‘Chaos like we’ve never seen before’ An interview with Valentina Melnikova, who helps soldiers and their relatives navigate Russia's military bureaucracy
Since the start of the war, the Russian government has repeatedly violated even the most basic rights of Russian soldiers. Those who don’t want to join the war have been forced to sign contracts and sent into battle against their will. Meanwhile, families have been given little to no information about the fates of their missing husbands and sons — nor, often, have they been given their dead loved ones’ bodies. With the official system either overwhelmed by the sheer number of victims or invested in remaining opaque, the task of helping relatives get answers has fallen to human rights lawyers. Meduza spoke to Soldiers' Mothers Committee Executive Secretary Valentina Melnikova about the new role the organization has taken on since February 24.
— What are the most common questions you get from soldiers’ relatives?
— Well, we don’t [primarily] help relatives, we help soldiers. We do get messages, of course, from relatives of soldiers who have died or disappeared. But for some reason, everyone emphasizes the relatives, when, fortunately, we also get a lot of requests from soldiers and officers.
Everything is situation-specific. Of course, if a soldier is located in Ukraine, only his relatives can write to him. But once they’re outside the warzone, in Russia, and they have complaints, they reach out to us themselves.
— What’s the most painful issue you deal with?
— Any request that we’re unable to assist with is unfortunate. But most painful of all is when we work with soldiers who have gone missing.
When a soldier dies and they take his body to Rostov, identify him with a DNA test, and find his relatives, that’s a terrible sorrow, but at least there’s a conclusion. There’s a death certificate, the body can be buried, and the family can receive insurance payments.
Helping the relatives of missing soldiers is harder. There’s no information and no documents. Three months have passed since the war began, but this problem still hasn’t been recognized by the state in any way. It’s unclear what “missing” even means. There’s currently no decent legal support for the families of missing soldiers — even those who are married or have children.
— Have these problems always existed?
— There just hasn’t been such a high number [of missing soldiers] before. The closest thing to compare to in our practice is the start of the First Chechen War. The siege of Grozny on New Year’s Eve 1994, two and a half thousand bodies lying on the city’s streets and squares — which Russia’s military leadership banned people from collecting. They didn’t want to call a truce, even for a short time. Our colleagues [human rights lawyers] went there with the parents of the dead soldiers and begged. But until the fighting stopped, it was impossible to retrieve any of the bodies.
Then these two and a half thousand lay in refrigerated train cars in Rostov-on-Don. A forensic genetics lab identified the bodies. Some people were able to recognize them while others had to rely on genetic testing.
But two and a half thousand bodies in winter is one thing. This is something completely different. We have no idea how many bodies Russian military units haven’t retrieved and haven’t buried. It’s a problem we need to reckon with. There’s never been anything like it before.
— If someone is looking for a soldier in their family who’s gone missing in Ukraine, what options do they have?
— First, we recommend calling the Defense Ministry hotline and reporting that you haven’t heard from a soldier for a certain amount of time. Provide the number of his unit.
If you’ve heard anything from his fellow soldiers, you should ask the officers on the hotline to record that information.
We also asked people to look at the Ukrainian lists of prisoners. They’re very detailed, and they're openly accessible. If none of that helps, it’s time to write to the [Russian Investigative Committee’s] military investigation department.
— What are the odds of finding a deceased soldier?
— They vary. Sometimes when a soldier dies, the Russian unit fails to retrieve his body, but he still has his documents on him. In that case, the Ukrainian side tries to bury [the body] and add it to their lists.
But it all depends on the situation. If it’s not in an inhabited area and nobody finds the body, or if there aren’t any documents, it’s a very sad situation. It’s practically impossible to find soldiers in that case.
— What role does your organization play for soldiers and their relatives?
— We explain to people what they can do, including where they should call and who they should write to in order to file a report. If a new problem arises, we try to deal with it ourselves so that we can explain to the soldiers and their relatives.
— How do you work with prisoners?
— With prisoners, it’s a bit easier. Ukraine carefully follows the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War, keeping lists, making copies of the prisoners’ documents, taking photos of them, and conducting interviews, which goes far to help families find their relatives. It’s the only opportunity to find that their soldiers are alive and being held captive and to report it to the Russian authorities.
The Russian side has also gotten involved in the process and has started releasing prisoners. The exchanges haven’t exactly been impressive, but they have occurred. At the very least, this is one mechanism from international humanitarian law that’s working. Thanks to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Russian Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova and the Defense Ministry’s military police have done a lot of work on this issue. They gather information and update the lists whenever they’re able to confirm that a person is being held captive or is in a special condition [Note: for example, if he’s severely injured], and it would be nice if they could do it as soon as possible.
In Russia, the lists of missing soldiers are classified. Relatives have to search through various channels and websites themselves.
— Some human rights lawyers have said that publishing videos and photos of war prisoners is unethical and violates the Geneva Convention.
— The First Geneva Convention was signed in the 19th century, and the rest were signed in 1949. A lot has changed since then.
These interviews are our only source of information. If Russia and Ukraine were exchanging their lists legally and publicly, as they ought to, then there would be no issues and the interviews wouldn’t be necessary. But [when] our side isn’t keeping open lists, there can be no talk of ethical violations. They’re a necessity.
— Do you receive requests from soldiers who have returned from the warzone and don’t want to go back?
— Yes. When some units left Ukraine, the soldiers and officers started saying they didn’t want to return to the front a second time. Both soldiers and soldiers’ relatives reached out to us [about this].
— Have any of them managed not to go back?
— Yes, but it depends on each individual soldier’s persistence. If he files a report, stands his ground, and doesn’t get scared when they threaten to put him in jail, it’s possible for him to avoid not going back.
Sometimes, a soldier finds himself back in field conditions immediately after being withdrawn. In those cases, there’s no commander and nobody to file a report to. We advise that families send information about those soldiers’ reports from our organization. We send the report to the military prosecutor and the district commander. They’re wives and relatives can do the same thing.
— What kind of assistance do injured soldiers need?
— Sometimes a parent or a soldier believes he needs treatment, but at the local medical unit, they’re told, “We’ll send him back to serve in three days or so.” In those situations, we have to intervene. We contact the Defense Ministry’s medical services.
This is important, for example, when someone has a brain injury. We’ve had those requests before. It’s imperative that concussions are treated in inpatient facilities to avoid serious consequences.
— What consequences exactly?
— Psychiatrists have noted that people who get in traffic accidents and receive brain injuries, as well as soldiers who sustain concussions, are at a higher risk for alcoholic and drug addiction and suicide. We started observing these effects after the Afghan War. They’re very severe. Nobody has wanted to deal with them, and that’s a big mistake on the government’s part.
— Is it possible to prevent this?
— One of our first appeals to the medical service at the beginning of the current hostilities was about this. There was a decree about medical-psychological rehabilitation. And we implore you: everyone who has spent more than 30 days in combat should be sent in for medical-psychological rehabilitation, as the decree indicated.
— It’s recommended that soldiers undergo medical-psychological rehabilitation every 30 days?
— The Defense Ministry issued a decree saying that, yes. Because when the Afghan War was going on, our side didn’t acknowledge the existence of PTSD in soldiers. They refused to listen both to our own psychologists and to American veterans’ organizations who know how PTSD works.
After Chechnya, our internal troops were the first to realize. They opened psychiatry offices in their hospitals. The police have the same thing — it’s an old practice. But they adapted it for wartime, too.
— Do you hear from relatives of soldiers mobilized in the LNR and DNR?
— That’s an additional difficulty of ours. Almost the entire male population is mobilized there, despite the fact that no official mobilization has been declared . We sent an appeal to the leader of Russia’s presidential administration [Anton Vaino] about that matter. But our political system appears unwilling to provide a meaningful response to a request from citizens living in a state friendly to ours.
There was one report of boys from colleges being mobilized and sent to the conflict zone. Luckily, we got involved and re-sent the appeal to officers in the district. We have our “military comrades” — officers who we’ve been working with since 1995 and who we’ve worked with in other wars. Of course they respond, they’re decent people; they’re in the ranks and they can command others. They found that group, gave them boots, gave them warm clothes, and fed them. But they weren’t able to bring them home from the front, because it’s unclear who’s above them in the chain of command.
The boys’ relatives wrote to us afterwards to thank us for making sure they heard from their soldiers and that they were fed and given medical assistance. So it’s possible to have a small effect, but it’s still overall very difficult and unpleasant right now.
— Do people reach out with questions about ransoms?
— I immediately tell parents whose children are being held captive: “Don’t give anyone money.” Only scammers will ask for ransoms. A lot of them have cropped up since the war began. The savviest called themselves “First Prisoner” and wore Channel One hats. They said they were working on behalf of Konstantin Ernst and collecting money for soldiers’ ransoms. They claim to have paid 800,000 [rubles, or about $14,300] to a Ukrainian farmer to get a captive soldier back. I wrote [about them] to Channel One and to the Attorney General. And the scammers quickly disappeared.
Right now, there are absolutely no underground contacts who can help people pay a ransom to free prisoners. The Ukrainian side is officially holding the prisoners and is trying to keep them safe.
— What other issues are the soldiers facing?
— There was one complaint that some soldiers escaped captivity, survived on vegetables from gardens, then returned to their unit and were asked to pay for their lost weapons. There was another case that occured when soldiers were undergoing exercises before the war. Some of them turned in their ammunition and refused to go to the front, and their superior demanded they pay for the ammunition: “Where’s your body armor? Did you turn it in or not? You need to pay for it.”
We’ve been dealing with this ever since Chechnya. In the Second Chechen War, one guy returned home from the war, and his unit presented him with the number of weapons he’d allegedly lost — more weapons than can fit on a KAMAZ truck. We try to make sure nobody extorts the soldiers, and we report these issues to the Attorney General.
When the guys themselves report these cases, they don’t even know who it is who’s demanding the money. The soldiers just say “they,” but they don’t know who this “they” is. But it’s signal enough for us: the prosecutor needs to come and sort it out.
— How often are the authorities willing to help with your complaints?
— When it comes to specific soldiers, the authorities and the military take measures. But the responses they provide, as a rule, are very short. I assume it’s because we often ask questions that not all military structures have the right to answer.
— What else do the soldiers’ relatives tell you?
— Sometimes they call and say they don’t believe [what the Defense Ministry is telling them], or they tell us their soldier’s entire life story from the very beginning. But those are all just conversations. We try not to encourage it. We identify what it is that interests them and we try to help with their specific problem.
— Does the work you’re having to do in this war differ from that of past wars?
— There’s a good Russian word, or rather a Tatar one: “bardak.” “Chaos.” We’re dealing with “bardak,” the likes of which we’ve never seen before, despite our having a great deal of experience with a wide variety of situations. But for the military situation to develop so quickly, so brutally, and on such a large scale — this is the first time.
We’re currently trying not to evaluate the system, but to find the links that work, so that we can effectively help protect the rights of soldiers, the wounded, the dead, and their relatives.
Translation by Sam Breazeale