Many volunteers disapprove of their government’s handling of the war, referring to it as the Anti-Terrorist Operation.
Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine – Spreading a map of East Ukraine on the table, Olena Dovhopola begins to rapidly point at scrawled red circles that dot the length and breadth of the paper.
“I was here, and then here,” the 59-year-old says, quickly shuffling the map to the right. “And in this small town as well. I’ve been all over the place, and both sides – separatist and Ukrainian army. I just need to find him. I know he is still alive somewhere.”
There’s a clear desperation in her voice.
Dovhopola’s son, 31-year-old Serhiy, went missing in September 2014, just months into the war in Ukraine. Serving in the Ukrainian army, Serhiy went missing after fierce clashes with separatist rebels in the east of the county.
He is one of an estimated 1,000 people, both soldiers and civilians, who have been declared missing – presumed dead or captured – since the beginning of the conflict in March 2014.
The vast majority of the missing, like Serhiy, disappeared during the first few months of the war when towns and villages changed hands frequently, and battles between the Russian-backed rebels and regular and irregular Ukrainian forces were particularly ferocious and frequent.
Now, with the fighting in its third year, an estimated 10,000 people have died and 1.5 million are displaced as a result of the hostilities between Ukraine and Russian-backed rebel groups the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic.
‘He is alive somewhere’
The Ukrainian government officially declared Dovhopola’s son missing in action three months after his disappearance.
Three months later, that classification was changed to “dead” after government officials presented Dovhopola with dental records from teeth found at a known massacre site near the town of Ilovaisk that they claimed proved her son’s death.
Although the classification was officially changed, Dovhopola refused to believe her son was dead. She dug up her son’s dental records from before the war.
Dovhopola presented Al Jazeera with the dental documents, showing extensive dental work that the government claimed was proof of Serhiy’s death. Dovhopola insisted that the records do not correlate with her own son’s limited dental work.
Dovhopola took it upon herself to search for her son, journeying constantly, almost always alone. Travelling on public transport and crossing through the frontlines of the war between government and separatist-held towns, the desperate mother visits morgues, questions officials, civilians and former separatist detainees – all in an attempt to build a picture of her son’s potential whereabouts.
While other family members have given up hope of finding him, Dovhopola remains steadfast in her search.
When she is combing for information on the separatist side, she keeps her head down, trying to remain unseen. Though moving between separatist and government-controlled areas on several roads is relatively simple and public transport still exists between the areas, everyone is required to stop at checkpoints on both sides.
Not every interaction has been positive. Dovhopola has received numerous phone calls from people claiming to have information on the whereabouts of her son. Information they say they will release for a fee of a few hundred dollars.
Not willing to pass any chances, Dovhopola has spent thousands of dollars hoping that one of the phone calls may lead to real information, but all of them have been scams.
Despite all the barriers she has faced, she remains convinced Serhiy is alive.
“I know the dental records were not his. One person even told me they saw him in a separatist prison – this was after the government declared him dead,” Dovhopola said. “He’s alive somewhere. Him and others.”
According to Christine Beerli, vice president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, 88 percent of families of the missing continue to search for their relatives, despite the fact that the vast majority disappeared more than two years ago.
Two thirds remain convinced that their relatives are still alive, she says.
“They might be alive or they might be dead,” Beerli told Al Jazeera. “And this uncertainty causes their families intense stress and suffering.”
The Red Cross has found that half of the families of the missing believe the Ukrainian government is not doing enough to locate their relatives, looking to close cases by declaring those missing as dead, rather than investigating their whereabouts. Several families Al Jazeera spoke to shared similar sentiments.
The Ukrainian government has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
Dovhopola is not the only one looking for answers. Sitting in a cafe in downtown Dnipropetrovsk, Olena Sugak delicately places picture after picture on the table.
The faces of soldiers from 40th Battalion – including her son Ruslan, grinning from ear to ear – all declared missing after fierce fighting on August 30, 2014, in the key battleground town of Ilovaisk.
Sugak speaks slowly, her words punctuated with pauses to wipe away the tears – a constant stream when conversation drifts to her missing son, Ruslan
The Battle of Ilovaisk, which lasted a month and ended on September 2, 2014, killed an estimated 400 Ukrainian soldiers, though less conservative figures put that number closer to 1,000. Two hundred separatist fighters were also killed.
“Look at this letter his children wrote; no child should ever have to write such a letter,” Sugak said, picking up a small, handwritten letter addressed to Ukrainian government officials from Nastia, 6, and Dennis, 4, Ruslan’s two young children.
“Me and my brother, we miss him very much,” Sugak says, reading the letter with tears in her eyes. “We wait for him every day at home. We want for us to have a happy family and for me to never cry again. Daddy, we love you very much.”
“I have to keep looking for him. His children ask me every day where he is,” Sugak said.
“For them, we have to keep looking.”
Viktoriya Markina was sitting beside Sugak. The 33-year-old tells Al Jazeera that she too believes her husband Andriy, 35, is still alive. As she speaks, her eyes reflect sadness, a stark contrast to her strikingly bright red hair and green jacket. Both men had fought side by side in Ukraine’s 40th Battalion.
Sugak says she knows that her son was still alive after fighting stopped in Ilovaisk, and it is not just a false sense of hope for the two women: Two days after the fighting finished, a video of triumphant separatists with captured Ukrainian soldiers by their side were broadcast on a Russian television report.
Both Ruslan and Andriy were present among the captured. That report, however, was broadcast two years ago, and both women haven’t come across any further sign of their loved ones’ whereabouts since.
‘We have to keep going and looking’
Markina has also found herself the victim of scammers trying to profit from her grief.
“If it wasn’t for the support network around me, of all the other relatives of the missing, I would find it so hard to cope day by day,” she said.
Relatives of the missing, including Markina and Sugak, have joined a support network over the past two years headed by the industrious and motivated Liudmyla Karpova, whose son Yuriy Karpov also went missing during the Battle of Ilovaisk.
In a rare case, Karpova’s son was found languishing in a separatist prison, and has since been released.
“I have my son back now, but I have a responsibility to others like me that have not had their children returned to them,” Karpova told Al Jazeera.
“The government could be doing more to look for the missing. They could be actively investigating the information that relatives discover, for example videos online or newspaper reports that show that a missing person may be in prison or still alive. We have to keep pushing them to do more to help us get our families back together.”
The group Karpova heads meets regularly, providing comfort for those still tortured by concerns for their missing relatives, but crucially, it also organises actions to try to raise awareness of their plight. Several members will make the long trip to the capital Kiev a few times a month to lobby politicians or protest against what they believe is inaction by the government in searching for their relatives.
Scouring Russian newspapers and YouTube videos, giving out flyers up and down Ukraine and protesting on the doorstep of government offices in Kiev has taken over their lives, both women admit. While some individual members of parliament have expressed sympathy for their cause, Karpova said, she claimed little has been done to conduct more thorough investigations into the missing.
“I wouldn’t wish for any mother in the world to go through what I am going through now,” Sugak said wiping a tear from her cheek.
“Where every morning and every evening you are thinking of where he might be, whether he has eaten or had a drink. I want to ask the government of Ukraine to do something – but they won’t listen to us. There is nothing worse than to need to be heard but to be ignored.”
Both Markina and Sugak say they’re exhausted, but until a body is found, they will never stop their search.
“We have to keep going and looking, everywhere we can,” Sugak said.
“And we won’t let the government forget about us,” Markina said defiantly. “This war, this unneeded war, has to finish so our loved ones can come home.”