Tales from Donbass: Shot for referendum (documentary)


March 25, 2015

Alexander Rogatkin, Special Correspondent, Russia 1

Translated by Kristina Rus

The film is from 20 – 44 minutes, beginning and ending with a talk show.  

Host: Alexander, you just came back from Donbass, brought your new film.  Donbass locals from your film made loud accusations about atrocities of battalion Aidar. Do they want justice? Are these people prepared to repeat this in court?

Alexander Rogatkin: Of course they are prepared to do that. I want to point out, we are often accused of propaganda. But what is the difference between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Donbass reports? We have evidence, we have witnesses with passports. I think in America witness accounts are accepted in court, for some reason, it is not sufficient for Ukraine. And we are prepared to bring these people anywhere, to America our to Hague. What is it like when a person is shot in front of his family for organizing a referendum in a village? What have they done? What was Maidan for?


The militia 

We are walking to the 31st checkpoint under the cover of militia. Despite a ceasefire, snipers constantly work here and the checkpoint is sometimes shelled from mortars. It is quiet during the day. The fighters watch each other from sniper rifles and don’t let each other come close.

– He is installing his flag on the road

The ceasefire is relative. Only tanks, grads and howitzers don’t shoot.

– Heavy artillery is not working. Last night there was a battle over there. At night they opened fire from that checkpoint, otherwise it’s quiet. 

The fighters of Ghost (Prizrak)  battalion are convinced that there is  no withdrawal of equipment in the area of Bakhmutka highway. Instead they noticed a concentration of equipment.

– They didn’t pull heavy equipment? 

– No, they are bringing it back. They are not shooting at us yet, but we are expecting it. They are digging in. A big Ural came today, brought something.

Militia is doing rotation. Ammo, food and water is brought to the checkpoint.

This is the point of most contact between the fighting sides. Over there – the village Zhelobok, there – village Krymsky.  Behind my back is a strategic height 375.9 under Ukrainian control. The 31st checkpoint is shelled from three sides.

The intersection near Bakhmutka was captured back from UAF back in January. From it Ukrainians shelled the village Frunze.

All the bunkers and trenches militia inherited from he Ukrainians. 

– These cement plates can handle mortars at least. 

At least Jack feels very comfortable under the cement plates. 

– Jack is helping us do patrols at night, reacts to every movement, good job, Jack.


Lately he always carries a weapon, and wears body armor. He is a volunteer, bringing food to the elderly, what can be more peaceful? But three of them already died.

– Recently a sniper shot them. We don’t talk about it, because angels shouldn’t die.

Locals call them “angels” who rescue children on their wings from shelling. 

– Say thank you!

They already took out 12 thousand refugees. How many they saved from hungry death, it’s hard to count.

Alexey Smirnov: For many this is a reality show that is shown on TV. Please enjoy the reality show. Until the war will come to your home.

– Attention, checkpoint.

Today the angels are in Novogrigorovka, wiped from the face of the earth. This is still a front line.

– Is anybody home? Humanitarian aid! (banging on the door)

The same deafening silence on the whole street. No people, no intact houses. Only in downtown there are some people left.


– Humanitarian aid is here!

– Just don’t get scared, thank you!

-How are you feeling?

– How can I feel? Look, everything falls on my head. How can you feel when there is nowhere to live? [crying]

Vera Ivanovna is over 80. She can barely walk. She could not hide in the basement. She waited through all the fighting in the house, waiting for death. A shell fell close to the house, but she survived. The house is still falling apart, threatening to kill her. 

– I was laying down yesterday, something fell on my head. I can’t go anywhere with my walking stick…

– Look, the whole house is broken, we lost our son, how did we survive? I don’t know, God saved us… Who will fix our houses? Tell me! Who will bring back my son?

Unfortunately no angels can help them here. Here at the front line, they hope to survive themselves. And the locals understand what’s it like to pass out food under fire. 

– Thank you! Stay alive and don’t die!

Ludmila is a former economist of a local plant, didn’t go anywhere, spent the whole war under the Ukrainian occupation, as the locals say here. 

– They even said hello to us, but said we hate you and we would shoot all of you, if we could! (laughing) What channel is this?

– Russia

– Russia? Thank God!

– Where you scared?

The village is half Ukrainian and half Russian. But who is who it’s hard to tell, locals switch from Russian to Ukrainian. 

– I studied the Ukrainian language, of course! We love Taras Shevchenko . We love Ukrainian songs, it’s not Ukraine, it’s just the government, they don’t need the people. 

The bags have enough food for one and a half weeks. 

– Butter, wow! Some cans.

– Thank God, may you be happy and healthy!

Novogrigoryevka residents

The last road by which the Ukrainian troops could get out of Debaltsevo cauldron passed through Novogrigoryevka. Militia left it according to the Minsk agreement to escape unnecessary deaths among the military, only under one condition – all the military equipment had to be left behind, otherwise it would be destroyed. 

Already a month has passed since the Debaltsevo cauldron is gone. Ukrainian territorial battalions had left the villages, and a fragile ceasefire has arrived.

What did you find in the bunker?

– What’s left behind by the soldiers, jam and fat, thank you God.

Local residents still cannot get back to their senses.

– Is this your house? Whatever is left? 

– Marauders, they took everything, robbed all the houses, took all the TV’s, electronics, rags, even women’s underwear. 

– Did you ask why they need woman’s underwear?

[laughs] -They threw me out. They said, get out of here, grandpa. You have nothing to do here.

They took the old UAZ truck from farmer Veniamin Balaban

– They said you are a separatist, brought gas for DPR. And said, its a trophy and left.

Later a Ukrainian UAZ with white stripes was thrown into his yard by an explosion. But such an exchange was not very profitable. 

While retreating, Ukrainian soldiers shot all the farm animals – cows, sheep and even dogs.

These are my sheep. Dogs.

– Your dog?

– Yes…They ran over them, shot the rest. There are about 40 in the trench

Why did they shoot them?

– I don’t know, because they were drunk.

The old guy is not overjoyed about liberation. The houses of the farmer and his sons are completely destroyed.

– They shelled from all sides. From there – DPR, from there – LPR, from there – Ukrainians. Tried to target the military headquarters, but hit our houses.

Basement dwellers

Many locals still remain in basements a month later. Some are afraid of more shelling, but mostly they have nowhere to go. The apartments burned down.

– Let me show you my apartment, look – where can I go

– The apartment is cold, there are no windows, we cover them with blankets. No heat, no light, here we have a stove, we can cook.

Out of the two multi-family  houses in the village Festivalny only 8 people are left. They set up shelter in the basement, in a former makeshift gym for teenagers. There are weights left in the corner, Baluev posters on the wall. Cans with food and a parrot.

– This parrot is doing well, we had another one but he missed his owner and died.

In case the house is destroyed, they have shovels to dig themselves out. To imagine what was going on upstairs, it is enough to enter one apartment.

– Come in!

China melted into one mass.

– This was a very high temperature.

The dead

The dead were often buried in the yards in the shell craters.

There was a crater. The guys wrapped him in rug and buried him. The guys made a cross, but the next day the cross was gone from shelling. 

– Write his name

Former policeman Viktor Bogolyub could barely get up. His wife could hardly keep him alive. She could not carry him to the basement.

– He asked for a glass of water. She brought him some water, and as soon as she left the room a shell hit the room and took out the window, and he was laying on the bed near the window.

– Rest in peace. He lived his life, worked hard, and died from war… 


Debaltsevo is slowly returning to normal. A bakery and a daycare have been restored.

– We had a mission to restore the daycare and a hospital. This mission is completed. Tell us how are you doing, is it warm?

– It is warm, 19’C. The daycare has 150 capacity, for today we have 22 kids.

The main thing is they were able to fix the destroyed boiler room. 

– I got sand from the sandbox, found bricks. The boiler is working for the fourth day. Now it’s warm.

There are huge containers with water right in the room.

– The emergency management provided us with water. Its a ton, we get it every two days, will last a long time. Plus we already have the city water. 

Half the daycare is for kids, another – for big families.

In the family of Yura Yurmetov there are five kids besides himself. Their apartment has been destroyed. 

– Two grads hit our house. And broke the windows.

The orphans

Dozens of kids are left without parents after fighting. In Lugansk they want to organize a Cadet Corpus. So that the kids can get physical and military education as future officers.

The former Ministry of Internal Affairs academy has been chosen for the future Cadet Corpus. It has suffered a lot from shelling, but they are hoping that some Russian military college will sponsor them, and everything will be fine.

– We have a lot of orphans, many lost one parent. We need to support them, they will build this republic.

The Activists

The father of 5 year-old Igor was taken by Aidar fighters right in front of the family and children and shot.

Igor:  They took him to the greenhouse and shot him

The fault of Sergey Volvak was that he helped organize the referendum in the village.

– They came with a white piece of paper, asked his name according to the passport. Asked twice. Put me and the kids in the house. And told him, let’s go. They took him to the garden, and shot twice in the head and killed him.

He was not a militiaman, they didn’t even find any weapons. Shot at the back of the head.

In the hospital his wife got a death certificate:

– “Bullet wound to the head”

This happened on October 21, when Sokolniki under Slavyan-Serbsk was not yet under the control of the militia. 

– There is a shot up car

Aidar fighters knew were to go. Along with Sergey they also shot the organizer of the referendum, Irina Pashenko. A 60 year old woman was beaten and then shot. 

– The beat her and then shot. They locked her house and threw the key away, people were afraid to come in, thought it was mined.

She doesn’t know who will be responsible for this, and barely believes these war crimes of Ukrainian territorial battalions will be heard in international court.

Debaltsevo residents

Fear has not left the streets of Debaltsevo. People will remember the atrocities for a long time

– On Stankevskogo street, two elderly people were watching their neighbor’s house. They came when Ukrainian soldiers were robbing the house, and they were shot right in the house. They are simply gone.

Antonina Bragina is a brave woman, she became famous when live on Ukrainian TV she said, that the Ukrainian army long shelled Debalsevo before capturing the city at the end of July.

Ukrainian TV clip:

“No, when on the 24th the Ukrainian army was trying to capture or  “liberate” us, we ceased to exist. We were shelled by grads from the Ukrainian army”

– I think he didn’t expect for me to say that, but as soon as I said it, they shut off the broadcast. 

When the city was under the control of the Ukrainian army, Antonina along with other activists even protested against the war.

– We knew there will be a Debaltsevo cauldron. We said, get out of our city, let us survive! They said: you will die with us, if the militia will try to get us out of the city, we will not leave one stone

The Ukrainian army was shooting at houses from tanks.

On the Zheleznodorozhnaya street the tank shot right at houses. 

– May be it was a militia tank?

– No, with two stripes, and militia has not yet entered the city.

The Wounded

After the storming of Debaltsevo many militia men ended up in hospitals.

– Uzbek!

– Hello, brother!

– Good to see you!

– You are live!

– Vitamins!

– War is ugly, I am lucky I am alive, some people were less lucky, a person just get blown to pieces. And that’s it.

Commander of Cossack detachment was wounded by a mine fragment while entering Chernukhino on a railroad tracks. 

Before the war he lived in Zaporozhye, in Berdyansk. His grandpa is from Central Asia, so his call sign is Uzbek. He has been fighting in Donbass since May.

– For United Russia!

In his previous life he was a seaman in the Soviet trade fleet.

– Two seas. But no fleet. They could just sell and steel. They raised my entire fleet at the root. They didn’t create anything. The mine that wounded me was Soviet made, paid for by my money. They didn’t create anything, what can they do?

The Convicts

There is a problem with prisons in Lugansk Republic.  Chernukhino prison is completely destroyed. 

– We couldn’t raise our head, there was constant shelling. 

The prison was right on the front line, on a neutral territory, and constantly under a crossfire. 

– Look, a grad hit here, see for yourself.

 Out of more then 300 convicts, more then 100 died from shelling.

– We asked them, open the gates, do something, take us anywhere, we were ready to go anywhere, just to escape the shelling

 Those who tried to run through holes in the fence were shot by Aidar. 

The bodies of several killed were found after Chernukhino was liberated.

– They were shot from Ukrainian positions, just like cannon fodder

Then the administration of the prison simply ran away.

After the liberation of Chernukhino the remaining prisoners went home. Some who had nowhere to go stayed back, either their home is behind the front line, or their documents burned down.  They are finishing their sentence without guards.

There is still a bakery in the prison. Now the convicts make bread for local residents.  Militia guys bring flower from humanitarian aid.

– The flour is from Stavropolsk, it’s just beautiful!

Convict Sergey goes to the village to give out bread to village residents. 

– I don’t want to smell it, I want to kiss the bread! Do you know how we survived the shelling? We made bread from water during breaks, and then back to the basement!  


While Chernukhino residents were carrying home this bread, the deputies in Kiev were supposed to make a decision about a special status for DPR and LPR, but they didn’t.

 Therefore Donbass residents will continue to taste the bitter bread of war…

PS. Later on the program Antonina Bragina from Debaltsevo said that the police chief of Debaltsevo was shot, because he was recording and collecting evidence of Ukrainian atrocities. She was also told by Debaltsevo commendant that she will be shot if she doesn’t stop her “activism.” 

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