It wasn’t the call Oleg Buryak expected.
He was hoping to hear that his 16-year-old son, Vlad, had safely escaped the Ukrainian city of Melitopol, where Moscow’s forces were quickly closing in. Instead, it was a Russian military man on the other end of the line.
They had taken his son, the soldier said, and he was being kept in an undisclosed location.
Almost overnight, Buryak, head of the Zaporizhzhia Regional Military Administration, was thrust into a frantic, detective-like pursuit, scrambling for clues, trying to figure out where Russian soldiers were holding his son, and how to get him back.
Soon, Vlad found a guard who allowed him to make occasional calls. The teenage boy was growing desperate, his father said. At home, Vlad loved computer games. In his cell, he was surrounded by the constant, terrible sound of other prisoners being tortured.
“What are you doing to get me out of here?” Vlad asked his father.
For nearly four months, the world has watched in horror as Russian forces flattened Ukrainian cities, with images of slaughtered civilians in Bucha and Mariupol attracting international outrage and prompting Western powers to increase their military aid. But all the while a less visible phenomenon was taking place in homes, at checkpoints, during street protests: Russian soldiers were detaining and abducting hundreds – perhaps thousands – of civilians.
All over the country, people are missing. A schoolteacher who refused Russian soldiers’ demands that she speak their language. A volunteer paramedic tending to the injured in the port city of Mariupol. The father of a journalist, taken to blackmail his daughter into providing access to her news outlet’s website. A village leader who was escorted from a government building with a bag over his head. And untold others.
Authorities and human rights advocates say these cases are part of a larger pattern of Russian abductions and disappearances, a military tactic meant to terrorize communities and demoralize civilian resistance.
Many among the missing are victims of forced disappearance – detainment followed by silence, the captor refusing to even acknowledge they’ve taken someone captive. Others are locked in Russian-controlled jails, sometimes used to barter for Russia’s captured soldiers, or extract information.
For many more, their whereabouts are unclear: Some are simply incommunicado, others are likely dead. And for each person missing, one expert said, there are “concentric rings of harm” that ripple through their communities.
The Ukrainian government has recorded at least 765 cases – which can involve more than one victim – of what they call forced disappearances, an umbrella term to describe different forms of illegal deprivation of liberty.
Experts and officials agree the real number is almost certainly much higher. How much higher? No one really knows, but Ukraine’s national police have fielded more 9,000 missing person reports since Russia invaded.
“It is just tip of the iceberg,” said Oleksandra Matviichuk, head of the Center for Civil Liberties, one of Ukraine’s most well-known human rights organizations, which has documented 459 cases of civilians held in captivity since the beginning of the invasion.
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It was the end of March when it became clear Russia was about to seize Melitopol. But despite Buryak’s desperate pleas, Vlad refused to leave his grandfather, who was bedridden and battling stage-four cancer.
“I will stay with grandpa until the end,” Vlad told his father.
Roughly one week later, his grandfather died. Still mourning the loss, Vlad was ready to leave.
Buryak found his son a seat in a car with two women and three children, all trying to escape the city. They left early and made it roughly 45 miles north to the city of Vasylivka, where they ran into the last Russian checkpoint. Soldiers went car to car, interrogating the passengers.
Vlad was in the back seat looking at his phone when one of the Russian guards took his device and soon after learned his father was a government official. The car’s other passengers were released, but Vlad was detained.
Buryak immediately started calling all his friends and met with high-ranking authorities, pleading for help to arrange a prisoner exchange, which the Russian soldiers had said was the only way to secure Vlad’s release. But conversations with Ukrainian authorities led nowhere, he said.
The Security Service of Ukraine assigned an investigator to his case, but Buryak said she has made little progress. The Security Service did not respond to an interview request. Vlad’s case sheds a somber light on the hurdles Ukrainians face in finding their loved ones, when even a prominent government official with connections struggles to arrange his son’s release.
“Except for my friends, nobody is helping me,” Buryak said in a recent interview.
Some 300 miles north of where Vlad was taken, Viktoria Andrusha, a 25-year-old schoolteacher, managed to send her sister one last text: “They just passed down the street.” Soon after, they – a group of Russian soldiers driving an armored vehicle – stormed into her parents’ home in the village of Staryi Bykiv, about 60 miles east of Kyiv.
They tore through the house and found Andrusha’s cellphone with the message to her sister, Iryna. Their parents later recounted to Iryna the terrifying moments that followed. The soldiers accused Andrusha of sharing intelligence with the Ukrainian military and blamed Russian casualties on her text. As they questioned her with guns drawn, they demanded that she speak Russian. She refused.
“You’re nobody here, this won’t happen your way,” Andrusha told the soldiers, Iryna said. “We are on our land, you’re not welcome here.”
That day in late March would be the last time her family saw her.
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Yuriy Belousov, Ukraine’s lead prosecutor for human rights violations, said his team is overwhelmed.
Ukrainian authorities have opened more than 13,000 investigations into possible war crimes, an unprecedented effort during a bloody and ongoing conflict. They have registered nearly 800 instances of forced disappearances. In just one of the cases, Russian soldiers took 70 Ukrainians from their houses and kept them in a basement for weeks, Belousov said.
Officials and nongovernmental organizations say they are struggling to keep up with the flood of reported disappearances, and some experts say Ukraine’s criminal justice system is unprepared to deal with the vast number of cases. They also have proved especially difficult to investigate, since many of the missing people have been secreted away to Russia or Russian-held territory, putting them out of authorities’ reach, activists and officials say.
“But it doesn’t mean that we can’t do anything,” Belousov said in a recent interview. “We are instructing and telling our staff at our regional offices to not wait for the Russians to leave.”
Belousov’s focus is to ensure Russian perpetrators are convicted in eventual war crimes trials. When they can, investigators rush to the crime scene and gather evidence: They talk to witnesses and relatives, they search for fingerprints and forgotten belongings of Russian soldiers.
They also scan social networks and Russian media, where they often find videos of captured Ukrainians that offer tidbits of information to puzzle cases together and they interview victims who have been released.
Before the war, Belousov led a small unit of 45 people, investigating wrongdoings committed by Ukrainian law enforcement. Now, almost every employee in prosecutors’ offices across the country has been asked to investigate war crimes, he said.
The scale of atrocities has prompted international organizations, including the International Criminal Court and the International Commission on Missing Persons, to help document the reported cases.
The United Nations has recorded 210 cases of forced disappearances since the beginning of the war, its mission in Ukraine said in a statement to The Washington Post last month. Investigators have found that victims were usually taken at their home, workplace, or at checkpoints. Many men disappeared after being taken to “filtration camps.”
In most of these cases, the U.N. mission said, victims “were held incommunicado in improvised places of detention” – schools, government buildings, warehouses, barns and police stations. After days or weeks of detention, many victims were transferred to Russia, or Russian-held areas like Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, regions controlled by Russian-affiliated armed groups before the February invasion.
Only in rare cases have relatives received information directly from Russian military officials, the U.N. mission said.
The United Nations also has documented 11 cases of forced disappearances committed by Ukrainian law enforcement agencies.
Russian officials have in the past denied reports of kidnappings and forced dislocations, calling their alleged use of filtration camps a “lie” and blaming civilian harm on Ukrainians. The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment on the reported forced disappearances.
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In recent history, scholars trace the tactic of forced disappearances to Nazi Germany, when Adolf Hitler’s “Night and Fog” decree ordered the seizure of anyone in occupied territory who was “endangering German security.” They were transferred to Germany and effectively vanished without a trace. Since then, disappearances have been “the authoritarian’s gateway into violating people’s fundamental rights with impunity,” said Elisa Massimino, executive director of Georgetown Law’s Human Rights Institute.
Tetiana Pechonchyk, director of ZMINA, a Kyiv-based human rights organization, said the majority of the disappearances she has logged have come from Russian-occupied or recently liberated regions, such as Zaporizhzhia, Kherson and Kyiv. Once investigators gain access to occupied territory, the numbers are expected to soar.
Pechonchyk said Russian forces are targeting prominent community members, many of whom are actively involved in opposing the Russian invasion – journalists, activists, humanitarian volunteers and local officials.
“Why? To break local resilience,” she said. “The Russians saw how strong Ukrainian civilians were in opposing the war and so they have chosen precise people to send a signal to dissuade and stop this resilience.”
Olena Kuvaieva, a lawyer with the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, is compiling evidence of abductions for an eventual case in front of the European Court of Human Rights, where an emergency provision could compel Russia to release unlawful detainees or, at least, improve their living conditions. But there’s no guarantee Moscow would comply.
“We’re trying to create a situation where Russia is pressed from every corner – from the journalists, from the European Court of Human Rights, the United Nations, the international community,” Kuvaieva said. “We hope this pressure will work.”
But some human rights activists in Ukraine have said that the international outpouring has done little to deter Russian forces from committing such crimes. A case in The Hague’s International Criminal Court is nice, they say, but a verdict in the distant future does not prevent Ukrainians’ ongoing suffering.
“We have a completely ineffective international system,” said Matviichuck, of the Center for Civil Liberties. Despite the robust architecture of international courts and mandates “what we have learned is that they can do nothing.”
Massimino said the frustration is justified, but she argued the international justice system has improved in recent years, both at the intergovernmental and state levels, pointing to tribunals set up to prosecute war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and a growing infrastructure to support domestic prosecutions.
It will take both international and local efforts to deter and prevent war crimes, she said.
Ukraine took an important first step last month when it handed down a guilty verdict in its first war crime trial. Investigating and prosecuting a kidnapping or forced disappearance will be even more difficult, experts say.
“You can’t see a picture of a forced disappearance,” Massimino said. “It’s the crime of absence, the crime of invisibility.”
The practice has been used in Pinochet’s Chile and Argentina’s Dirty War. In Algeria, as many as 20,000 people disappeared during the civil war in the 1990s, and activists say the government is still denying the practice and suppressing information about victims. In Bosnia, investigators are still finding bodies of the roughly 30,000 people who went missing during the war there nearly three decades ago. And more recently, about 100,000 people have been reported disappeared in Syria and Mexico.
The human rights nonprofit Freedom House bluntly declared last year: “Impunity for perpetrators of enforced disappearances remains the norm.”
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After weeks of frantic efforts and sleepless nights, Buryak recently managed to orchestrate a plan he thinks will get Vlad home. He said the Russian counterparts have agreed to it, but declined to offer more details, fearing it could endanger his son and the negotiation process.
Vlad, who has been transferred to a different location, has slowly recovered his optimism and is “holding up strong.”
Buryak is hopeful, but with uncertain days ahead, he said emotion is a luxury he can’t afford.
“Vlad needs me like this: coldblooded, rational and wise,” he said. “I have no right to get into my feelings right now. When we free him up then we will cry, we will be happy, we will do everything.”
The months since also have been agonizing for Andrusha’s family. They have heard nothing from her Russian captors, but have learned through the informal whisper network of captured and returned Ukrainians that she was being held in a detention center in the western Russian region of Kursk, where human rights monitors say many others are also being kept. But their most recent information is from early May. Since then, nothing.
Andrusha’s family has contacted the Security Service of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, they have called every number they can find and filled out every online form available. They have plastered Andrusha’s photo across their social media feeds.
“What reaction can there be? Anger!” Iryna said. “The silence scares us. It’s a dead end. Since we cannot go there on our own, we cannot get any information.”
Still, the family has hope. A math instructor devoted to her work, Andrusha is beloved in the classroom.
“The whole school is looking for her – all of her students, their parents, honestly, the whole country,” Iryna said. “Everybody keeps waiting until we can finally post that she’s back home and she’s OK.”
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Irynka Hromotska contributed to this report.