Slowly, painfully, the fate of disappeared Ukrainians emerges
Aliona Cygankova knows her father was alive two days after the Russians took him away from his house in the forest.
A young man from the same neighbourhood who had been arrested was led to a clearing, where he saw five men lying face down on the earth, with bags over their heads.
“Which of these men do you recognise?” the Russians asked him, lifting the five men’s heads and pulling the bags away one by one. Ihor Aldokhin, Cygankova’s father, was one of them.
That was on April 15. “This was the only time anyone has seen him,” she said as she recounted what she had managed to piece together of her father’s fate in a café in Kharkiv. She is sure he and three of his neighbours were spirited away across the Russian border — for what reason, she has little idea.
Millions of Ukrainians fled their homes across eastern Ukraine after the Russians invaded in March. About a million of them were taken into Russia as part of a “refugee programme”.
This has been heavily criticised by the United Nations, but many of those involved have been able to leave and return to Ukraine through the Baltic states, while others remain in contact with their families by phone.
But across territory recently recaptured by Ukrainian forces, families are trying to work out what happened to loved ones with whom they lost contact during the fighting and of whom there is no trace.
Some have been killed in the shelling and bombing. Some soldiers are being held as prisoners of war — details of these have been kept a carefully guarded secret by both the Russian and Ukrainian sides. Others have been reunited with parents and spouses.
But hundreds, possibly thousands, have disappeared, often after encounters with Russian security forces.
Aldokhin, 57, was living in a complex of holiday homes he had helped to develop in the woods near the village of Shestakove, east of Kharkiv and towards the Russian border. He did not want to leave when the Russians invaded, but his wife went to join the rest of the family in the city.
He had his friend Mykhail Pavlenko, 47, his daughter’s godfather, and some other neighbours went there to keep him company. For weeks they were left alone, and ferried food supplies around to help people in need.
Cygankova wonders whether that was a reason he was detained by the Russian police when they came and took all four people — her father, her godfather and his son, and the neighbour — away with bags over their heads, as other neighbours have now told her. The Russians have regarded people who take part in aid delivery as potential spies.
Or, she said, it could be that they needed people for forced labour — her father with his building skills, the other men who were all specialist mechanics. One other explanation was that her father had a generator, the only source of electricity in the complex after power was cut, so there were always a dozen or more of the neighbours’ mobile phones charging, an obvious source of suspicion.
She has received a note from the Red Cross saying that her father and the neighbour have been registered with the organisation as prisoners in Russia. But the Russians gave no information as to where he was, why he was being held, or what happened to the other men.
For Anatoliy Tyhanenko, who is missing from home in the town of Izyum, it may have been his job, or an informer, who was responsible. He worked as a specialist electronics engineer in a factory making optics for anti-tank weaponry, said a workmate, Volodymur Nosakov, 51.
Tyhanenko, 59, was taken away on May 3, after the Russians had been in the town just short of two months. Neither his wife, his brother nor Nosakov have any inkling of what happened to him.
Nosakov was speaking not far from the town cemetery, where excavators are exhuming bodies from hundreds of graves where townsfolk buried the dead of the airstrikes and bombings that all but destroyed the town in the invasion.
Many of those interred were brought there by relatives. But, Nosakov said, people living near by reported some burials at night, when Ukrainians were subject to a curfew. He believes that some of the missing will be found there.
So do others. A stream of people from the town turn up to watch the excavations, asking if their loved ones are there.
And for some, the answer is yes. A man named Vitaliy Alexeyevich lay on the raised mud of a grave that had been pointed out to him as his daughter’s. His wife, Nina, 72, stood weeping as she clutched its wooden cross.
They had just arrived from Kharkiv, and their son-in-law had shown them where Lubov Shtenko had been buried. She had been hit by a shell that came in through the window of her flat, he said, killing her almost instantly.
“Life is short, and we wanted to live the rest of it in peace and happiness,” Alexeyevich, 75, said as he recovered himself. “Now the most important part of it has been taken from us.”