World

‘Where is he now?’ Kherson mother looks for son after Russian retreat

By Tom Balmforth

KHERSON, Ukraine (Reuters) – Anna Voskoboinik, a one-legged woman in a wheelchair, clinging to the help she received at a crowded humanitarian distribution point in the liberated city of Kherson in Ukraine, finds it hard to imagine life without her only son .

Russian troops, she said, arrested Oleksii, 38, a former soldier, at a checkpoint three months ago and never released him before withdrawing from the right bank of the Dnipro River after occupying the city for nearly nine months.

“Where is he now? I don’t know. I’d go to the end of the world to find out. He’s my only son. He was always close by. Now…” she said in tears.

In the chaos of a recaptured city with no power, running water or good mobile signal and where the roar of artillery fire still rings out, attention turns to hundreds of people believed to be in Russian custody or missing.

These include people such as Voskoboinik’s son, whose whereabouts are a mystery, and local residents who were arrested by Russian troops during the occupation and further deported.

Authorities say it is impossible to estimate their numbers in a vast liberated area where communications are patchy, mines are a threat and fighting continues with Russian troops across the river.

“There is a very big communication problem, especially in the countryside,” said Volodymyr Zhdanov, the Kherson regional administration’s missing persons contact person.

Russia considers Kherson its territory and subject to its laws after organizing a “referendum” that Kiev and the West condemned as an illegitimate farce.

Ukraine has recorded cases of abduction or disappearance of more than 900 people in the Kherson region since the start of the war, the regional prosecutor’s office said. These include local politicians, priests and ordinary citizens.

Of that total, 480 people have been released, but 379 remain in Russian custody, prosecutor’s spokeswoman Anastasia Vesilovskaya said. Nearly 400 civilians have been killed in unspecified Russian war crimes in the region, she added.

Zhdanov told Reuters the number of missing could be much higher.

“Unofficially, it could even be thousands, if we include the dead… We just can’t determine the number right now. When the area is completely devastated, we will be able to determine this,” he said.

The Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to questions about individual cases and the total number of missing persons in Kherson.

Nationally, the Hague-based International Commission on Missing Persons estimates that more than 15,000 people are missing, including detainees, those separated from their loved ones and people who have been murdered and buried in makeshift graves.

THE QUEST

Voskoboinik tried to unravel her son’s story by talking to a cellmate who had been held with him.

She said she was told her son had been drinking and was stopped at a checkpoint where his sheepdog grabbed a soldier’s trouser leg. The dog was shot, her son complained and was promptly arrested and taken to a police station, she added.

“I have already asked everyone (where he is) – the military, the police … to help me find my son.”

At St. Catherine’s Cathedral down the road from the wreckage of Kherson’s TV tower, Father Petro said that Ihor Novoselskyi, a fellow priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, was arrested and taken away by Russian troops on August 29.

He said he did not know where Novoselskyi, a relative who preached at the church in the village of Tokarivka on the right bank of the Dnipro, was or why exactly he had been arrested.

He added that Novoselskyi had turned 50 while in custody.

Maria Zaporozhets, a Kherson resident who left for Ukrainian-controlled territory in April, said her cousin Pavlo Zaporozhets, 32, was arrested in the southern city on May 9, the day Russia declared the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II marks.

Over the phone, she said the former soldier was held and tortured for three months in the basement of a Kherson police station, No. 3 Energy Workers’ Street, and charged with “terrorism” under Russia’s penal code.

Called “the Yama” – “hole” in English – by some during the occupation, that facility gained notoriety in the city because dozens of residents claimed they had been tortured there by the Russian occupiers.

Moscow has dismissed allegations of abuse against civilians and soldiers and has accused Ukraine of staging such abuse in places like Bucha.

Maria said Pavlo was taken to Crimea, the Russian-controlled Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Moscow in 2014, in August and placed in SIZO-1, a pre-trial detention center in the city of Simferopol.

He was assigned a Russian lawyer who refused to speak to Pavlo’s relatives, she said. The family raised the money for their own lawyer from whom they learned the details of the case. She believes her cousin is now in SIZO-2.

He could face up to 20 years in prison, she said, adding that Pavlo changed the testimony he had given against himself under duress when the new attorney took on his case.

“Our hopes are only pinned on a prisoner exchange,” she said.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; editing by Mike Collett-White and William Maclean)

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