Disappearances and detentions in Ukraine: They tried to reveal what life was like under Russian occupation
Lviv, Ukraine — When there was a knock on Yulia Olkhovska’s front door at 5:30 a.m., she knew who would be waiting for her in the pre-dawn darkness outside. But she was still terrified.
Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine, rolling tanks into several small cities in the country’s southeast, including her hometown Melitopol, there had been a steady, grim drumbeat of disappearances.
Journalists like herself, as well as activists, politicians, public figures and residents in Russian-occupied areas were being picked up off the street and snatched from their homes. She had conferred with her husband in hushed tones about what to do if they came for her; the pair decided they would try to remain calm.
So when five armed men in military uniform turned up at her house in the suburbs of Melitopol on March 21, she took a deep breath and let them in. After carrying out a room-by-room search, startling their sleeping teenage daughter and four cats, the Russians told Olkhovska to come with them.
The reporter, who works for the newspaper Melitopolski Vedomosti (MV), was loaded into a minivan and driven quickly to her own empty newsroom, which had been seized by Russian forces. In a surreal scene, she said she was sat down in her editor’s office and interrogated for five hours.
“They said to me, something like, ‘A new life is beginning here, and you’ll probably be interested to take part in building this new life. Not to sit somewhere on the sidelines, but be at the center. We’re giving you an opportunity to work. We need objective people, who can write, to document this new life,’” Olkhovska told CNN in a recent phone call.
When the journalist made clear she wouldn’t collaborate, the Russians – one of whom had introduced himself as a member of the new civil-military administration – replied coolly. “They said they understood that I was scared, a little confused, and they didn’t demand an immediate answer from me. They offered to let me think a little more,” she recalled.
A week after her release, Olkhovska is still waiting anxiously for another knock on her door. After she and several of her colleagues at MV – among the most prominent news outlets in the city of 150,000 people – were kidnapped, the general director of the media holding decided to halt publication in print and online. It’s a move that other major media organizations in the region have been forced to make, as they weigh the impossible choice between safeguarding their people and reporting on the threat that they, and other citizens, now face. Access to some websites has simply been blocked.
Their coverage has been swapped for Russian propaganda, streamed from local TV towers, on radio stations and Telegram channels. After the kidnapping of Melitopol’s mayor on March 11, the pro-Russia politician who replaced him, Galina Danilchenko, broadcast this statement: “Our main task is to adjust all the mechanisms to the new reality in order to start living in a new way as soon as possible.”
The Orwellian message was among the first, chilling signs of the next phase in Russia’s war: Occupation. It has been characterized by abducting local officials, appointing sham councils and enlisting collaborators to create a climate of chaos and fear. That post-invasion playbook, which was used in 2014 by Russian President Vladimir Putin to annex Crimea, and in Donetsk and Luhansk – two Ukrainian regions where pro-Russian separatists terrorized parts of the local population and set up puppet regimes – is not working as well this time around.
In Melitopol, Kherson and other areas now under Russian control, Ukrainians are fighting back, taking to the streets in protest, raising the alarm about arbitrary detentions, as well as disinformation, and chipping away at the veneer of Moscow’s mastery in manipulation. They have also underlined a stark reality for Putin, who believed he would win this war swiftly: Even if he triumphs on the battlefield, holding on to the gains is far less certain. Ukrainians who rallied in a pro-democracy revolution in 2014 have hardened against Russia over the past eight years, and show no signs of backing down.
But those who are resisting Russian occupation are paying an incredibly steep price.
“Many active people, like volunteers, have changed their places of residence because it is very dangerous to be at home. Their addresses quickly became known to the occupiers, and they come to their homes. They are wanted, they are kidnapped. Some are released like me, soon, after an interrogation, and some are kidnapped for a long time,” Olkhovska said.
“Many regular people are being taken. We don’t even know all the names. Because people are scared and do not turn to the media to report the abduction of their loved ones.”
‘I’m scared just to go outside’
Kherson, on the Dnieper River near the Black Sea, was one of the first major cities to fall to invading Russian forces on March 2. In the weeks since, its residents have routinely gathered in Liberty Square, in the heart of the port city, to challenge their new authority.
On March 22, Oksana went there with her husband Dmitry Afanasyev, who is a member of the Korabelny district council of Kherson, and their adult daughter, to join a demonstration in support of Ukraine. But the rally quickly descended into disarray, with Russians firing rubber bullets and using tear gas to disperse the crowds. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has accused Russian forces of shooting at unarmed people, peacefully protesting for their freedom in Kherson. “Russian soldiers do not even know what it is like to be free,” he said.
After the violence broke out, the Afanasyev family quickly left the scene and were on a side street when Oksana said Russian soldiers drove up beside them in a minivan and tried to grab her. Dmitry, who is a renowned Ukrainian taekwondo athlete and coaches the national team, was kicked in the face, but somehow managed to evade their grasp.
At their home a few hours later, around 6 p.m., tending to her husband’s swollen, bloodied face, Oksana said that dozens of Russians dressed in military clothes rolled up outside in several trucks. They raided the Afanasyev’s house, finding Dmitry’s documents, council ID and merchandise from his European Solidarity party, before dragging him out the door. She said the Russians came back the next day to search their house again, promising they would release her husband that evening. But nearly a week later he’s still missing.
In the days after his kidnapping, Oksana went to a local hospital and a prison to try to piece together what had happened to her husband. Now she is staying at home, waiting by her phone for any news. “I’m afraid for my life, and I’m scared just to go outside,” she told CNN.
The United Nations’ Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine told CNN on Monday it had recorded at least 45 cases of disappearances and detentions since the war began of local officials, activists, journalists and civilians. Some were taken during protests against the Russian invasion or for openly expressing their support for Ukraine, a spokesperson for the mission said. A handful have subsequently been released, the spokesperson said, although exact numbers are still being verified by the mission.
Families are often denied any information about the fate of those being held. And most are too terrified to speak out about the disappearance of their relatives, for fear that it could trigger a backlash against themselves or their loved ones.
“Those who are in occupied territories, they [the Russians] try to scare them with this terror against local active people, local officials, councillors and mayors. It’s a campaign of terror, trying to suppress people who move against occupation,” Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksiy Honcharenko, a member of Dmitry’s European Solidarity party, said in a call with CNN about his colleague’s detention.
On the evening of Dmitry’s disappearance, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in a televised address that Russians involved in the kidnapping and torture of Ukrainians would be held accountable for their crimes.
“In recent days, I have received many messages from people who managed to escape from the captivity of the occupiers. They report mass cases of torture of prisoners. I would like to emphasize publicly that we will find every Russian serviceman and every accomplice who commit war crimes and bring them to justice in The Hague tribunal and other courts,” she said.
“Do not think that we do not know your last names.”
Interrogations, beatings and threats
In Lviv’s international media center, housed in a converted craft beer bar, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Ukraine’s Institute of Mass Information are documenting cases of arbitrary detention to submit to the International Criminal Court. They recently published the chilling anonymous account of a Ukrainian journalist working for Radio France, who says he was tortured by Russian soldiers with a knife and electricity, beaten with steel bars and deprived of food.
“Being kidnapped, tortured for showing what the situation is in de-facto occupied territories of Ukraine, like Kherson, and other areas. It’s just Russian freedom of the press 101. It’s an extension of what they already do in Russia,” RSF’s local coordinator Alexander Query, who is also a journalist for the Kyiv Independent, told CNN in an interview at the center.
Oleh Baturin, a journalist from the Kherson region, was released on March 20, eight days after going missing. Speaking to CNN from his home, the Novyi Den newspaper reporter said that he was abducted at a bus station in the port city of Kakhovka where he had promised to meet a trusted activist source. The source, a former Ukrainian soldier who had been involved in local protests against the occupation, had reached out to him – after posting on Telegram that he was worried the Russians were searching for him – and said he wanted to meet.
Baturin agreed, but something about the call didn’t feel quite right. “I felt anxious that day. I shared that anxiety with my family … and when I left home, I told them I was going there, just to meet this person. I would be back in 20 minutes,” he recalled.
At the station, he said he was swarmed by a group of Russians, who dragged him into a minibus and took him to a series of different regional administrative buildings now under Russian control. “Interrogations, beatings, threats lasted for about two hours on the first day,” said Baturin, who described being isolated in a cell and chained to a radiator. “Then there was purely psychological pressure. And interrogations every day.”
During the interrogations, Baturin said that the Russians repeatedly questioned him about his sources: Who are the most prominent activists in the Kherson region? What were the names of the people organizing pro-Ukrainian rallies? After he was released, the Russians apparently having lost interest in him, Baturin learned that his source had gone missing the same day he himself was abducted. He still hasn’t surfaced.
Viktoria Roshchina, a journalist with Hromadske Radio station who also disappeared on March 12, from the occupied seaside city of Berdiansk, was freed 10 days later after she says she was forced to record a video saying the Russian soldiers “saved her life” and that she was “treated well.”
Reacting to CNN’s report, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin was not aware of cases of disappearances but that they should be examined carefully.
Creating an alternate reality
The persecution of journalists like Baturin is a key part of Russia’s occupation blueprint, according to Sergiy Tomilenko, president of Ukraine’s National Union of Journalists, who has documented cases like his since Putin’s invasion of Crimea eight years ago.
“Their strategic goal is to create an alternate reality,” Tomilenko said. “Russian occupiers propose to local journalists, media, to be their protagonists. In this stage, after tanks, after fighting and occupation, they work to try to involve journalists in their campaign.”
“But many don’t want to collaborate, and so the second part of their objective is to silence, to stop critical media coverage.”
That carrot and stick approach was used on Svitlana Zalizetska, director of Melitopol’s main newspaper, Holovna Gazeta Melitopolya, and RIA-Melitopol news website. Her 75-year-old father was abducted by Russians on March 23, after she refused to report in support of the occupation.
Just hours before Melitopol’s mayor, Ivan Fedorov, was abducted, Zalizetska said she was picked up from her home and taken to an industrial plant for a meeting with the woman that Russia installed in his stead. “Galina Danilchenko had a personal conversation with me. She told me about how I should work for them, cooperate with them, what career awaits me in Moscow and so on. And she said that the commandant wants to meet me in person,” Zalizetska told CNN.
“I replied that, ‘I did not need any commandant, because, I’ll tell you right now: There won’t be any cooperation with you. I love Ukraine and I want to live in my native Ukraine. And not in the Rushka [a derogatory name for Russia].’”
After the experience, Zalizetska packed her bags and left her home, staying in several apartments before fleeing the city. Days later, she said she got a call from the Russians to tell her that they had her father and wanted her “nearby.” She refused and happily, three days later, he was released.
Zalizetska is adamant about carrying on her coverage of life under Russian occupation in Melitopol to document kidnappings and detentions, like that of her own father. But many more have stopped, terrified for their lives and the safety of their families.
After 20 years working as a journalist, Olkhovska, the Melitopolski Vedomosti reporter, is taking a hiatus from reporting, worried that the Russians will come back for her.
Sitting at home in her living room, she is horrified at the pro-Kremlin propaganda now playing on her TV – the 32 channels she once received have been reduced to fewer than 10. Watching life through Russia’s looking glass, she knows with every fiber of her being that she couldn’t work for them, helping to spread lies about life under occupation.
“I think they’ll probably come again. But so far, thank God, they haven’t. I hope they have already forgotten about me,” Olkhovska said.
Update: Melitopol’s elected mayor Ivan Fedorov said in a Facebook live video on Monday that another local official had been detained and that Russians had cut off cell phone communications in the city. CNN was not able to reach its sources in Melitopol on Tuesday.
Oleksandra Ochman contributed to this report.