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In war-torn Ukraine, a digital hunt for missing relatives

In war-torn Lyman, hope comes from Telegram groups.

 

Anna Conkling

Tech

The posts come in each day—pleas of hope that someone, anyone, might know where missing people are. 

“We haven’t heard from them in weeks,” “the family is getting worried,” “their bodies may be badly burnt.” 

They’re from the residents of Lyman, Ukraine, who are using messaging platforms to find their loved ones and locate the dead. 

Most people say they are looking for those who disappeared over the last five months when Russia occupied the city. During that time, information about anyone was difficult to obtain. Russia’s brutal attacks on Lyman left the city decimated. It was once home to 20,000 people, but just 5,000 remain

In the chaos surrounding the fighting and Russia’s departure, there is uncertainty in the newly liberated city. Are missing people without access to contacts, unable to walk in a hospital bed, or one of the 200 bodies discovered in two mass graves? 

In May, a woman who asked to be referred to only as “Catherine” created “Lyman Online,” a Telegram channel to act as a resource for her hometown. The channel has over 3,200 members and Catherine posts pleas for any information on missing people from various platforms each day. Speaking with Daily Dot over Telegram messages, Catherine said she created the group because she had been working independently to help people find their missing loved ones. 

“At first, I was only helping people I knew, and then I started helping everyone,” she said. “People wrote in personal messages. There were too many. So I created a group where people write text messages, and there I send information.” 

Most requests for information came in during Lyman’s most intense fighting periods. 

“There was never a moment when there were more messages in the group. There is a rise in activity when communication in the city is lost, relatives are worried, so they write in this group.” 

Lyman fell to Russia in late May. The city in the Donetsk region of Ukraine is a railway hub, and Russia had used it to resupply its troops in the southern Donbas region. It was liberated on Oct 1, the product of a counteroffensive strike by Ukraine days after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he had made part of the Russian Federation. 

Recently, Catherine pulled a message from the group “Finding the people of Lyman”  on Viber, another messaging app, of a 27-year-old woman looking for information on her missing husband.  

In July, Ukraine’s ombudsman, Oleh Kotenko, said that as many as 7,200 Ukrainian service personnel had gone missing since the start of Russia’s invasion. Julia Slyusar knew one of them. She wrote that her husband engaged in a tank battle in Lyman on May 23 and that’s the last she knows.

“If you know something or have heard something from the Russians, please write.” 

She suggests that maybe someone pulled the body of Denis Slyusar out of the tank and buried him. Or, she wished, he might be alive. Taken prisoner perhaps.

Julia added, “So far, silence. Please ask your relatives. Husband’s height is 1.78-1.83 (meters). May be badly burned.” 

Speaking with the Daily Dot over messages on Viber, Julia said that her husband had been on the frontlines of Ukraine’s territorial defense since Feb. 24, the day the war began. She recalled packing at 6am that morning to go to her sister’s house and Denis, 28, writing her a message that evening.

“I love you very much. I don’t know when I will get in touch.” 

Over the next month, Denis fought in the Luhansk region, one of four regions Russia recently annexed. According to Julia, he was promoted to senior lieutenant and given an award for his leadership. But despite his work defending Ukraine, Julia said her husband “Never talked about his fights or how hard it was on him. On the phone, I always heard: Everything well, don’t worry.” 

The possibility that something could happen to her husband never occurred to Julia until the morning of May 22. That day, communication with Denis took a startling turn. Julia recalled that she spoke with her husband over the phone that morning, that his “voice was drooping, but as always, I heard [he] was fine on the phone.” 

The next day, she tried to call her husband, but he was not online. Julia has not heard from him since. 

Since that day, Julia has not known what happened. She has remained glued to her phone, to Telegram and Viber, looking for any confirmation about where Denis could be. 

In her search for her husband, Julia had been told by some in messaging channels that her husband “Died in the performance of the task,” while others said that he was missing. And for months, Julia searched Russian groups on various apps, looking for her husband’s body. 

She went to the police, where she wrote a statement about Denis and said that her husband had disappeared in connection with the war. 

Everyone “Throws up their hands,” insinuating there is nothing they can do. 

She visited a morgue where there were the bodies of 18 soldiers and said that it is hard to infer much from the remains. They were, she said, “just bones. With rings and chains” on their fingers and necks. 

The body of Julia’s husband, though, was not there. 

Julia continues to post in channels each day, hoping that something about Denis will come up. She has been told to check the mass gravesites in Lyman, email the Red Cross, and ask Ukraine’s military, to no avail. She is still hoping for an answer, any last chance to see the body of the person she loved.

“Many families will soon say goodbye to their loved ones. Our family still hopes that our Denis can be held captive. From May 23, life has changed so much. He tried to call every day. I love him very much, and I want this hell to end,” said Julia. 

Lyman had been torn apart by Russia’s invasion. Fighting, though, isn’t the only way people have gone missing. In the chaos that had unfolded over the last five months, hospitals worked to transport patients needing significant medical attention to other cities where they might be safer. But in the process, some have also disappeared, put onto buses with their family’s expectation that leaving Lyman might save their lives. 

Sept. 1 was the last time Julia Milko communicated with her mother-in-law, 76-year-old Valentina Milko. Julia only communicated with the Daily Dot for a few moments on Telegram before she could no longer be reached. She wrote that Valentina lost her eldest son on May 23. Shrapnel killed him. 

In the following months, Valentina health began to deteriorate, and after suffering from a stroke, she was sent to a hospital. On the last day Julia spoke to her mother-in-law, she was being moved to a hospital in Yenakiieve in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, over 300 miles away from Lyman. 

Julia said that now her family is told Valentina is not there. 

On Telegram, the echoes of Julia’s family are felt throughout the stream of people in the channel. Others write, “Help me find out the number of the Yenakiieve hospital,” and “Tell me how to take my mother from Yenakiieve? She was taken with the hospital from Lyman.” 

The hospital in a distant part of Ukraine has become a hub for finding the missing and wounded in Lyman. Locating lost patients requires a relentless search by people unwilling to let their loved ones become another casualty of war.

Sometimes, that hunt for information pays off.

At the beginning of October, a woman who asked to be referred to as “Valentia” asked for help finding her childhood friend, a 64-year-old man named Aleksandr Ivanovich Barabash. Barabash had stayed in Lyman throughout the war to take care of the elderly in the city. 

In late September, Barabash was in his neighbor’s yard preparing to deliver aid when he was hit by a blastwave from a  Russian aircraft. In its aftermath, Barabash was thrown to the ground, bleeding profusely. Barbash’s “Neighbor ran to the nearest checkpoint. Russian soldiers carried him out on a blanket and took him away,” Valentia said in a Telegram message exchange with Daily Dot.  

That was the last thing anyone heard about Barabash for two weeks. It was not until Oct 14 that Valentia found what had happened to her childhood friend, thanks to a Ukrainian refugee in Spain. Valentina lives in Kyiv, far from Lyman’s violence. Still, when Valentia heard the news of his injury, she immediately began to contact friends of Barabash and wrote a post.

“At the end of September, Aleksandr Ivanovich Barabash, who lived on Lesnaya Street, Triangle, was wounded. He was taken for treatment in an unknown direction. There is no more information about him. Perhaps he was taken to Yenakiieve or Luhansk. He does not get in touch. Please advise if there is any information about him.”

Barabash’s friends took to messaging channels throughout Ukraine, asking everyone if they knew what had happened. Later that day, Valentia received a Telegram message from Barbash’s cousin in Spain who said Barabash “Was wounded very badly. Shattered right femur, wounded in the abdomen. His kidney and spleen were hit. Doctors said he wouldn’t make it.” 

Despite his diagnosis, Barabash survived, and now he is still in the hospital, unable to get out of bed, without his documents, money, or phone. He has a long and painful recovery ahead. 

But Valentia said that Barabash’s friends are happy he survived and that “the most important thing is that he’s alive and that we found him. His friends will help him. Thank God he is alive.”

Without the channels Telegram and other apps provide, he might never have been found. 

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