Two weeks ago, Stas called his mother to say he was on a bus entering Donetsk city, in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in eastern Ukraine. He was planning to visit her and his grandmother the next morning. She was excited. Stas had been traveling for work for days in other parts of Ukraine, and she missed him. However, Stas did not show up at her home that morning. He has been missing since that phone call on 2 June, feared forcibly disappeared by the separatist Donetsk authorities.
I met Stas, 27, in Donetsk last year. A pro-Ukrainian blogger and a regular contributor to RFE/RL, he wrote under the name of Stanyslav Vasin. An underground reporter in an area controlled by Russia-backed separatists, Stas published compelling chronicles of life in the DPR, from shooting and shelling to local infrastructure and cultural events. With the war in eastern Ukraine dragging on for three years and no end in sight, his blog became a unique window into life on the other side of the “line of contact” for many Ukrainians who have no access to separatist-controlled areas.
Stas made no secret of his pro-Ukrainian views and hopes for ultimate defeat of the Russia-backed separatists. I read his blog once in a while and on a work-trip to Donetsk I sent him a message introducing myself and suggesting we meet for a coffee. He asked me to call him Stas, short for Stanyslav, but it never crossed my mind this was his real name. Only after his disappearance did I find out from RFE/RL and other media that he had changed his surname for security purposes, but kept his first name as part of his Internet identity.
Late in the evening, we sat in an almost deserted café for over an hour speaking mainly about the climate of raw fear in the DPR. He described himself as “possibly the only person in Donetsk who dares speak his mind freely [online].”
He said that he also knew a few others in the broader separatist-controlled territory who spoke critically of the de-facto authorities on social media but he had never met them in person. “When I say I know these people, it’s not quite accurate,” he explained.
“It’s rather that I know of them and they know of me. We don’t know the real names. We don’t know where the others live, except that we’re all on this side of the line of contact. The prerequisite of survival is total anonymity. I keep a super-low profile, stay away from people. Even my mother has no idea what I really do and how I live.”
On 3 June, when Stas didn’t show up, his mother, overcome with worry, went to the apartment Stas rented in Donetsk. The door to the apartment was locked. She waited until late at night, to no avail. The next day, the landlord opened the apartment for her. The place looked like it had been ransacked. She rushed to the police and filed a missing person report. She went to the DPR’s Ministry of State Security to enquire if they had detained her son, but they refused to let her in. The Ministry is the most feared agency in the DPR, due to its reputation of operating without oversight, arbitrarily detaining people and holding them incommunicado.
Two weeks later, the police still have no information about Stas – or at least none they’re willing to share. Neither Stas’ mother or editors know where to turn. Stas’ role as a pro-Ukrainian blogger and journalist, coupled with the DPR’s disturbing record of detaining dissenters incommunicado for prolonged periods, give strong grounds to be concerned that local security officials have forcibly disappeared him. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases when DPR State Security ministry officials have forcibly disappeared people who were, or were thought to be, pro-Ukraine, holding them without acknowledging it for several weeks.
If Stas is indeed in DPR custody, the de-facto authorities should immediately end his forcible disappearance by acknowledging his detention, and release him.