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In A Ukrainian Region Occupied By Russian Forces, People Are Disappearing. Locals Fear It's About To Get Worse.

Oleh Baturin, a reporter for a local news site, disappeared on March 12. "He went to meet his colleague, who called him. No more information, nothing. He didn't take anything with him," his wife said.
Oleh Baturin, a reporter for a local news site, disappeared on March 12. "He went to meet his colleague, who called him. No more information, nothing. He didn't take anything with him," his wife said.

On the morning of March 12, just after 9 a.m., Serhiy Tsyhipa said goodbye to his wife and walked out the door of his home in the small southern Ukrainian city of Nova Kakhovka, along with his dog Ais, to meet colleagues in the next town.

Tsyhipa, a 60-year-old activist, blogger, and vocal opponent of Russia's invasion, was also supposed to drop off some medicine for his mother-in-law.

"He never arrived. He never came home. His phone turned on twice for a few minutes and that's it. I was only able to send voice messages, nothing more," his wife, Olena, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.

The same day Tsyhipa disappeared, Oleh Baturin, a reporter for a local news site called Noviy Den, also went missing. His relatives and colleagues are still looking for him.

In southern Ukraine's Kherson region, people are going missing -- most recently on March 16, when armed men seized the mayor and his deputy in the coastal town of Skadovsk and took them away to an undisclosed location.

Much of the region, whose geography includes a Black Sea coastline, the mouth of the Dnieper River, and the administrative border with Russian-controlled Crimea, has been under occupation since March 3, when Russian forces entered the regional capital, also called Kherson. It was the first major Ukrainian city to fall under Russian control since Moscow launched a large-sale invasion on February 24.

Residents of Kherson have begun pushing back, holding increasingly large marches through the city, brandishing Ukrainian flags, and openly confronting Russian troops. In Skadovsk, protesters gathered outside the local administration building to demand the mayor be freed.

Hours later, the mayor, Oleksandr Yakovlyev, published an online video in which he said he had been released and that the others would also be released soon. However, he looked and sounded troubled in the video.

So far, Russian forces have largely refrained from using violence against these demonstrations, at least publicly. During one march, on March 13, Russian soldiers could be seen firing weapons into the air in what appeared to be an effort to frighten the Kherson protesters as they marched.

WATCH: On March 14, residents of the village of Bilozerka, near Kherson, went unarmed to protest against the Russian occupiers. Only bursts of gunfire in the air forced them to disperse.

'It's You That's Fascist': Russian Soldiers Not Welcomed In Ukrainian Village
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But local residents say a growing number of people are disappearing, with reports of armed men -- some camouflaged, many without identifying insignias -- going door-to-door looking for people.

As many as 400 people have reportedly disappeared in the region in recent weeks, according to Ukrainian military officials.

"These are activists, rally organizers," Pavlo Keba, a resident of Kherson, told Current Time. "They are trying to suppress any type of protests because they see that people are not absolutely afraid to march past Russian troops and we understand perfectly well what they are saying."

Occupying forces have also indicated they plan to stage a referendum on independence for the Kherson region -- a sham vote, according to local residents and the Ukrainian government, that would serve as a pretext for formalizing Russian control.

Serhiy Khlan, deputy chief of the Kherson regional council, told Current Time that Russian officials appeared to be searching for pro-Ukrainian activists and local lawmakers.

"They are in hiding, but they are being searched for. There have been raids. [Russian forces] are looking for them in [the city of] Kherson and the surrounding region. Those councilors who received telephone calls refused [to collaborate]," he said.

"They refused, but they were threatened. They were threatened with being shot," he said.

Khlan also said that Russian police and civilians had been sent in in an attempt to patrol and govern the city -- most likely, he said, under orders from Russia's National Guard, a highly militarized police force that answers directly to President Vladimir Putin. He also said that the police officers included former members of a feared Ukrainian riot-police unit known as the Berkut.

The unit was notorious for violent repressions against protesters and was blamed for most of the shooting deaths of Ukrainian civilians that occurred in February 2014 in the final days of the Euromaidan street protests.

Olena Tsyhipa told RFE/RL that after she began publicizing her husband's disappearance she started hearing from other Nova Khakovka residents that he had been spotted at a military checkpoint.

"I found the dog. Some nice people called me and said that he was tied up" at a local administrative office, she said. "He's so scared."

She said she believed her husband, as well as Noviy Den reporter Oleh Baturin, had been detained either because they refused to endorse the Russian occupation or had actively spoken out against it.

"They were detained so that they would not write anything pro-Ukrainian because they were waging an information war and seriously interfering with the occupiers," she said.

Baturin's wife, Natalya, said her husband left the house on the afternoon of March 12 after a colleague contacted him and proposed a meeting at a nearby bus stop.

"He went to meet his colleague, who called him. No more information, nothing. He didn't take anything with him," she said.

WATCH: Russian forces are threatening to shoot municipal officials in Kherson, according to a councilor from the Ukrainian city, where the Russian Army has seized control. Sergei Khlan said the Russians were searching for local activists and officials who were now in hiding. This is an excerpt from an interview with Current Time presenter Yevhenia Tahanovych on March 12.

Collaborate Or Die: Ukrainian Councilor Alleges Russian Threats To Local Officials
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In an unverified post to the social-media platform TikTok, a Kherson resident named Oksana posted a video that she said showed her husband being taken away by masked, armed, camouflaged men.

"Give me back my husband! Do you understand that you are in foreign territory? Guys, do you understand that you are on foreign territory? Give me back my husband! He doesn't even have a weapon," she can be heard saying.

RFE/RL could not immediately verify the video; the TikTok user did not respond to messages seeking further information.

The reports of forced disappearances have not been limited to Kherson.

In the city of Melitopol, in the neighboring Zaporizhzhya region, authorities accused Russian forces of abducting the mayor on March 11 -- barging into his office, putting a bag over his head, then driving him away to an unknown location.

One Melitopol resident who gave only her first name, Anna, told Current Time that armed men were also going door-to-door in some parts of the city, including inside her building.

WATCH: Residents of Melitopol gathered to protest the arrival of Russian troops earlier this month. Shots can be heard in the background of an amateur video shot by a protester who says, "They are trying to intimidate us." The shots appear to be fired into the air by Russian forces in an attempt to disperse the protest.

Shots Fired In Ukrainian City As Locals Protest Against Russian Occupation
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"They broke down the entrance door late at night. They wanted to blow off the door of the apartment of a person they wanted. We had to talk them out of it, explain to them no one has lived there for a long time," she said.

"It's a witch-hunt or like the system in place in 1937. I do not know what it is, but it is alarming," she said, referring to the height of the repressions that took place under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin -- a time known as the Great Terror.

She said that some of the armed men, judging by their accents, sounded as if they were from the Donbas -- the eastern Ukrainian region that has been the site of an eight-year war between Ukrainian government forces and Kremlin-backed separatists who control parts of the two provinces.

And she said patrols were confiscating phones, tablet computers, and other electronic devices from residents when they are stopped at checkpoints.

Bucha, a Kyiv suburb, has been the scene of heavy fighting.
Bucha, a Kyiv suburb, has been the scene of heavy fighting.

In Bucha, a northern suburb of the capital, Kyiv, that has been the site of heavy bombardment, the city council said that six city employees and volunteers who had been captured by the Russian military the day before had been released. The circumstances behind their abduction were not immediately clear.

Serhiy Tomilenko, director of the National Union of Journalists, said his organization had received a growing number of reports from Kherson about unidentified men breaking down doors in the homes of journalists and public figures who have publicly demonstrated any sort of Ukrainian patriotism.

He also said he saw parallels with what happened in Crimea after Russia occupied and seized control of the peninsula in its 2014 annexation.

"One of their first actions was to clean, in particular, the public information space of those who are ready to criticize them or simply testify about crimes or actions related to the seizure of power, control...using a large-scale wave of human rights violations," he told RFE/RL.

Written by Mike Eckel based on reporting by Oleksandr Yankovskiy, Volodymyr Mykhaylov, and Yevhenia Tokar
  • 16x9 Image

    Oleksandr Yankovskiy

    Oleksandr Yankovskiy is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. Originally from Crimea, Yankovskiy has worked as the editor in chief and presenter of the Crimea.Realities TV and radio projects. Since 2021, he has been a presenter for The News of Azov Region project.

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    Volodymyr Mykhaylov

    Volodymyr Mykhaylov is a correspondent and presenter for Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. ​Mykhaylov​ was born in Donetsk and witnessed first-hand the occupation of his hometown by pro-Russia separatists in 2014. He previously worked as a correspondent for the Ukrainian TV channel ICTV and has covered military operations in the Donbas and the annexation of Crimea.

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    Yevhenia Tokar

    Yevhenia Tokar is a correspondent for Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

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