Anguish for families of the missing in east Ukraine

 In what was once the Ukrainian secret service headquarters in Donetsk, a group of women, eyes rimmed in red, come seeking the help of the city`s new rebel masters in an anguished search for missing husbands and sons.

AFP| Last Updated: Sep 16, 2014, 09:20 AM IST

Kiev: In what was once the Ukrainian secret service headquarters in Donetsk, a group of women, eyes rimmed in red, come seeking the help of the city`s new rebel masters in an anguished search for missing husbands and sons.

They scan down a handwritten list of a hundred or so names, guarded by a volunteer separatist who gave his name as Zolotoi ("Golden"). 

Zolotoi wears a baseball cap on his head and a Kalashnikov over his shoulder, and says he is there to ensure visitors are well treated, as ordered by the self-appointed leaders of the city. 

A woman of around 50 with her teenage daughter steps forward. 

"My two sons were arrested. They came to pick up some things and had a full car, and were no doubt thought to be thieves," she tells the guard. "But we can prove that all of it was ours. I want to explain and get them freed."

Zolotoi checks the list for their name, but can`t find anything.

"I don`t see them here. We don`t have them," he says. "But you know, there are several security services."The woman says someone phoned her last night about her sons, but failed to tell her where they were being held. She looks distraught, and Zolotoi is sympathetic, but can do little other than take her number and promise to call if any news comes in. 

Before another woman can step forward, he tells AFP the new rebel authorities are doing "the utmost to re-establish order, but it`s difficult to organise. For example, if someone is seen looking through binoculars, they are arrested and an investigation is opened to make sure the person is not a spy."

He is keen to give a good impression, although AFP photographers are prevented from taking pictures or getting close to the building.

Families seeking those who have gone missing since the separatist uprising began in April recount the anguish of being sent from one service to another in the disjointed rebel order.

They find themselves dealing with a police service whose chain of command is uncertain, and military offices often manned by armed men in balaclavas. 

"I`ve consulted at least 15 lists," says another mother looking for her son.The former mayor of Donetsk, Oleksandr Lukyanchenko, now exiled to Kiev, updates a list of missing inhabitants from the city every day -- posting names, photos and the details of their disappearance on the town hall`s website. 

In July, Amnesty International reported on hundreds of kidnappings of activists, protesters and journalists in eastern Ukraine in the first three months of the conflict. 

"The bulk of the abductions are being perpetrated by armed separatists, with the victims often subjected to stomach-turning beatings and torture," said Denis Krivosheyev, Amnesty International`s Deputy Director of Europe and Central Asia. 

Keen to establish some legitimacy, the self-proclaimed People`s Republic of Donetsk adopted a penal code on August 17 that claimed to bring some order to the rough justice in the city. 

The code includes the death penalty for several crimes, including looting, treason and espionage. Lighter sentences include hard labour of digging trenches and carrying sandbags. 

The new "prime minister" of the Donetsk People`s Republic, Oleksandr Zakharchenko, told AFP: "We recently adopted a new penal code. Since the adoption of this law, all civil detainees are transferred to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which decides on their case. 

"Since the summer, Donetsk jail is completely under our control, and now everything is solved in a civilised manner."

For the families of the missing, it is little comfort. 

Back at the former secret service headquarters, a woman with dark rings around her eyes steps up to Zolotoi and gives him a name. This time, he finds it on his list. 

"Ah yes, he is here. Room number six. Leave your number," says Zolotoi. "We will call you. We can hold him for three to 10 days."

She bursts into tears. 

"What can I do? They could kill him."

"Of course not," says Zolotoi. "It`s an investigation, as in all countries. We have orders not to mistreat anyone."

She turns and goes, almost running, without leaving her number.