"The expectation of death is worse than death itself"
What war captives and kidnapped civilians go through in the occupied territories, and how exchange mechanisms work
The words in the headline of this text belong to Serhiy, a Ukrainian from the Donbas who was taken prisoner by the terrorists, but miraculously managed to escape and leave the occupied territories with his family. He was sent to death row by tip-offs from his fellow countrymen who were not happy with his pro-Ukrainian position, then went through all the circles of hell, witnessed the torture and shooting of his cellmates, and at the same time became a bargaining chip for money-grabbing sadists. There are many more people like him...
Captivity. This terrible word only recently burst into our everyday lives, but has already taken on a rather specific and chilling meaning. "The heat, stench and pain of dehydration were not as awful as the realisation that at any moment the doors could open and your killers could come in," says Serhiy, "That's it, you're not in control of your own fate! You can clench your fists as much as you want and hold yourself together thanks to willpower, but nothing depends on you anymore. You get the feeling that an abyss has opened up underneath your feet; the horror of uncertainty crushes your heart and pushes you to beg for mercy."
Prisoners of war without the war
According to official data, 124 Ukrainians are still held captive by the occupants, one third of them civilians. Another 690 are considered missing and it is possible that some of them are still alive. The precision of published figures is doubtful due to the mess in bureaucracy, including in entities that deal with prisoner exchange.
Almost anyone who happened to live in the Donbas or was just there by coincidence could have been taken prisoner at the beginning of the conflict. As Serhiy told The Ukrainian Week, the motivations for kidnapping were multiple. In 2014, the region plunged into an omnipresent atmosphere of suspicion. Street patrols detained everyone who did not have a passport, which had to be locally registered. All out-of-town visitors were automatically suspected of espionage and found themselves "in the basement" – the places where separatists kept their prisoners and conducted torture. Relatives were given an hour to bring documents to those who had left the house without them. Then, punishment was limited to a week or two of digging trenches. These people were held separately and subsequently released. If someone refused to hand over their papers, this was immediately seen as evidence of subversive activities; such detainees were sent for "demining" – to be used as a human minesweeper. Almost no one survived. The wounded and maimed were killed on the spot... "I was personally threatened with this sort of mine clearance several times," says Serhiy.
Journalists and members or leaders of any and all religious communities, except for the orthodox Moscow Patriarchate, as well as those who previously adopted a patriotic position, participated in pro-Ukrainian rallies or made negative comments about the Donetsk and Luhansk "People's Republics" were all potential prisoners. Such people were reported without fail and taken from their home or workplace. The survival chances of these hostages were 50/50, depending on the mood of the torturers and murderers, as well as the shrewdness of those trying to release them from captivity.
The third large group were local businessmen. Their houses were looted and turned into bases, while the owners were thrown into the basement with a ransom demand. Whoever wanted to survive paid up. The amount fluctuated around 1 million hryvnias ($40,000) in hard currency. Money was demanded for Serhiy too. Knowing that his relatives abroad are quite wealthy, they wanted $400,000, then knocked the price down to $100,000, but he was lucky enough to escape. He says he does not believe that he would have been released even if his relatives handed over the money. When the prisoner was shown what informers had written about him and he asked why, he was assured by those who detained him that he would never get out alive.
Citizens completely loyal to the terrorists, arrested for petty criminal offenses, wound up in the basements too. Their fate, according to Serhiy, was rather unpredictable. Once he witnessed the questioning of a young man caught stealing mobile phones: he was beaten to death during interrogation.
A special category of prisoners – and the largest one – is made up of defenders of the Ukrainian state: fighters with volunteer battalions, soldiers from the Armed Forces, employees of the intelligence services and volunteers. Most of them were captured during numerous military clashes, the escape from the Ilovaisk pocket, the fighting for Savur-Mohyla and the retreat from Debaltseve. In places, the promised reinforcements did not arrive, in others the artillery did not do its job, in others still equipment broke down at the most crucial moment. Here and there, orders were given to advance or attack something without the proper preparation and intelligence.
"In the basement"
Today, intelligence colonel Ivan Bezyazykov has been held captive by the terrorists for more than 19 months. He was captured near the village of Stepanivka in Donetsk Oblast when military commanders sent him to the militants in order to pick up the wounded and dead from the government-controlled side.
The conditions that hostages/prisoners are held in can hardly be called human. Most undergo brutal interrogations, beatings or abuse. They are often forced to do hard, hazardous work, are kept for a long time in unsuitable premises with no possibility to satisfy their basic needs, are deprived of food and water as punishment, and are not provided with the most necessary medical care. Soldier Roman Lanovyi from Volyn, who was taken prisoner near Savur-Mohyla and held in captivity for more than a month, says that at first there were mixed feelings towards Ukrainian prisoners. Treatment was often quite brutal, although there were many people who tried to improve the prisoners' situation.
Kadyrovites were the first to get their hands on Roman. They immediately rushed to beat him and took his shoes, but a Russian officer came to his defence. He ordered them to leave him alone, because the prisoners were needed alive. It turned out that the soldiers were going to talk to Russian journalists. They showed the poor barefoot and unkempt Ukrainian soldiers being given new clothes and shoes by the guards from the "DPR". After the infamous parade in August 2014 all these new things were taken back and the prisoners were given some old rags in return. As Roman recalls, at first their group was thrown into the basement of the Security Service (SBU) in Donetsk, but was later transferred to the archive. The iron shelves there were supposed to be used as bunks. "We put down cardboard so we wouldn't have to sleep on the metal and rested our heads on hats. Only later, when some reporters came and made a fuss about what they saw, were we given a bit of humanitarian aid. They fed us twice a day: a small cup of porridge and a piece of bread. They took 10-20 people at a time to the toilet, three times a day and twice at night. We weren't allowed to wash, except for the face and hands. If you started to wash your feet, you could be punished for holding everyone up. There were 200 of us, so this took a long time. They took us to shower a few times, but then stopped. We only got to have a bit of a wash at work. At first, there was a good warehouse supervisor who gave us towels and extra food. When she quit and someone else came, that all stopped. ‘Don't give meat to the soldiers, don't give them towels, let them wash where they want.’ Actually, we only went to work to clean ourselves up or call home. You could refuse to go to work, but it's very difficult to sit in a room full of two hundred people that wasn’t ventilated for days on end.”
Sometimes, the militants showed humanity. For example, when returning from Ukrainian captivity, some of them recognised a young man from the Donbas volunteer battalion who had given them medical care there and had him moved to a room with soldiers from the Armed Forces, where conditions were better. Volunteers from Right Sector and the Donbas battalion received the cruellest treatment. Artillerymen and mortar gunners from regular army units also got a lot of trouble. The guards were all different too. Some were reasonable and well disposed, even letting prisoners call their relatives and refusing to take money in return. And then others humiliated them, but did not particularly torture.
The situation of prisoners has undergone significant changes over two years of war. Those who have been released recently say that conditions have improved, people are not tortured and the food is more or less normal. But this is not always the case everywhere. Some volunteers make arrangements to pass on food, personal belongings and cigarettes to the prisoners. But, more often than not, little makes it to the intended recipients. There are difficulties with medical care. Local doctors often cannot or do not want to provide what is necessary. Roman Lanovyi remembers how one of the men who survived with concussion asked a doctor for help, complaining of constant headaches. The latter replied that he will cut off his head and nothing will hurt any more. Another time, a soldier from Kherson with a broken leg was given a botched plaster cast; only when OSCE doctors made a scene was it redone and he began to recover. However, there is a sufficient amount of evidence to the contrary too. One local nurse did all she could to help prisoners with whatever they needed, always brought medicine and, when one of them had his kidney injured during the parade and had blood in his urine for an entire week, she got hold of some scarce antibiotics at the request of a Ukrainian paramedic and the man was nursed back to health.
One more important point concerning medical treatment for prisoners is documentation. Separatist records are not valid in Ukraine, so it is not easy to prove that you suffered concussion or other problems when you come back. An agreement is necessary so that independent doctors can visit at least occasionally, diagnose prisoners and provide them with medical supplies. The Red Cross is supposed to have the right to do this, but their doctors are often not allowed onto the occupied territories.
At the beginning, when chaos reigned in the Donbas and all processes associated with life and death depended on the will of the numerous chieftains and commanders on the terrorists' side, everything looked cynically simple. A captive could be killed, kept for an exchange with the enemy directly across the line of contact or used for bargaining with his family. Even then it was difficult to agree on an equal exchange. Volunteers say it is hardest to free snipers, artillerymen and volunteers from the Aydar and Donbas battalions. Whereas fighters with the Volunteer Ukrainian Corps and other nationalist organisations had almost no chance at all. They would most likely face either execution, or torture and then execution when captured, so they rarely gave themselves up alive, preferring to be blown up by their last grenade. Later, the situation improved slightly. There is no longer mass murder on such a scale on the other side of the frontline, but, at the same time, releasing prisoners has become much more complicated. It is almost impossible to arrange an exchange or even ransom payments over the phone. With time, the exchange of prisoners took off as a big business. Moreover, according to volunteers, there were cases of dishonest negotiators demanding money, apparently for lawyers and mediators, on the Ukrainian side too. At one point, the question hung in the air, then the prisoner swaps stopped for a long time. The parties have repeatedly announced new attempts, but something always gets in the way. They have both accused each other of breaking the agreements, however it is quite problematic to identify who is actually to blame and at what stage the process has been failing.
In the maze of negotiations
People directly involved say that the cause lies in both politics and the often strange and obscure procedures used on the Ukrainian side. Or, simply put, the system's lack of organisation and responsibility. At some point, a one-for-one exchange was no longer enough for the militants. They started to push for the amnesty mentioned in the Minsk Agreements. This, naturally, did not please the Ukrainian side, but for the longest time they did not want to change the ratio to one-to-two or one-to-three either. There are times when the terrorists demand the release of specific individuals instead of everyone at once, but these people could not be exchange because they have not gone through the relevant court procedures, or have simply not been found. Similar stories can be heard on the other side. Each side tries to twist the situation to their advantage and swap someone insignificant for one of their important people. Ukrainian negotiators often complain that their lists are not taken into account (the other side claims that it doesn’t have captives from the list or that they don’t want to go home) and in return they are offered people who are not being searched for and no one knows. Such games and mutual distrust only complicate and slow down the process. The prisoners of war in the self-proclaimed "republics" who are occasionally able to get in touch say that the biggest problem and cause behind the chaos is the unsystematic character of the exchangers' work. Basic principles, which should have taken shape over such a long time, have not been formed and therefore cannot be followed. The algorithms and criteria for listing and selecting candidates for exchange are unclear. As a result, corruption is rampant – on both sides.
Relatives of prisoners often complain about the SBU's lack of professionalism, alleging that they operate with data provided by the families themselves and volunteers, or simply use unverified information. One of the biggest problems is that, in fact, no one is held responsible for anything. The people in charge change constantly. You call one to find out that he does not work on this anymore, while another one is still getting to grips with the situation. At the same time, when relatives start to make a fuss, the Security Service gets very offended. Something like, "Don't meddle in the process, we're working". Wait a while. Only often, it turns out that things will not get moving until you start to make noise. "I question the work of our specialists," says the wife of one of the prisoners. "All this time, I haven't seen any progress or desire to work. When you go to the SBU building, everyone looks so serious, they make you go through a bunch of beeping devices, take your passport, issue a pass two days before your visit and examine you from all sides, but they can't do anything in these matters. I don't want to offend them. We'd never been at war before and didn't even know what war is, but after so long you'd think they'd be able to get into the swing of things."
There is another point that is very important, but rarely talked about. Often, the military leadership, employing their own unique logic or trying to hide their lack of professionalism, portray those captured as deserters, which has a strong effect on their exchange prospects. As a result, after returning from hell, these people find themselves in the grip of their own justice system and have to prove their innocence. To avoid such things and regulate the situation, it is obviously necessary not only to centralise efforts and information, but also to get the people who are engaged in this to regularly publish at least some sort of reports– not just bare figures, but facts about what has been done. We urgently need a centre that people could contact with their problems and that would ensure compliance with a set of transparent and understandable principles.
Prisoners and those who have returned from captivity say they understand that not everything depends on our side, but we should still do everything in our power. Everyone should be freed, but the process should not be chaotic. We must find a way to formulate our priorities, then stick to them and strictly monitor the exchange process. The country's number one concern should be the people who defend its interests. Soldiers ought to be exchanged for soldiers, whereas the identities of volunteers must be confirmed by their colleagues. We also need to exchange civilians in the same way. Finally, army units and their leadership should be directly involved in these processes too. They should be the ones responsible for the fate of each soldier: they should promote the exchange of servicemen and women, report on their work done and be interested in influencing the necessary structures. Very often, no one there even bats an eye.
And now the most important thing. Participants say that exchanges have resumed due to international pressure after a long break. But they have stalled due to excessive politicisation. The issue of prisoners should be removed from the Minsk Agreements. Once this happens and it ceases to be the subject of political bargaining, there will be a chance for its gradual resolution. Ukraine should demand the release of its people more forcefully. Statements with assurances that we will get everyone out and leave no one behind are, unfortunately, not always backed up by actions.