Dead or alive?

Dead or alive?

Maxim Sarychau
Andrea Ritter

This case was one of the first operations of the organization Angel Search, which was founded in 2012 in the Belarusian capital Minsk. It supports the police, which can not deploy enough staff to search for missing persons, especially in the vast forest areas of the country. If a person disappears, relatives can contact Angel Search over the Internet or an emergency number. The head office in Minsk has established a database in which more than 100,000 contacts have been registered: volunteers who are available for search purposes. The initiative is funded by donations and crowdfunding.

There are not many bourgeois NGOs in Belarus. A country ruled authoritarian by its president, Alexander Lukashenko, since 1994. Belarus is about half the size of Germany, but has only about 9.5 million inhabitants. Beyond the cities, wild, wild forests cover the land. Pines, birches and aspens, which thrive in the meager soil, but which is hardly suitable for agriculture. The rivers are wide, the shores are natural, lined with marshy grasslands. If someone gets lost here, he can hardly get back without help. If someone is supposed to disappear here, he often disappears forever. Without a trace. Just because.

The photographer Maxim Sarychau from Minsk and has accompanied individual searches by Angel Search since 2014: "404: Not Found" he called his project, after the error message of a web server, if a website can not be found. "My pictures are about the special atmosphere at the places where people dissapeared," he says. "To the absent. The emptiness. When a search operation is in process, relatives and friends of the missing person are usually take part as well. That's especially depressing. "

In the past, especially in rural areas, relatives of a disappeared person had gone on their own. With sticks and flashlights they moved into the woods - mostly without success.

Angel Search uses GPS devices and drones. With radio devices, the leaders of each squad coordinate the action in each section of an area.

Wiktoria Jasel, 19, was last seen when she got into a Mercedes on the evening of August 20, 2014. There was a man at the wheel, the two of them had known each other for three years. She did not come back all night and not the next day either. On August 26, a search party from Angel Search found her body, buried in the woods near a village. The Mercedes driver had raped her and then, as he said, "accidentally" strangled.

When a person disappears, Angel Search's Minsk Center places a search ad with photos and missing person's data on social networks. Notes can be collected via Facebook or via its Russian counterpart VKontakte, which restrict the search area.

The uncertainty keeps the relatives trapped. As long as you have not found anything, there is hope. Maybe my husband is still alive. Maybe our daughter just got lost. The longer the condition lasts, the more desperately the imagination paints its pictures. Who hopes, can not grieve, not complete.

Vitaly Zhilkovsky, 57, was last seen near a water reservoir near Minsk. He left home on February 17, 2016, it was his birthday. After his wife reported his disappearance, the helpers searched for him for three weeks. Until today he was not found.

In Belarus, around 2500 people have been reported missing since the beginning of the year. In Germany, there are many more - in May 2017, 14 000 people were in the missing-database of the Federal Criminal Police Office stored. According to the BKA, half of the cases in Germany, however, are explained within a week; after one month, the rate is 80 percent. Three percent of all missing persons remain unresolved even after one year.

In the meantime, Angel Search conducts about 50 searches per year. "People are no longer left to their own grief," says Maxim Sarychau. That's also why he decided to accompany the project. "The atmosphere at the sites has always been very tense," he says. "Step by step, the viewfinders move forward. They know that it usually does not go well. They are looking for, but at the same time they are afraid to find something. "

Dimitrij Shevchuk, 30, was a musician and journalist. On August 20, 2014, he left his apartment. Two days later he talked to a friend via Skype. Then his friends did not hear from him anymore and reported him to Angel Search. On August 28, 75 people in several groups started combing the forest around Minsk. They found him a day later. He was not dead long before. He had hanged himself.

"I was there when they discovered him," says Maxim Sarychau. "The search party also included many of his friends. We stood between dead trees and no one said a word. But maybe, if we had come earlier ... Everyone thought about it. "

Most missing people trying to find Angel Search have not been victims of a crime. Many of them just got lost or had an accident. "It's absurd. We live in a highly technological time. And yet people are still disappearing, "says Maxim Sarychau. "They go into the forest, collect mushrooms or go fishing and never come back. As in ancient times. Like in the fairy tales of yesteryear. "

You think you can memorize certain landscapes. To be guided by the state of the sun. In fact, people who have lost their way tend to run headlong in any direction.

This is how neuroscientist Paul A. Dudchenko describes it in his book Why People Get Lost. Suddenly, every tree and every stone is familiar. Panic rises, you start running - and often ends up at the starting point again. Fear lifts the inner sense of direction of man. That's why the searchers from Angel Search now also offer preventive measures. They teach how to set way marks and use orientation devices.

When Angel Search published the Missing Ad by Julija Balykina on the Net, her friends were already certain that something bad had happened to her. The well-known sprinter, who competed for Belarus in 2012 at the Olympic Games in London, had separated from her friend. There had been a fight. "If you leave me," he had threatened, "I'll do something for which I'm going to jail." That's how Julija Balykina, 31, told a friend.

On October 28, 2015, she disappeared on her way home in Minsk. Her ex-boyfriend soon confessed to killing her. He claimed that he forgot where he left the body. 300 people, policemen, but also many friends and athletes, scoured a 30 square kilometer area.

"It was already known that she had been murdered, so the Angels were looking for a hidden body," says Maxim Sarychau. On November 16, 2015, the police found the body, wrapped in plastic wrap and hidden under moss. Balykina's ex-boyfriend was sentenced to 23 years in prison.

Julija Balykina was an exceptional case. "She was searched without Angel Search. She was famous, "says Maxim Sarychau. "Even the army was in action. The operation lasted 17 days. "

Angel Search has successfully solved 300 missing person cases since its inception. Success means that people came back to their families, dead or alive.