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Piecing Together A Suspicious Death Deep In Russian-Occupied Ukraine

Russian soldiers stand by the waterfront in the occupied Ukrainian city of Skadovsk, Kherson region. Meanwhile, the people of the town "live in fear," one resident told RFE/RL.
Russian soldiers stand by the waterfront in the occupied Ukrainian city of Skadovsk, Kherson region. Meanwhile, the people of the town "live in fear," one resident told RFE/RL.

Information about what happened earlier this month to Tetyana Mudryenko, a 56-year-old pediatric nurse in the Ukrainian Azov Sea town of Skadovsk, is hard to come by.

On October 7, Mudryenko and her partner, 60-year-old Anatoliy Oryekhov, were abducted from their own yard in the town, which has been occupied by Russian forces since the first hours of Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Local sources have told Mudryenko's twin sister, Natalya Chorna, that the men who took the couple away were former Ukrainian police officers who had been cooperating with the Russian invaders.

Chorna, who spent the first few months of the occupation in Skadovsk with her sister before later making her way back to their hometown of Dnipro, which was and remains under Ukrainian control, found out about the abduction in a private social-media group of Skadovsk locals.

"I was in that closed group by invitation," Chorna told News of Azov, a project of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. "There are only people who trust one another there. They wrote that our Tanya had been taken away."

Tetyana Mudryenko (file photo)
Tetyana Mudryenko (file photo)

A week later, someone in the group posted a photograph of Mudryenko's body and a copy of a coroner's report stating she had died of "suffocation."

Later, group members wrote that Mudryenko had been hanged. Mudryenko "was hanged by police collaborators in front of the courthouse for saying: 'Skadovsk is Ukraine,'" a member of the group wrote.

Because of the ongoing fighting and the circumstances inside areas occupied by Russian forces, RFE/RL is not able to independently verify information from Skadovsk.

Later, Chorna received additional information.

"One girl called me one evening and told me how they hanged her," Chorna said. "She said: 'You should know that they pumped her with something -- poured something into her mouth -- and then hanged her in front of the courthouse.'"

The woman also said Oryekhov, who had been beaten, had been released and allowed to bury Mudryenko. Chorna said she has had no communication with Oryekhov and that none of her sources in Skadovsk seems to know of his whereabouts.

In general, she said, people in the town live in fear.

"They are all very afraid there," Chorna said. "Four young men were killed there -- Tanya told me. People say there is some kind of structure there and that workers saw how something was being buried. Trenches were dug and covered over. People saw something being buried in the cemetery…. I don't think they were just burying garbage…. But we'll see after liberation what was buried there."

Although Russia denies targeting civilians or committing war crimes in Ukraine, mounting evidence of atrocities by Russian forces has emerged both from inside areas under their control and in areas from which they have withdrawn.

In a Telegram post on October 14, Ukraine's SBU security agency said it "had established instances of murder and torture of local residents during the temporary occupation" of the Kherson region, where Skadovsk is located.

Officials inspect a mass grave discovered in the Donetsk region after liberation.
Officials inspect a mass grave discovered in the Donetsk region after liberation.

Mudryenko's case has been documented by the Media Initiative For Human Rights (MIPL), a Ukrainian NGO that uses journalism and activism to expose human rights violations by Russian forces and collaborators in Ukraine.

"Anatoliy was held captive for some time, and he was released on October 18 and allowed to bury his wife," said MIPL journalist and analyst Anastasia Pantelyeyeva about Mudryenko's partner, Oryekhov. "What happened to him next is unknown. Very often such people are released from captivity but not allowed to evacuate to territory controlled by Ukraine. Such people are in constant danger of being abducted again. We know of cases in the Kherson region in which the same person was abducted two or three times."

Pantelyeyeva added that Mudryenko's case appeared to be the first instance of a hanging by occupation collaborators recorded in the Kherson region. But she said more cases might emerge.

"Our main task is to record them," she said. "Later, when these territories are de-occupied, we hope they can be investigated more objectively. Therefore, our main task is to record these crimes and hand the cases over to the law enforcement agencies."

RFE/RL feature writer Robert Coalson contributed to this report.
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