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JUNE 2023

“It’s like a textbook for torture”: Why the Donbass will never forgive the Ukrainians

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Ukrainian military personnel and national guard members have engaged in cruelties which make one’s blood run cold and which immediately suggest a parallel, for they are indeed the worthy successors of their heroes: the followers of Bandera, Shukhevych and the police who served Hitler’s regime. Correspondents for Russian Reporter magazine have become personally convinced of this having met with both militia members and prisoners.
“I was with a fellow from the Vostok battalion, a militiaman. First they stuck a plastic tube up…well…his rear end, more or less, and then a piece of barbed wire was inserted through it. The tube was removed and the wire remained. Then they pulled on the wire sharply, in one quick motion,” stated one young man, K., who demonstrates on video how the wire was pulled out, his hand slicing through the air in imitation of what he had seen. He explains: “These are the kind of tortures they practice. The fellow later died”. After a brief pause he asks: “How are we supposed to live with them after this?”
We are with officials of the Moscow Red Cross mission at the office of chief of counter-intelligence for the Donetsk People’s Republic, Viktor Zayats. At our request, he shows us a video recording of militiamen questioned after having spent time as prisoners of the Ukrainian military and National Guard as well as civilians who had been arrested by the Ukrainian intelligence service. Zayats explains that the young man in the video, a Tatar by nationality albeit from Kiev, had been convicted in Mariupol in accordance with the legal provision “Friendly relations with members of the DNR”. Such an article now exists. An old woman brought bread to some militia members, another person gave them milk, someone else medicine – this is aiding separatism. People are arrested for wearing a St. George’s ribbon or for being photographed in the company of militia members. Phoning relatives in the DNR is also against the law. One civilian was detained simply because his father is in the militia.
“There was another guy,” continues K. on the video. “They took him out for execution 5 times and knocked a confession out of him. I think he went off-kilter. In general, there were few live militiamen there. They could not withstand the torture. I was there for five days. Everyday two or three men were tossed into a pit and never seen again. Weapons are planted on civilians: they clasp handcuffs on them, and place grenades in their hands from behind. That’s how they get fingerprints. Everything is all done very quickly. My case was concluded in only 20 days”.
“Here, I will show you another lad,” — says Viktor Zayats. “They flew him from Kramatorsk to Kharkov, to the local Ukrainian security bureau, having tied him by rope to the wheel of a heliopter”. With the click of a mouse another horror story appeared on the computer screen. “…They became angry when their dead had been brought to them. I immediately crouched down in the corner,” said the voice of the young boy A. “At first they wanted to toss me up so I would be sliced up in the propellor blades. Then one of them said that I would mess up their helicopter. I had a sack placed over my head when we flew off and I peed my pants.” the young lad said shamefully, ending his story.
“It’s like a textbook for torture,” says Viktor Zayats. His computer is chock-full of such evidence. Here is a militaman who had the word “separatist” cut into his chest with a hot knife. Here is another who had a swastika burned into his buttocks. “Do you want more”? — he asks, and starts opening a folder. “No, that’s enough,” we tell him. Frankly, we had already had our fill. “Perhaps you can show us someone in person” — we asked.
“Bring Sabirov in here!” he shouts into the corridor.

They usher in a youth, puny and weak-looking, such that are usually marginalized among their classmates. He turns out to be a local lad, 18 years old, from the village of Amvrosievka. His name is Oleg. He was a volunteer for the National Guard Azov battalion and under the guise of a civilian collected information regarding combat positions of the DNR milita. He was promised money, but was never paid anything. He is now under arrest, athough the circumstances of his detention are not made clear.
“What’s with your finger? Did they torture you?” — a Red Cross doctor asks sympathetically.
“I sliced myself” — he answers with a smirk.
“It might be better if you asked him about the person he killed” — suggested someone among the counter-intelligence staff.
The sympathetic doctor immediately rushes off.
“What did you do?” — we asked.
“I shot someone” — came the reply. “In Rozanovka…”
“A girl”.
“What girl?”
“I don’t know where they brought her from. She was 21 and they said she was with the milita”.
“Who said this?”
“My superior. He gave me a pistol and said if I didn’t shoot her he would kill me himself. What was I to do?” he says with a touch of defiance.
“Where did you shoot her?”
“In the head,” came the reply.
Counter-intelligence personnel are waiting for the when the combat situation will allow a search to be carried out for the girl’s remains.
“How can such an individual be granted amnesty?” the staff ask, directing the question more among themselves than to us. “He must be tried”.
Zayats continues, “When I recorded these videos, the hair on the back of my head stood on end. Most things I can understand. This man has a gun, that man has a gun. They are both given a task: kill the enemy and try to survive. But I can’t wrap my head around this. And you speak of forgiveness and mercy. These are just words,” Zayats muses thoughtfully.
A necessary digression: we have almost no doubts regarding the authenticity of these materials. However, there are those who will likely conclude that all of this has been staged, that it consists of cosmetic scarring and prosthetic makeup and other tricks employed by the special services. As an objection we may say the following. First, the majority of the people we have seen in person are plain citizens, simple people. They are not the ones usually expected take on a role and memorize a lengthy piece of text. Second, it is hardly within the power of the counter-intelligence staff to falsify such a large amount of evidence. There would be enough to publish a dozen volumes of exposés. Moreover, the experience of preceding wars and internecine conflicts which have been covered give us the right to be critical.
“Why are you collecting all of this?”
“For the sake of future retribution”.
“Is this video on the net?”
“No. There is only a copy here and at the Russian Investigative Committee.”
“Why don’t you distribute it?”
“Well, who would be interested? Who will watch it? Human rights activists? It’s true they come here some times. They say: “Give us a few POWs and we’ll take them with us”. I tell them: “You’ve seen how we keep them here. How are they – normal, no? Show me then one video where you have encountered our prisoners on the other side”. They reply: “We are not granted this opportunity””.
“And the Ukraine?”
“In the Ukraine it won’t matter. They will say everything is fabricated and people will believe them”.

Information war

“We have lost the information war completely, lads,” the DNR Ombudsman, Daria Morozova, told us the day before. “Here I am, for example, one of the first to receive operational summaries. But what happens? I sit in front of the TV, turn to the Ukrainian channels and already after twenty minutes I am beginning to think: “Perhaps we did bomb our own people”. It’s true: the clumsier the propaganda, the more effective it is. Meanwhile, our channels are all trying to maintain objectivity”.
Generally speaking, everyone who in the course of their duties has happened to have contact with Ukrainian POWs or simply with people living on the other side of the front has remarked upon how they are thoroughly propagandized. “One woman called from Cherkassy,” says Lilia Rodionova, a deputy of the Committee for Prisoner of War Affairs of the DNR. “I am looking for my cyborg,” she says. “He’s my betrothed. He’s gone missing”. “And what is he doing here?” I asked. “He’s defending me”. “You live there in Cherkassy, and he’s defending you here, in Donetsk? Does this make sense?” She fell silent. Then, speaking slowly, she uttered: “I didn’t think about that””.
“These are usually country folk, often poorly educated, and generally from the Western regions, where the first waves of mobilization took place,” Lilia continued. “They were told Russia had attacked the Ukraine, and that their sons were off to defend their motherland. And they believed this. One woman recently phoned me: “Tomorrow is my son’s birthday. He will be 19. Please let him go early. Grant him and I such a present”. We looked for him in our database but couldn’t find him. We asked her where and when he disappeared. She replied that it was in August, near Ilovaisk. We asked her why she was only asking about him now and she stated: “Well, he is number 338 on Ruban’s list (Ukrainian general Vladimir Ruban who is in charge of prisoner exchanges)”. It turns out she believed this list to be next in line for exchange. Meanwhile, her son had dissapeared without a trace”. One of the committee members whispered quietly and ominously: “I wanted to tell her her son never reached 19, but I had pity on her”.

An eye for an eye

Almost everyone who is involved in some way with the exchange of prisoners on the DNR side resents the state in which the Ukrainians return people. “When I receive prisoners I am shaking with rage,” says Daria Morozova. “The last time there were 9 people. The negotiator for the Ukrainian side, Oleg Kozlovsky, was there and brought them over. They were all black and blue like eggplant, bruised and swollen. I asked what is this? Kozlovsky replied that they don’t know how to shoot properly and it was the recoil from their automatics. There was an old man sitting there, listening to all this. Then he asked me: “My dear, what’s happening with us? Are we really home?” I replied “Yes, it’s true”. Then he said bitterly: “My dear, they ***** us like worthless dogs”. I told Kozlovsky: “You’re a man. Are you not ashamed?” But he said nothing. These are all meaningless questions for them now. They have forgotten the constitution to their shame. They have become animals. If and when there is a peace, I will never embrace them. I cannot, not after all of this”.
The exchange of prisoners had stalled prior to the February ceasefire. The last major exchange took place at the end of December. How they will be continued now is anyone’s guess. Especially since there are no clear and fair guidelines.
“There is information in our database regarding where some of our prisoners are being kept,” they say in the Committee for POW Affairs. “We provide the Ukrainians with lists for exchange, but they respond by saying there are no such prisoners. It’s not until we indicate which prison cell and bed – second from the window, for example, in the Mariupol detention center, that they will acknowledge the existence of such prisoners. Thus, the greater the publicity, the greater the chance of saving someone’s life. Nevertheless, the constant sabotage on their part is very unnerving”.
Naturally, the militia are not satisfied with this state of affairs. “We have one demand: close all criminal cases opened by Kiev against our prisoners on the charges of “terrorism”, “separatism” and the like,” they say. “But they [the Ukrainian authorities] are in no hurry to do this. For what reason, we do not know. Perhaps it involves legal complications or maybe its politics”.

An explanation would seem necessary

Prior to our visit with the counter-intelligence staff, we dropped in at the Kalinin hospital in Donetsk. The facade of one of the buildings is now riddled with shrapnel. On the wall in a corridor hangs a photograph with an inscription: “It is with sadness that we inform you that on 29.01.2015 at 2300 hours, emergency specialist Stavinskii, Konstantin Sergeevich, was killed by a vile sniper’s bullet near Nikishino”. It also notes that he had organized the first front-line brigade of emergency doctors.
In this hospital we sought out a prisoner of war, A., who had been placed here after having stumbled upon a booby-trapped grenade. He had suffered shrapnel wounds to his head, body and legs. Fortunately, they were all superficial. Donetsk doctors were preparing him for sugery. He reported his condition to his uncle, but did not inform his parents, fearing his mother would suffer an attack. Essentially, his story is the similar to that of many other Ukrainian soldiers. He is 26 years old and a native from Kherson province. He had been working in the Crimea as a construction labourer. When he went to visit his mother in Kakhovka his mobilization orders were already awaiting him. In May he was conscripted into a territorial defense battalion, having been told he would be defending the Ukraine against possible Russian aggression from the direction of the Crimea. They promised him that he would serve close to home, but in November he was transferred to the Donbass.
“What was the explanation for it?”
“They said terrorists were killing civilians”.
“And so you believed the DNR militia were firing on the inhabitants?”
“Yes. They also told us that if we were captured [by the militia], they would first cut off our hands, then our noses and then our genitals”.
“And….did they?”
“I believe it’s necessary to somehow explain to those in Kiev, and Kherson and generally everywhere that all of this is untrue.
This soldier will most likely be exchanged, but whether he’ll be able to explain anything to the other side remains a question mark.
Viktor Zayats leads us to the infirmary at the counter-intelligence headquarters where Ukrainian POWs are held.
“How do prisoners live here? Well, the same as us,” says Lyusa, a nurse. “They are fed twice a day and we eat alongside them from the same pot. There’s also a sauna. Registration cards are estsablished for each of them. Shorts, socks, soap, toothbrushes, clean linen – we provide them all. Those suffering severe wounds and amputations are immediately turned over to the Ukrainian side. Parents bring them food and clothing”.
In front of the guard-post we encountered an elderly woman, whom the guard bid farewell to with the words: “I told you he was all right”. It turned out this was the mother of one the POWs from the Donbass battalion. She had moved here from Kharkov to be closer to her son. During the next prisoner exchange he wants to make a public refusal to return to the Ukraine and wants to record this on video. The counter-intelligence staff claims he made this decision on his own, voluntarily.
Such cases are not rare. Some are even beginning to fight for the DNR. One youth from L’vov, for example, is now in Motorola’s detachment. We were also told how two completely peaceful brothers from Zhitomyr province ended up in the Oplot militia battalion. They had a small business airbrushing designs on automobiles. On one occasion they spraypainted a design which resembled the Russian flag. The “Right Sector” was not amused. They were arrested and their business and vehicles taken away. Consequently, they said they had no choice but to go to war.
In one lazaret there lay 6 wounded men. We were told how during artillery strikes the nurses carry the wounded down to the cellar which is equipped with a bomb shelter.
“They’re shooting at you, and you cart their men to safety?”
“We don’t want to become like them and lose our humanity. This is something we hang on to. Evil begets evil. If you do good, good will come to you,” says the head of counter-intelligence. “Did you know we also confine militiamen here for disobeying orders? Despite everything discipline has not been set aside”.
Here it should be noted that neither our visit to the counter-intelligence headquarters nor to the Kalinin hospital had been planned beforehand. We arrived at both places on the spur of the moment and no one knew of our visit. Hence, staff at both places had no time to prepare for our arrival.
“What’s your opinion?” we ask Zayats. “Where has all this devilry come from, what has brought about such psychopathic horror in people?”
“I believe the cause lay in license and a reckless attitude towards the rule of law. All respect for authority has been lost in Ukraine. Anarchy and chaos reign supreme. Look at who is leading the Ukrainian military detachments. Take the commander of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry’s Shakhtorsk special services battalion – Ruslan Albamaz. He has convictions for rape and robbery. Has executed people in Torez. Now this odious crime boss answers personally to the Minister. The commander of the Azov detachment in Kramatorsk has the same sort of past — drug trafficking and murder. He served 14 years and was recently released. He was given 400,000 hryvnia by Kolomoisky and is now a Hero of the Ukraine. It’s enough to drive you crazy. Their battalions – Dnepr-1, Kiev-1, Shakhtorsk, Donbass and the like – answer to nobody. A whole bunch of units have appeared which are not under the control of the high command, and which may stage a provocation at any moment. The same thing is reported by their colleagues in Kiev who are engaged in prisoner exchanges: they have no leverage over the actions [of these units] and a natural state of anarchy has broken out which has already established cutthroat rates. The Donbass battalion, for example, demands 1,500 hryvnia to free a person. They will arrest an average citizen on his way to get groceries and then tell him: “Pay up or no one will ever see you again”. Others simply disappear. “Where and in what holes in the ground we will find them later and whether they’ll be found at all, no one can say,” state militia members.
It is no wonder that thick files continuously accumulate for each one of these tragedies: “Help save my husband. Yesterday he was delivering medicine to Gorlovka. He was at some Ukrop [Ukrainian] checkpoint. His name is Boyko Maxim Vladimirovich. His car is a gray Lanos. Please help. Ekaterina”. “Missing person. My father Kaplun Vladimir Davydovich, born 1958, last heard from on 1 September near a checkpoint at Obzhora”. “Dobropole. Lyudmila Nikolaevna Vinogradskaya. Presumed abducted by unknown persons. There is information that her clothing was discovered in some cellar near the commercial center”.

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