Surviving the “DNR/LNR”. Photo project reveals the horror of captivity

Bohdan Serhiyets was held captive for ten hours in May 2014. The Russian mercenaries carved a swastika on his back; the scar remains. Bohdan recalls his tormentors saying that he should not be released alive so that no one could see what they did. Photo: Zoya Shu 

Political prisoners, War in the Donbas

Article by: Oleksandra Vagner
Translated by: Christine Chraibi

Zoya Shu, a Kyiv photographer, has recorded photos of Ukrainians that were captured in Russian-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk territories. Her photographs bear testimony to the horrors inflicted on ordinary people by the Kremlin-controlled “DNR/LNR”.

Not only does Shu take photos of these people, but she also tells their stories on her website, which is constantly updated. The last prisoner exchange between Kyiv, and occupied Donetsk and Luhansk took place on December 29, 2019, so the photographer is currently negotiating photo sessions with the prisoners who recently returned home.

Among the heroes of the photo project called “After Captivity”, there are several well-known prisoners, namely artist Serhiy Zakharov, who drew caricatures of the Russian proxy leaders and hung them on the streets of Donetsk, and Volodymyr Zhemchuhov, who lost his sight and both hands when he stepped on a landmine during a combat mission, and then was captured by Russian mercenaries. In addition, Shu tells the stories of ordinary people who were held prisoner for several hours or days. These people were not officially exchanged, but were often released thanks to a happy coincidence, relations, ransom, etc.. All of them have been forced to cope on their own with the memories and trials of their captivity.

Volodymyr Zhemchuhov spent a year in captivity before being released in a prisoner exchange. He wears the Order of the Golden Star on his jacket. He lost both hands in a landmine explosion and was captured by Russian-backed militants. Photo: Zoya Shu

“Captivity is not like imprisonment. There are certain rules in a prison, norms for detention, and the term of imprisonment is known to all. But, when someone is arrested and held in a combat zone where there is no judicial system and laws do not apply, the unthinkable can happen, since the person is at the mercy of those who have captured him.” states the project website.

Dmytro Kluger shows how he was forcibly tied up in captivity. He ended up in the cold, dark cellars in the spring of 2014. Photo: Zoya Shu

Zoya Shu says she decided to take photos of prisoners because they represented more than just subjects for a documentary photography project:

“When I saw that there were so many people who had survived captivity, people who needed psychological help, people who searched for additional rehabilitation, and when I realized that this topic has not been well covered, I decided to do something about it. Thousands of people have lived through traumatic situations in the war zone, and I feel that the lack of attention to this problem can affect the development of the whole country. I was in Sarajevo in 2013, and saw how ordinary people continue to cope with the problems of war, even after so many years. Then, it was something distant and exotic, but now it has become our daily reality.”

Tetiana Borysenko holds the Ukrainian flag, which she secretly managed to hide from the Russian-led militants throughout captivity. It bears the signatures of 12 people, with whom she was imprisoned. Borysenko was a medical volunteer in the Aidar Battalion and was captured in September 2015. Photo: Zoya Shu

– You take very unusual photos of these heroes: many of them demonstrate what happened to them during torture or during captivity. How did you manage to persuade them to tell their story? Was it difficult to persuade a man who had a swastika carved on his back to display it to everyone? These people lived through hell, so it must have been very difficult for them to talk about what they experienced.

– When I started working on this project, I tried to be as understanding as possible, to speak gently and calmly, because I had never encountered such situations. I realized that if I wanted people to open up, I’d have to be more open myself and take a step in their direction. For me, it was a transformative experience, because it was a totally different manner of communication. But, we managed to establish friendlier relations and started communicating more.

Photographer Zoya Shu

As for the man with the scar on his back, he was held captive for ten days. He knew nothing about prisoners’ rights; he didn’t know that people who’d survived captivity could try to get some kind of support from the government. We started talking; I asked him if his scar could be photographed, and he said: “Yes, of course”. When I published these photos, I told him that I wouldn’t give his full name, but he insisted on having all the information published, because he wanted others to know what had happened to him. Basically, the media only talk about official prisoner swaps… but people continue to live with their experiences. For those who survived captivity, this project has probably had a therapeutic significance. It’s also a search for justice.

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Tetiana says goodbye to her husband Oleksandr, who died a year after being released. He spent an entire year (2018) in captivity. Photo: Zoya Shu

– You say that some prisoners don’t know that they can receive help from the state. Does this mean that many of them are left face-to-face with their problems after they’ve been released?

– Yes. This is about civilians. Not everyone was released thanks to a prisoner exchange; some were able to pay ransom money, some were just lucky, some had outside help, some were liberated for no apparent reason… Each story is different. According to some estimates, several thousand people have gone through a period of captivity. There’s no exact data. Most of these people simply continue living and try to forget everything, or they have already forgotten everything, or perceive it as a passing stage in life. Others are forced to continue living because there’s no systematic solution to their problems.

Hanna Serheyeva was arrested by Russian proxies at home and spent six days in captivity. As a civilian, Hanna is not entitled to prisoner status and receives no support from the state. She lives in Kyiv; she has published a book about her experience – Diary of a Donetsk/Hutsul Native. Photo: Zoya Shu

During captivity, Hanna was constantly beaten; a knife was stuck into her knee; her fingers were broken and injured, leaving deep and painful scars. Photo: Zoya Shu

– The prisoners are very different. There are people from different social groups, with different backgrounds, different ages, they have different experiences. Despite the fact that most of them have survived torture and captivity, each person has a story to tell. During the photo sessions, did you have the feeling that they had something in common?

– These people share a common traumatic experience that has left a very deep imprint on their organism. We all experience stress in our lives, and we know that any stressful situation requires strong resources for recovery. People, who have experienced situations of extreme violence and extreme stress, need more resources to recover. That is why they need systemic comprehensive support from the government. In addition, this situation affects society as a whole, since so many people have lived through captivity and survived the war. There are so many of them, and the trauma is very deep and very strong. We must understand this and do something about this.

Artist Serhiy Zakharov survived moral and physical torture. He was taken three times to the place of execution. The horrors of captivity have become the subject of several graphic cycles in his artwork. The photo was taken in his Kyiv workshop. Photo: Zoya Shu

– Despite the fact that it describes such traumatic experiences, it seems that your project also projects some kind of optimism. For example, Vitaliy Paraskun’s story. This priest found himself in a cold, dark cellar, where he was treated like an animal, but he found the strength to talk to the other prisoners around him, and to preach the Word of God. Later, he found the strength to leave the past behind and continue living.

– My project is not about victims, but about survivors. These people survived, and, of course, this is a positive project, but its goal is to raise awareness of the topic of trauma in our society. Of course, these are very strong people who have internal resources, even though the state doesn’t help them in any way. This is the positive side.

Evangelist pastor Vitaliy Paraskun shows a photo taken when he was in captivity. He says that he was never afraid to die even though they often threatened him with execution. He was only afraid once… when they threatened to crush his knees, and he was afraid of the consequences, because there was a pregnant rat in the cell. He feels no hatred towards his tormentors. He’s happy that he managed to convince four people to become true believers. Photo: Zoya Shu

One of my heroes, a Spaniard, was held captive for one month. He said that it’s wrong to look at survivors in a superior and condescending way. People who have gone through such an experience don’t want to be referred to as victims; they don’t need our empathy. But, empathy seems to have almost become a ritual in our society. We believe that we should sympathize with such people, and then proceed on our way. However, people who’ve survived horrifying traumatic situations should be respected, and their opinion must be heard. They can probably make more important contributions than, for example, people who consider themselves experts in this field. In addition, these people have additional resources, they have additional values, and they shouldn’t be undervalued and categorized as victims with passive needs. They can make very positive contributions to society.

Olha asked not to give her last name, as she still fears for her life. She was captured in her native Alchevsk, Luhansk Oblast in August 2014. She spent two weeks in captivity, and was threatened three times with execution; one militant even threw a grenade in her bosom. She was rescued by a good friend who managed to convince the militants to release Olha. Photo: Zoya Shu

In conclusion, photographer Zoya Shu admits that this experience with former prisoners has had a huge impact on her life and work:

“After interviewing these survivors, you start talking very carefully with other people because you never know what’s behind them… this person may have lived through a terrible experience…”

Translated by: Christine Chraibi

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