When Russian troops arrived, their relatives disappeared
A local official and a journalist’s father were abducted. Their families’ stories are part of a pattern of disappearances in Russia-occupied Ukraine.
Update, April 12, 2022: Viktor Maruniak was released as of Tuesday, according to his relatives, and is recovering in the hospital.
On March 21, Natali called her father to wish him a happy birthday. It was Viktor Maruniak’s 60th, but, on the phone, he sounded sad and nervous. Maruniak is the starosta, or elected head, of Stara Zbur’ivka, a village more than an hour outside of Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine. Russian forces now occupied it, Maruniak told Natali. He would call her back later. “And I told him, ‘Okay, I will wait for you, please call me back,’” she said.
Natali’s father never did.
She learned later, through relatives, that Russian soldiers took Maruniak from the home he shared with his wife. On the morning of March 23, Russian forces returned, with Maruniak in handcuffs.
The Russian soldiers searched the house, relatives told Natali, though what the soldiers were looking for remains unclear. They ripped the flowers out of their pots. They found the money, even the bills they’d hidden carefully, and they took that along with other valuables, and the candy and the nuts. They destroyed the furniture. The soldiers examined a hole in the yard dug by the dog, suspicious of the loose soil.
“Woman, calm down,” soldiers told Maruniak’s wife, according to Natali. “Maybe it’s the last time you see your husband.”
She saw her husband one more time, on March 24. He returned again with soldiers, though this time, they covered their faces. “Feed him, change his socks, and give him his medicine,” they ordered Maruniak’s wife. As she did, she noticed his legs were bruised blue. There was another bruise on his right temple, another on his arm. Maruniak said nothing, only that it was cold where he was being held.
That was the last Maruniak’s family saw or heard anything about him.
Maruniak is among dozens of local officials or community leaders who have been abducted or arbitrarily arrested by Russian forces as they seized territory in Ukraine, especially in the east and the south. These disappearances are both an attempt to coerce cooperation and a targeted effort to silence and intimidate Ukrainians who may oppose or organize against a Russian occupation.
The disappearances, said Tetiana Pechonchyk, the head of Human Rights Centre ZMINA, a Ukraine-based organization, are intended to “stop the resilience of local population and to incline the local mayors, active members of local communities, who have authority in this community, to press them to collaborate with the occupiers.”
The United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has documented about 109 cases of suspected detention or enforced disappearances among civilians since February 24, including 48 local officials. The UN and other human rights groups have confirmed disappearances among other members of civil society: volunteers, activists, journalists, religious leaders, protesters, and former military veterans. (Vox reached out to the Russian Embassy for comment, but did not receive a response.)
Anastasiia Moskvychova, who has been tracking disappearances for ZMINA, says they have confirmed more than 100 arbitrary detentions since February 24; about 50 people are still missing.