Kyiv, Ukraine — Shortly after the arrival of Russian tanks in Ukraine, soldiers broke down the door of the office of the mayor of Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov. They put a bag over his head, put him in a car and drove him for hours around the southern city, threatening to kill him.
Fedorov, 34, is one of more than 50 local leaders held in Russian captivity since the war began on February 24 with the aim of bringing towns and villages under Moscow’s control. Like many others, he said he was pressured to collaborate with the invaders.
“The bullying and threats didn’t stop for a minute. They tried to force me to continue running the city under the Russian flag, but I refused,” Fedorov told The Associated Press by phone last month. last in Kyiv. “They didn’t beat me, but day and night, wild cries from the next cell told me what awaited me.”
As the Russians seized parts of eastern and southern Ukraine, civilian administrators and others, including nuclear power plant workers, said they were abducted, threatened or beaten to force their cooperation – which legal and human rights experts say could constitute a war crime.
Ukrainian and Western historians say the tactic is used when the invading forces are unable to subdue the population.
This year, as Russian forces sought to tighten their grip on Melitopol, hundreds of residents took to the streets to demand Fedorov’s release. After six days of detention and an intervention by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, he was exchanged for nine Russian prisoners of war and expelled from the occupied city. A pro-Kremlin figure has been installed.
“The Russians cannot govern captured cities. They don’t have the personnel or the experience,” Fedorov said. They want to force officials to work for them because they realize that someone has to “clean up the streets and fix the destroyed houses”.
The Association of Ukrainian Cities (AUC), a group of local leaders from across Ukraine, said of the more than 50 kidnapped officials, including 34 mayors, at least 10 remain in captivity.
Russian officials have not commented on the allegations. Moscow-backed authorities in eastern Ukraine have even launched a criminal investigation into Fedorov for involvement in terrorist activities.
“The kidnapping of the heads of villages, towns and cities, especially in times of war, endangers all the inhabitants of a community, because all the critical management, the provision of basic amenities and the important decisions on which depend the fate of thousands of residents is entrusted to the head of the community,” said the mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, head of the AUC.
In the southern city of Kherson, one of the first to be seized by Russia and a key target in an ongoing counteroffensive, Mayor Ihor Kolykhaiev tried to hold his ground. He said in April that he would refuse to cooperate with his new Kremlin-backed overseer.
Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Russian-installed regional administration, has repeatedly denounced Kolykhaiev as a “Nazi”, echoing the Kremlin’s false narrative that his attack on Ukraine was an attempt to “denazify” the country. country.
Kolykhaiev continued to oversee public services in Kherson until his arrest on June 28. We still don’t know where he is.
According to the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, 407 enforced disappearances and arbitrary arrests of civilians were recorded in areas seized by Russia in the first six months of the war. Most were civil servants, local elected officials, civil society activists and journalists.
Yulia Gorbunova, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the abuses “violate international law and may amount to a war crime”, adding that the actions of Russian forces appeared to be aimed at “obtaining information and instilling fear”.
The UN human rights office has repeatedly warned that arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances are among possible war crimes committed in Ukraine.
Several mayors were killed, shocking Ukrainian society. Following the discovery of mass burials in areas taken over by Kyiv, Ukrainian and foreign investigators continue to uncover details of extrajudicial executions of mayors.
The body of Olga Sukhenko, who ruled the village of Motyzhyn near Kyiv, was found in a mass grave alongside those of her husband and son after Russian forces withdrew. The village, with a pre-war population of around 1,000, is a short drive from Bucha, which saw hundreds of civilians killed under Russian occupation.
Locals said Sukhenko refused to cooperate with the Russians. When his body was dug up on the outskirts of Motyzhyn, his hands were found tied behind his back.
Mayor Yurii Prylypko of nearby Hostomel was shot dead in March while distributing food and medicine. The attorney general’s office later said his body was found trapped with explosives.
The Ukrainian government has tried to swap captive officials for Russian prisoners of war, but officials complain that Moscow sometimes demands that Kyiv release hundreds for every Ukrainian in a position of authority, prolonging negotiations.
“It’s such a difficult job that any superfluous word can hamper our exchanges,” said Dmytro Lubinets, Ukrainian commissioner for human rights. “We know the places where the prisoners are held, as well as the appalling conditions in which they are held.”
No information has been released on the fate of Ivan Samoydyuk, deputy mayor of Enerhodar, site of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Samoydyuk, abducted in March, has been considered for a prisoner exchange several times, but his name was struck off the list each time, Mayor Dmytro Orlov told the AP.
The 58-year-old deputy mayor was seriously ill when he was arrested, Orlov said, and “we don’t even know if he’s alive.” At best, Samoydyuk is sitting somewhere in a basement “and his life depends on the whim of armed people”, he added.
More than 1,000 residents of Enerhodar, including dozens of workers from Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, have been detained by the Russians at one time or another.
“The vast majority of those who came out of Russian cellars speak of brutal beatings and electric shocks,” he said.
HRW senior researcher Gorbunova said torture “is prohibited in all circumstances by international law and, when related to armed conflict, constitutes a war crime and may also constitute a crime against humanity” .
Every week brings reports of kidnappings of officials, engineers, doctors and teachers who will not cooperate with the Russians.
Viktor Marunyak, head of the village of Stara Zburivka in the southern region of Kherson, is famous for his appearance in Roman Bondarchuk’s 2015 documentary “Ukrainian Sheriffs”, an Oscar nominee. The film explores the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine that began in 2014. Although the film didn’t win an Oscar, it cemented Marunyak’s salt-of-the-earth reputation.
After Russian troops seized Stara Zburivka in the spring, Marunyak held pro-Ukrainian rallies and hid activists in his home. He was eventually taken prisoner.
“At first they put (electrical) wires on my thumbs. Then it didn’t seem like enough and they put them on my big toes. And they poured water on my head so that it ran down my back,” he told the AP. “Honestly, I was so beat up that I had no sense of the electric current.”
After 23 days, Marunyak was “released to die”, he said. Hospitalized for 10 days with pneumonia and nine broken ribs, he eventually left for Kyiv-controlled territory.
History professor Hubertus Jahn of the University of Cambridge said that from the time of Peter the Great, imperialist Russia’s tactic of co-opting locals targeted elites and nobility, with resistance often leading to Siberian exile.
During World War II, he said, “German SS units operated in the same way”, targeting local administrators in order to pressure locals into submission. Jahn called it an obvious strategy “if you don’t have the strength to completely subordinate an area”.
Historian Ivan Patryliuk of the Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv said municipal authorities in Soviet Ukraine often fled before the arrival of Nazi occupation forces, which “helped avoid mass executions officials”.
“The kind of torture and humiliation (of) city leaders that the Russians are now committing…is one of the darkest and most shameful pages of the current war,” Patryliuk said.
Hanna Arhirova in Kyiv, Joanna Kozlowska in London and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.
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