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Ukrainian chat helps Russian families find soldiers who were captured or killed

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(KYIV, Ukraine) — Almost two years into Russia’s invasion, with Moscow’s losses estimated by Kyiv at more than 300,000 soldiers, the Ukrainian authorities launched a project called “Want To Find” to help Russian citizens find information about their relatives who went to fight in Ukraine.

The launch came as a followup to the “Want to Live” project, a hotline offering the Russian soldiers a way to surrender.

Since that launch in September 2022, operators of the project received more than 32,000 and 260 Russian soldiers were admitted as prisoners of war, according to the organization. Some even joined the so-called Russian Volunteer corps, which is fighting against Russian forces alongside the Ukrainian army.

The number of requests soared in autumn 2022, during the announcement of a mobilization in Russia and successful Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region and Kherson, and in spring last year when the Ukrainian authorities were announcing the much-anticipated counteroffensive.

That’s when many Russians started to reach out to the Want To Live project in search of their relatives who went to war and never returned, according to Vitaliy Matvienko, the spokesperson of the I Want To Live project.

“People, mostly women, called and asked whether we knew something about their husbands or sons, whether they were captured or killed. Because the Russian authorities didn’t provide them any information,” Matvienko told ABC News.

Since last summer, they’ve got more than 3,000 such requests and decided to launch a separate Telegram bot for processing them.

Through it, the customers provide all the data they have — names, photos, any distinguishing features the person has like tattoos or scars. The operators on the Ukrainian side run this data through several databases and tell them whether the person is killed, captured or there’s no information at all.

Irina Krynina, 37, is one of those who managed to not only find her husband via the bot, but also help others to do the same.

Her husband Yevgeniy, 34, had been running a successful funeral business in Krasnoyarsk, Russia. In September 2022, during the massive mobilization announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yevgeniy was summoned to the military recruitment center.

“I was against it. I was against the war. I told him not to go,” Irina told ABC. “I had a suspicion he will be sent to Ukraine. But he didn’t believe me because of the propaganda he watched on TV and decided to join the army.”

After a month spent in a training camp in Omsk, Yevgeniy and other Russian troops were sent to the occupied Crimea and then to Kherson as it was liberated by the Ukrainian forces.

“He called me and told me to stop watching Russian TV,” Irina recalled. “He said, ‘Everything they show is completely untrue."”

The last time Irina heard from her husband was June 9, 2023.

“I knew he was sent to Bakhmut, Donetsk region, and I freaked out. I knew it was hell there,” Irina recalled.

When after a while communication didn’t resume she started looking for information about Yevgeniy’s whereabouts. “I came to the recruitment center, but they told me — who are you? we’re not going to tell you anything.”

Then Irina decided to do online research and discovered a video on social media showing her husband being captured by Ukrainian troops. But even that wasn’t enough evidence for the Russian authorities to confirm him as a prisoner of war.

“The Russian ministry of defense told me that doesn’t mean anything and they are still consider him missing,” she said.

So Irina contacted the Want To Live project. In three days the Ukrainian side confirmed Yevgeniy was in captivity, so Irina took on a challenge and went to Ukraine to meet her husband.

“To hide from the Russian authorities I designed a whole legend,” she told ABC News. With her two little kids, Irina went to Antalya, Turkey, a popular holiday destination for many Russians. Then they flew to Istanbul and Chisinau, Moldova, where Ukrainian representatives met her and escorted to Kyiv.

“When I finally met Yevgeniy he was shocked,” Irina said. “He didn’t expect me to look for him and moreover come this far to meet him.”

While Yevgeniy remains in captivity and is weighing whether he wants to go back to Russia, Irina settled down in Kyiv with her kids and set up her own nongovernmental organization, called Step In, to help other Russians search and bring back home their relatives who invaded Ukraine. The NGO is basically helping the Ukrainian Want To Find project to process the requests, organize calls between the POWs and their relatives or even receive parcels for them, according to the Geneva Conventions.

“It’s a very useful humanitarian project. Firstly, people in Russia find out at least something about their relatives,” Matvienko explained. “Once we received a request about a soldier and found out that his body was actually repatriated to Russia half a year before that. That is, he was killed, Russia got his body, but never notified the family.”

Secondly, Matvienko said, the project prompts the Russian citizens to pressure their own authorities and demand social protection. Wives of Russian soldiers often stage protests demanding exchange of prisoners.

Finally, both projects, I Want To Live and I Want To Find, are aimed at preventing more Russians from joining the army and also facilitating the exchange of prisoners of war, Matvienko added.

“According to the Geneva Conventions, the swaps should take place after the fighting ends. So the very fact they take place now is a huge achievement,” he said.

More than 3,000 Ukrainian soldiers have already been returned in exchange for nearly the same amount of Russians.

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