More On the Donetsk People’s Republic–3 Aug 14 [II]

Ten Weeks In The Hands Of Ukrainian Separatists
Dmitry Volchek
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty | July 30, 2014

Ukrainian theater director Pavel Yurov (right) and artist Denis Grishchuk are recovering in Kyiv after being held hostage for more than two months by pro-Russian separatists.

Ukrainian theater director Pavel Yurov and artist Denis Grishchuk are recovering in Kyiv after being held hostage for more than two months by pro-Russian separatists in the country’s restive east.

Both are undergoing psychological treatment. Yurov is preparing to have surgery for a broken nose.

While abductions are rife in eastern Ukraine, the disappearance of two recognizable cultural figures had caused outrage not only in Ukraine, but also in Russia, where a number of prominent actors signed an open letter calling for their release.

Yurov and Grishchuk, who are both from eastern Ukraine but live in Kyiv, were abducted on April 25 on their way from Donetsk to the capital.

What began as a quick detour through the rebel-held city of Slovyansk quickly turned into a protracted nightmare at the hands of armed rebels.

"It all started in a cafe where we had stopped for lunch. There were Russian journalists and local residents there," Grishchuk recalls. "We were watching the news on our tablets and a woman asked us what the news said. We told her. I can’t remember precisely what words we used, but obviously it gave away our belief in a united Ukraine."

Grishchuk says the locals shouted at them and called them ‘banderovtsi," or neo-Nazis, a common slur against pro-Ukraine sympathizers.

Severe Beating

The two men left the cafe but were detained outside by armed insurgents and taken to the rebel-occupied building of the SBU state secret services, the Slovyansk separatists’ headquarters.

That’s where their first, and most severe, beating took place.

"They hit us on the head and body with their hands and feet," says Yurov. "Denis’s hand was slashed and they called a medic. While this medic was treating his hand, they beat him in the ribs. They put cotton in my nose to stop the bleeding and hit me in the back at the same time. They also tried to intimidate us, they threatened to cut off our ears and call in someone to rape us."

Grishchuk says the separatists flew into a rage after finding a Ukrainian flag on them, along with a video from the pro-European Maidan protests in Kyiv last fall and a telephone number for Maidan activists in Kharkiv.

Like all hostages held by the insurgents, Yurov and Grishchuk were not allowed any contact with the outside world, fuelling concerns about their wellbeing.

While most captives have made it out alive, a number of them were killed or gravely wounded.

The only information about them came from the man who then controlled Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, who has since been sacked and detained by fellow rebel leader Ihor Girkin, aka Strelkov.  

Ponomaryov confirmed to the men’s’ families that they had been captured.

But although Ponomaryov told Grishchuk’s father that they were "not guilty of anything serious," the two men were freed only when Ukrainian government forces reclaimed Slovyansk earlier this month, after 70 days in captivity.

They were first held in the cellar of the SBU building, a dark space with rust-stained walls and old mattresses spread on the ground.

On May 9, they were transferred to the city’s main police detention center.

Disarray In Rebel Ranks

A handful of other hostages shared their cell the entire time. One was a local student detained outside the SBU building. Another was a member of the Ukrainian ultra-nationalist Svoboda party. Valentin Rybachuk, the former mayor of Slovyank, was also held with them.

They describe a steady stream of captives detained for a few days before being released or taken elsewhere – a woman arrested for taking a photo, Svoboda party members, a local businessman, a drunk priest, Russian and Ukrainian journalists, and a U.S. Hare Krishna worshiper who sang mantras all day in his cell.

The basement of the SBU building in Slovyansk where separatists held their prisoners

Confirming reports of disarray within rebel ranks, insurgents who had fallen out with their superiors were also among those held.

"They jailed one of the guards who escorted us from the SBU to the police building," says Yurov. "He stayed there right up to the end, until our release."

As for their captors, Yurov describes them as local Ukrainian men, mostly uneducated, many with criminal pasts.

"Those actively involved in this movement are lowlifes, petty thugs, criminals, former police officers and soldiers, and people using heavy drugs," he says. "As before, I suspect these people are taking orders from Russians."

Yurov and Grishchuk plan to seek redress for their ordeal. They are now working with human rights group to file a complaint against Russia with the European Court of Human Rights.

But the 70 days they spent in captivity, they say, have dulled their anger at their actual captors and forced them to pore over the reasons prompting so many eastern Ukrainians to rebel against the government in Kyiv.

"We are all guilty, no one should be categorically blamed," says Grishchuk. "We ourselves allowed this rift to divide our nation, a rift that is now prompting people to take up arms."


My Captivity in Ukraine Shows Amateurs Succumb to Hatred
Stepan Kravchenko
Bloomberg | July 27, 2014

In eastern Ukraine, one text message can turn you into an enemy. In my case, it was sent to my father. “Talked to Borodai at night,” it said about an interview I had with a rebel leader.

“So, you are Borodai’s little friend,” concluded the camouflaged man reading my Nokia. His comrade pointed a Kalashnikov at my stomach. “We’ve got a Russian warrior here saying he is a journalist,” he called to someone in Russian.

It was July 25, 3 p.m. I was heading home to Russia from Donetsk when a routine inspection at a Ukrainian army checkpoint near Starobesheve village went bad. They saw my Russian passport and press card, and told me to get out and hand over my belongings. I tried to hide my BlackBerry. Then they found videos of separatists’ press conferences on my iPad. My guilt, whatever it was, was proven.

I managed to whisper a Moscow contact to my driver before being blindfolded and walked five steps to a waiting Hyundai SUV I’d seen approaching with masked men inside.

“You’d better shut up and think about keeping your pants dry,” one of the masked men — I counted three voices — said as we were driving to an unknown location something like 40 minutes away, off a bumpy rural road.

It reminded me, a 31-year-old Muscovite, of the many experiences I had with Russian police as a teenager. I was waiting for good cop-bad cop questioning, moderate use of force and a meticulous scan of my memories from rebel-controlled Donetsk.

I thought I’d still make my flight at 9:15 p.m. As I got to learn my captors better, I began to think I might be held for days, if only because chaos on the ground would keep me from being found.

Oligarch’s Officers

The three captors — Pavel, Ruslan and Dmitry, as I learned later — were military intelligence officers from the Dnepr battalion, sponsored by Dnipropetrovsk governor and billionaire Igor Kolomoisky. In this war, oligarchs train, equip and fund detachments, which are then under the control of the Ukranian army.

Dubbed “Kolomoisky castigators” and “fascists” by Russian media, my captors turned out to be the same kind of people I met when talking to separatists: bored Russian-speakers, the blood and muscle of a conflict where random hatred reigns on both sides.

“So, what do the rebels say?” was the first question after I was taken out of the car.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, what do they say, in general?” a gunman elaborated.

Punched Twice

I was still blindfolded, sitting on the grass in a place that sounded like a military camp. Soldiers were gathering around, joking and cursing at me. “You, Russians, are all pigs,” one said. “I’d love to shoot you down.”

This made me recall a salty Russian joke about World War II. I chuckled. He punched me twice in the head. It didn’t hurt much. I thought that was a good sign.

The questioning didn’t go as I expected. My captors were not asking about rebel positions, separatist leadership security or anything that military intelligence ought to be interested in.

They desperately expressed their own views, shutting me up when I argued. They asked me questions I couldn’t answer. How many Russians support the rebels? Why do they kill children? Why did the people on the Malaysian Airlines flight have to die? What does Vladimir Putin want? Do we really look like fascists?

It lasted for an hour or more. I was happy when they settled me back in the car. The driver explained that we were heading out to destroy a separatist truck-mounted Grad rocket launcher in a village nearby.

Grain Harvester

“You will now see how the Ukrainian army fights,” he said, and hit the throttle. The car bumped into a barrier, losing a fender guard, as I heard from their talks.

They stopped at another roadblock to get more weapons. We moved further in silence on a bumpy road. I started to fall asleep, wondering what message I would send to Polina and my son if I managed to get the phone back. A cursing voice woke me up.

The “Grad” turned out to be a grain harvester. The gunmen appeared to be relieved. They took my blindfold off and I saw a field of rye.

“Look how beautiful it is,” said Ruslan, a tall red-haired man in his 30s sitting next to me. He turned out to have a habit of pointing out picturesque landscapes. The three of them wore new combat vests and tactical sunglasses.

Small-Business Men

“You should be happy we got you and not the guys from the 39th unit,” Dmitry, the driver and the commander of the group, told me. “They are always drunk, so they would probably beat you to death first and then think.”

Dmitry, Ruslan and Pavel were small-business men before the conflict, they told me. Their companies had monthly sales of around 300,000 Hryvnia ($25,000) each. They used to travel together to Oktoberfest in Germany and organized weekend parties in country vacation houses. Dmitry turned out to be an expert in wind generators and dissuaded me from buying one for my dacha.

The three of them hated everything other than nature. They hated the Euromaidan protests for igniting the unrest, hated Americans and Europeans for supporting it, hated ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and, of course, hated Putin, journalists and Russians.

“Russians and Ukrainians are not brothers anymore ’til Putin dies,” Pavel, who looked older than his friends, said, as he played a disc of Russian rock pioneer Viktor Tsoi in the Hyundai.

They asked me if I had Ukrainian roots. I had to disappoint them.

Rye Fields

We were heading to Mariupol, a city to the south of Donetsk, where authorities moved when the rebels occupied the capital. Pavel was advising me how to behave during questioning by their “much tougher” colleagues at the base, Dmitry was having a phone conversation about rebels’ salaries and Ruslan was staring at another field.

“Did you know there are giant rye fields between Ukraine and Russia, fields that go across the border, where nothing indicates what country they belong to?” he asked pensively.

“I know a village where a house is on our side and its toilet is on the Russian side,” Pavel said.

It was growing dark when they blindfolded me again.

The base was at the airport, as I understood from their talks. “Password? Four. Password? Six,” they said at the entrance, stopped the car and left me alone. Other men took me out of the car and ordered me to put my hands on the wall.

‘Truth Room’

The pointless questioning repeated. “Do you know who Putin is?” a voice asked. “The president of Russia,” I said. “Incorrect. He is khuilo. Let me teach you a song,” he said about a soccer chant popular in Ukraine in which Putin is called that term, which translates to an unprintable reference to male anatomy.

“Bloomberg News? Are you sure? Maybe Life News,” another voice asked, referring to a Russian media outlet controlled by Putin allies. They told me they don’t care that I work for an international media and not for a Russian one.

“We got a truth room for s— like you,” somebody said. Then they all left, leaving a guard who kicked me in the leg when I made attempts to kill mosquitos.

I had no way of knowing at the time, but my driver had managed to get through the message to my father to call Bloomberg’s Moscow bureau, setting off frantic activity from there to New York.

My colleagues in Kiev reached out to every contact they had, calling the army, the defense ministry, the security services, the president’s office. They scurried to find copies of my passports and assemble a portfolio of my recent work to prove who I was. Eventually, they found the right person.

Right Connection

In an hour, a new man approached. They called him colonel. He had a soft voice and a small palm. “I am an ethnic Russian,” was the introduction. “Looks like you were telling the truth and I have only one question left before you go. What do you think about all of this happening here?”

I answered with a bad Russian word. He agreed.

My three captors returned and drove me out from the base. “He said we should ask you to excuse us,” Ruslan said, taking my blindfold off.

“Here, take these. It’s Ukrainian-made s— anyway,” Pavel said as he gave me his sunglasses. Ruslan showed pictures of corpses that he said belonged to Chechen mercenaries he’d killed in Ukraine. Dmitry said I can always join their raids when I come back.

Hanging Out

My captors took me to Novoazovsk, a border checkpoint I was planning to pass seven hours earlier. Ruslan took a call from his father.

“All fine, Dad.”

“No, doing nothing. Just met some friends and we plan to hang out a bit.”

They ordered the border guards to let me go through. They left their e-mail addresses, should I wish to keep in touch.

At the Russian side, the Federal Security Service questioned me for an hour. I told my story in brief and a young officer asked if they could inspect my belongings. He was surprised when I refused.

I left the checkpoint and saw a field of rye. It was too dark to see if it stretched across the border.


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