By Gabriela Baczynska
KYIV (Reuters) – Nadiia Makarenko’s son Anton disappeared seven years ago after leaving his home near Kyiv to fight Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. She still does not know if he is alive or dead.
Through tears, she recalls how Anton, then a 24-year-old sergeant, got a haircut and then made the 800 km (500 mile) journey to the Donbass region in early February 2015 to join the Ukrainian forces battling the rebels.
Nine days later, his army jeep came under fire near Debaltseve, site of a key battle in a war that has killed 15,000 people to date, according to Kyiv’s estimates, and triggered several rounds of Western sanctions against Russia.
“They told us: ‘Anton is not there’. That was it. ‘Not there’. That’s all. They didn’t find him. They didn’t get the vehicle back,” Makarenko said.
Even as Russia masses more than 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine and the West warns of a possible invasion, for people like Makarenko war has been a fact of life for years, and there is no end in sight.
In searching for her son, she has appealed to the army and the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), the government and the rights ombudsman. She has fought in courts to have Anton recognised as a prisoner of war and included in lists for possible prisoner exchanges.
She refused to identify a burned body presented to the family, saying the deceased man was of a different height and age than Anton, and had different teeth.
Makarenko, 63, still receives Anton’s military salary of some $380 a month. According to one court ruling, he is being held in captivity. For the SBU, he is missing in action. For others, he is buried in eastern Ukraine.
“For me, it is not over,” she said. “I still have this feeling that, suddenly, the door will open… I know he will walk through the door. Absolutely.”
‘THE WAR IS NOT OVER’
Fighting erupted in eastern Ukraine in 2014 after Russia, enraged by the toppling of a pro-Moscow president amid mass street protests in Kyiv, seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and threw its support behind Donbass separatists.
The West slapped sanctions on Russia and has now threatened more measures if it invades Ukraine again. Moscow denies any such plan but is demanding security guarantees from the West, including a pledge never to allow Ukraine to join NATO.
Amid intense diplomacy aimed at preventing a full-blown war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has called for a new prisoner swap.
One of those freed that way in 2019 is Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov who was jailed for five years in Russia.
“Russia keeps on arresting and kidnapping our citizens. We have to fight for them… Releasing those detained and fighting Russian aggression are one and the same thing,” he told Reuters.
Darya Morozova, who deals with prisoners’ rights in rebel-held Donetsk, denied that they were maltreated, and said her side in the conflict was also seeking the release of 94 people held by Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, asked if Russia had information about Ukrainian soldiers or civilians held by the rebels and whether Moscow was willing to help organise an exchange, told Reuters:
“It’s not like that. Russia has nothing to do with this in general. In Ukraine they have become used in recent years to attributing their own problems to Russia. We are used to that.”
Ukraine’s presidency, Defence Ministry and SBU did not reply to requests for comment, including on whether there were any Russians or rebels detained in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s ombudsman says separatists are holding 314 Ukrainians, including 44 soldiers. A further 258 people are classified as missing in action in the east. Anton Makarenko is not among them.
Neither is Yurii Konovalov, a university teacher who was 54 when he joined a volunteer unit in eastern Ukraine. He was wounded on Aug. 29, 2014, as hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers were encircled and killed in Illovaisk. His fate remains unclear.
His sister, Tatiana Melnik, has since been supporting their elderly father, organising DNA tests and morgue visits, fending off swindlers offering dubious help to find him, and fighting authorities over alleged taxes he owed.
“As if our grief was not enough, we have to deal with such things as well,” said Melnik, who five years ago also teamed up with other women sewing camouflage nets for the front lines.
Like Makarenko, she refuses to abandon hope.
“The war is not over yet. We don’t have access to these lands yet,” she said. “Who knows who we’ll find there one day.”
(Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets in Kyiv, Tom Balmforth in Moscow, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Gareth Jones)