“We demand to find our loved ones, to add them to the lists of prisoners of war who have gone missing,” reads the appeal, signed by 106 people. The message went on to demand a meeting with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and accuse the Russian Defense Ministry of “blocking” efforts to change the status of the soldiers who’ve gone missing, which affects whether efforts are made to return them home.
Families accused the Defense Ministry of feeding them lies about their loved ones’ whereabouts, with military officials offering reassurances that the men are alive, only for other officials to claim just hours later that they actually died.
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“On April 3 I got a message from the other side (Ukraine) that he was killed. They (the Russian soldiers) had no telephones or documents with them. I immediately called the military base. I said I was informed that my husband died, and they responded: ‘No, no, no, don’t worry. They’re already pulling them out.’ And then on the 4th, the deputy political officer calls and says, ‘He burned to death, there’s nothing to collect,’” Anna Danilova was quoted telling the news outlet of her search for her 47-year-old husband.
She said she spent several days exchanging messages with someone who identified themselves as a member of Ukraine’s military, who told her that her husband had survived and was being treated in a hospital.
But efforts to “get through to someone” on the Russian side to help secure her husband’s return have proved futile, she said.
“They tell me: ‘Prove that he’s a prisoner.’ I know that on June 1, they took him from the hospital. I won’t say which city the hospital is in, I’m afraid of that doctor. I’m afraid to give this interview, but what am I supposed to do? If this is a criminal offence, I’ll do the time, just give me my husband back.”
Irina Chistyakova, a mother who was one of the authors of the appeal to Vladimir Putin, said Russian military officials have given her three contradictory accounts of what happened to her 19-year-old son: that he was alive and still taking part in the war, that he was being held prisoner by Ukrainians, and that he’d been killed.
“In early June the commissioner for human rights Tatyana Moskalkova received a response from the Defense Ministry, that my son is alive and being held illegally by the Ukrainian side. How did he get there, and what does ‘illegally’ mean? He illegally wound up in Ukraine,” Chistyakova was quoted saying.
“He was sent there on the criminal order of commanders and under false pretences. It was [supposed to be] the border with Ukraine, not across the border. They seriously deceived him and the others,” she said, adding that she has faced threats for sounding the alarm over Russia’s treatment of its own troops.
“My life is in danger, and that danger comes directly from the military. One colonel told me: military men are psychos, if you push this, something irreparable will happen, … I responded that this is my son and that scaring me with a bullet to the head is stupid. The colonel responded that he was not scaring me, but warning me, that military men are psychos,” she said.
Larisa, the mother of another soldier who vanished in Ukraine, told the news outlet she had also been threatened for demanding answers from authorities: “They called me from the FSB [Federal Security Service] and said: Be quiet!”
All the families said the Russian Defense Ministry has made no efforts to help them, something Chistyakova said demonstrates the “indifference of authorities all the way from the president to municipal authorities.”
The appeal comes after Ukrainian authorities have repeatedly said Russians refuse to collect the bodies of their dead troops, presumably in a bid to keep the staggering death toll under wraps. The Russian Defense Ministry’s most recent death toll was announced back in March when officials said only 1,351 soldiers had been killed. Russian news outlets were later ordered not to print any information on troop deaths, according to local reports from early July.
Instead, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine has gone into overdrive to sell the war against Ukraine as a matter of pride for ordinary Russians, with state-run TV airing a segment last week about the shiny new Lada a man was able to buy thanks to the compensation funds he received for his son’s death in Ukraine.