In Dnipress. com, November 29, 2015
Translated from French by Tom Winter
Note: the DONI.Press has a “Pick your language” array of buttons, but since “English” brought me a “page not available,” I pitched in.
DONi.Press offices in the center of Donetsk. I am waiting for a couple of prisoners exchanged by Republicans with the Ukrainians. I am surprised to see six people arrive here. Thus, the interview I expected immediately gets complicated as it becomes difficult to stop the flow of words.
All are afraid: they have relatives in the occupied area of Donbass, they are from different localities, especially around Mariupol but also Kharkov. Right off, a real flood of horrors emerges. Exchanged, about a month back, they were debriefed by the authorities but also by the International Red Cross that is present in Donetsk. In the space of an hour and a half, I sink in the corridors of horror.
The first witness is a young man, he is restless, gets scared at the sight of computers, he panics, paces back and forth in our offices. It will be impossible to interview him: he is extremely nervous and he repeats several times that his family will be in big danger if any video, photo, or his name appear on the Internet.
A second witness, a fiftyish Donetsk man, agreed to speak on camera. The interview was cut short, as his voice soon fails him, emotions are too strong for him to present a coherent testimony. A third witness nods, he remains aloof and seems as frightened but quieter than the first two. He remains seated, shoulders slumped — he must have many things yet to reveal, but things will just have to wait, as it will for the others.
A fourth man, aged about 55, begins and the words pour out for an hour: “I was arrested in December 2014 by four men from SBU. They jumped me, put a bag over my head, and I found myself in a muscle interrogation.
“I was an anti-maidan protester just like many others but I have never taken up arms or otherwise expressed my opposition except peacefully. They stuck a document in front of me. I had to sign. I had been beaten severely, with batons, rifle butts, feet, fists. Blows rained. They threatened to take my family — finally I agreed to sign. “We know where your daughter lives, a detour by car and the matter will be resolved quickly.” So I signed.
“I was taken to different prisons, finally I was locked in a cellar in Kharkov with other prisoners. We had nothing to eat but a bowl of porridge and a slice of bread a day. For a toilet we only had a bucket, and my friend here today can attest, in ten months we didn’t get taken out to shower but five times.”
“At one point, when two months had passed I was judged. The paper I had signed stated that I was “a coordinator for separatist artillery”– of course a vile lie. It was a semblance of a court, a judge, a prosecutor, a lawyer with whom I spoke just five minutes, the case was wrapped up in minutes. My confinement was extended. I was led in chains, always with a bag over my head, to the spot of the court hearing. I once heard a man speak English, but I did not see his face.
“When they came for me, to tell me I was free, they gave me my passport, they stole my money, my phone. In eleven months I was never able to call my family. They handed me my Ukrainian passport, I went out of the prison, but I hardly was out the door, when five men set on me. Bag on my head again. I was dragged into a cellar. I do not know how long they beat me, you lose awareness of time, it was dark, no windows.
“They left me on a stool an infinite time telling me that some trainees would come to look after me later. I saw only once, the badge of a soldier, when my bag had slipped under the blows, it was the insignia of the Dnieper-1 reprisal battalion.”
The man speaks without stopping, sometimes I sense his fear, anger, or hate, always I see the stirrings of his soul, because he certainly was revisiting the scenes he was recounting:
“Our cell was in a basement We were in a room of 13 meters by 5, 8. The only window was blocked, we were incommunicado. We had no right to talk with other prisoners. There were also women. One of them, young, was imprisoned for one month all by herself, in the dark and without talking to anyone. When they took her out for a short walk in the corridor, she was talking to herself, she was going crazy, we did not have the right to talk to her, I know that her name was Aniuta, and that’s all.
“The Red Cross came to our prison. I found out through a French woman, Charline, who came to visit the prison. She told me that Ukrainians had her visit clean empty cells, they made a quick tour, then I told her where we were in the basement with several dozen prisoners. She spoke Russian, not very well, but enough for me to understand that she came to our prison.
“We could not see anyone, we were constantly being humiliated by the guards. Finally, in October we were told that we would be released, we were taken to a location near the front. But finally they brought us back to Kharkov. They were furious ‘it is the separatists who have bollixed your liberation’ they told us, but we knew they were lying.”
The man was panting, his courage, his pain awakens the senses of other exchanged prisoners. It was then a succession of identical sad horrors that spread into conversations. A fifth man was there with his wife, they end up talking too:
“They came to arrest my husband when he came looking for me at work, it was in the street, they jumped him, it was over in a few minutes. I never knew where he was, but I was hoping he would return. I lived like that for a year. From the beginning I got phone calls at all hours of day and night, ‘you’re going to suffer the same fate as your husband, get out, go to Russia, go to Belarus, we do not want see you here,’ so one day I left and got refuge with relatives in Rostov. “
The young woman, not yet thirty, continues her story while her husband laughs at times, a disturbing, nervous laugh, grimacing with pain:
“They beat me brutally, the worst is that they weren’t asking any question, it was just blows and and more blows. When one got tired, another took the baton and then you know the rest. I was thrown into a dungeon with comrades who are here, 11 of us were being released.
“When they released us, we were emaciated. We all suffer from traumatic injuries caused by the torture sessions. Personally I have several damaged vertebrae in the neck, my friend here has five vertebrae in the middle of the back that are affected. This is due to the blows of military rangers, in the back, sometimes with the edge of the heel. I believe that there is a divine justice, God sees and they will have to answer to him, one day or another. “
The interview came to an end, the succession of horrors and torture was so intense that I can not remember the totality of it, there is too much, what element to put in front of another? I can easily imagine myself interviewing French resistance fighters after the Gestapo has had them, and I understand at this time more than ever the infamy of these inhuman acts.
All end up telling me they want to talk to me, to keep going, I propose to let some time pass and to question them one by one. In the evening I go home, I do not hurry my steps, it’s my job to go home with this emburdening and to deal with it.
Reading the atrocities committed by the Gestapo is one thing; to realize that the same thing is going on in the Ukraine of Kiev in 2015 is unendurable. However before the journalist, there is the historian. Man is definitely the worst kind who ever breathed on Earth, but also the best; I know that the perpetrators will be struck down, history will take care of them.
The prisoners declared before leaving that even now, hundreds of prisoners are still in the terrible detention conditions where they found themselves.