By Tom Balmforth
KHERSON, Ukraine (Reuters) – Clutching aid she had received at an overcrowded humanitarian distribution point in Ukraine’s liberated city of Kherson, Anna Voskoboinik, a one-legged woman in a wheelchair, finds it hard to imagine life without her only son.
Russian forces, she said, arrested Oleksii, 38, a former soldier, three months ago at a checkpoint and never released him until they withdrew 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 would go to the ends of the earth to find out. He is my only son. He was always around. Now…” she said, crying.
In the chaos of a recaptured city without electricity, running water or a decent mobile signal, and where artillery fire still rings, attention is focused on hundreds of people believed to be in Russian custody or unaccounted for.
They include people like Voskoboinik’s son, whose whereabouts are a mystery, and residents who were arrested by Russian forces during the occupation and taken further away.
Authorities say it is impossible to estimate their numbers in a vast liberated area where communications are scattered, mines are a threat and fighting still rages with Russian troops across the river.
“There is a really big problem with communication, especially in rural areas,” said Volodymyr Zhdanov, the Kherson regional administration’s point person for missing people.
Russia considers Kherson its territory and subject to its laws after it held a “referendum” condemned as an illegitimate farce by Kiev and the West.
Ukraine has registered cases of abduction or disappearance of more than 900 people in the Kherson region since the war began, the regional prosecutor’s office said. These include local politicians, clergy and ordinary citizens.
Of that total, 480 people were released, but 379 remain in Russian custody, prosecutors’ 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 in the thousands if we include the dead … We just cannot ascertain the number now. Once the area is completely de-occupied, we will be able to ascertain this,” he said.
Russia’s Defense Ministry did not immediately respond when asked about individual cases and the total number of missing in Kherson.
Nationally, the Hague-based International Commission on Missing Persons estimates that more than 15,000 people have disappeared, including prisoners, those separated from loved ones and people killed and buried in makeshift graves.
Voskoboinik tried to piece together the story of her son 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 the trouser leg of a soldier. The dog was shot dead, her son complained and was immediately 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 the cathedral of St. Catherine down the road from the wreckage of Kherson’s TV tower, Father Petro said Ihor Novoselskyi, a fellow priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, was arrested by Russian forces on August 29 and taken away.
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 exactly why he had been arrested.
He added that Novoselskyi had turned 50 while in custody.
Maria Zaporozhets, a Kherson resident who traveled to Ukrainian-controlled territory in April, said her cousin Pavlo Zaporozhets, 32, had been arrested in the southern city on May 9, the day Russia marks Soviet victory in World War II .
Speaking by phone, she said the former soldier was detained for three months and tortured in the basement of a police facility in Kherson at No. 3, Energy Workers’ Street, and charged with “terrorism” under the Russian Criminal Code.
Dubbed “the Yama” – “hole” in English – by some during the occupation, this facility gained notoriety in the city when dozens of residents alleged that they were tortured there by Russian occupation forces.
Moscow has denied allegations of abuses against civilians and soldiers and has accused Ukraine of staging such abuses in places like Bucha.
Maria said that in August Pavlo was taken to Crimea, the Russian-controlled Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Moscow in 2014, and placed in SIZO-1, a 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 to their own lawyer, from whom they found out the details of the case. She thinks her cousin is now in SIZO-2.
He could face up to 20 years in a Russian prison, she said, adding that Pavlo changed the testimony he had given against himself under duress when the new lawyer took on his case.
“Our hope is only for a prisoner exchange,” she said.
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Mike Collett-White and William Maclean)