Shortly after being released from terrorist captivity, Iryna Dovhan, whose photos, wrapped in a Ukrainian flag and tied to a pole on a Donetsk square, made it to The New York Times, spoke by phone with exiled Russian human rights activist and award-winning journalist Oksana Chelysheva. Read the story of her ordeal, told in her own words:
“I’m begging you: tell that this photo next to the pole is nothing in comparison to what I went through, besides this pole… I looked over the comments, and they all say either that ‘she’s like a hero who came out with Ukrainian symbols’ or that ‘all of this is staged, because she’s, like, not tied’… People, please understand: there was no need to tie me, just like there wouldn’t have been the need to tie you, had you been standing with two dozen machine guns pointed at you, while being yelled to ‘Stand still, you wretch!’ There was no need to tie me, because this pole was my support. Tell about this, please.”
The truth is, Iryna didn’t come out anywhere with any Ukrainian symbols. However, she is not hiding her pro-Kyiv views. She was a volunteer. She was raising money for the ATO forces. She delivered food to them. She kept quiet about this. But, to her grief, she took photos with her tablet during one of her trips. This tablet, in turn, got into the hands of those who were guarding the roadblocks at Yasynuvata exit. And even though the guy who was carrying the parcel for Iryna’s husband, Roman, and their daughter, was a DNR “supporter”, he was beaten severely and he told who the tablet’s owner was.
Iryna was picked up last Saturday [translator’s note: August 23], right from the garden next to her house. In total, eight armed men entered the house. “When they beat you, you tell them all the codes and passwords, without second thoughts…” On her tablet, Iryna had a report on UAH 14,000 that was spent, along with the list of people who donated that money. “Almost all of these people had left Donetsk by that time, but there was one woman that I wasn’t sure of, whether or not she had left. That’s why I made every effort to pass over her name.”
“They sensed it. They took me to a room with about 20 Ossetian men, including that very Babai… “Just look at who was made into a hero… She’s nothing but a clown. He kept circling around me and telling vividly how he’s going to have his way with me. He unzipped his pants. He pulled up my Tshirt. Then he goes: ‘She’s way past her prime to have a real go with. Except, maybe make her suck…’ They all laugh…”
“I wasn’t saying anything, and then one of them exploded. All the more so, because he found a photo of himself on my tablet. Coincidentally [before], I had happened to take his photo and send it to my sister, to show her that our town was being controlled by the Ossetians. ‘Who did you want to turn me in to?’ Soon thereafter, they brought the sign that I later held. They brought me to that square. It’s a roundabout, with lots of cars and people. They wrapped me in a flag that they found in my daughter’s room. And this headband, it’s also from my house.
I stood there for more than three hours. The men didn’t hit me. They swore badly, but didn’t hit me. Why did only women hit me? I don’t know. One crone even kicked me with her walking cane. I don’t know how I stood there. The pole helped. I noticed the journalists. They were taking photos with totally straight faces.
Then someone arrived and started demanding that I be handed over to them, but the Ossetians wouldn’t release me. They took me back to their quarters. They threw me into a cell. This is where it was scary. At the square, at least I knew I wasn’t going to be raped. But in there, you don’t know what to expect. The same Ossetian kept barging into the cell all the time and simply kicked me in my chest with his foot. Then they threw some guy in there and beat him.
Then I heard, ‘We’ll bring in the kiddie fiddler now.’ I later learned that the guy’s neighbor told on him, that he supposedly got into her daughter’s panties. He was beaten like hell, yet he kept howling that he did no such thing. And I howled with him and crawled around the cell. Because it was truly terrifying…”
Then Iryna was suddenly transferred to the third floor of the building. And the tortures stopped. This is where Vostok battalion rebels talked with her in a completely different tone and gave her painkillers. The next day, she was taken out of the building and led into another one. “I was really afraid of this transfer. What if it was all going to start again…” The man who was leading her kept calming her down: “The worst is behind you, everything will be fine.”
She was brought into Khodakovsky’s office. He wasn’t there by himself; there was a meeting going on. She was told to sit next to Khodakovsky. He was outraged. “He was clearly angry that Ossetian ‘heroes’ set him up this way…” He asked Iryna to name those who actively tortured her. “It was hard for me to do this, because I don’t know all of them by their names. But I do know Babai and ‘Zaur’.”
Khodakovsky returned her car keys and that same tablet to her. “He said that what I was doing was no crime, even if I did this for the other side.”
Then, a “dark-haired journalist” entered the office; it turned out he was Mark Franchetti. He picked up Iryna, and handed her over to another American journalist. They fed her for the first time in five days. They placed her in a room located in between theirs. “They were clearly afraid for me, afraid that those Ossetians could try to take me back.” Khodakovsky also placed his guards there.
“They turned out to be humane. The next day, they even decided to go with me to Yasynuvata, so that I could pick up my three cats and a dog, and to take some warm clothes for my husband and daughter.” And then they escorted her to the DNR border. “When saying goodbye, one of them made a move as if he wanted to hug me. Then, out of nowhere, I suddenly hugged him myself. And then I kept thinking, why did I do that… Why did I respond…”
Iryna doesn’t know the exact number of people being held in that building. When she was taken up to the third floor, no one was being beaten there any longer. She saw a 58-year-old woman with arthritis who was arrested for harboring “Ukrainian views” – based on a report by a woman working at the market stall next to hers, who simply wanted to take over the spot.
She doesn’t know what to do next. Together with her husband they made a decision to not keep quiet. “I will not tell anything that hadn’t really taken place. I will tell that people are different, and that there is Babai. Filing a complaint? What’s the point? None of the systems are really functional anyway. I haven’t been able to sleep for three nights now. A psychologist called me yesterday; she said this is a consequence of what I went through.”
P.S. What I conveyed here is a tiny portion of what was told to me by Iryna and her husband Roman. She drove back to him and their daughter by herself, in her recovered car, along with the cats and the dog.
* The Ossetians are an Iranian ethnic group of the Caucasus Mountains, indigenous to the region known as Ossetia. They speak Ossetic, anIranian language of the Eastern branch of the Indo-European languages family, with most also fluent in Russian as a second language. The Ossetians mostly populate Ossetia, which is politically divided between North Ossetia–Alania in Russia, and South Ossetia, which since the 2008 South Ossetia war has been de facto independent from Georgia. (Wikipedia)
** The Vostok (“East”) Battalion was formed by Chechen warlord Sulim Yamadayev in 1999, at the onset of the second Chechen war.
It answered directly to the Russian Defense Ministry’s main intelligence directorate, the GRU, and was tasked with rooting out Arab jihadists fighting alongside local insurgents. In 2008, the unit was dispatched to help pro-Russian separatists from South Ossetia in the Russian-Georgian war. It was officially disbanded. The unit, however, was not truly dissolved. “It was re-profiled and incorporated into a Defense Ministry unit based in Chechnya,” says Ivan Sukhov, a Russian journalist and North Caucasus expert. Despite Russia’s claims that it isn’t involved in the eastern Ukrainian conflict, the emergence of a Vostok Battalion in Donetsk is not entirely surprising. “I think the heart of the unit is made up of veterans of the original battalion,” says Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor and expert on Russian security affairs. “But it is clear that the present incarnation also includes non-Chechens and soldiers who did not fight in the earlier force.” (Source: http://www.rferl.org/content/vostok-battalion-a-powerful-new-player-in-eastern-ukraine/25404785.html)