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Handcuffed and with a sack over the head: just another day in Bakhchisarai

Blog post by Levko Stek, Radio Svoboda journalist

Representative of the so-called self-defense in Crimea.
Representative of the so-called self-defense in Crimea.

It is almost summertime in Bakhchisarai. A bright sunny day, around 16:00. At the bus station, yet another minibus to Simferopol is preparing to depart. There are approximately 20 passengers in the cabin. I am finishing my Snickers chocolate bar while editing, in my mind, the news story about Ukrainian soldiers who refused to ‘surrender’ to officers of the Russian Black Sea fleet in exchange for money and guarantees for a prosperous future. The journey has passed without any conflicts. A man in a black jacket, who constantly keeps talking on his phone, occasionally catches my attention. It is not surprising that you start noticing these small things when reports of kidnapped and beaten journalists keep flooding in. Fortunately, in my case, it hasn’t happened.

Three people enter the cabin. They look tense; perhaps they are from a local ‘self-defense’ group? The thought of a possible document check has spoiled the taste of the chocolate. However, I wasn’t asked to show my journalist pass, nor my passport.

It is very difficult to describe the emotions experienced by a person who is forcibly dragged out of a bus, whose face is pushed against a window through which latterly fellow passengers are curiously staring, while he is getting handcuffed. It’s probably pointless to expect that under the current conditions someone from the involuntary onlookers would say even a word, but for some reason this thought rushed to my head: “Hey, people, you aren’t even questioning for what sins against humanity this poor skinny fellow is getting tied up by guys who don’t resemble the police in the least?”

But no, I was thrown onto the backseat of a white jeep in absolute silence.  I don’t take into account my own internal monologue–”Guys, what is going on?”–my thoughts aren’t stopping with this nonsense. What do you think, what should interest a person who has just been kidnapped? Plenty of things, but certainly not the beige leather seats on which you have landed. “Hmm, nice car, these boys certainly aren’t policemen,” but this is the very fact my brain deemed to be most important at that moment. I’m thinking I should probably consult a psychologist; it could be something chronic.

Levko Stek in Bakhchisarai, two hours before the abduction, March 18, 2014
Levko Stek in Bakhchisarai, two hours before the abduction, March 18, 2014

Afterwards everything went according to the best traditions of the genre: a sack on the head and “Stay quiet.”  We circled around for a long time. I felt my favorite cap underneath me, and was surprised by the attentiveness of my kidnappers.

Where we stopped I had not the slightest idea. I was asked to step out of the car immediately. Resisting, I thought, would be too risky. The caring hands of the “Bakhchisaraitsi”  extracted all the contents of my pockets with lightning speed. These guys know what they are doing. In general, I got the impression that these three and the driver are just doing their jobs, much like the miller at the machine, or a dancer in a bar. They are simply working their shifts. There are no emotions, no hysterical speeches about my ideological incompatibility with the free and proud people of Crimea. I didn’t even hear one proper curse word. Straight mechanical work. It’s as if they wake up every morning with the thought of the dozen extremist-journalists that they would have to catch that day.

Maybe, in that moment, when I was pondering the meaning of my life and couldn’t find it, they were thinking about the performance of team Tavria in its recent football match with Dynamo or recalling what they have left in their fridges, as it is only two hours until dinner. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were the case.  The trinity seemed to be working without much enthusiasm; moreso with a slight weariness.

And when I got rid of the ‘unnecessary’ possessions, I was put back inside the car. They, on the other hand, in all likelihood, went to inspect their loot. This would be the time for a reasonable person to try and think of all the possible ways to escape, possible options for negotiation and persuasion, or at least to lift the sack to look around. But my brain is stubbornly refusing to connect. What is this music they have put on? Is it one of the tortures they have prepared for me? The sound belting out of the speakers was something like Edith Piaf, only very snivelly. And this melody didn’t in any way jell with the image of professional cutthroats, which I have already managed to create. Could it be that they are in fact some kind of psychos? In the movies, they are always listening to something similar while sharpening their axes.

But this time there were no gunshots or stabbings. My new acquaintances came back to the car and asked me to leave. They took off the handcuffs and the sack. They hung the bag, which they had previously taken away, around my head. I was pleased to feel the weight of my phones and camera.

“The road is that way: Bakhchisarai to the left,” gestured the stranger. But this time my attention was caught by the gun, its handle sticking out of the chest pocket of his bulletproof vest.  “If you are ever going to come back here, we will be talking in a whole other way, is that clear?” You couldn’t imagine a more precise question. “It’s clear,” I answered, without taking my eyes off the gun.

Then, a short farewell scene followed and a much longer trip toward civilization. And while I wandered around the vast Crimean fields to the road, I got scared again. I have clearly seen the oncoming weekdays of the Crimeans. What has happened to me one time, undoubtedly, would soon become a norm for them. They rejected outside help on March 16 when they placed checkmarks on ballots during the ‘referendum.’ The citizens of Bakhchisarai, Simferopol and Yalta can perhaps save and take care of themselves.  However, it will be extremely difficult to do so while there is a deathly silence in the buses from which people are getting kidnapped.


Translated by Dasha Darchuk, edited by Robin Rohrback

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