"Come in," the stylish middle-aged woman says as she leads me into her bright spacious kitchen. Her husband disappeared without a trace in March last year when he was driving from Donetsk, the capital of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) in war-torn eastern Ukraine. His elderly mother was feeling unwell, and he was on his way to her home in a nearby town, to bring her to Donetsk. He called his wife about 30 minutes after he had left to say that he was already half-way there. A few hours later, she called him back, wondering what was taking so long but his phone was off. He's been missing ever since.
"Don't mention my name to anyone. Or his name. I don't want the authorities to know that I've been talking to you!" the woman, let's call her Anna, says frantically. To be honest, I'm taken aback. The issue of missing people in armed conflict is something I'm deeply familiar with, having worked in Chechnya for many years. Up to 5,000 people went missing in Chechnya during the recent protracted and bloody war - many of them as a result of enforced disappearances, having been led away by military or security officials. Over the years, I interviewed hundreds of Chechens searching for their loved ones, knocking on every door, using all official and unofficial channels available to them, paying exorbitant amounts of money for any scrap of information, taking great risks in their desperate quest. Anna's plea for anonymity is striking - doesn't she want her husband's case raised?
Bending over the table, she explains that the legal chaos in the breakaway region made it very difficult to file a missing person report. After police finally agreed to register her case, she kept calling on the investigator for progress reports. But soon he started suggesting that Anna's husband had merely taken up with a mistress, or was on a drinking binge, and then he told Anna,
"I'm pretty sure you killed him yourself! We'll be thinking what's to be done with you." Anna was so frightened that she fled. "I only dared to return to Donetsk recently, she says, sighing. "I don't know who took my husband - these armed people who're everywhere or some common bandits, or bandits among the so called military and security officials. I'm too scared to ask more questions, to push for an investigation. What if I also disappear as a result?"
Human Rights Watch learned of dozens of cases of missing people when we were working in eastern Ukraine last month. Most disappeared on the road, either while travelling in DNR or from DNR to government-controlled parts of the region. In some cases, it's clear that they disappeared in DNR-controlled territory. Others may have disappeared on the government-controlled side.
What the cases have in common is that the de facto DNR authorities do not seem to be making serious efforts to find the people who disappeared or even establish what happened. Many relatives we interviewed said that DNR officials discouraged them from asking questions about the investigation and even threatened them to "keep quiet or else." Some were eventually intimidated into silence.
Anna is one of them.
Tanya Lokshina is Russia program director and senior researcher at Human Rights Watch