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What to do when a loved one goes missing?

Petro Yatsenko, head of the press service for the Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War, provides recommendations for the relatives of prisoners of war, civilians in illegal detention, and missing persons.

What to do when a loved one goes missing?
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The Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War was established on March 11, 2022, on behalf of the government. The headquarters provides assistance to the families and relatives of Ukraine’s defenders who have been captured or gone missing, as well as to civilian hostages.

As of June 2024, more than 3,200 Ukrainian citizens have been released from Russian captivity.

Roadmap: actions to take if a loved one goes missing

Petro Yatsenko: The exact number of people released as of 2 pm on June 25 is 3,210. We are constantly working and negotiating, and we are always happy when we can increase this number.

Our roadmap is the only source of information. We are continually updating it, adding new ways of interacting with state authorities.

When it comes to missing persons or people who have been taken prisoner, relatives often want to shout to the whole world and tell them that such a disaster has happened. They want to call for help on social media and involve other people. This is a step worth considering.

However, people post photos of the missing and mark their geolocation. This can be harmful. There have been frequent cases when people do not get in touch because of weather conditions or are in hiding. The enemy sees this data on the Internet and can understand who to look for.

Be sure to talk about your trouble, but only with the state authorities. Unfortunately, there is a very high probability that fraudsters or enemy intelligence services will find you on the Internet. This can harm your loved ones.

Therefore, you should first and foremost contact the state authorities. All communications take place through the Mobilization Centers. They receive extracts from official investigations and pass them on to relatives.

It is important that before your loved one goes to the army, you have a notebook where you write down:

  • In which unit they serve
  • The name of the commander
  • Contact details of the commander and fellow soldiers
  • Personal vest number
  • Attach copies of documents

If you have agreed with your loved one when they will get in touch and the deadline has passed, wait another day or three and call their comrades and commander. If the answer is that the connection has been lost, then you can communicate with the Mobilization Center through the military unit. There may be different periods of time when the Mobilization Center transmits information that a person is missing. It happens that a person goes missing in the morning, and by the evening, the Mobilization Center already has this information. Sometimes it takes longer.

When official information is received, the most common status is «missing.» This is only the initial stage of work – the search. First, contact the National Information Bureau. This can be done online. There is a chatbot, telephones, and a 24/7 hotline. You need to send copies of documents, and your relative will be included in this database.

The second step is to write a statement to the local police department that a person has gone missing. Then a criminal case is opened, and you receive a criminal case number.

After these basic steps, there is a very extensive system of how to proceed. You can contact the SBU Joint Centre. You can contact the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The ICRC works only with families, not with government agencies. The family must open a case, submit a request through the ICRC, through Geneva to the Ministry of Defence of the aggressor country, to ask whether the person is in captivity. Unfortunately, Russia does not give us any official information. Therefore, the ICRC channel remains the only one. They can submit a dozen requests and get confirmation for the eleventh time. Now the Red Cross’s efficiency has improved, as more families receive confirmation that their relatives are in captivity. This does not mean that the confirmed person will be protected in Russia or in the temporarily occupied territory. But it does avoid the uncertainty of loss for the family.

Our roadmap is also relevant for civilians. Many civilians are de facto in captivity. De jure, they cannot be captured, but they are held as prisoners of war. The first steps are the same: contacting the National Information Bureau and contacting the National Police.

Read also: Accusations of «terrorism» and a plot for propaganda TV: Russians kidnap a Melitopol civilian

«For Russia, prisoners are an instrument of influence»

Petro Yatsenko: Trials against prisoners are expressly prohibited by the Third Geneva Convention. This is an absolute violation of all norms, including international law, and even the legal norms of the aggressor country itself. They are holding both non-combatants and civilians absolutely illegally.

  • Combatants are representatives of armed groups that take part in hostilities.
  • Non-combatants are representatives of armed groups who do not take part in hostilities. These include musicians, chaplains, and doctors.
  • Neither civilians nor non-combatants should be held as prisoners of war.

We can only find out about some people when they are brought into a courtroom and court documents are posted on a website. For example, there may be no information that this person was a prisoner of war; they might be listed as missing. In such cases, we see that they are actually in captivity. At least the fate of this person becomes known, and their approximate state of health can be determined if there is a video broadcast or photographs.

The very fact of receiving a sentence, despite all the absurdity of another country trying foreigners and handing down fairytale sentences of 15-25 years, means nothing. The Russians can still provide these people for exchanges.

We cannot exchange Russian prisoners of war for Ukrainian civilians because if we exchange 100, the Russians will capture another thousand people in the temporarily occupied territory. This will encourage them to continue banditry and kidnapping. Therefore, other mechanisms for civilians are in place. We are constantly making various proposals. The only question is the willingness of the other side.

We have offered convicted collaborators who are not military personnel but helped the aggressor country. Or, if Russia is very worried about the fate of Lenin monuments, why couldn’t we exchange a large monument for a certain number of our people?

According to international law, we are creating international pressure on the Russian Federation: diplomatic, economic, social, and so on. We want these people to be released.

Russia was not even interested in Medvedchuk. They did not immediately want to exchange him. Some time passed, and the negotiating team initially had completely different proposals. It was not about one for more than 150. This is a rather cynical process, unfortunately, because we are dealing with a state that does not value its own people. We have Russian prisoners of war recording appeals to Putin that they have been forgotten. Many have been in captivity for more than two years.

Ukraine views prisoners and operations as a humanitarian mission. These are people who need help to be released from captivity as soon as possible. The Russians treat Ukrainian prisoners of war as a tool.

We have absolutely no use for Russian prisoners of war. We are ready, conditionally, to load them all onto a train tomorrow and hand them over to get ours. But Russia does not want this. For them, our prisoners of war and illegally imprisoned civilians are instruments of influence. This affects a certain circle of people in Ukraine: family, friends, colleagues. There are tens, if not hundreds of thousands of such people. Russia uses this resource, as they see it, to undermine our society from within.

Read also: Closure of churches and raids on priests: What happens to religious organisations in the occupied territories

More about the assistance provided by the Coordination Centre

Petro Yatsenko: The Coordination Centre is necessarily partly involved in the organization of legal aid. We know which organizations, whether lawyers or independent, we can deal with. That is why I always ask families to contact us directly. We will advise and warn them about whom they should not deal with.

If someone writes to you in personal messages saying, «I’m a lawyer and I know where your loved one is and I’m ready to help you,» then there is a 99.9% chance that this is a fraudster. Lawyers or representatives of the Coordination Centre will never contact you directly.

Fake pages are periodically created on Telegram and Facebook that send requests to families, pretending to be officials or the Coordination Centre. We constantly ban these pages, but the fraudsters create new ones.

We have something to say about legal support: we provide any legal assistance absolutely free of charge.

We have specially created a personal account on our website that is integrated with the action. It is very easy to register there, and you can transfer all the data about your loved one. There are more than 150 fields, such as religion, nationality, etc., where you can enter data. Many people skip some fields, but they can be very useful for exchanges. If you want to increase the chances of your loved one’s exchange, please take the time—a few hours—to fill in as much information as possible. We need this information to find these people and get them out of captivity.

There is also a point where you can report fraud or attempted recruitment. Fraudsters understand that relatives of prisoners are in a very vulnerable situation, making it easy to manipulate them. These people often don’t know what to do about it, and they shut down. So please contact us, and we will help. We have experts who can give you specific advice.

Additionally, do not disclose your personal data or details of your missing person’s life, such as if they are a scout, sniper, or have received a medal. This has a negative impact. Many of those we have released would not have been freed if the other side had known such details.

Read also: With a bag over my head, I heard the sound of a gun: a journalist’s story after 15 days of Russian captivity

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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