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Ukrainian hostages in the “LNR” and “DNR: The price of life

“DNR” leader Zakharchenko (L) with Ukrainian prisoners
Translated by: Christine Chraibi
There are 109 Ukrainian prisoners-of-war held by Russian authorities. This is the latest official figure released by the Secret Service of Ukraine (SBU). However, the “DNR” recently announced that six more Ukrainian citizens had been detained. Why is the liberation of prisoners proceeding so slowly? After all, the Normandy Four contact group talks about it at every Minsk meeting. What concessions will Ukraine have to make to get its citizens released?

The Russian media recently headlined how “LNR” special services searched a Luhansk garage where they found a Ukrainian flag, smoke bombs and postcards saying “Luhansk is Ukraine!” The “LNR” authorities then arrested four young football fans, claiming that they belonged to an underground group of the Azov movement and that Ukraine was recruiting teenagers.

This is how football fans, in fact mere children, have become prisoners of war. They were charged with “military espionage”. Prisoners of war – a term that we’ve often heard in Soviet films – became terribly real again in 2014. First, Ukrainians were shocked by horrifying footage of prisoners who had obviously been tortured. The government wasn’t yet ready to exchange prisoners or negotiate with the enemy.

Ukrainian prisoners-of-war
Ukrainian prisoners-of-war

Volunteers continued to travel to the occupied territories and they themselves were often taken hostage. Iryna Boyko is one of them. On June 20, 2014, she and her volunteer friends were captured and held in occupied Sloviansk by the notorious militant Igor Bezler, aka “Byes” (Devil). She recently returned from a psychiatric clinic where she was treated for the pain and suffering she had endured for 103 days in hell.

“My whole body is broken and in constant pain. I have six facial fractures plus a broken nose and a fractured jaw – that’s just the face!

They’re animals. God forbid anyone should fall into their hands! My friend was killed before my very eyes… but, they tortured him brutally first. I’ve had to live with this for a long time. These images are engraved in my head forever.”

Iryna is blind in one eye; her torturers tried to scoop it out with a spoon … They cut her little finger off with a secateur, drove a screwdriver through her bones, and beat her regularly. A group of volunteers and friends managed to get her out.

“My hormones and body vibrate with fear and pain… and that has affected my thyroid gland.”

Her physical wounds have almost healed, but what about psychological scars?… For two years, she’s been knocking on different doors, looking for help. Three of her friends, who were captured with her, have not yet returned home.

“Please do something… anything to help our people come home!”

Prisoners often go missing… or vice versa. The last thing Halyna Puhachova found out about her son was that he was in Ilovaisky. After this tragedy, the Ukrainian government managed to get almost all the men released, but not Pavlo. A stranger hid him somewhere, and then he disappeared.

“Apparently, Pavlo asked some guy to keep his documents and chevron. He was planning to go back alone and pick up his belongings when the war ended.”

She believes that her son is still alive and a prisoner of war … Every day she prepares his favourite tea and prays for a miracle…

“He’s alive… yes, he is! I don’t doubt it for a moment. I think he’s somewhere in Chechnya or Adygea. They’ve taken many men out of the country, and that’s a fact. Those people live according to old laws and traditions and think it’s right and fashionable to have slaves. No matter how scary that sounds, it’s probably true…”

Yuriy Tandit, negotiator for the SBU Centre for the release of prisoners
Yuriy Tandit, negotiator for the SBU Centre for the release of prisoners

There are more than 500 persons missing and 109 prisoners. These are the official figures. During the last few months, negotiations on the release and exchange of prisoners seemed frozen, but the Normandy Four group recently gathered in Minsk and this matter was brought up. Yuriy Tandit, negotiator for the SBU Centre for the release of prisoners:

“We’re ready to release three of theirs for one of ours. We’d like to get away from constant discussions about numbers because we’re always given incorrect figures.”

While the “LNR” and “DNR” are considering Ukraine’s proposal, people are turning to other sources for help, mainly volunteer organizations. Skhid-SOS (East-SOS) announced that a new wave of arrests has started in the occupied territories. Olha Opalenko, member of Skhid-SOS states:

“We can’t give reliable or accurate information about these arrests, what they’re based on, why this is happening. There may be a reason, but all we know is that more and more people have been detained.”

According to the organization’s statistics, ALL the prisoners endure physical or psychological torture. It’s almost impossible for them to return to normal life after their release without help and support.

The whole country was concerned about Volodymyr Zhemchuhov, who lost both arms when he stepped on a tripwire… Seriously wounded, almost totally blind and deaf, he spent two years in captivity. Volodymyr remembers:

“At night, I tried to bite through the IV tube and blow into it so that air would get into my veins… I wanted to die. Everybody tells me how brave I was to shout “Slava Ukrayini!” (Glory to Ukraine!) to their faces, but sorry, that’s wrong… I’m no hero. I just wanted them to get angry and shoot me on the spot. That’s why I shouted “Glory to Ukraine!” at the top of my voice.”

Olena, Volodymyr’s wife addressed all possible administrations and organizations. Only she knows how much strength and effort it cost her to get her husband back, but never for a moment did she give up:

“Maybe the question of prisoner exchange will finally be raised again… even though we know very well that the “LNR” and “DNR” insist on applying their own formula – everyone in exchange for everyone. I think they’re delaying the issue because they want to have the amnesty law approved first.”

President Poroshenko meets Volodymyr Zhemchuhov in Kyiv, September 17, 2016
President Poroshenko meets Volodymyr and Olena Zhemchuhov in Kyiv, September 17, 2016

Today, she and her husband are in Germany, where Volodymyr is undergoing treatment. He has had three operations. The doctors removed a shell fragment from his eye, and he can partially see. He’s also waiting for two prosthetic arms. It may seem incredible, but he can move around on his own. In between medical treatments, Volodymyr and his wife meet with members of different international organizations to convey to the world the terrible truth about war crimes perpetrated in occupied Ukraine. Volodymyr’s suffering is proof enough.

Translated by: Christine Chraibi
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