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Occupiers confirmed his innocence, but used him as a slave — stories of missing Balakliya residents

Human Rights Centre ZMINA has researched the stories of five missing residents of Balakliya in Kharkiv Region whose whereabouts are still unknown. These are Yuriy Holovach, Oleh Kryvonos, Vasyl Malet, Artem Pylypenko, and Volodymyr Zbukar, who were abducted by the Russians and held in local torture chambers.

Occupiers confirmed his innocence, but used him as a slave — stories of missing Balakliya residents
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Balakliya, in the Kharkiv region, was occupied by the Russian army for 191 days, from March 2 to September 8, 2022. During this time, according to the police, the occupiers abducted and illegally detained more than 200 residents. Some people were released, while others are still missing.

«Give us back our sons»

Elina Sulima: We have visited Balakliya many times and met with the families. They told us that their relatives are unfortunately missing. There are some positive aspects—we received letters from some of those illegally imprisoned by the Russians. There were reports that they were allegedly held in Rostov, but these were often not confirmed.

The thing that struck me the most was that during the occupation, people went to rallies when their relatives were abducted. They came out with posters saying «Give us back our sons.» Of course, the Russians did not let these people come near them, usually holding guns pointed at them.

These people even said: «What can we do to you? We are unarmed women, we stand for justice and want our relatives back.»


Read also: «No one has seen my son» — mother of Mykola Shcherbyna, illegally detained by the Russians


Why do Russians detain civilians?

Elina Sulima: The situations are very different. Most of the detainees are volunteers who tried to help people. Usually, they traveled to the territories controlled by Ukraine to provide food to the population. Additionally, some people were left without medicines and needed basic medical care. Volunteers brought food to support at least children and low-income families.

Another group of those illegally imprisoned by the Russians were ordinary people who, for example, went fishing. They were detained while crossing the checkpoint.

There was a case when a man was detained at a checkpoint. The occupiers confirmed that they had this person and would use him as a slave to dig trenches. Moreover, they stated that this person was innocent. He was detained for no reason, but they do not want to release him.

In addition, the Russians are forcing illegally detained people to walk through minefields. They make these people go first, followed by the equipment that digs the trenches, and then the Russians themselves. We do not know how many people may have been blown up and killed in the process.

Three of the five detainees are volunteers. One was detained while fishing. He was a business owner, and there is suspicion that he was «framed» by his competitors. There is information that they cooperated with the Russians and went to Russia after the de-occupation of Balakliya, but this is not known for sure.

There is no clear sequence or logic in the detention of these people. Usually, the occupiers detain individuals who hold a pro-Ukrainian position. For example, Zbukar, who participated in the war in Afghanistan, hung the Ukrainian flag on his building when the full-scale war started, clearly positioning himself as a Ukrainian. He was ready to go to war, but unfortunately, due to his injuries and psychological problems, he could not.

Instead, he decided to do volunteer work, helping with medicines because his wife is insulin-dependent. He went to obtain medicines for her and to assist others as well. He was detained at one of the checkpoints by the Russians and remains in illegal detention .

Another reason they don’t release detainees is when people don’t break under pressure. When individuals refuse to cooperate, sign documents, or betray someone, the occupiers often force them to do so. Not everyone can withstand these repressions, so the more resilient individuals are taken away by the Russians.


Read also: The Russians said: «We need your house» — the story of Serhii Dorokhov, abducted from Irpin


On the search for illegally detained civilians

Elina Sulima: These illegally detained civilians have the status of «missing persons.» Missing persons are usually not confirmed as prisoners of war, which is the responsibility of the International Committee of the Red Cross. When people apply to the Red Cross, they receive a standard answer: there is no information that the missing person may be in one of the places of detention in Russia or the temporarily occupied territory.

Relatives can only search for their loved ones through their own efforts, sometimes turning to Russian volunteers or lawyers for assistance.

It is known that some of the illegally detained people were held by the Russians in local basements. Torture chambers were discovered there, where people were kept for long periods. Some managed to escape, while others were taken, according to the Russians, either to Rostov or Belgorod, with Belgorod being a frequent destination. It is unknown where the Russians moved the detainees after that.

During the occupation, there were rumors among the locals that the occupiers might have buried illegally detained civilians in the local cemetery. However, the locals allegedly did not confirm this. After the war is over, we may face the grim possibility of finding missing people.

Who was involved in the abductions

Elina Sulima: There is Oleh Buslov, a colonel of the military police from Kaliningrad. He was the commandant of Balakliya. It is believed that he was involved in the abductions and disappearances of people. There was also «Sokol», his assistant. We still don’t know his name.

Even Reuters journalists contacted Buslov. He said that he was indeed in the occupied territory, but did not confirm that he was in Balakliya.

According to the locals, «LPR» and «DPR» members were the most prevalent in the city. They were the most brazen, stealing property, breaking into houses, and taking everything they could, often using Kamaz trucks to haul away the stolen goods. They also confiscated cars, forcibly evicted people, and occupied their homes, effectively leaving the residents with nothing.


Read also: «We need to get access to prisoners and give people clarity» — CEO of Amnesty International Ukraine


In times of war, the program «Free our relatives» tells the stories of people, cities, villages, and entire regions that have been captured by Russian invaders. We discuss the war crimes committed by the Kremlin and its troops against the Ukrainian people.

The program is hosted by Ihor Kotelyanets and Anastasia Bagalika.


This publication is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the framework of the Human Rights in Action Program implemented by Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union. Opinions, conclusions and recommendations presented in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, the United States Government. The contents are the responsibility of the authors.

USAID is the world’s premier international development agency and a catalytic actor driving development results. USAID’s work demonstrates American generosity, and promotes a path to recipient self-reliance and resilience, and advances U.S. national security and economic prosperity. USAID has partnered with Ukraine since 1992, providing more than $9 billion in assistance. USAID’s current strategic priorities include strengthening democracy and good governance, promoting economic development and energy security, improving health care systems, and mitigating the effects of the conflict in the east.

For additional information about USAID in Ukraine, please call USAID’s Development Outreach and Communications Office at: +38 (044) 521-5753. You may also visit our website: http://www.usaid.gov/ukraine or our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/USAIDUkraine.

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