DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — Since April, when pro-Russia rebels took over her city, Maria Oleinik hasn’t slept in the same house for more than one night running.
Fearing abduction at the hands of separatists, thousands of residents have fled Donetsk, an eastern province where separatists have declared independence from Ukraine’s new, pro-Western government.
But not this spry, spirited 70-year-old. Oleinik says she is going nowhere and is determined to help people who run afoul of the rebels, no matter what the risks.
“Eastern Ukraine is turning into a black hole where people disappear without a trace, where daily theft and murder go unpunished,” said Oleinik, who runs the local branch of a Ukrainian cultural organization.
The insurgency in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk began this spring after protests drove the pro-Russian president of Ukraine from office. What began with poorly attended protests over the new government’s perceived bias against Russian-speakers snowballed into the armed takeover of dozens of town and cities by rebels.
Within that territory, anybody displaying fealty to Ukraine or viewed as opposed to the rebels has good reason to be nervous. Human rights monitors, politicians, journalists and members of the clergy have faced intimidation from the rebels and are disappearing with chilling regularity.
The self-proclaimed authorities of what rebels have dubbed the Donetsk People’s Republic make no effort to deny the wave of detentions, arguing that it’s an inevitable outcome of the fighting between rebels and government troops that has taken more than 400 lives since April.
“The laws of war are now in effect in the DPR. And we are not to blame for that,” said the group’s deputy prime minister, Andrei Purgin.
He declined to say how many captives there are. Oleinik said that in Donetsk province alone, the rebels are holding around 200 Ukrainian activists.
All the leading officials of Ukraine’s major political parties have left the east or gone into hiding.
“Living in Donetsk is simply unbearable. Every day, there are attacks and threats to one’s life,” said Yegor Firsov, a national lawmaker representing Donetsk.
After a senior Donetsk People’s Republic official placed a $500,000 bounty on his head, Firsov was shot at in an apparent attempted kidnapping. He fled to Kiev.
Alexander Lydin, a 41-year-old mechanic who attended rallies supporting Ukrainian unity, apparently came to the attention of militiamen after visiting a National Guard enlistment office. On June 2, Lydin was abducted from a Donetsk street and taken to the nearby town of Makiivka.
“I was kept in a wet, rat-infested basement,” he said. “Over 19 days of captivity, I was fed only three times.”
While he was being held, Lydin said, burglars emptied his apartment of all its furniture.
“This is standard practice. Ukrainian activists are kidnapped and their property is then stolen by the so-called militia,” he said.
In the city of Slovyansk, which had been the rebels’ military base until government troops drove them out last weekend, several dozen activists and reporters were detained in the basement of the security services building.
Images of the dank, cramped and filthy rooms, taken by reporters who visited the building after it was recaptured, indicate the misery endured by the detainees, who were held there for up to three months.
There are no reliable estimates for how many people have been abducted in the neighboring province of Luhansk, which has also declared independence.
Oleinik’s colleague, local historian Volodymyr Semistyaga, was snatched off a street there on June 23. His whereabouts are unknown.
“It was me who persuaded Semistyaga not to leave Luhansk, and now I must bear responsibility for him,” Oleinik said.
Still, Oleinik said she has managed to negotiate the release of about 30 people, “through contacts in the UN and local officials.”
Members of the clergy from churches not subordinated to the Moscow-led Orthodox Church have also been targeted.
On Tuesday evening, an archpriest with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was abducted near his home in Donetsk after performing a service, according to his church. Last week, a priest with Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Donetsk went missing; Oleinik has been trying to track him down ever since.
Accounts also abound of militia profiting from abductions by demanding ransoms.
Human Rights Watch researcher Tanya Lokshina wrote this week about seeing a woman in a Luhansk village whose son had been taken captive.
“She said the insurgents demanded $5,000 for his release but the family had no money,” she wrote, without identifying the woman or her son. “He called her recently from his captors’ phone, crying and saying he’d be killed unless the ransom is paid promptly.”
There is no word on the young man’s fate.