Former POW: “Even demons in hell are kinder than DNR fighters…”

 

War in the Donbas

LB.ua located one of the Ukrainian servicemen who was brought to the prisoners’ “parade” in Donetsk on Independence Day. Oleh was in DNR [translator’s note: Donetsk People’s Republic] captivity for more than three weeks, living in a four-square-meter pit, without daily food and water. His ear is torn and he was shot in the leg, yet he says that these injuries are far from the worst of what he had to go through. He asked that we do not give his last name or show his face on the photo, as he fears this may bring problems for his loved ones.

Oleh is a serviceman with interior troops, who was working on the home front and not taking part in the ATO battles. He says he was taken prisoner because of a betrayal, which is why he swore off trusting people or believing in God. “It is true what they say: if there were a God, he wouldn’t have allowed for this to happen”, he says firmly. He also compares the DNR fighters to demons in hell: “Although, I think, even demons in hell treat people better.”

Oleh was freed on 8 September, having been exchanged along with 19 other Ukrainian POWs. Kharkiv businessman Vsevolod Kozhemyako helped set up a meeting with Oleh.

LB.ua editor’s note: This text was written not for the purpose of inciting even more hatred towards the enemy; this is already more than plentiful. It was written as a reminder of how far people can go in their bitterness and appetite for revenge – something that, in reality, all of us should fear.

The story that follows is as told by Oleh.

The meeting of old friends

I was driving home to one of the districts in Donetsk oblast. And then I was randomly pulled over at a checkpoint near Makiyivka. There I saw Marina, who used to be a cook at our training range. We used to be good friends, working shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand. Now, she had a Makiyivka Police chevron on her arm.

When I was forced down on my knees, they asked her: “Marina, is that him?” She looked into my eyes, I looked into hers, and then she said: “Yes, that’s him, a Ukrainian serviceman.”

They turned my pockets inside out, took away my passport, phone, and whatever money I had. They drove me to the building that used to house the Makiyivka prosecutor’s office. I was told to lower my head, but I know the town well, so I recognized the way. Along the way, I was told that I was a goner and a dead man.

As soon as they brought me in, they started shouting right away: “We got Ukrop!” [translator’s note: a derogatory expression that is now used by many in Russia to refer to Ukrainians; literally translated as “dill”]. A huge crowd had gathered: men, women, young 20-year-old girls. They started beating me; I don’t know if women took part in this, as I was covering my head with my arms.

They brought me inside and had me sit on a wooden chair. A giant man, kinda like a huge piece of lard, walked in. He was an olive-skinned, Chechen guy, with a distinct accent in his speech. He told me: “You’re Ukrop, an anti-aircraft sniper.” I replied no, I’m no AA sniper. He picked up a knife and slowly started poking my head, just where my hair is, saying: “If you don’t admit it now, I’ll start slowly cutting you. You’re an AA sniper, it’s your fault our brothers are dying. Admit it.”

I think all they know are AA snipers and gun trainers, they charge everyone with playing this role.

They kept interrogating me and beating me really badly, and using a taser. Then they had me sit on the chair again.

The giant says: “I promised to get Ukrop’s ear for my father.”

He picked up a pair of garden shears and made an incision in my ear.

Honestly, I had already said farewell to my ear. But he decided not to cut it off completely, he simply threatened me and cut off a bit. Then they kept beating me with rubber sticks and tasering me.

After that, they called in some guy, who started stitching up my ear. While he was doing that, I was again subjected to a ton of questions. That giant phoned someone and said: “Hey Handsome, come over, I have a present for you.”

A bearded Chechen arrives. The giant tells him: “Take him away, Handsome, this is the present: Ukrop AA sniper, he’s been killing our folks.” They picked up the taser and the stick again and continued beating me.

“Handsome” took away my passport and phone. He found my photos in a black interior troops uniform in my phone. Seeing a black uniform is the worst thing imaginable for them. They led me out into the yard and beat me some more. I fainted once, they poured water over me. You lose it pretty quickly when you get tasered in the head.

“I got Ukrop for a present!”

I was handcuffed, brought outside into the yard, and thrown into a trunk. They stopped frequently along the way, presumably at the checkpoints, where “Handsome” kept shouting: “Look what I have! I got Ukrop for a present!” And he made me lift up my head, so that they could look at me.

I raised it. DNR supporters – young girls, boys – yelled that I was a freak. As in, how can you, a native of Donetsk oblast, fight against your own people, why didn’t you desert right away, why didn’t you switch to our side?

I was brought to a new place, by which time it was already dark. They led me into the yard and pushed me down right there in the middle. A crowd came running in again, just like cockroaches from every nick and cranny. All of them were dressed in uniforms. They asked who I was. Then the hell (LB.ua editor’s note: accusations and beating) broke loose again.

“Handsome” came out and yelled at them to stop, saying he was going to talk to me himself. Everyone stood back in an instant, as if someone ordered the dogs to sit. “Handsome” pulled up a stool and started telling me that they know everything about me and my unit. He says: “You, Ukrops, don’t know how to fight, you only know to run well. So, to keep you from running, I’ll shoot through your foot.”

And he looks into my eyes. And he shoots into my foot – into the sole.

At first, my foot felt as if it were a stone. As if it went numb. Then it started burning, and I felt a sharp pain.

“If you don’t tell the truth right away, I’ll shoot through your knees. I’ll make you disabled, and then let you go back to your family with a gift”, he said.

Then he called in a female doctor, who cleaned my wound and gave me a shot of some serious shit, after which everything went blurry and I sat for another two to two and a half hours in the yard. I don’t know what it was. She said it was a painkiller.

The billiard table

I was led away from that yard, someone lifted a lid off the ground and dropped me into a pit about four to four and a half metres deep. The lid had “Billiard table” written on it.

I realized I was not the first one to be kept in that pit. There was a strong smell of urine and feces. I was told to squat and put my hands over my head. I was told that if I get up, they’ll throw down a grenade. So I just hunkered down the whole night until the morning; who knew what they had on their minds. Then, after dawn, I was allowed to lower my hands.

I was allowed to leave that pit only two days later. I got no food or drink during this time. I had no choice but to drink my own urine. There were some empty bottles in there, so I peed into them and drank it, and that’s how I survived.

I was allowed to wash up, and the doctor dressed my wound. And then I was thrown into the pit again.

The “robots”

The next day, I was able to take a look around and to see the yard and the people. Earlier, while in the pit, I heard them shouting at some “robots” to go line up. I didn’t understand at first who these robots were.

It turned out these “robots” were people detained for some reason. For example, one “robot” was picked up at a tram stop; the tram was running very late, and the man didn’t have the time to get home before the curfew. Remember, there’s a curfew in Donetsk. He was picked up as an offender and sentenced to 25 days of labor: carting earth around, digging trenches, and so on.

DNR checkpoint outside of Donetsk. Photo credit: EPA/UPG

In total, there were usually eight or nine “robots”, sometimes up to 10. They changed frequently; some were released and others brought in. I remembered one woman, Oksana. We weren’t allowed to talk, but she told me a few words. It was from her that I found out we were in Donetsk, in Budionivsky district.

“Saint”

I was fed. While I was eating, guys with machine guns kept standing over me: who knows, what if I ran away now on my one leg; after all, I am Ukrop. Then they called over some “Saurian”, who turned out to be the same guy that threatened to throw a grenade down my pit. He ordered to put me back into the pit, where I remained until the morning.

The next day, I was approached by an elderly dude, a very businesslike one, in a uniform, with a machine gun, and all dressed in grenades. Ramboäs got nothing on him! He was referred to as “Saint”. He told me to get out of the pit and declared that he would be my boss, as well as my daddy and mommy. He ordered to take me to the toilet and asked if I smoked. He gave me a cigarette. I was fed once again, but this time I got less mush than the day before. That mush… even the dogs get a better one. It’s as if they just mixed up all sorts of scraps in one pot.

Every time when the trapdoor was opened, I thought it would be better for it never to open. A crowd of people with machine guns would come running to take a look, as if I were a monkey in a circus or a giraffe in a zoo. They would shout: “Come here, we woke the Ukrop freak!” Even while I was eating, a group of girls came over and launched into a tirade: how could you, against your own brothers and sisters, you live here yourself, but you’re fighting against us, bombing our children. They even showed me photos of dead kids.

My body was all the colours of the rainbow: black, purple, brown. My foot hurt. Everything hurt, as they beat me with sticks, legs, whatever else.

The interrogation

“Saint” said that I would be taken for interrogation before a “field agent.” “Field Agent” was this formidable dude in jeans, T-shirt, and glasses. He said,

“well hello, I need to have a conversation with you, there was information that you’re a spotter”. I almost fainted. So, I was an AA sniper in Makiyivka, and now I’m a spotter. He said he knew which unit I was with, how they fled Donetsk, and where I lived.

“Now,” he says, “go on and tell me who you were working with, who were your partners?”

I say: “I was on my way home.”

Him: “Fuck no, you were on the way to your Ukrops to pass on the information, you were running around Donetsk and Makiyivka and marking targets for your people to fire GRADs at them.” He said it was my fault that a Putyliv school was bombed, that I was the one who marked it with a target. He promised to take me to a morgue and show the bodies of his comrades, who were killed and it was my fault.

While we were talking, another man sat nearby and also started asking questions. He was dressed in fatigues, with a large red chevron on his shoulder. There was a white deer painted in the middle, and “Battalion of Don Cossacks” inscribed on the sides. But I must say, all of them have these “potato bug” ribbons instead of chevrons on their shoulders and arms. Every single one of them.

Photo credit: EPA/UPG

My conversation with “Field Agent” ended with him giving me three days to deliberate, so that I could make a confession. While I was being interrogated, “Handsome” returned with a group of other Chechens. They were speaking in their language, and only later switched to Russian with a heavy accent. “Handsome” told me: “We will now execute you.” I went nuts: I was just promised three days! But everyone listens to “Handsome”: all those Cossacks, Ukrainians … They put me before a squad and went: “Here, look, this is a spotter. Our people are getting killed because of him, so we’ll execute him.” In the end, though, they just taunted me and put me back into the pit.

The nights on a swing

By that moment, I had already lost track of time. I would sit in the pit, someone would approach it, and routinely ask if I were alive, threatening to throw down a grenade if I didn’t respond. Occasionally, “Saint” would come by. He might give me something to eat. But there were some days when he would respond “I’m not in the mood” – and I would be left without food.

It started raining one day, and my pit got filled with water up to the waist. It was very cold. “Saint” let me come out and get into the toilet to warm up for the day. Then, in the evening, he took me to a swing and handcuffed me to it by one hand. “You’ll sleep here tonight.” About half an hour later, “Saurian” came by and asked: “Is this all you have?” I was wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and these slippers.

Oleh points to his slippers: “I washed them!”, he laughs.

“Saurian” brought me a quilted jersey. A woman, aged about 35 or 36, came out at night. Blond hair, obviously dyed. She brought me some tea, saying: who knows, what if you freeze here, and we’ll then get pulled apart here. “I’m making tea for Ukrop for the first and, hopefully, the last time in my life”, she said.

As I already mentioned, “Handsome” prohibited beating me. That’s why someone would tell me occasionally: “Too bad we cannot beat you.” At times, they would quickly and quietly kick me.

In the morning, I was removed from the swing and brought into a cellar. There were some mouldy beds there, topped with mattresses, blankets, and piles of dirty clothes. Later I realized that this was where the “robot” detainees slept. An old dress was hanging, probably one of Oksana’s. At night, I was handcuffed to the swing again, but this time by both hands, and without a jersey or tea. This went on for three or four nights.

Oksana

Once I saw out of the corner of my eye as they led one prisoner with a large Ukrainian flag on his sleeve. One of his trouser legs was cut off, and his leg was bandaged. When Oksana brought me food, I asked her who he was. She told me he was a taxi driver, and that there were two of them here. It wasn’t possible to tell more, as we were prohibited from talking.

A young guy who brought me food in her place told me that Oksana had been released. “She completed her work with a clear mind and clear conscience, and she left”, he said. Well, thank God! But she spent a long time there. Oksana was already there when I was brought in. She was doing the dishes, cleaning, doing laundry.

One night, as I was sitting on the swing, a lot of uniformed guys came over. They were sitting in the yard and drinking: to Orthodoxy, to something else. One of them came out for a smoke and decided to talk with me:

“Sitting there, Ukrop?”

Me: “Sitting.” Him:

“We were just kicking your asses outside of Shakhtarsk. Your people don’t know how to fight, we took many prisoners, captured lots of equipment. How comes your leadership gives you such equipment? The armored carriers are new, but they have no steering wheels.” He goes on to say this or that is missing. “I don’t know how you fight”, he says.

Tetiana

I heard horrible screams. It was a woman screaming. Screaming in such terror that I thought her fingers were being cut off. This went on for about an hour.

Then someone lifted the trapdoor over my pit, and a woman, completely naked and in handcuffs, was thrown down there (really thrown, not simply lowered down). You know how a person has a face? Well, she had jelly instead of a face. There was not a clear spot on her body. Everything was cut up. Everything was bloody. Her handcuffed hands were twisted behind her back. It was as though I my eyes had opened. I’ve never seen anything like that, perhaps only in horror movies.

They shouted at us: “We found a bride for you! We’ll marry you! Do whatever you want with her!” They tossed down her pants and blazer; they were really nice, but completely shredded. And then they closed the trapdoor. The woman just sat down there crying for fifteen minutes. She wasn’t screaming any longer. And I had no idea what to do; I was simply at a loss for words.

I said: “Why don’t you get up, and I’ll put on your pants for you.” She was handcuffed, so couldn’t dress on her own. I pulled up her jeans. I wrapped my tracksuit top over her; it was damp inside the pit.

The woman kept silent the whole night. In the morning, those imbeciles lifted up the trapdoor: “How’s it going, is your spotter partner still alive? How was your wedding night?”

They tossed down the key to her handcuffs and gave us some food. But she couldn’t chew because of how badly beaten her face was; and she couldn’t move her hands because of how tightly handcuffed she was. I would break off small pieces of bread and place them on her lips. I also tried to give her some water to drink.

After that, she started talking. She told she was 53 years old, her name was Tania, I cannot recall her last name. She lived nearby, in Krasnoarmiisky district, and worked at the railway station in Donetsk.

The story of her imprisonment is as follows. As she was getting ready for work, the shelling started. She grabbed her purse, some money, and ran for the shelter. As she was leaving the shelter, she said loudly, leading to her problems: “I’m fucking fed up with Russian fascists’ bombings!” She was overheard by two dudes who were in the shelter with her. While she was at a bus stop, one of them came up to her and told his two jockstrap friends: here, it was her who called the Russians fascists. She was shoved into a car, her money taken away. They went to her house and found there something they called a Polish chevron, and then accused her of being a Polish spotter and a spy. Then there were tortures, rapes…

The other prisoners

They then transferred us to some sort of booth, kind of like a wagon. There was a window there, and we could see what was happening. Once, a long minivan drove in, and blindfolded men were led out; we counted fourteen of them in total. These were Ukrainian POWs (LB.ua editor’s note: in conversations with Oleh, we were able to recreate the timeline and determined this was on or about September 5-6). Generally speaking, a lot of POWs were brought in. Also, honestly speaking, they have a ton of military equipment. I saw them unloading boxes with weapons, with ammunition. And screaming along the way: “Thank you to the Ukrainian army for the ammo!”

One day, Tetiana and I heard some distant rumble. It turned out this was a convoy of tanks – old ones and new ones, hauling KAMAZ trucks and cannons. And waving that loony flag of Novorossia (New Russia). They drove for about 20-25 minutes. (LB.ua editor’s note: this was on or about September 3-4). One day, there was some terrible shooting. “Saint” pulled me out of the pit: “Remember we told you that you were picked up for one assignment? Look here.” He pulled out a tactical vest, all “adorned” in grenades and wires: “You will now go to your peeps wearing it. We’ll press a button here, and you will just explode.”

After that, she showed me seven murdered Ukrainian prisoners, laid down in a row and covered up with rags. He said they made the mistake of being captured for the second time. “We don’t take anyone prisoner for the second time, so if you happen to survive somehow, you won’t have another chance either.” In the end, though, they took the vest off me. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be speaking with you here.

Also, by the way, they tried to convince me that everyone who returns from captivity goes to jail in Ukraine.

The liberation

We, the prisoners, were lined up outside. “Field Agent”, who used to interrogate everyone, came out and said: “I’m here to congratulate you. Papa will come out now and will give you all some joy.”

“Papa” is their boss. He is elderly, rather small in stature, with closely cropped gray hair. If you were to see him in prison, you’d think he was a Don. Smoking a cigarette. When he came out, I immediately recognized him; he used to walk around there dressed in white pants, white shirt, black blazer, neat shoes. But this time he was wearing a uniform.

“Papa” informed us that we would now be exchanged. And if our people decided not to go through with exchange, we’d be executed. We were loaded into a minibus, and it took off. There were different guys among us, including those from Donbas and Dnipro-1 battalions (LB.ua editor’s note: apparently, those captured outside of Ilovaisk). In total, there were twenty men, including some bedridden wounded soldiers.

It was a long drive. In the end, we reached the village of Kamianka. We were told to quickly jump out of the bus and “run to your Ukrop morons keeping your head down.” And what about the injured among us? We were permitted to carry them, so we picked them up and quickly carried them off. We thought the exchange will be twenty for twenty. Instead, we only saw one man walking towards us. So it turns out that twenty people were exchanged for one. I don’t know who he is.

The parade

(LB.ua editor’s note: Oleh did not want to talk about the POWs’ parade in Donetsk. This is probably the hardest thing for him to recall. But he agreed to describe the events in brief).

This was terrible. Three of us, including myself, were taken to a parade on [August] 24. We were told: “Isn’t it your holiday? So we’re taking you to a parade.”

They lined us up behind the building, along with other prisoners. They raised their flags, with Cossacks, Vostok, Oplot battalions all present.

The video you saw on the Internet is bullshit. They didn’t show the most important thing there. They didn’t show that a man was beheaded. He was being forced to get down on his knees during the parade preparations. He refused. He was beheaded. Right in front of everyone. I don’t know who he was. And I don’t know who the executioner was, as he was wearing a mask. But after that, we all kneeled.

Then there was some scuffle, and our Cossacks quickly drove the three of us back to our holding place.

On DNR

I was flatly against this DNR thing from the outset. How is that possible that we were all living peacefully in an independent Ukraine, and now all of a sudden we’ll be splitting apart – just because Putin is a lunatic? I don’t understand that: I just refuse to accept anything of this kind. DNR, LNR [translator’s note: Luhansk People’s Republic] – they are like zombies. All they have on their minds is that we are “Ukrop” freaks, whereas they are defending their land. But the truth is that it’s us who are defending our Motherland, whereas they are defending Russia that’s coming here uninvited.

I know some people in Makiyivka who used to shout: “With DNR, we’ll be so strong now! We’ll be on our own, why should Donbas be feeding Ukraine?!” Now, they are afraid to drive out into the city, because the DNR fighters may well nick the car.

***

I don’t want to cry. I’ve run out of tears. Although I still had them while I was in that pit.

Source: LB.ua, Translated by: Olga Ruda, Edited by: Jason Finch.

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