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“At times, they beat me so that I did not even want to live” – Ukrainian woman hostage survivor of Donbas militant prison

Halyna Haiova, former Ukrainian woman hostage of Donbas militants
Halyna Haiova, former Ukrainian woman hostage. Photo: Viktor Kovalchuk / Media Initiative for Human Rights
“At times, they beat me so that I did not even want to live” – Ukrainian woman hostage survivor of Donbas militant prison
Article by: Yuliia Rudenko
Edited by: Sonia Maryn
Halyna Haiova, a 62-year-old Ukrainian senior nurse, spent more than 14 months in the illegal prisons of the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” Halyna worked at the maternity department in a hospital of Russia-controlled Dokuchaievsk city, just 40 km north of Donetsk. According to the former Ukrainian woman hostage, Russia’s fighters received medical aid at this hospital. She recorded their names to transfer them to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). For that, militants illegally imprisoned her.

Freed in a prisoner exchange, Haiova can share details about her captivity. During this time, she was tortured with electric shocks and severely beaten. In prison, she witnessed several executions resulting from torture. Haiova was kept incommunicado in a tiny cell measuring 1 x 1 meter. Guards forced her and other prisoners to work through the night.

We know of the “Ukrainian woman hostage” story owing to the work of the Ukrainian NGO Media Initiative for Human Rights. They interviewed 12 women – former hostages that were released in 2017-2019 – and five family members of present-day hostages. Their cases are featured in the report “Women’s Face of Donbas Hostages.”

As many as 296 people are held hostage in Russia-occupied Donbas, including 30 women, according to official data as of August 2021. During the entire period of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict (2014 to the present), 3,360 people, including 276 women, have endured captivity by illegal paramilitary groups.

That terrible day

Nothing foretold of trouble the morning of 14 October 2016. On that day, Haiova was at her hospital workplace. The phone range and a strange voice told her that the head doctor needed her. As she walked out of the office, she spotted her boss with two familiar men. She recognized them as having followed her before.

The two men accosted Haiova and forced her to take them to her home to carry out a search. She recalls the episode:

“In my apartment, they were interested in my money, jewellery. However, they found nothing but old SIM cards, an old computer processor, and some flash drives. On the flash drives was only my son’s thesis and coursework.”

After the search, the men forced Haiova back into the car and took her to 26 Shevchenko Vulytsia in Donetsk. Once a court building and research institute, it was now the Ministry of State Security, where many of the Kremlin’s hostages from the region are incarcerated.

Medical staff – in particular, those working in surgery and trauma departments – often come into the crosshairs of illegal armed groups in Russia-occupied Donbas. The staff are targeted as potential witnesses of wounded Russian hybrid forces who receive “enemy” medical aid from Ukrainians. The occupiers try to silence the medics so that no evidence of Ukrainian aid is known. Four out of 12 women hostages interviewed were medical workers. Nurse Haiova is one of them.

“Sometimes they beat me so that I did not even want to live…”

Ukrainian woman hostage
Nurse Halyna Haoiva, former Ukrainian woman hostage of Donbas militants. Photo: Viktor Kovalchuk / Media Initiative for Human Rights

“They put a plastic bag over my head and brought me to Izoliatsia [maximum security prison]. I step into some kind of [building] and can see tiling under my feet. The voice says, ‘Beware, here’s a step. It [goes down] into the basement.’ They brought me to a tiny room — it used to be a toilet or a shower. The building used to be an industrial plant, and it had a bomb shelter. There were thick doors and walls. I was left in a room of 1 x 1 meters for three days. Then, they moved me into a larger room, and then upstairs into a cell. It was called ‘the suite.’ It was a room 1.5 x 1.5 meters, with pallets or bare boards with mattresses, on both sides,” shares the former Ukrainian woman hostage.

In 2016, the Izoliatsia facility was not equipped to be a prison. Both men and women were held together in cells. Prison guards were all men.

Izoliatsia is a former arts center that was situated in the abandoned Insulation Materials Plant in Donetsk. When Russia occupied Donbas, it established a secret prison on the center’s premises. Predominantly, civilian detainees who end up in one of its eight cells are held incommunicado and forced to perform grueling work. Punishment is severe and cruel, exacted through solitary confinement and torture chambers.
Cellar corridor of Izoliatsia, secret prison in Russia-occupied Donbas. Photo: Telegram/traktorist_dn
secret prison in Russia-occupied Donbas, torture of hostages with electric shocks
One of two makeshift torture chambers of Izoliatsia. A military field phone Ta-57 on the table is used for high-voltage electrocution. Photo: Telegram/traktorist_dn
secret prison in Russia-occupied Donetsk, Ukraine
Prisoner cell. Bare pallets and boards pass for beds. Photo: Telegram/traktorist_dn

“They came into the cell and ordered me to walk out. I did not see where they were taking me. They barked, ‘Sit down!’ Then they shoved me down hard and started taping me to the table. I was so afraid – no words can express it! And then they shocked my body with an electrical current. It is difficult to say what they expected to gain this way. As a medical worker, I know that at the moment of extreme shock, no one can say a word because they are paralyzed and can neither talk nor move. After such ‘procedures’ one would confess to anything in the world, even to the assassination of US President John Kennedy.”

Militants of the illegally armed groups tortured women not only to force self-incriminating evidence. They continued to torture them even when they had “confessed.” Sometimes, the militia tortured hostages without any intent at all, other than sheer sadism. Haiova also speaks of cases of sexual assault of women in Izoliatsia.

“F*cking execute her!” Torture, forced labor, one bottle of water a day: how a Ukrainian woman hostage survived the prisons of Russia-occupied Donbas 

“When people screamed, it meant that the same could happen to you. The militants thought that public beating was one of the ways to intimidate others detained. From time to time, guards would torment us saying, ‘Soon, you will scream like that.’”

Sometimes, they beat me or others so that there was no strength left to utter anything at all or even to live. Sometimes they misjudged a person’s resilience and that person succumbed to their torture and died.

As an experienced medical worker, I understand that people die mostly due to internal bleeding. I know of at least three such cases [at the prison]. When a forensic expert examined two dead victims, he diagnosed them as dying from a ‘drug overdose.’ But that wasn’t the case.”

How hostages were forced to work to turn art center into prison

Most women who survived “Izoliatsia” speak of being subjected to forced labor, even during the night. Some cleaned blood from the floor after tortures … some removed putrid defecation from pails in cells which had no toilets.

Haiova witnessed the art center being “converted” into a prison:

“Everything there was done by the hands of prisoners – men broke down walls, crushed mortar and plaster, while women cleared out the rooms, cleaned away garbage and then hauled out the rubble. And they did all of this at night. We were kicked out [of our cells] in the middle of the night just so that we could not rest or sleep.”

Haiova herself was on tedious kitchen duty and was forced to perform other harsh tasks, such as prison laundry, cleaning of filth and excrement and – only when lucky – digging vegetable plots by hand.

Looking back at time in captivity

“Sometimes I talk with my son about what happened. I would say, ‘Sasha, you know, even if all of this repeated now, I would not do it another way.’ Inside, I couldn’t accept the DNR [self-proclaimed Russia-controlled Donetsk People’s Republic]. I was so outraged that even in their ‘court,’ I couldn’t help it. ‘Say, Donetsk is the DNR!’ they demanded. I said, ‘No, Donetsk is Ukraine.’ They called me ‘ukropka’ [derogatory term for Ukrainian]. I realized they could punish me for this, not allow me to be [part of a prison exchange] and that then, everything would be in their hands.”

Haiova reflects on the punishment for militants who captured and tortured her, and on hostages:

“A lot of people [Russia-controlled militants] are dead – they are already punished. And those who are still alive will get what they deserve, I think. They live there in constant fear. Is that a life? They cannot go anywhere, they are outcasts both in Ukraine and Russia. I think the biggest punishment for them is that we are already free. But they live and fear for their relatives.”

Halyna Haiova was released on 27 December 2017 as part of the hostage exchange between Ukraine and Russia.

Edited by: Sonia Maryn
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