'Bored to battery'. How Russian-backed separatists torture Ukrainian captives

Prisoner swap. 29 December 2019. Phot. Valentin Sprychniak / TASS / Forum

A Belsat contributor has interviewed several Ukrainians who were freed from Donbas separatists’ captivity at the end of 2019. The men who are currently under the doctors’ care agreed to tell their stories on condition of anonymity.

In late December, 76 persons arrived in Kyiv. They were exchanged for 127 separatists and their supporters who were kept in Ukrainian prisons. Among the citizens of Ukraine who returned to the territory controlled by the country, there were 12 Ukrainian soldiers. Some of them had been held captive by Russian-backed militants since the battles of Donetsk Airport and Debaltseve that took place in 2015.

The other persons are civilians captured by separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

We cannot disclose the names of the people whose evidence we make public, as well as any details that would ease their being identified. Anonymity is essential to providing security to the participants in those events, members of their families living in Donbas, and those who still remain in captivity.

Civilian, 3 years in captivity

It was the loud music that red-flagged the imminence of a beatdown, the former prisoner of war says. When boozing, the separatists usually loudened it.

“When they were drinking, they got bored. They beat us with a rubber baton that had a metal core, or with butts of rifles, table legs – in short, with everything that fell into their hands. As a result, limbs and fingers got broken from beating. More than once, I was unable to get up and walk after being battered. They dragged me into a cell, and I apprehensively waited for their being back.”

However, beating was not the worst thing, says our interlocutor. Those who were just beaten turned out to be lucky:

“Much more terrible things may be done to a human being, for example, the so called swallow, i.e. hanging a hancuffed person by hands twisted behind his back. Some were kept in this position within several days. Due to it, a guy jailed in the next cell completely lost his hands’ sensibility.”

Soldier of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, 3 years in captivity

Torture was not only a way of obtaining information, but a kind of making fun, the serviceman says:

“In the long run, a person answers all questions, because they do not want to be tormented anymore. Sometimes separatists put people to torture for no reason or aim to get any information, they are just willing to entertain themselnes. They jokingly ask senseless questions.”

For example, when tortured, the interviewee confessed to participating in the attempted murder of… Leo Trotsky in 1940.

Soldier of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, 3 years in captivity

Electrocuting was the most common torture, says the former prisoner of war. According to him, the separatists used a number of simple devices: a stun gun, two electrical wires connected to a socket, or to a car battery charger.

“At first, the wires were fixed on my head, but then they shifred their focus to other body areas. The fact is that if one and the same part is traumatized by the electric current for many times, the body gets used to the pain. The nervous system stops responding. Therefore, they often change ‘localisation’ – it could be arms, legs, or one wire placed in the armpit, and another on the thumb.”

Another instrument of torture is the old Soviet field phones, on which a electric power generator is installed:

“They attached the wires to [a prisoner’s] ears, calling it ‘a buzz to Putin’. They like this practice because it leaves no visible traces.”

Soldier of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, 3 years in captivity

Ordinary plastic bags are often used for torture.

“They put plastic bags on our heads and choked us until foam began to come out of mouths. At that moment. a person thought that he was dying, but at the last second the bag was removed, [the torturers] allowed them to vomit and breathe in, then they put the bags on again,”says our interlocutor.

Soldier of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, 5 years in captivity

The man believes that by humiliating and abusing prisoners, the separatists blowed off their steam. He was captured by a group of volunteer fighters from Russia, who called themselves, according to the interviewee, the ‘Cossack Union of the Don Army’.

“I faced the worst things there. We were often visited by separatists who had just returned from the frontline. They worked off their frustration on us, i.e., they unleashed their aggression. Once they came at night and poured acetone over me – they were about to burn my Kozak forelock, but the lighter failed. Then they cut it off with scissors.”

According to the serviceman, the separatists also doused him with orange paint and stuck a torn Ukrainian flag to his head.

Soldier of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, 5 years in captivity

Another way to put a prisoner down is a fake execution.

“They take you out into the corridor, put you against the wall, read a document signed by the leaders of the so-called people’s republics, and it contains the order to execute you. They ask you about the last wish and, for example, allow you to smoke a cigarette. Several separatists are at the distance of 10-20 metres, aiming their assault rifles at you. You hear a series of shots and think that it is over. But after a while it turns out that they fired blanks. Your nightmare continues.”

The persons who were subjected to such torture often begged the separatists to shoot them down for real, the man stressed.

Civilian, 4 years in captivity

Our next interlocutor said that in winter he was forced to stay out without clothes in the freezing cold:

“They poured cold water on me and frightened me that later I would have to have my limbs amputated.”

Pro-Russian separatists waiting for prisoner swap. Phot. Alexander Rekun/ Russian Look / Forum

Soldier of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, 3 years in captivity

“In my cell, there was neither toilet bowl nor tap, only a metal bed and a 6-litre plastic bottle to urinate into. I was allowed to use the toilet only two times a day – at 5 am and 9 pm. We took a shower once a week.”

According to the man, the worst torture, however, was isolation:

“For all that time, I had not been in contact with the outside world. I was never let to call or write a letter to my family, I did not know what was going on in the world.”

Civilian, 2 years in captivity

The man spent two years in a hole measuring seven square metres. What is more, he had a ‘cellmate’. A small hole in the ground was used as a toilet. Although two weeks have passed since the release, the man keeps waking up at the slightest noise, it seems to him that the guards came to take him to interrogation.

“I cannot get used to darkness. They never turn off the light in the cells, even at night. At first my eyes and head ached, but then I got on with it. My eyes are accustomed only to harsh light – when it goes down even a little, I feel as if I were a blind man. I try not to leave the hospital after 15:00. I am afraid I will not be able to return to the building on my own.”

Soldier of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, 3 years in captivity

The interviewee told us about separatists’ taming prisoners in the run-up to their being interviewed by state-run Russian media outlets:

“They make [prisoners] grant interviews. They have a ready-made text and force to learn it by heart. They check whether you get togue-tied. If you make a mistake, they beat you. They put a bag on your head and bring you to a room where local journalists working for separatists, representatives of law enforcement agencies, and crews of Rossiya 1, Rossiya 24 or NTV are waiting.”

Later, such interviews’ became part of articles titled ‘Ukrainian spies’ testimony’ or ‘Ukrainian saboteur’s confession’. The former prisoner claims that people ‘confessed’ in fear of life:

“Sometimes, when someone did not agree to do that, those so-called journalists humbly waited until the separatists coerced him into telling everything they needed.”

According to the Security Service of Ukraine, about 150 Ukrainian prisoners are still in the occupied territories, another 400 persons are missing. Most of the detainees are Donbas residents who were arrested by separatists for pro-Ukrainian views or supporting Ukraine’s army.

Monika Andruszewska for Belsat.eu