Ukrainian Roma under Russian occupation

“I had no peace and no hope. I just stood and waited for these people to come and take me”
Rodion Aksyonov with his great-grandmother Varvara after returning from captivity. Photo by Volodymyr Panchenko (April 9, 2022)
Janush Panchenko gives an account of the crimes against Roma by the Russian military in the occupied regions of Ukraine.

The Russian aggressors committed countless severe crimes during the occupation of eastern parts of Ukraine. Roma became victims of these crimes too. The crimes of the Russian occupants committed against Roma didn’t only start in February 2022, but already during the first stage of the Russian military invasion of Ukraine in 2014, cases of antigypsyism appeared. On April 23, 2014, the Ukrainian mass media reported on 7 attacks on Roma homes by Russian forces during one week in Slovyansk (Donetsk region) [[i], [ii]].

Many Roma are still afraid to report about the crimes they or family members or neighbors have endured. Many still have relatives left in the occupied areas and fear repercussions for them. Others aren’t able to talk about it yet or are just afraid.

Sometimes it is difficult to verify reports of severe crimes, since it is not so easy check information from different sources or to get official confirmations in war times. With regard to the following crimes, we could talk with family members or the victim.

Abduction of a young man in Kakhovka. Kakhovka in Kherson region was already fully occupied on February 25, 2022.

19-year-old Rodion Aksyonov was kidnapped March 12, 2022 and was kept in detention for eight days. He was riding his bicycle from Kakhovka to Nova Kakhovka to visit his girl-friend. At a Russian checkpoint, soldiers asked for his passport. The boy did not have a passport with him and was detained:

“They put a bag over my head, and took me to Nova Kakhovka, I was there for five days. We were forced to work, we dug pits, buried the bodies and remains of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers. We worked very hard, from early morning until late at night. People who did not want to work were brutally beaten”.

Rodion was held for 5 days in police station of Nova Kakhovka. And then the military took him to Kherson:

“Then I was taken to Kherson, here Russian soldiers questioned me about who organizes anti-Russian rallies in Kherson, as well as where the Ukrainian military is located, who has weapons in the town, but I did not know all this. I was held in Kherson for three days, and then the Russian military took us back to Kakhovka and released us there”.

The Russians brought Rodion to Kherson on March 18, at the same time the well-known Ukrainian journalist Oleh Baturin was already in captivity there, we talked with him about Rodion:

“Rodion was brought to this place on Friday. I could not see him, because we were in different cells, it seems to me that all prisoners were in solitary confinement. <…> It was hard not to remember him [Rodion], because on his first day he behaved very emotionally. His knocking on the doors of the detention center and shouting irritated the guards and those who were in this place. And they [Russians] answered him very aggressively. The Russians treated everyone aggressively, but he annoyed them the most, because he screamed and knocked for a long time, including at night. But the next day, he already behaved more calmly, and the guards began to react to him more calmly”.

Oleh also spoke about the situation in the isolation ward:

“I do not remember that the Russians brought any official charges against any of the prisoners. It all had the character of terror, absolute chaos. They just beat and tortured the captured Ukrainian servicemen. I did not see any logic in their actions, they did what they wanted. For example, they wanted to mock the prisoners, they went into the cell to me, or to other prisoners, and began to mock”.

After Rodion had disappeared, his grandmother Sofia several times asked the Russian military whether they were holding her grandson or whether they had any information about the boy:

“We immediately thought that maybe the soldiers had taken him, so I went to the Russian checkpoint in the town, showed the soldiers a photo of Rodion, and asked if they had him. The first time, the soldier told me that Rodion was with them and that in order for them to let him go, I had to bring them his passport. I returned home to get the documents, but when I came back to the checkpoint another soldier was already there and he said that they don’t have Rodion. So, I went to the Russians many times, every day, asked to let my grandson go, but each time I received a different answer. <…> There were rumors among the neighbors that they saw Rodion’s shot body in the forest, people said different things, we didn’t know where he disappeared to” (Sofia, Rodion’s grandmother).

Rodion Aksyonov with his great-grandmother Varvara after returning from captivity. Photo by Volodymyr Panchenko (April 9, 2022)
Rodion Aksyonov with his great-grandmother Varvara after returning from captivity.
Photo by Volodymyr Panchenko (April 9, 2022)

A month later, at the same checkpoint, Roma activist, Volodymyr Panchenko, was detained. While crossing Russian checkpoints, the occupying army regularly checks the phones of civilians: they check photos, conversations in instant messengers, etc. Residents of the Kherson region usually deleted all unwanted dialogs and files from the phone before leaving the house. But sometimes people forgot to do this, which caused civilians to fall into Russian captivity. A similar situation happened at Volodymyr, on April 15, he crossed the Russian checkpoint on public transport. During the check of the bus passengers, Volodymyr was found to have disrespectful messages about Russian soldiers, after this he was taken off the bus by the soldiers:

 “At first, I felt normal in a conversation with the soldiers, more or less, but then, I heard a call and a Russian soldier said “come, there is a guy with a telephone, he has something interesting, come take him”. After that, I had no peace and no hope. I just stood and waited for these people to come and take me, and I didn’t even know where they would take me. This soldier called several more times to take me, but no one came”.

Vladimir was more fortunate than Rodion, he was released after 9 hours of detention.

Volodymyr Panchenko during the distribution of humanitarian aid to Roma old people.
Photo by Janush Panchenko (May, 2022)

Disappearance of Vasyl Lebedev in Lysychansk. Vasyl Lebedev, known among the Donbas Roma by the nickname “Baron” lived in the town of Lysychansk (Luhansk region). According to his relatives, Baron was taken away by Russian forces on August 1 and despite searching for him that they couldn’t get in contact with him in the following months.

“Baron was taken away on August 1, he was taken directly from his house, after that we did not see him. We tried to find him, made inquiries both in the Luhansk region and in Rostov [Rostov-on-Don], they [Russian police] told us that he was alive, but they did not show him. We asked them to let us see him even for a minute, or record his voice, but it was all useless. Russian police say he is alive and he is in Lysychansk. We are also sure that he is alive, but he is very sick” (female, Luhansk region).

His relatives later found a man who stated that he was interned together with Vasyl.

He told us that Baron was beaten very badly, they are forcing him to take on some big criminal case, but Baron refuses to take on crimes, in which he is forcibly accused.

In December 2022, Baron was still kept in detention and his relatives were still not allowed taking up direct contract with him.

Shooting of a Roma family in Makiivka. On December 6, 2022, a brutal murder was committed in the temporarily occupied town of Makiivka (Donetsk region) – eight members of a Roma family were shot. Three of the killed were children – nine, eight and one year old. All members of the family were killed with shots to the head, and in total about forty shots were fired.

December 28, the local channel of the Russian occupation forces in Makiivka published a report that the local police had allegedly arrested the killers. Apparently, they turned out to be three local residents of the town. The suspects confessed to the crime. The purpose of the murder was, allegedly, robbery of property.

Close relatives of the victims tell some details of the murder:

“These people [victims] were working in Moscow, they were not at home for a long time, they came to Makiivka for the New Year. They arrived two days before they were killed. The children were at home all the time, and the elders were at work [in Moscow]. One son returned home from a dinner with friends around 9 o’clock in the evening and found his family killed. One son remained alone. His family, his sisters, parents, children, his wife, 25-years-old boy, he was left alone”.

“The daughter-in-law with the 9-year-old child was found shot in the bedroom. I think she wanted to escape with the child through the window, but the windows are covered with bars. They did not manage to escape, they were killed in the bedroom, the daughter-in-law and the child, a 9-year-old boy”.

The Roma of Makiivka say that the killers were soldiers of the occupation army, and the Russian police are hiding the real killers:

“This was done by the military national guard of the DPR, they came and shot the family, believe me, it was done by the military. These people came in military uniform”.

One of the residents of Makiivka, who managed to leave the town in the meantime agrees to it:

“The police cover the soldiers, the soldiers did it, I went through it myself, they abused my family”.

There are more reports on killings, abductions or violence against Roma in the temporary occupied areas. 3 April 2022, Russian occupants killed in Izyum, Charkiv region, the representative of the local Roma community when he refused to support the occupants.

End of November 2022, the Ukrainian Defence Ministry Intelligence published an alleged intercepted conversation of a Russian soldier with his wife in which he says that Russian military police allegedly shot 28 Roma. We interviewed Roma of Luhansk and Donetsk regions, but they didn’t know about this killing. So, this possible crime requires further investigation.

There are also reports from Roma from Mariupol or other locations which were under heavy fire from Russian forces on how they survived and how they have managed to escape the horror [[iii]].

Many crimes aren’t known yet to the public. Unfortunately, we will learn about more crimes only after the liberation of all Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia.


Written by: Janush Panchenko

[i]. In Slovyansk, armed people rob the Roma: [in Russian]

[ii]. Roma diaspora in Donetsk region claims pogroms of their families: [in Russian]

[iii]. Romani Voices from Hell: Discrimination, Epidemic, War: [in English]