novyi Bykiv, about 60 miles east of Kyiv. After graduating college, she taught middle school math in Brovary, a suburb closer to the capital.

Bombs started falling in Brovary almost as soon as the war began. So she went to stay with her parents back in Novyi Bykiv, thinking it would be safer. But no.

On Feb. 27, Russian soldiers invaded the village. They came to Andrusha's home a month later. Based on some pictures and messages they found on her phone, they accused Andrusha of informing the Ukrainian army about Russian troop movements. And they took her away. She is still missing.

United Nations human rights workers documented over 200 cases of enforced disappearances of civilians between February, when the Russians launched their invasion, and late May. Mainly the perpetrators are Russian military or affiliated armed groups.

NPR spoke to five Ukrainian civilians who had been detained by Russian soldiers, transported across the Russian border and held in the same two facilities for several weeks in March, April and/or May. The first facility was a tent camp in Glushkovo, Russia. The second was a jail in Kursk, 250 miles from the Ukrainian border.

Now back home, the interviewees shared parallel stories of violence and humiliation.

They came forward to speak to the media, despite fear of retaliation, because they wanted to help Andrusha's family. She was seen in both places. And those who didn't see her heard rumors about the brave teacher from Brovary.

"On the day they left, she just came up to me, kissed me, and she asked for warm socks," says her mother, Kateryna Andrusha, with tears in her eyes. "And then she asked the soldiers' permission to say goodbye to her father."

The soldiers came back a few days later and arrested Kateryna, who is a local official. They kept her in the basement of a private home nearby, blindfolded, for three days.

Later the family found out that Viktoria was also briefly held in an abandoned building, just a short walk away from Kateryna's office in the village council.

"The Russians didn't let me go, they just ran away," says Kateryna. Because on March 31, the Ukrainian army reclaimed the town of Novy Bykiv.

As the citizens of the town picked up the pieces of their lives, the Andrusha family started to hear from people who had seen Viktoria in captivity. What they heard scared them.

He went from a pit, to a tent, to a jail

"You feel like you're half alive and half dead," Misha, a 27-year-old Ukrainian taxi driver and video blogger, says about his experience being held incommunicado by Russian soldiers.

He says the Russians arrested him on March 7, after he had been helping the Ukrainian army, including by driving a Russian prisoner of war to a checkpoint in his taxi. The Russians held him captive for 35 days. He doesn't want his last name used because he fears further retaliation.

Misha spent the first two days of his captivity outdoors, in a pit in the ground lined with cardboard, in freezing weather. He was wearing only a T-shirt at first, which was ripped while the soldiers were examining his many tattoos to see what they might reveal about his loyalties.

At some point, they gave him a jacket that was taken off a Ukrainian soldier. This gesture made Misha think that they didn't want him dead, at least not right away.

Then Misha rode in an armored personnel carrier across the border to a tent camp in Glushkovo, Russia, that at the time held, he estimated, about 150 people. As all the interviewees reported, the tents were surrounded by barbed wire, guarded by German shepherds and snipers. Detainees were allowed to leave the tents only in a group, holding hands with prisoners on either side and moving at a run. They were allowed only a few minutes at a time to use the bathroom or cram food into their mouths — endless rounds of kasha and cabbage soup, Misha complains. The guards would hit them with batons for moving too slowly.

Volodymr and Tetiana, a married couple in their 50s, who also don't want to use their last names to protect them from Russian retaliation, tell NPR they first met Viktoria in the tent camp. Tetiana and Viktoria shared a tent. They were among very few women in captivity, especially civilian women. Tetiana says the guards didn't hit the women as much as the men.

All five also say Glushkovo was nowhere near as bad as the second facility they were taken to, in Kursk. "The tent camp was nothing special," says Volodymyr. "The detention center was hell."

Viktoria stood up to the guards

"On the first day [in Kursk], they beat us for six hours," says Misha. "They used boxing gloves and stun guns. They wanted to show us who was in charge." The stun gun gives an electric shock that leaves you shaking, he says. And they used it on the back and legs — he thinks that was so as not to make marks that were easy to see.

The jail smelled of fresh paint, Misha says. Once a week, someone would visit the prisoners, introducing himself as a civilian Russian prosecutor. This is the person, United Nations human rights experts say, who in the Russian legal system would be tasked with both overseeing the prisoners' welfare as well as prosecuting the case against them. He asked after their well-being.

But Misha and another former captive, Serhei, both say the people running the prison reminded them of their beating on the first day, and warned them to tell the prosecutor that everything was fine, that they were being treated well.

Serhei and Misha don't know each other. Serhei, 28, works in Ukraine's Infrastructure Ministry. He says Russian troops arrested him outside Kyiv in late February for having a navigation device in his car. The Russians stabbed his hands. He suffered severe frostbite in his feet after being held captive outdoors. When he got to the tent camp, he saw a Russian doctor, who amputated parts of his feet.

In Kursk, he was beaten anyway. His surgery wounds got infected and he lost a lot of blood. Only then, much weakened, was he allowed to lie down during the day.

Serhei didn't see Viktoria himself, because women and men were held separately. But he heard about the young math teacher. She had a reputation for defiance.

Viktoria's eldest sister, Iryna, says of the people who have come forward in response to her social media posts about her missing relative, "All of them told me that in captivity, Russians made Ukrainians learn Russian songs and the Russian national anthem. And they said that Viktoria refused to do it."

Iryna continues, "We don't know the truth, exactly. But I know I was told that she spoke Ukrainian, only Ukrainian, and even when Russian soldiers yelled at her, they tried to make her speak Russian, but she refused and spoke only Ukrainian."

This is the Viktoria that Iryna and Kateryna know well. Stubborn. Fair.

In enforced disappearances, the families are also victims

Matilda Bogner, head of the U.N. Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, says there are four categories of international human rights violations and potential war crimes evident in the stories told to NPR, as well as in dozens of similar cases she has documented.

The first is the detention of civilians who don't pose any immediate security risk.

The second is forcible deportation across borders.

The third is enforced disappearance, which means holding people without allowing communication with the outside world or telling anyone where they are. In these situations, says Bogner, "The families are considered victims as well, because they go through hell trying to find their family member."

Holding people secretly, without any form of due process, also sets the stage for other potential violations — torture, even murder. And those constitute the fourth category of violation: the beatings NPR heard about, the punishing cold, insufficient food, denial of medical care, and humiliation.

It's unclear where, when, or whether these victims will have a day in court. Ukraine's government sentenced three captured Russian soldiers last month and officials say they've documented 14,000 other possible war crimes and counting. The International Criminal Court could step in, and Bogner says there's also talk of setting up a special tribunal.

But first, people in detention have to try to get home alive. The people NPR talked to say they were all released in exchange for Russian soldiers who were held captive by the Ukrainians.

In Misha's case, his followers on YouTube and the social media app Telegram spotted a story about his arrest that ran in the Russian media. This gave his wife and mother-in-law the clues they needed to pressure Ukrainian officials to set up a trade.

Prisoners were being swapped frequently, says Misha, and before they left, there was what he called a "goodbye ceremony."

In Misha's telling, the jailers formed two lines on either side of a corridor. They put sacks on the ground to make it slippery. They forced the prisoners who were being released to run down the corridor, singing Russian songs. As they did, they hit them again with the stun guns.

Misha thinks he recognizes the person he was swapped with on April 10. He says he was "a skinny, dark-haired Russian guy" — the same man, he thinks, that he drove to the checkpoint in his taxi not long before he was first arrested. The Russians set fire to that taxi, a brand-new Mercedes that Misha had just bought for $25,000.

Meanwhile Viktoria Andrusha's family doesn't know for sure if she's still in Kursk. They are contacting everyone they can think of, trying to arrange an exchange for her release.

"I hope every day, and I wait for her," says her mother Kateryna.

They're not the only ones waiting for her. Her big sister Iryna says, "All of her students' families are sending us messages, saying how is Viktoria? Where is Viktoria?"

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.