‘This Is My Country’: The abduction of Volodymyr Vakulenko
In April, news emerged that the Ukrainian writer, activist and volunteer Volodymyr Vakulenko had been abducted near Izium in the occupied Kharkiv region, together with his son Vitalii. Later it became known that Volodymyr 's son was released, yet neither his relatives nor his friends could reach Volodymyr’s parents in the occupied village of Kapytolivka; therefore, no information of the man’s whereabouts had been available.
In September, after the Armed Forces of Ukraine had liberated Izium and its suburbs from Russian occupation, Vakulenko’s parents were finally located. Over a month ago, the world learnt about the mass graves and torture chambers that Russian troops had left behind when they had forcibly occupied the Kharkiv region. Reports emerged of civilians slaughtered and deported under captivity. To this day, Volodymyr Vakulenko’s fate remains unknown.
Who is Volodymyr Vakulenko?
Indiscriminate bombing raids against the village of Kapytolivka near Izium began on March 7. Russian armoured columns soon followed, accompanied by the sounds of gunfire and artillery. Most residents took refuge in cold cellars. But one man from a house at the entrance to the village kept yelling at the convoys of the occupiers: ‘Ruscists are here! Ruscists are here!’.
That man was Volodymyr Vakulenko – poet, translator, author of children’s books; activist, volunteer, punk - and an invincible patriot of Ukraine.
"Creative, irascible, and just uncompromising" - that is how Vakulenko’s ex-wife, Iryna Novitska, describes him. — "He would always speak the Ukrainian language only. He did whatever possible to promote Ukrainian culture and art. Sometimes he could be harsh in his judgements."
"I met Volodya in about 2007 or 2008. We crossed paths in the community of GAK authors", Vakulenko’s friend, writer Maksym Bespalov recalls. "Around 2008 he began to organize minor literary festivals - particularly in Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia - inviting as-yet unknown authors from different regions of Ukraine to participate. He also edited the last edition of the cult Ukrainian periodical, Chetver. I took part in many of his initiatives. Volodya was full of energy, and often achieved results by convincing people persistently, so they started to feel awkward when had to turn him away over and over again. He often made an impression of an eternal punk teenager, always a cheerful idealist in a leather jacket."
As a writer, Volodymyr Vakulenko is mostly famous for his own unique style, which contains elements of postmodernism, modernism, neoclassicism and logical absurdism: Volodymyr himself defines it as a genre unto its own, which he coined as ‘contrliterature’. Vakulenko is a winner of several Ukrainian and international literary prizes. His work has been translated into several languages. Recently, he’s been renowned in Ukraine as a children’s author.
"Despite his short temper, Volodymyr is a very kind-hearted man, which is palpable in his books for kids," says Kateryna Mikhalitsyna, writer, literary translator and editor. "As an author, he is always willing to get along with his little readers (mainly, of course, with his own son), to step into their world to make it brighter and at least slightly more comfortable. He never intends to preach, but instead to create a protective realm for children to regain strength before going back to confront l daily life."
Since autumn 2013, Volodymyr actively supported the Revolution of Dignity. In February he was wounded in the Marrinskyi Park in Kyiv while fighting against a titushky gang. A year later, Vakulenko began to provide systematic aid for the Ukrainian army.
In addition to his venerable literary and volunteer work, Volodymyr Vakulenko also raised his younger son Vitalii. The boy was diagnosed with autism at the age of 14.
On April 10, Iryna Novitska wrote this on her Facebook page: "Something that I have been suspecting since the end of March was confirmed yesterday. My ex-husband Volodymyr Vakulenko, an author and volunteer from Izium was detained together with our son Vitalii by either Russian soldiers or representatives of the occupational administration. Their fate remains unknown."
Volodymyr kept in touch with his ex-wife right up until the occupation of Kapytolivka. Last year, Novitska says, he came into conflict with pro-Russian locals:
"Volodya said that he had enemies who could inform on him or kill him in case of a Russian invasion. I pleaded that he moved out, yet he would stay because, in his opinion, the east of Ukraine was in desperate need of Ukrainian-minded people," she recalls.
Together with her relatives, Iryna tried to get Volodymyr and Vitalii as far away from the front line since the end of February, which her ex-husband absolutely refused. He took care of his son and post-stroke father, despite having a disability himself. On top of that, Volodymyr helped the Armed Forces of Ukraine since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, supplying them with food, raising money and buying essentials for the military. "This is my country," Vakulenko used to say. Iryna Novitska also remembers that he never wanted to ‘abandon the guys.’
After the village of Kapytolivka fell under occupation, it became impossible to leave. The connection with Volodymyr was lost. His friends and relatives tried to find out about his fate from mutual acquaintances and local groups on social media, but to no avail. People would pass inaccurate data or simply be afraid to speak. Only now has verifiable information emerged about his case.
The first and second detentions
Vakulenko’s father, whose name is also Volodymyr, said in his testimony for the Truth Hounds experts that five occupiers entered his home at 4 pm on March 22.
"Where is that nationalist of yours? We’ve suffered abuses from you for eight years, so now you are going to suffer abuses from us," one of them said, beginning to take phones, documents and Ukrainian books away ‘for checking’.
Next day, the Russians took Volodymyr Vakulenko Jr. and his son Vitalii too. The occupiers undressed the writer to inspect his tattoos – apparently, they were alarmed by runic symbols on Volodymyr’s body. He was brought to the ‘special department’, bashed and told to ‘keep his chin up’.
Two hours later, Volodymyr and his son were allowed to return home. That day, Vakulenko decided to bury his war diary under a cherry tree in the garden and asked his father to dig it out once Ukrainian forces liberated Kapytolivka. He had a premonition that his freedom would not last long.
At about 11 am on March 24, a bus marked with a Z-sign, with its sliding door pulled out, drove up to the house where Volodymyr Vakulenko lived with his son and his father. The occupiers shoved him into the bus and took off in the direction of Izium.
None of his relatives has seen him or heard from him since. The Russians returned to the house a few times over to search for weapons and Ukrainian "paraphernalia".
Vakulenko’s mother, Olena Ihnatenko, who also lives in Kapytolivka, remembers the day that the Russians abducted her son:
— He was even without his coat on, cooking food on the garden trivet in plain clothes and flip-flops. They took him just like that.
— Did they state any reason for his detention?
— "For being a nationalist," they said. It was some locals that had informed on him for his pro-Ukrainian stance. Sometimes Volodya could have gone a bit too far – like, for instance, when he gave a brief lesson in manners to a shop assistant for using Russian words in her speech or having a Russian TV channel on at work. He is a very patriotic person.
— Did he tell you anything about his first detention? Was he tortured?
— Not to me but to his father: Volodya said that they’d beaten him up but never hurt Vitalii. Volodya was even released for the first time because of his son.
— After his second detention, did you ask the Russian-installed authorities of Volodymyr’s whereabouts?
— I went everywhere. I’ve been to every house where they stayed and pleaded for my son to be released. "Look at him", I urged them, "he’s on a disability status - so is his child." And they answered: "No worries. You better calm down. He’ll be released any day now. They just need to work something out. You better take care of Vitalii. We ain’t Nazis, after all".
Then I went to the kindergarten building since the Russians’ command was reported to be based there. Yet I found no one except the insurgents of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic’s army. They said that they didn’t have my son.
I also went to the Russians’ checkpoint and asked for their commander. I went wherever they sent me, but there was no sign of Volodya. Later, though, someone told me about the captives being held in the Izium school, №12. I went there together with Volodymyr’s stepfather, but the Russians would not let us cross the checkpoint.
Nevertheless, I learnt that they’d never held captives there. The Russians pretended to listen to us and wrote down his name; they promised help, but no one has done anything until the provisional occupational administration was opened in Izium.
— When did it happen?
— At either the end of March or the beginning of April. Vasyl, Volodya’s stepfather, rode there by bicycle to put in an application. Shortly after, with the occupational ‘administration’ involved, we got the occupational ‘military commandant’s office’ into the bargain. Vasyl went there too. Then I borrowed a car to drive to that ‘commandant’s office’ myself. They told me: "We have no information, we’re working on it". There were lots of people besides me.
— Did they also apply for the search of their missing relatives?
— Yes. Someone was looking for their spouse, someone was trying to get their looted belongings back. Everybody had their own issues, but everyone got the standard answer.
— What information did you manage to get in the next months of the occupation?
— Once the occupational ‘administration’ moved to the office of the Izium administration, I went there to put in one more application with all the details pointed out. And again, they said that they would conduct searches. But what on earth were they going to search for after all those months?
Many fellow citizens have also been detained but then released in a couple of days or weeks. I went to see them all and inquire whether they may have seen Volodya or heard something about him. But none of the ex-detainees had seen my son.
In April, I received information from some acquaintances of mine who ‘made friends’ with the Russian military that Volodymyr was not among the detained residents of Kapytolivka in Izium. He was not in Izium at all. Closer to the beginning of May, I overheard some people talking that Vakulenko had allegedly been deported to Russia to be prosecuted there. I don’t know if this is true.
I haven’t got any more information since then. There was no one to ask. I did everything possible. When I heard that my son will be prosecuted in Russia, I thought it was meaningless to keep searching for him here.
But what does that grave №319 mean, then?
Searches after liberation
The grave #319 became known from the record book of the Izium ritual service which assigns the name of Volodymyr Vakulenko to the number 319, along with his birth date and the time of the funeral. "The village of Kapytolivka" is listed next. The ‘date of death’ column is empty. Olena Ihnatenko hopes that this is a mistake because she had been called to identify some bodies but not this very one.
"It happened after the Russian-installed police force was established in our locality," the woman recalls. "Some people came to us and said that they were the police and the case of the search for our son had been handed to them. And in two or three days, they called me and Volodya’s father to identify the bodies found in Kapytolivka forest. First, we went to the police, and then to the mortuary. I am absolutely sure that Volodya has never been there."
The representatives of Izium ritual service claim that such a mistake is quite likely because the funerals took place under extreme conditions of shelling, staff shortages, and pressure from the occupational administration. Sometimes they had to bury 19 people a day, with numbers rising as a result of massive bombing raids.
The discrepancies in the records of the Izium ritual service were confirmed after the spokesman of the Kharkiv regional prosecutor’s office, Dmytro Chubenko, reported that a body of an unknown woman had been exhumed from Grave #319. He also emphasized that such incidents were not unique since more graves contained several bodies each. This would suggest that the numbers in the record book might not always coincide with the burial plots.
After the liberation of the Kharkiv region, the world learned of the mass grave in the Izium woods: a single site was host to 447 bodies. As of today, all of them have been delivered to Kharkiv for DNA analysis. Volodymyr Vakulenko Sr. has contributed a DNA sample, but he has been warned that a result may not be known for a month or two because Kharkiv detectives were inundated with work. l All the exhumed bodies would need to be identified, before the name of Volodymyr Vakulenko could be recognized as correctly or erroneously recorded in the ritual service’s book.
It hurts a lot to accept that a children’s writer could have been killed by Russian invaders. It hurts even more to know nothing about his fate. Volodymyr Vakulenko’s family, friends and colleagues have been existing in a state of uncertainty and hope for almost seven months now, much like the entire literary community of Ukraine.
Maksym Sytnikov, Tetyana Teren, exclusively for Ukrainska Pravda
We need your help to create projects and materials aimed to defend freedom of speech, popularize Ukrainian culture and values of independent journalism.
Your donation means support for discussions, awards, festivals, authors’ trips to regions and PEN book publications.