The frigid dawn of February 24th, 2022, brought with it an unrelenting storm of chaos and despair as the Russian Federation unleashed its military might upon Ukraine’s sovereign lands. As the world watched in horror, the invasion played out like a dystopian nightmare, tearing apart the fabric of a nation, shattering lives, and silencing voices that had once resonated with hope and leadership.
Imagine, if you will, the streets of Ukrainian towns and cities, once bustling with life and vitality, now reduced to eerie, desolate landscapes. The cacophony of everyday life replaced by an unsettling stillness, punctuated only by the distant rumble of tanks and the mournful cries of sirens. Against this grim backdrop, masked soldiers descended upon mayoral offices, council chambers, and homes, their faces shrouded in darkness, their motives hidden in the shadows.
These invaders seized the custodians of local governance, those who had been entrusted with the welfare and prosperity of their communities. These mayors and officials, pillars of their neighborhoods, were torn from their families, their obligations to the community, and their sense of purpose. As the world’s attention remained fixated on the overt horrors of war, the fate of these leaders remain obscured, known only to those who orchestrated their abduction. While some have been released and can tell us of their tortured days in captivity, there are still others the world has not heard about in over a year. Their whereabouts and condition are unknown to families, lawyers, officials and Russia gives zero indication of when or if they will ever be released.
Dear Reader: This will be part of a series exploring the conditions both prisoners of war and their families endure. In a series of interviews and cases, we will look at how each of these families are impacted by this war against Ukraine by the Russian Federation.
In those early morning hours of February 24, 2022, across the perimeter of Ukraine’s borders, the sounds of war arrived before many residents could see the monsters that were coming. The citizens of Ukraine may have been tense about the news of a pending invasion but for many close to the borders, it was all too real now. The incoming Russian Forces rode through villages to get to the first towns surrounding Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, Kherson, Melitopol, Mariupol, and Mykolaiv.
By imprisoning mayors, deputy ministers, and commanders, the Russian Federation’s grip tightened on the psyche of the local inhabitants. In this artful manipulation, they aspired not only to shape the minds of the populace to their own whims but also to bolster their authority, thus compelling a more obedient response from the national Ukrainian leadership. It was a maneuver straight from the annals of totalitarian tactics, where the puppeteer seeks to control not just the strings, but the very souls of those marionettes whose destiny hangs precariously in the balance.
During the initial throes of the all-encompassing invasion, a scores of mayors and leaders were kidnapped by the Russian forces. Further abductions unfolded as the Russian occupiers began to firmly establish their presence in segments of Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Kharkiv in the north, to seize Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson, and extending their grip further into Luhansk, and Donetsk. This grim reality compounded the enduring ordeal of leaders already held captive since 2014, a shadow that stretched through the present day.
Kidnapping mayors and officials was the path for the Russians to gain both authority and intelligence on the local communities. There have been many mayors and officials who have been kidnapped that were later released but many have been completely disappeared and their condition and locations are unknown.
There are organizations and legal experts who are documenting these abductions and tracking the locations of political prisoners in Russian controlled territories. The Zmina Group is one of those organizations. Focused on the legal cases, according to Zmina Group reporting there are at least 132 cases of captures, which 14 officials still in captivity, and 4 who were killed. As Zmina researcher Borys Petroniok stated, “they are the source of information about the community, government infrastructure, the authorities, the military, the police, and the communal systems” By stealing the documents and people, the Russians demand to know, “who is in charge?”
The goal of these captures it to seize local social capital, to legitimate their occupation, and right to exercise power. By capturing these mayors and leaders, they seek to rewrite the authority structure through collaborators and traitors who seek favor with the Russian occupiers.
Lets look at some of the examples of these abduction stories.
HOLA PRYSTAN: OLEKSANDR BABYCH
In Kherson Oblast, the small village of Hola Prystan initially avoided immediate invasion on February 24th. But a month later, that had changed. Russian forces were combing through nearby villages. Local Ukrainian authorities did all they could to maintain some stability for food and medical needs. The people needed leadership to keep things moving for citizens that were largely older and less likely to be able to leave.
Answering this call, Oleksandr Babych, the mayor of Hola Prystan would lead the operations for humanitarian aid, food preparation, bread distribution and other arrangements were carried out across the region. This even included boat operations across the Dnipro river to Kherson for supplies. Babych worked with other administration workers like Svitlana Linnyk, Deputy Mayor of Hola Prystan, to ensure the services needed for the people were sustained.
In addition, Babych knew that there would be a need to prevent looting and organized people to keep vigil and prevent looting and destruction. But the Russians would eventually overrun these checkpoints and start pushing into these areas. Although the village had avoided direct occupation for weeks, now Russian forces finally descended on Hola Prystan and the abduction of local leaders would begin.
For example, the leader of the Star Zburivka village, Viktor Maruniak, was kidnapped on March 21. Viktor Maruniak was tortured by the Russian forces including breaking his ribs and use of electric shock torture. He was released on April 12, 2022. He was captured with other men. After being rendered they were beaten, stripped and held captive in subzero temperatures. Then he was tortured under demands to tell them about available weapons and supplies.
Like seen in other examples, Russian captors demanded that Maruniak he turn on this fellow Ukrainians, cooperate and then return as an informant back into the community. Unfortunately for the Russians, many leaders did not comply. In many examples, the local leaders were empowered by the local community to even hold protests and tell the invaders that they were not welcome and the town, the village or the city would insist, ‘This Was Still Ukraine’.
The village of Star Zburivka village was just down from the road from Hola Prystan, the next destination for the invaders. The Russians were hunting for leaders and soldiers and even told Maruniak they had already captured Babych, though this was not true until March 28, 2022. This was when the Russian forces returned in force and detained Babych and others. He has been in captivity ever since and it is presumed he is being held in Semferopil, detention unit number 2, a pretrial detention center.
His wife, Olha Babych tells us about what happened with her husband and how he continued his work even as pending trouble awaited him:
Olha Babych, wife of Oleksandr Babych, kidnapped mayor of Hola Prystan; –
Since the beginning of the war, the occupiers came into our town, occupied it, the first days of the war, but they tried to remain within the forest strips. There were some checkpoints, the town could continue living its normal life and we were very much hopeful that nobody would attack us because this trouble had never occurred to us. We were still believers that they would see that the people were patriotic and we would organize different kinds of meetings and rallies in favor of Ukraine.
The majority of people were still proponents of Ukraine. People were not afraid. They were always ready to articulate their pro Ukrainian stance. And we were very much hopeful that it wouldn’t last. That somehow our troops, our army would come and liberate us. But the situation, unfortunately, went in contravention of our expectations. During that time, we lived our normal lives. People were confused. They were very anxious because in the whole territorial community, we didn’t have many representatives of authorities, we didn’t have police officers or any militants who could put up somehow resistance for us. All the people were looking for rescue to come from the heads of the local administrations.
People, who were holding on to some of the ministerial positions. Humanitarian aid was being delivered. The town and our region, you see geographic wise, it is kind of blocked, therefore all of the foodstuffs hadn’t been brought into our region since the beginning of hostilities, and the town mayor was trying to arrange for food supplies, bread, flower, supplies, in the first days of the war, unfortunately we had exhausted all the supplies of that.
So the supplies were only delivered from Kherson, and as you know Kherson was also occupied from the first days of hostilities. Also we didn’t have any representatives of the police and people, some people, I’ll call residents, you know, like they say, it’s no good wind that brings no gain, even if time of war, so some such people started to gain their interests. The local residents were keeping guard and watch of law and order. This is how we were trying to continue living and working. Trying to support the locals because there was just one individual that everyone was looking up to, expecting help and assistance to come. This was my husband. That’s why, every day he would go around his territorial community. He would just show his driving license. Nobody knew he was town council head. He would go around all the headmen, to the elders in the local settlements, speaking to the local population.
At the time of this article, her husband is still in captivity. Information shows that he is being held in a prison opened in Crimea that is currently holding political prisoners from Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. Despite no known charges, Babich is still being held and no lawyers or representatives have been able to contact him or verify his captivity or condition. Crimean Human Rights Group stated that there are approximately 110 Ukrainians in captivity at this location.
THE OFFENSIVE IN KHARKIV: THE CAPTURE OF MYKOLA SIKALENKO.
Then came the case of Mykola Sikalenko from Tsirkuniv in the Kharkiv region. After the invasion began, initially, Sikalenko was taken by two soldiers on early morning of March 3, 2022. He said they insisted he give over town documents, especially related to soldiers and maps. However, these had already been either destroyed or secured away from Russian forces. Sikalenko resisted their demands to cooperate even as they threatened him. For weeks, they carried on elsewhere, but on March 21, 2022 at 7 am, they detained him again.
Mykola Sikalenko tells us what happened when they came for him
Mykola Sikalenko, a victim of a violent kidnapping, head of Tsyrkuny Village Military Administration;
Our village of Tsyrkunivsk is 25km from the border with the RF and we were occupied at 7am. At 8am, they were already traversing the territory of our local community. It happened very quickly. Btw, there was a very good battle at the crossroads. This battle put up a lot of resistance before they receded. For a week it was peaceful and quiet then the Russian Guard Rosgvardia came in then they existed, DNR, LPR came in and began to rob the local population. First at night and then they would it by daylight. They would just come to the houses to loot the empty houses of their property.
I was detained 3 times. The first time was on 3rd of March, then on 21st of March, they detained me for a week and then they let me go. Then the Russian troops withdrew and then they came back. I think about the first of April they came and once again they detained me the third time, for one day. They wanted me to collaborate all of the three times. A line established, “look, you’re the head of the local community, so collaborate, cooperate.” I responded with, “I’m the head of the administration but not under your authority. Then they tried to freeze me for a week. Kept me without food. They would give me some water, but kept me without food, freezing chambers, subzero temperatures, just to make me more subservient, but they failed. So this is my brief story.
The Russians withdrew from Chernihiv in April 2022 after just over a month, but they did not return Anatolii Syryi. As with Sikalenko, the Russians withdrew from the region last year and yet, his whereabouts remains unknown. Here is his son and wife telling us about his capture.
Yevhenii Syryi and Olena Syra, relatives of kidnapped Anatolii Syryi, Head of Novi Borovychi village;
“Novi Borovychi is in Chernihiv region. The man who is our relative has always come under lots of authority and very much highly respected by the residents of the local village, by the students of the local village because he is also a teacher in the local village.
So when this invasion started, and our village is near the border with the Russian Federation, so people people woke up early in the morning because they had heard a war, not from the news but with their own ears. And of course my father, Anatoliy, assumed all responsibility because he has always been like that. He’s highly responsible. He assumed responsibility for the welfare of his fellow villagers. First of all, this is related to food supplies. Because in fact, from the first hours, the village turned out to be encircled. The military went through another village, but our village was to the side. There was no connection with mainland Ukraine at the time. In order to find some medication in our village he would also go and look around the houses because we had a great number of senior people so he took care of them. So we found some flowers, some bread and we spread it. Sometimes half a loaf of bread, sometimes a third of a loaf would go to a family.
Because the authorities had left or maybe not had left but there were no policemen around, so he helped organize the patrolling of the village to avoid looting and he organized the local men in the village. Just to make sure there were checkpoints behind some trees and in fact I was not a witness to that because at that time I was staying in Kyiv. From our telephone conversations he relieved the problems of the village 24/7. Sometimes he would stay away from home for 24 hours just to try to establish the best possible conditions for the villages.
“For a while I stayed together with my husband in the village. My son has already told you that my husband commands a lot of authority. It is not because it is my son and it is my husband, but because he is a very well known man and a very descent man at that.
We heard the war start. At 5 am, we could hear guns shooting and my husband immediately went to the local council. The communication was difficult to establish with the authorities because everyone had left. What kind of mode of behavior so nobody could answer this question, so he took it on his own liberty because local authorities were not helping in anyway. My husband was in charge of tackling all the problems for the fellow villagers. People had no money, no medicine, no food. Burying the dead, unfortunately people never ask you when to die so getting the coffin you had to go through the Russian checkpoints. It was extremely dangerous depending on the mood of the Russian checkpoint controllers had you might stay alive or not.
The civil position my husband assumed was very clear and he was run by the moods and sentiments of the local villagers. Everyone was ready to resist the occupying authorities.
I suppose on the 28th of February,…first I must say, we had a system of signal lights between the villages in place and a signal had come to us that Russian heavy machinery and vehicles would be going through your village and my husband had immediately mobilized everyone at the end of the village.
People began to build blocks to resist this machinery from going through our village. He wasn’t telling me about any of that because he was probably trying to protect and save me from that but from my balcony I could see my men trying to resist an armored vehicle and I saw a vehicle nearly ran over him but the Ruscists managed to ran through. My husband was able to stop their control carrier, some pieces of equipment was thrown under the wheels. There was a traffic accident and part of this equipment, military equipment because my husband made sure the road signs had been removed. He began to explain to them, you are occupiers, this is not your place, you are not supposed to be here and he persuaded them. He spoke to the commander. They were angry with him, he was angry with them and eventually he was managed to convince them and they moved to another village on the border of Russia and Belarus. That was the end of the situation. I virtually never saw him at home, he was always staying busy. He was always needed by people.
Then on March 29th, a jeep came into our village from the Russian occupiers. They were looking for the elder men. My husband was outside at the local office. And the guys from the local checkpoint, gave him a telephone call. And they said, “hide, because they’re pursuing you.” My husband said, “I’m not going to hide”. He was in a car together with his friend but his friend said let me take you out of the village, just wait up and wait and see…but my husband said no, I will go and will be talking to them.
So my husband was busy dealing with his things when they suddenly opened the door with the kick of their leg and wearing balaclava, some with arms, very cynical and brutal. They began to be beat him. They blindfolded him with his own jacket. They tied up his hands and started looking for arms. So you understand what kind of treatment he was given by them. He was taken home, and my youngest son was threatened at gun point. They took away all the money, all the phones all documents and he was taken out of the villages and as of know we do not know where he is. We do not know his whereabouts. The Russians are not confirming if he is dead or alive.
These are just a few examples of the situation at hand and we will continue to track these cases with these organizations. The occasional release of captive Ukrainians will not alleviate the pain for those who hear nothing of their loved ones. The need to shine a light on these political prisoners and conditions continues. Russia plays by its own rules and does not intend to abide by international law.
We thank you for listening to this episode and hope you are more informed about the situation facing Ukrainians as families and citizens. The war continues and our effort to bring these stories to you will continue as well. Thank you for your support.
Next week, we will discuss the abduction of Ukrainian children and the efforts to bring them home. Until then….Thank you for listening.