When the pro-Europe protests started in Ukraine in November 2013, tensions escalated in Donetsk and Luhansk. In the midst of the fighting, armed groups kidnapped and detained people. Including psychologist Hanna Mokrousova.
Released weeks later, Mokrousova fled to Kyiv. She noticed how many people had been subjected to methods of torture to intimidate and extract confessions. A 2014 UN human rights monitoring report on Ukraine stated that abuses by armed groups included torture, arbitrary and incommunicado detention, summary executions, forced labour, and sexual violence.
“There was a real avalanche of calls from friends, relatives and loved ones of people who were detained or went missing. Nobody knew what to do and everyone, for inexplicable reasons, was calling me,” Mokrousova said. “I had to do something. Whatever I could.”
Using funds and assistance from the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) and the United Nations Voluntary Fund for the Victims of Torture, Mokrousova founded Blakytniy Ptakh (Blue Bird), to provide victims of torture and their families with humanitarian, medical, psychological and legal assistance.
“I had no experience in project management and, frankly, knew nothing about human rights,” Mokrousova said. “UN human rights officers were my mentors and became my friends.”
Saving and supporting hostages
From the onset of the armed conflict in that region in 2014, the HRMMU has been interviewing victims of arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment from both sides and has referred victims and families to Blue Bird. Over the last five years, at least 3,000 people have received support from Blue Bird.
At the end of 2019, the Ukrainian government and the areas controlled by armed groups carried out an exchange and mass release of hostages. Seventy-six of the hostages were identified and added to the exchange list due to Blue Bird’s efforts. The Blue Bird team was their first emergency contact and supported them during and after their imprisonment.
When the Russian military attacked Ukraine in 2022, Blue Bird became one of the key NGOs on the ground. It has received hundreds of calls from families of hostages taken by armed groups. In 2022, the Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that they believe that those detained are at risk of torture or other ill-treatment. Blue Bird intervenes by establishing contact between army officials and families when possible, gathering medication and food for the hostages, and offering psychological help and rehabilitation assistance after their release.
It can take weeks, months or years for a hostage to be released and reunited with his or her family. Blue Bird remains a source of support throughout.
“It is very important that people are not alone with their grief. We help them to deal with hopelessness and not to feel abandoned, not to give up and continue to fight for the release of a loved one,” Mokrousova said.
Blue Bird received its first grant from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture in 2018.
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