For more than three years, eastern Ukraine has suffered conflict. Amid the world’s many other humanitarian crises, in Syria, or in Yemen for example, it can be easy to forget Ukraine. But the UN estimates that 10,000 people have lost their lives here since 2014. Thousands of families are grieving, and many, like Yuliia and Olha, have been condemned to wait for years to find out exactly what happened to their loved ones.
“These are our fathers,” says Yuliia, taking a framed photograph off the shelf. “This one is Olha’s father, Serhii Uzakov, and this one here is my father, Volodymyr Bondarenko.”
The two men disappeared almost three years ago.
“It was November 27th 2014,” remembers Yuliia. “A group of armed men broke into our fathers’ farm. People who saw what happened told us they wore camouflage, and balaclavas. And they knew our fathers’ names.”
In another village, close to the contact line, Elena waits desperately for any news of her daughter Yana.
“On September 17th 2014 my daughter went missing,” Elena explains. “We do not know the circumstances. We have had no news of her since that day.”
Elena and her parents are caught in an unbearable limbo of uncertainty, waiting to hear from their beloved daughter and granddaughter Yana. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, over one thousand five hundred people are still believed to be missing in Ukraine, although the exact number cannot be established with certainty. Until the missing are found, their families suffer.
“The main need of the families is to know what happened to their loved ones, based on the right to know that they have, also enshrined in International Humanitarian Law,” explains Mariana Chacon Lozano, who is Coordinator for the Missing File with the ICRC in Ukraine.
“Then they also have emotional, psychosocial needs,” she continues. “Because of the heavy burden that the uncertainty represents. Just not knowing often isolates them from their community: they are not very willing to talk about these issues, so that is also something that we need to take into consideration. And they also have financial needs; often it is the case that the person who goes missing is the breadwinner.”
The ICRC is a neutral and impartial intermediary, and it is working with all parties to the conflict to try to trace missing persons, and bring some certainty to their relatives. Tragically for many families, the long waiting often ends with news of the worst kind.
After almost three years of looking, Yuliia and Olha now know for sure that their fathers are dead, and they have at least been able to bury them. The end of uncertainty, and having a grave to visit, has brought them some relief.
“I come here,” says Olha. “I imagine that I am talking to him. I ask him for guidance. It’s as if we were talking on the phone: I call him and we just talk. And he answers, there is a sign of some kind; a bird sings, or the wind blows.”
The ICRC continues its support for families of the missing even after the fate of a relative becomes known. As ICRC psychologist Victor Blinov explains, being able to talk about their feelings can help families to regain a purpose in life.
“It helps them to start a normal life again, to continue, to move on in their own lives.”
But, Victor adds, “We are not talking about the healing of this trauma, healing of this loss – it’s impossible.”
Yana’s mother and grandparents are still waiting. The family’s grief and stress are compounded by the fact that it is not the first time they have had to mourn a missing loved one. Grandfather Aleksandr’s father disappeared in Germany in the second world war.
“We waited for our father,” remembers Aleksandr. “Our mother had three children. But our father never came back. It’s as if he vanished into thin air; he has not returned to this day.”
Aleksandr knows his father will now never come back. But Svetlana clings desperately to the hope that she will see her granddaughter again.
“Please, if possible, help us find our child” she says. “Even the smallest piece of information about her.”
Far from the front line, life in Ukraine may look normal at first glance, but for the families of the missing, it is anything but. Even if the conflict were to end, they will know no peace until they learn what has happened to their loved ones.
Facts and Figures
The ICRC has 640 open cases of people registered as missing in Ukraine. Work is ongoing trying to trace the missing, and to raise awareness with the authorities and the general public to ensure that information about the missing, and about unidentified remains, are shared.
The ICRC is providing psychosocial support to families of the missing in the Severodonetsk region of Ukraine.
Typical symptoms suffered by relatives of the missing are insomnia, nightmares, anxiety, and depression.
The ICRC has set up a cash assistance programme for 80 families of the missing in Ukraine: many suffer financial problems, because the missing relative was the chief income producer.