Alarmed at how many people were getting lost in the woods of Belarus, one Minsk resident started what is now the country’s most trusted search-and-rescue squad.
About 12,000 people are officially reported as missing every year in Belarus. Most incidents – a teenager has a fight with his parents, goes to a friend’s, and does not come home after school – resolve themselves within hours. More serious cases are far fewer, peaking when large numbers of people go to the forests during the berry- and mushroom-picking season. People affected by physical or psychological troubles can also get lost in the city.
Time is crucial when someone goes missing. Injuries, dehydration, hypothermia, or lack of needed medication can be fatal if the person is not located quickly. The police do not always have enough personnel and equipment to organize a large-scale search. That’s where the Angel Search-and-Rescue Squad comes to the rescue.
‘I Thought a Lot of People Would Come’
In 2012, a woman appeared live on television asking the public to help find her father, who was lost in the woods. Minsk resident Sergei Kovgan had the day off and decided to join the search.
“I thought a lot of people would come, but only a friend I called for company and I showed up. At the time we didn’t find the man, but a few days later I heard that the police had found him dead. I was very shocked,” he recalls.
That incident sent Kovgan looking for volunteer search groups he could join. He quickly learned that there was no such community in Belarus. He had to create his own. He started a group on the social network Vkontakte, naming it “Angel,” meaning a force for good that gives people hope. He invited his friends to join and began actively seeking information about how volunteer search groups work.
Kovgan at the time worked as head of security at a Minsk shopping center, and his idea of search and rescue was based on movies. As he was gathering information about search groups in the United States, he learned of a Russian search team called Salvare and soon took part in one of their training courses.
The first call for help came just a month after the Angel group launched – a girl was missing in Minsk. Over that first month, Angel drew 1,000 followers. Clearly, untapped potential for a volunteer search group existed. At the time the main activity of the group was to put up photos and descriptions of missing people in busy places.
“There was an intuitive notion that the more people who saw [the announcement], the faster the girl would be found. A few months later the girl was found dead,” Kovgan says.
Larisa’s family was much luckier. Her father-in-law was 72, suffering from dementia, and disappeared one day from his home in Minsk, nowhere to be found. Three days later, when he still hadn’t surfaced, an acquaintance told Larisa about Angel. Within half an hour after she posted an announcement about him, the first reply came. (Larisa and others interviewed for this story requested that their full names not be used.)
“An hour later, information about organizing a search already began to circulate on the [social] networks. Even taxi drivers were informed,” she says.
The next day, her father-in-law was found alive, eight kilometers from home. He had been wandering in a nearby neighborhood when a woman taking her child to preschool recognized him from photos she had seen online.
Getting the Word Out
Before Angel became widely known, it would sometimes take a few months after someone went missing before people would contact the group. Now, thanks to “word of mouth” on social networks, the first call for help usually arrives within a few hours, greatly increasing the odds of finding the person safe and well.
“We used to often search for people who were already dead. It was a hard, protracted search, often without a positive result, because there were huge areas and a lack of human resources,” Kovgan recalls.
Now, with almost 140,000 people in Angel’s Vkontakte group alone, a lost child or a person with dementia can sometimes be found within minutes, he says.
Angel’s help is not limited to searching for the missing. When Larisa’s father-in-law disappeared, Angel staff stayed in touch with her and gave “moral support,” she says.
“Moderators deleted unpleasant comments on social networks under the missing person ad, where some people wrote that maybe we ourselves killed my father-in-law to get his apartment. It was very unpleasant and such a little thing as deleting those comments was a great relief,” she says.
When Larisa’s father-in-law started disappearing regularly, Angel advised her to use GPS-equipped watches, something she hadn’t known existed. Angel staff showed her how to use the watches and let her try theirs before she bought her own.
Like Larisa, Irina Volk now regularly reposts information about missing people on her personal social media accounts after Angel helped find a missing relative.
“My grandfather was found in the forest on the second day” after the 85-year-old went missing in 2018, says Volk, who comes from Brest, a city in southwest Belarus, on the Polish border.
“About 20 people took part in the search – they reacted very quickly. It was immediately obvious that these people had a lot of experience,” she recalls. “I was impressed by the responsiveness of complete strangers who rushed to help us.”
Angel also gives advice over the phone.
“Many people mistakenly think that you have to wait three days, but in fact you can act immediately, as soon as the person has not returned at the expected time and you have reason to worry,” Kovgan says.
As the search-and-rescue squad began to chalk up an impressive success rate in finding missing people, the police invited Kovgan for a meeting (the group had also attracted attention because it regularly appeals to the public to help find someone who has disappeared). The police asked him about his plans to develop the service, how people can use their services (paid or free, for example), and what search methods the volunteers used.
“The police just wanted to see if there were ways to work more closely together and what expertise we had. They responded positively to us, and afterward they started contacting us directly,” he says.
Since not all reports are legitimate – a caller may be trying to trace a debtor, for example – Angel and the police also reached a verbal agreement that before starting a search, the group would first check that a missing person report has been filed.
The missing are not always found alive. Even then, Angel can help grieving families. Kovgan recalls what happened back in 2015 when a group of friends took a holiday by a river in the Minsk region. One 23-year-old man disappeared. It took Angel 14 days to find his drowned body and, he says, the man’s mother stood by the shore every day. It was a huge relief for her to know his fate and be able to bury him.
A Team of Experts
Nearly a dozen years after its launch, Angel now comprises about 200 trained volunteers in Minsk and dozens more in the regions. Among them are dog handlers, divers, psychologists, drone operators, radio experts, cartographers, a truck driver, an equipment specialist, and data administrators for orienteering. Most of the specialists are volunteers.
As the group expanded and administration grew more complex, some volunteers with special skills were offered paying jobs. Angel now has four paid employees: a driver, an accountant, a fundraiser who also handles letters and missing person appeals, and Kovgan himself.
Anastasia became Angel’s canine search boss by accident. A dog owner all her life, she had several search dog breeds as pets and had long wanted to get involved in canine search and rescue in some way. When she saw an ad for an Angel training exercise in 2018, Anastasia figured this would be a way to learn how to train search dogs. When she and her dog arrived at the training site, though, the surprise was that she was the only dog handler there.
“At the time, all the volunteers who were trying to learn on their own were amateurs. So I decided to take this task into my own hands – especially since my dog showed good potential from the first exercises,” she says.
As her skills developed, Anastasia began training others. Not everyone stays in the canine team for long, because to be a good dog handler, according to Anastasia, you literally have to devote your whole life to it. Still, Angel now can call on the services of four trainers with 30 dogs, including a core team of 10 or so top dogs who work regularly.
A Lost Person’s Best Friend
Dogs are essential in cases where the lost person does not respond to signals perhaps because they are unconscious, deaf, or frightened, Anastasia explains.
Not only that, but a dog with a handler and a partner (searchers do not go into the woods alone) can replace as many as six to eight searchers without dogs.
In the end, finding the missing person is all that matters, Anastasia stresses: “We always need people – there’s no such thing as too many people coming to search.” Sometimes as many as 2,000 volunteers can be involved in a search, and Angel-trained volunteers coordinate their work so that they don’t hinder the work of specialists.
“It’s frustrating that the number of people who respond depends on who is lost. If it’s a child, more people respond. If it’s an elderly person, fewer people respond. It’s sad, because everyone needs help,” Kovgan says.
From its beginnings in Minsk, gradually the group branched out to form branches in 14 Belarusian towns and cities and established regional centers in Brest and Vitebsk. When the need arises, volunteers from across the country respond to a call for help. For example, when suspected drownings occur in the summer, divers from Minsk may well go all the way to Gomel in southeastern Belarus – over three hours away by car – to search a lake.
The Quest for a Stable Future
All training costs are borne by the volunteers themselves. If there is a possibility to go abroad for a special course, they pay their own way. But over time Angel began organizing its own training exercises, often jointly with law enforcement officials.
Irina got her start as a volunteer after seeing Angel’s Facebook page. A few years later she joined a training camp.
“There were about 500 people – a huge camp in the woods for three days,” Irina says. Campers learned how to use maps and photos [to practice their skills at noticing details]. They were introduced to the technical equipment search teams use. “They taught us to ‘work in squares,’ where the search area is divided into squares according to the map. People form a chain and comb the forest at a visible distance from each other,” says Irina, originally from Brest and now living in Poland, where she still stays involved, spreading missing person notices in various social media groups.
Everyone there benefited, she adds, even if they will never take part in a real search, because now they know what to do if they get lost in the forest and can teach it to others.
“My mom loves to go mushrooming in the woods, and now I’m calm because I know I taught her what to do. It comes down to the trivial sometimes – how long can a person scream in the woods? Not long. But if you take a whistle, you can blow it endlessly, plus you are easier to hear. Such a little thing, but even that can save a life,” she says.
All the squad’s activities, from organizing searches to buying new equipment and paying staff salaries, are funded by donations from private individuals and companies. Amid the highly unpredictable situation in the region, donations are falling off, however, to the point where Kovgan assesses the group’s financial situation as dire.
“In fact, now we are left without financial support – we have no opportunity to buy new equipment and just try to stay afloat,” he says.
There are also official obstacles that can hamper effective work. Currently the squad is sometimes frustrated by a recent law that prohibits the use of aerial drones without special approval and certification. The approval procedure can take several days, which can be crucial at the outset of a search operation.
“As civilians, we are not allowed to use drones even for the good purpose of searching for people. We have no privileges,” Kovgan says.
Another legal hurdle at this time of year are the regular summertime restrictions on entering forests, up to total bans in certain areas, to reduce the danger of fire.
If someone gets lost in the woods this summer, Angel can only search in tandem with the police or emergency responders. As a civilian organization, it cannot mount a search or even enter forests to look for those missing.
People who go missing have sometimes ignored the legal restrictions, however, so the squad’s work goes on, day and night. Sometimes no one will contact Angel for help for a week, and sometimes several calls are received in a single day. Five or so squad members are always working the hotline, with one lead and other backups: often Kovgan or his wife, Yulia. No call goes unanswered.
When a call comes in, volunteers in an internal chat room evaluate the seriousness of the situation. Is the missing person reliant on life-saving medication? Could bad weather conditions complicate the search? When a small child is reported missing, the squad goes into “red shield” mode: Other searches become secondary at this point, and volunteers from across the country are put on standby to help find the child if needed.
The squad has one immutable rule – no new victims.
“We take care of each of our volunteers, we provide everything they need, and in 11 years we have not had a single incident where a volunteer’s life was endangered because we gave him or her something faulty. I simply will not send a car that is technically defective to a search,” Kovgan says.
Tanya Hendzel is a freelance journalist specializing in environmental and social topics. Originally from Belarus, she is currently living in Belgium.
All photos courtesy of Angel Search-and-Rescue Squad.