A month in captivity in the “Donetsk People’s Republic”
Ruslan Petrenko (not his real name) from a small town near Donetsk was a pro-Ukrainian activist. This got him in trouble: he was taken hostage by the “DNR” terrorists and spent more than a month in captivity
What he had been through could make a thick book. Ruslan says jokingly that his story could be a script for a film. In summer, however, joking was the last thing he would do. His survival was a miracle.
“I took part in all the pro-Ukrainian rallies in Donetsk from the very start. I remember the first fights in Donetsk very well. When Dima Cherniavsky (the 22-year old activist and member of Svoboda. He was stabbed by the fighters at a pro-Ukrainian rally in March and did not survived – Ed.) was killed, we were near. Frankly speaking, when the fight began, we just managed to get away, so we were not injured. What shocked me was the fierce aggression. I could not explain where it comes from in those people. It takes something to amass so much spite.
“We arranged a motor rally for the unity of Ukraine. A few dozen cars was quite a number for our small town. No one reacted aggressively to it, and no tried to fight us even though we had Ukrainian flags. Later, an office of the “DNR” (Donetsk People’s Republic – Ed.) appeared, and fighting in Sloviansk and Mariupol began. Then I realized what was coming. I moved my family and some stuff out of the town, and then came back.
“For a long time everything was relatively quiet in our jerkwater place. I led a semi-underground life, coming outside only in the evening.
“I was captured the day before I was to leave the town. I had my bags packed. They grabbed me right in the street. I think someone from the municipal executive committee saw me and called the militants. Armed men got out of two cars, pushed me to the ground, kicked me in the kidneys. Of course, I offered no resistance.
“Then they brought me to the local police department and handcuffed me. There was the militants’ base. They did not even try to conceal that they had come from Sloviansk. Our cops cooperated with them, some 30% defected to the ‘DNR.’ Some of them had known me for a long time, since my school years, and it was weird and unthinkable to see people I knew suddenly turn into enemies and tormentors. I was accused of spying and allegedly making a video of them with my phone, which of course was a lie.
“Then they began an interrogation. They said that I was known to be a pravosec (member of Pravy Sektor, the Right Sector. This is the most widespread, mostly ungrounded, accusation, and often a cause of violent torturing – Ed.) and was working to build an underground movement in the town. I don’t know what gave them the idea. Of course I had pro-Ukrainian views, I rallied with a flag, but that’s all there was to it. There were two militants, short and fierce. Later I noticed the trend: the shorter, the crueller and less sensible the man is.
“They got me into a paddy wagon lined with tin sheets from the inside. There was another guy in it. We arrived late in the afternoon. I was locked up in an isolation ward. Pitch-dark, not a beam of light anywhere. Two boys were already there, and I realized that they had been beaten cruelly. One kept moaning, he was feeling very bad. He was a firefighter but would not tell why they had arrested him. He had spent almost a week there without food.“They promised me that if I named my commander and what orders I got, they would let me go. But I had nothing to confess. Then they said they would send me to the SBU in Donetsk, where I would surely start talking: ‘If you don’t talk, bastard, you’ll meet the Butcher.’
“At night we heard voices in the corridor, and the boys began to worry. They thought it was the change of guards, and that the ordeal would start again. Indeed, the door opened, and some schmuck walked in, ugly as sin. Short, deformed, cross-eyed, with crooked teeth. His nickname was Butcher. He called some names and asked me if I knew them. I didn’t. He left, and the boys breathed out. They said I was very, very lucky, because normally hostages are taken for a ‘night talk.’
“Later I heard what they meant. All night long I heard inhuman screams echoing. Someone was dragged along the corridor. For some reason, they always beat people at night. Either because the higher-ups were not around, or because they were told to do so.
“This Butcher enjoys torturing people. He has been beating everyone, practicing his punches. Rumour had it that he once trashed some poor guy for looting for an hour, till he died.
“One day, there was another incident: some captured, blindfolded men were brought in. A ‘militant’ fired his AK at one man’s foot, just for fun. They stood there roaring with laughter, looking at him bleeding.
“The next day it was my turn to be interrogated. There were two interrogators, who played the classical game of the good and bad cop, trying to loosen my tongue. They asked me who my curator was. Then they told me about the ferocities of the Ukrainian army: how they crucified a little boy in Sloviansk, how they tied a woman to a tank and dragged her around, how an armoured refrigerator rides along the front line collecting body organs from wounded men. They kept talking on and on, and I never knew what the point was. I spoke very cautiously because I knew they shot people for lesser sins than mine.
“Afterwards I was transferred to an ordinary cell, and it was a little easier. There were 15 inmates in my cell. We slept on sheets of carton. We had lights, but had to use jars to go to the toilet. Depending on the wardens, there were shifts when you could go to the toilet, or when you were beaten up if you asked for anything.
“Women and men shared cells together. Remarkably, there were four persons from the ‘DNR,’ who ended up in prison because someone had reported them. One woman from Sloviansk used to work at the city council. She was accused of spying and arrested for having told someone on the phone that she thought Donetsk would be attacked soon. The woman spent seven days in the cell without interrogation. I asked them how this could be happening, these weren’t Stalin’s times after all. But they said Mr. Girkin (Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov, a Russian-born terrorist leader – Ed.) is a very competent and intelligent man and that he would put things right.
“There were businessmen with us. They were hardly interrogated or beaten. They just were closed down there for some time, so later they were happy to pay and leave immediately upon release. There was one such man who had been delivering food and cigarettes to the ‘DNR’ checkpoints. Once he was driving after a heavy drinking bout. They smelled alcohol and took away his car, even though he had been bringing them grub for two months. When he began to protest, they threw him in a cell. Now he had sat there for nine days. Another ‘DNR’ fan came to a checkpoint and inquired the men there if they planned an offensive against Kyiv. He was arrested as a spy. Another guy just had a bad luck. He was mowing grass in the evening and saw someone walking in his yard. He confronted the stranger who turned out to be a ‘DNR’ militant. The poor guy was thrown in gaol for assaulting a soldier! He was beaten mercilessly, a half of his body was blue, one leg was black.
“There were also Ukrainian patriots. One boy was grabbed for comments on the internet. He had spent a week in an isolation ward, and then in our cell. He had been locked up for 15 days. Later two people were brought in, a woman and a man from Batkivshchyna (Yulia Tymoshenko’s party – Ed.). They were taken to an interrogation and tortured. We could hear them scream. Actually, someone screamed there every night.
“One woman ended up there because of her pro-Ukrainian views, she was reported by a man whom she had turned down. A neat business-lady. They came to her office with a search, confiscated cash and computers. A check of the browser history on one of the laptops revealed that she had been reading news about the Donbass Battalion and its commander Semen Semenchenko. That was enough to accuse her of being a nationalist. They promised they would shoot her. I felt very sorry for the woman. She just could not believe that something like this could be happening in Donetsk.
“Of course, the spirits sunk. Everyone was trying to figure out if they would be executed or not. The ‘DNR’ prisoners told that in Sloviansk people had been shot for having a Ukrainian flag. But they tried to console us saying that in Donetsk this was impossible.
“The food was disgusting, porridge with carrots and bread, but no one felt like eating, we only drank water. The ventilation was good for nothing, we suffered from a lack of oxygen.
“And then the worst began. I was called to an interrogation and told that they knew that I had supported the Ukrainian military in Crimea and talked them out of defecting to Russia when the occupation began. Indeed, an acquaintance of mine served there, we talked on the phone when all that began. As it turned out, someone reported on me: another friend wrote to the ‘DNR’ that I was an enemy of Russia.
“Then I wrote my address and my wife’s phone number for each of them. Should someone be released, they could tell her where I was in captivity and what happened to me. I wrote a farewell note asking her to raise the children and tell them about me. I did not believe I would be able to get away.“I said I just wanted to support my friend. Then the interrogator called a ward and ordered him to shoot me. The ward swore at me and said that at last I was a dead man. I asked him to take my handcuffs off, so I could make a sign of cross. He would not. He told me to walk down the corridor. I heard the breechblock click. At that moment I felt so sorry for my children, who would never see me again. But the ward did not fire. He waited a little, and then swore and brought me back to the cell. After that I could not speak for a long while. My cellmates were scared.
“Afterwards I and another guy were taken away. We were told again that we would be executed, but instead we were led outside. There was a bus and around 15-20 hostages next to it. We were announced the sentence: 30 days of digging entrenchments. Then we were taken to Snizhne.
“In Snizhne we were dumped in a sort of enclosure next to their headquarters. There already were some 25 persons there, so together we were almost 50. We took turns to sleep on the floor, there was not enough room. The food was quite bearable. Locals fared a little better, their relatives brought them food.
“There were all kinds of prisoners. Many were drunkards or drug addicts. Others were just unlucky passers-by. Someone went out shopping and got caught by the patrols. Others were reported by informants. We were all slaves who had to dig trenches. It was then that I could take a good look at the armed groups. I saw that they had loads of weapons, all of them brand-new, and their vehicles were in a very good condition. Russian Ural trucks came back and forth all the time.
“In our enclosure the atmosphere was very bad, with lots of hoodlums, tramps, and criminals. There was one real schizophrenic, a village idiot. They bullied and beat him and wouldn’t give him anything to eat. I said to the guards: why do you keep him here, he is mentally ill, they will kill him. But they only answered that he was going to plant mines. After all, I had to share food with him, because otherwise he would get none.
“There was also one old man who coughed all the time. Everyone decided that he had tuberculosis and ordered him to stay away, in the corner, yelled at him if he tried to walk around, and didn’t give him any food. I asked him if he was sick indeed. He said, ‘Yes, and do you think the others aren’t? They are just as sick as I am!’
“At night it was terribly cold. This is the steppe, so it’s normal. Everyone wore shorts and T-shirts and cuddled all together for warmth at night. Then suddenly one of the guys, who came with me from Donetsk all beaten up, got a fit. We called for a medic. At first the guards would not send anyone and yelled at us to shut up. The poor guy had foam around his mouth. At last a doctor appeared. He gave him an injection, and he was carried away. Next day we heard that he had been taken to a hospital but there was little hope because his liver was ruptured.
“Next day I and a couple of other men were taken to the mortuary, to load the corpses of the ‘militias.’ It was a horrible sight. There were loads of bodies, and they had lain there without refrigerators. We picked out 12 corpses, which were recognised by the family and had to be buried. The bodies were disfigured after explosions, burnt, with limbs torn off. I was sick at once, I couldn’t help it. The stench was unbearable. A woman who worked there said that on an average day a few dozens would come in, but on some days there would be a hundred or more.
“Then a so-called buyer came and we were picked out for jobs. I was ‘lucky’ to go to Stepanivka. This is a village at the border where later everything was totally swept away during violent fighting.
“We dug trenches where they thought the Ukrainian troops would attack. We had to fortify that direction. The working day lasted 14-15 hours. We got the same food as the militants. At the end of the day we had such bad cramps that we could hardly hold the spade.“On the way there I saw the war for the first time. The burnt vehicles, the shell-holes, the flattened checkpoints, the charred ruins, someone’s belongings on the road. We could hear the cannonade nearby, the battle at Savur-Mohyla was going. We were referred to as ‘robocops’ (from Russian rab, a slave and kopat, to dig – Ed.) because we were slaves and had to dig. Each company took a few prisoners for digging. I was lucky to get a more or less humane treatment. The militants gave us an emergency safety instruction: how we should hide from mines, how to survive under shelling, where to take shelter. They said, if you heard a shot, wait 10 seconds, and if you then hear a whistle, it’s flying your way, drop to the ground, or take shelter in any crack or nook you can find. We were shelled a lot, so we constantly had to hide from shrapnel. Normally death toll among ‘robocops’ was around 30%, but we suffered no losses. In Marynivka things were worse, bombing there was especially violent.
“In comparison with Donetsk we had quite a humane treatment there. Later I understood why. When we were handed out to the ‘buyer’ from Stepanivka, no one said why we had been arrested, and no one knew that I was a pro-Ukrainian activist. I said I had been caught drunk in the street, just as most of the prisoners. So we were considered almost equal. There was no more torture or beating. We could have a rest.
“Our living conditions were not worse than those of the ‘DNR’ fighters. In a house we found some blankets and stuff to sleep on. We found clothes to change into. The village was absolutely deserted. Cows roamed in the streets. All the inhabitants ran away, only two old women stayed behind.
“In Stepanivka fighters from Sloviansk were stationed, who had retreated from there together with Strelok (Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov – Ed.). Among them was one deserter from the Ukrainian army from Mykolaiv, as well as men from Donetsk and Yenakieve. As I observed them I understood that some 60% of them were low-skilled workers, Lumpenproletariat, up to 25% were thugs, and another 15% more or less educated, intelligent people.
Then I had another stroke of luck. The fighters needed a cock. They asked who could cook, and I said I could. As a cock, I didn’t have to dig trenches at the front line. I kept pondering over getting away, over to our troops, they were close by, but it was very dangerous. There were mine fields everywhere.
“Of course, the fighters would not let ‘robocops’ go. I talked to other prisoners, and they told how they were sentenced to 15 days of hard work, which eventually turned into 40. They only let those go whose relatives could pay a ransom. The fighters kept persuading me to take arms and fight. They said I must think about it because I must defend my land from the ‘junta.’ They promised to pay 20,000 roubles per month.
“What amazed me was their confidence that they were fighting against fascists. It was a sort of fanatic faith. They all believed in stories about crucified little boys, they told about a bloodbath in Krasny Lyman, and how everyone was raped and killed in Sloviansk. They did not have a single doubt in it.
“I remember how they went to ‘hunt for Ukies.’ They were missing all day long, and came back very angry, swore at their command, and were about to thrash the company commander. Later I learned that one company was completely eliminated. Our troops pretended they retreated, leaving the high grounds to the enemy. They (the fighters – Ed.) ceased it, only to find trenches a foot deep, and bunkers covered with twigs. All dummy stuff. Meanwhile, the spot was under sound fire. And then artillery came down. Three shells killed more than 60 fighters in a matter of seconds.
“I did my best as a cook, and they treated me well, even in a friendly way I would say. So when my time was out, I just went to the commander and asked to be released. They drove me to Snizhne and just dropped me out in the street, no papers, no money. How I got out of the city is another long story. But after a few days I finally managed to leave the town.”
Ukraine's memorandum in the case of the seizure of Ukrainian sailors and ships in the Black Sea in November 2018 has been signed and will be submitted to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) on Friday, May 22