Posts Tagged 'missing people'

Love and remembrance

“We all love Vanya,” says Vika, smiling across the table at the young man opposite. “All the women love to have him round for dinner. He’s our hope.”

Vanya seems nice enough, fair and twitchy, with thin skin stretched tight over his skull. Probably no more or less lovable than a thousand other young men who got caught up in the war between the government and Russian-backed ‘republics’ in east Ukraine. Vika and all the women love him not for his blue eyes and scattershot attention, for what he did or didn’t do in the war, for the prejudices and inherited responses and experiences and fantasies that make up his personality. They love him as we’d probably all want to be loved: simply because he’s alive.

No, not quite that. Because he was lost, and is found. Because he came back from the dead.

“Our Vanya’s unique,” Vika told me, when she suggested I meet him.

After 8 May 2016 when he was taken off a bus at a checkpoint of the unrecognised ‘DNR’ in east Ukraine, Vanya was one of the war’s many missing.

The ‘DNR’ security services said he was dead, when they put a gun muzzle to Vanya’s head. They called his mother and told her that. Then they stopped calling.

The Ukrainian security services told his mother to stop looking for him, or hoping for him to come home, because he was dead.

There is nothing unique in this story. Vanya’s mother didn’t believe it and kept hoping, and in that she was not unique either, she was the same as Vika, whose brother went missing at a checkpoint in 2014; as Yadviga and Svetlana, whose sons vanished at the battle of Ilovaisk; as Lilya whose son went missing in Debaltsevo in January 2015.

DNA matches, photographs of bodies, gunshots heard over a telephone connection – none of it is enough to make these women give up hope. Not when there are psychics to tell them their loved ones are alive, and social media messages with photos showing them alive. Not when there are conflicting lists of dead and missing and prisoners. Not when the DNA samples get mixed up, the body parts, the names; when police dump identifying clothing and belongings from the war dead in fields. Not when there are basements and building sites and brick factories and illegal coal mines where hostages and slave labourers could be imprisoned for years. Not when there is Vanya.

In early 2017 the Ukrainian pilot Nadia Savchenko – captured in east Ukraine, sentenced in Russia then freed in an exchange – crossed the frontline to visit a ‘DNR’ prison. She shouted “Slava Ukraini!” (Glory to Ukraine) in a corridor. From a cell someone shouted back “Heroim Slava!” (Glory to the heroes).

It was like a magic password back to the land of the living.

“I’d written a letter to the ‘DNR’ security services, asking them to shoot me,” Vanya says, matter-of-factly. He’d been in so many different basements and cells by then. “I wasn’t right in the head any more. I couldn’t see any way out. I never got any parcels. All the others there got humanitarian aid parcels, except me. I never got any because I wasn’t there.”

And then, suddenly, he shouted two words and he was there. Savchenko published his name. He was added to the Ukrainian official list of prisoners held by the other side. In December last year he was exchanged for ‘DNR’ prisoners held by Ukraine, and came home to his mother.

There are many more details to Vanya’s story. Not all of them make sense. I could do the fact-checking, as much as is possible in Ukraine’s murky and brutal war where everyone lies about everything. But this is a story about love.

Vika wanted me to meet Vanya because he was found after being missing, alive after being dead – and that means they all can be found alive. Vika’s brother Sergey, Sveta’s son Maxim, Yadviga’s Andrey, Lilya’s Sasha. All the sons, all the brothers, the loved ones.

“Our Vanya’s unique,” said Vika. He tells the women he isn’t unique, there could be many more like him. He heard them, in neighbouring cells and dark basement rooms. Love never gives up, and neither does the desire to nurture hope.


Waiting and war memorials. Kyiv, 2015

Decency and solace

Kushugum cemetery, Zaporizhia, where Ukraine buries its unknown soldiers from the east Ukraine war. I was last here in 2015 and early 2016, for a funeral and an exhumation. It was the saddest, most desolate, temporary-looking place; alongside the heaped recently-dug graves with identical wooden crosses were gaping pits for new bodies.

Now it looks like this. Of all the graves here, four now have names on. One is Artyom Kalyberda, killed aged 24 in a military retreat from Russian forces at Ilovaisk in August 2014. He was identified by DNA match and after an exhumation the following year. His family believe he’s dead, and don’t believe he’s dead. Last time I saw his sister and his brother-in-law, they were still calling his phone, just in case, one day, he answers. Valera held his hand over Artyom’s  photograph and said it felt warm –  a sign that he’s alive.


One of the other graves still has the same number, more than two years after it was exhumed for a repeat DNA test at the request of a missing soldier’s mother. They sawed off pieces for a repeat sample right there in the cemetery. Then the body was buried again, and Luda, who after two DNA matches is still waiting for her son to come home, collected some of the earth in a handkerchief, and we went in search of a priest who could ‘seal’ the grave after it had been disturbed.

At the church, one of those officious women who clean the floors and snuff out the votive candles in the candle holders said “Is it an Orthodox grave?” “I don’t know,” Luda said. “You must know,” the woman insisted. “Because the priest can only seal it if the person was Orthodox. Was he Orthodox?” “I don’t know,” Luda said, clutching that dirty handkerchief. And I shouted at that woman, Don’t you understand, no one knows who he is, it’s a grave for an unknown soldier who went to war for your country, only God knows who he is but I know this is a desperate woman who has just stood over the open zinc coffin of a man she cannot believe is her son, not this greyish dripping thing in a plastic bag that’s been dead for eighteen months, and she has come to your church for decency and comfort and you’re saying you can only offer a blessing if it is an Orthodox grave?

And then we went outside the church and we shook the earth from the handkerchief onto a frozen flowerbed, because we didn’t know what else to do.

Kushugum cemetery is still the most desolate place in the world. I suppose the white gravel and granite look more official and orderly than the temporary mounds of earth and wooden crosses. But I think those were somehow better, because now it looks permanent, it looks like the fields of World War One white stone crosses, still unidentified after a century. This is a place; these are rows of numbers that should never become permanent.

There are an estimated 1000 unidentified dead from the east Ukraine war, and several thousand missing (military and civilian). There is still no systematic prisoner exchange, no system of exchanging DNA or other information across the line of contact, no coordinated search for remains. There will never be solace and decency, no seal, no end to the waiting.

Even the tea has a name

“What kind of tea would you like?”

We’re here to talk about dead bodies. But this is a sushi bar, and the music is too loud, and there has got to be tea.

“How about Sencha? It’s Japanese.”

“Sencha,” Yuri says, “Is a village in Poltava region.”

We’re here to talk about bodies buried under the wrong names, or under no name at all. We haven’t met before, and I never know how to start these conversations. I don’t know how to be professional, and I’m uncomfortable talking to soldiers. Maybe neither of us quite know how to begin.

We talk about Poltava region instead. I tell him about the village there I know, lovely and overgrown and tumbledown, one of those Ukrainian villages where you’d think nothing ever happened, although in fact a whole battle front was wiped out there once.

“The village with a beautiful hill?” he asks. “With a cross on the top? I was born in that village. I put up that cross.”

He asks in amazement: Do you know that street…? Do you know this family..? I ask. The turtles in the river? The mushrooms in the forest? I tell him about my last visit there, in September. It was perfect autumn weather, the sky a deep dark blue, the sun with a clean sharp edge to its warmth. Golden leaves fluttered down over the small whitewashed house beneath the hill, where the commanders of the Red Army’s Southwest Front met on 19 September 1941, to decide whether to surrender, or whether to keep fighting the surrounding German forces.

Altogether, 600,000 men in the Southwest Front were killed or captured in August-September 1941. Soldiers were mown down like grass coming over that beautiful hill, or as they forded that river full of turtles. The reedy marshes by the river smelt of corpses for years afterwards. My friend’s grandmother, baba Lena, then a girl, helped bury the unidentified bodies in a grave for unknown soldiers at the top of the hill.

gorodishe kirponos

The plaque reads: In this house on 19 September 1941 the last meeting of the war council of the Southwest Front was held under the command of General-Lieutenant Kirponos

“It was me who persuaded the local council to mark the anniversary of that meeting,” says Yuri. “I told them, an important historical event happened right here, and no one does anything to remember it. There are all those soldiers buried on the hill, and no one even knows where, let alone what their names are. That’s why I put the cross up there.” He pauses. “That’s why I’m doing what I do now.”

Baba Lena, I think, perhaps didn’t much want to remember. I tried to ask her about the war years once; she went abruptly and comprehensively deaf.

This September for the anniversary, about fifteen children – all the pupils from the school which serves three villages – turned out in their best vyshivanky, fidgeting their way through speeches. “The two weeks the army held out here,” said some village councillor, “delayed the German advance and determined the fate of Moscow.” “The Soviet Union wasn’t militarily strong in 1941,” said someone in army uniform. “And there was a repeat of that situation in Ukraine today; now the enemy is different but the main thing is still to love our country and be ready to die for it.” “In 1941 General Kirponos had a choice,” said a local historian, “to surrender with his thousands of men like Vlasov, or to fight to the end and die. He  chose to fight and die. They all chose to fight and die because they were real soldiers. The Germans,” went on the historian, “wanted lebensraum, living room, to settle this land for themselves. But those men who died in 1941 were heroes fighting for their land, and now we’re in a different war but we still need to love our land and fight and be ready to die for it.”

gorodishe kirponos

The leaves fluttered down, the fifteen or so children fidgeted, and the old men in decrepit old suits turned to watch when a bicycle or a cart loaded with gigantic turnips passed on the potholed road. I wondered if the speechmakers saw the irony in what they were saying. This land which so many people died for, which they were urging the young to die for again, is being abandoned daily. The Germans wanted living space but here is space where no one wants to live. These few children left will leave as soon as they can, because there is no work here, no money, no future. The fields of rich black earth are disappearing back into nature at its most intransigent, its most beautiful.

I wonder if it was such beautiful weather, that September more than 70 years ago. There were ghosts here, but not the ghosts of 1941. This landscape in Poltava region, weeds and maize and sunflowers, abrupt hills topped with trenches and escarpments built for previous wars, is exactly the same as Luhansk and Donetsk regions in east Ukraine. It was on top of just such a hill that I saw searchers like Yuri in 2015 dig up an unnamed body, a collection of bones in anonymous, rotting camouflage.

“He crawled out of the sunflowers,” said the local man who’d brought us there at sunset, to show where a year before someone had buried this man without a name, before the dogs ate him. “The Ukrainian column came at around six in the evening. The shooting started over by those bushes, and then they turned and went back and the bombardment started from there, from the plantation… He crawled out of the sunflowers. And here under the sloe tree he died.”

When you’re about to die, when you’re running for your life across a hillside, do you have time to notice the sunflowers and the sloe tree? Do you think: What a day to die! Do you think: How cruel and heartless it is; do you think: Thank god this will still be here when I’m gone. Do you love it; do you hate it; do you see it at all; do you wonder if your enemy sees it the same way as you. Do you think: This is my land and I’m glad to die for it, to be a hero for the future of this dusty weed-blown piece of shit that’s supposed to be my land even though I’m actually from Novosibirsk; Grozny; Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk? Or maybe you’re from Luhansk region, Poltava region, maybe you were born in this village, and you think: What a fucking irony, I’m going to die here right on the doorstep of my home, I’m going to be shot and drown in the river I’ve swum in since childhood, and my family will never know what happened to me. I’ll lie there forever under the reeds or I’ll be dumped in a common grave on top of the hill and my family will never know I’m there and will spend the rest of their lives waiting for me to come home.


Here lie buried the soldiers of the Southwest Front who died in September 1941. Eternal glory and memory to the heroes

We’re in a sushi bar to talk about dead bodies, and I wonder how Yuri, a soldier in today’s war who searches for the dead without names, thinks about all this stuff. Our tea arrives. Sencha from Japan. There’s a Japanese film that has a ghost in it with no name. The ghost can’t enter any house, because who would invite in a person without a name? It waits endlessly outside the door, a black, half-formed presence, begging wordlessly to be allowed to enter. At last a girl who has had her name stolen from her feels sorry for it, and asks it in. Once over the threshold, its hunger is so vast that it swallows up everything there is inside.

I turn on the dictaphone. Yuri begins to speak, and the tea gets cold, undrunk.


Hope (Day of the Disappeared)

Somewhere in the territory of the former Russian Empire, in the conquered lands of the Mongol Tatars, the plains and mountains once traversed by the Scythians, there is a labour camp. Perhaps it is mining gold, or mining coal, or uranium. It might be making bricks from clay out of the ground. It’s north of Arkhangelsk, it’s south of Grozny. West of Kyzyl, east of Lugansk. It’s as hidden and as well-known as the gulag.

The inmates here work all day digging things out of the ground. Heavy things; useful, valuable, prized. It’s hard work. The fences around are very high, or perhaps there are just untraversable mountains and steppe, forest and tundra on all sides, and it’s impossible to see a way over, through, beyond.

It’s East of the sun, in the land where the moon lives.

Here they all are, the missing ones, the ones we dream about. They are labouring here for things out of the ground, for gold or for bricks, unable to escape or just reach a phone or get out one single message. They have no money for a stamp, they forgot the number. But alive, oh, alive, all alive-o.

It’s hell on earth, this camp, fed by war’s inexhaustible deliveries of forced labour. And it holds heaven, if we could only find it. We can’t bear to think of our loved ones there, and we can’t bear not to. It’s beautiful torture, it’s hideous comfort to know they are there under duress. They’d come home if they could. It’s torture but it is believable, it is possible, it is probable as long as profitable to use unnamed unpaid unfree workers to dig things out of the ground. It can exist and they can be there.

David has been there since Abkhazia, 1992. Revan has been there since 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh. Igor has been there since 2014, Donbas.


Names of some of the missing from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

We carried a corpse of a soldier from the other side, literally carried it about for weeks, to exchange for our living son David. We buried it in the end, thinking, as we dug the grave, about David being forced to dig in that camp somewhere. Maybe no one wants it anymore; maybe we have to exchange something else. One day if we still remember where it is we’ll show our son that grave; what we did to get him back.

I never married, because it was my brother Revan who had to marry first and had to give me away at my wedding, and the dowry all went on a ransom for my brother who has still not been ransomed. Then it became too late for the wedding, but it’ll never be too late for Revan to come home.


Brothers and sisters: from before the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

We keep calling the number that once had an accented voice on the other end giving us a message from our dad Igor. It never answers. We check the social media account that once sent us information about the camp, and a photograph of Igor held there. The account is never active anymore. The messages were never enough to understand where that labour camp is. Whatever we do to find him, it’s never enough.

Tell us the camp is real, and our missing ones are all there. We paid for it, we wrote down the messages, we offered the exchange. We’ll always believe it.

missing posters kyiv 8.15

Looking for the missing: outside the Ukrainian presidential administration, 2015

Somewhere in the territory of the former Russian Empire there is a labour camp, where the inmates work digging things up out of the ground. Sometimes they dig up the bones of people no one will ever know the names of, and dream faces onto them.

They are all there, the missing ones, the ones we dream about. It’s hell on earth, and, if we could only find it, holds our heaven.




previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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