Mykola and Natalia Navrotsky are from the small town of Dymer, about 48 kilometers from Kyiv. They last saw their son, Oleksandr, in March 2022, when the 33-year-old man tried to lead his family out of the then Russian-occupied region.
“Our son was taken by the military of the Russian Federation at the Dymer checkpoint when he was driving his wife and son from the village of Havrylivka to Hlibivka. They found something in the phone and detained him. His wife and son were released, they came home at night in freezing cold,” the Navrotskys said.
Dymer and neighboring towns in the Kyiv region had come under Russian occupation on Feb. 26, 2022. Roadblocks, arbitrary arrests and the torture of civilian prisoners quickly followed, according to the locals and Ukrainian officials.
“They took him away on March 8, 2022, they were severely beating him, they tortured him, then they took him to Hostomel,” Mykola and Natalia Navrotsky said in an interview, relating what they had learned from a neighbor who also was arbitrarily detained in the same prison until the Russian forces retreated.
According to the Media Initiative for Human Rights (MIHR), made up of Ukrainian journalists who investigate alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine, Russian forces created two prisons in Dymer, a town of about 7,000 people. In just more than a month of occupation, about 500 prisoners went through those prisons and about 50 of them are still in Russian captivity.
Navrotsky was kept at an industrial facility in Dymer until the retreating Russian forces transported him to Belarus, and finally to Russia, his parents said, based on information Ukrainian military prisoners of war who met their son in the prison in Russia.
“He is still in captivity. At the moment, we don’t know anything about his condition, what happened to him, or how and when he will return home — we don’t know anything at all,” the Navrotskys said.
Their son was able to send a note to them through the Red Cross last year.
“We know about his whereabouts as of August 29  — there was a note written almost a year ago, in April: ‘Hello. I am alive and well, everything is fine,'” the Navrotskys told VOA. They assume he hasn’t been moved since he wrote the note.
Several other residents of Dymer, whose relatives disappeared during the Russian occupation, told VOA similar stories.
About 25,000 civilians, like Navrotsky, have been taken from the occupied territories of Ukraine, according to Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian Parliament commissioner for human rights.
“These are civilian hostages, citizens of Ukraine, who were arrested by the Russian Federation and kept in captivity with no legal grounds. And more continue being detained en masse,” Lubinets said.
He said the arbitrary arrests and torture of civilians started during the occupation of Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions in 2014, “and all this continues.”
He said this is a “systemic pressure on the population” intended to intimidate Ukrainians and suppress the will to resist.
“This is their preventive work against everyone who may pose any danger to the Russian occupation authorities — former law enforcement officers, pro-Ukrainian people, former volunteers,” the Ukrainian ombudsman said.
Russian authorities do not comment on the detention of Ukrainian civilians. Russia does not differentiate between civilians and prisoners of war. Both are considered by the Russian authorities as those who were “detained for counteracting the SVO,” or special military operation, according to Ukrainian human rights lawyers interviewed by the BBC.
Russia rarely replies to queries from attorneys but Russian human rights lawyer Alexei Ladukhin did receive one while working for the family of another Ukrainian detained by the Russian occupying forces.
The Russian Defense Ministry told Ladukhin in a letter that information about “persons detained for countering a special military operation” is classified and cannot be shared with third parties.
The letter was signed by Major General Vitaly Kokh, the deputy head of the Main Directorate of the Military Police of the Ministry of Defense.
The Navrotskys say their son was beaten by the Russian soldiers so badly that the soldiers had to seek medical aid for him when he was still in Ukraine. His parents learned of this, as they have much of what happened to him, from one of the prisoners who was freed by the Russian soldiers.
The former prisoner said the Russians kept them in the dark, blindfolded to prevent them from finding out who was around them and where they were being taken.
Numerous former civilian prisoners, including some who spoke to VOA, said that people are kept without food and water in the Russian prisons and that torture is widespread, including with electric current.
A United Nations report published in June says civilians were often detained during so-called filtration procedures in the occupied territories because of their perceived support for Ukraine.
“We documented 864 individual cases of arbitrary detention by the Russian Federation, many of which also amounted to enforced disappearances,” Matilda Bogner, head of the U.N. Monitoring Mission, told journalists in Geneva while presenting the report.
The report documented 77 executions of civilian prisoners and one death due to torture.
According to documents obtained by The Associated Press dating from January, Russia plans to build 25 new prison colonies and six other detention centers in occupied Ukraine by 2026 in addition to at least 40 detention facilities in Russia and Belarus, and 63 makeshift and formal ones in occupied Ukrainian territory.
Desperate relatives are trying their best to attract the attention of authorities and international organizations to help get their loved ones returned from captivity.
“We appealed to all authorities, wherever we could, we went on a peaceful rally, we went on a peaceful march to attract the attention of society, the world community, to help bring our relatives back home, all those who are in captivity,” the Navrotskys said.
Lubinets said exchanges of prisoners do take place. They started after Russia first occupied Ukrainian territory in 2014 and continued until February 2022.
According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as of the beginning of June 2023, Ukraine has gotten back about 2,500 of its citizens from Russian captivity, including about 400 children and 150 civilians.
He explained that was it is difficult to negotiate the return of civilians because “you exchange military personnel for military personnel. … We do not have very many [Russian] civilians that we can exchange for civilians.”
This story originated in VOA’s Ukrainian Service.