By Miriam Dragina, citizen journalist, poet, screenwriter
Translated and edited by Voices of Ukraine
On March 9, 2014, at the Turetskiy Val checkpoint, two cars were stopped on their way to Crimea. In one of the cars, there were two Automaidan activists, Olexandra “Shura” Ryazantseva, and Kateryna “Katya” Butko.
In the other car were journalist Elena Maksymenko, photographer Oles Kromplyas, and driver Yevhen Rakhno. After being detained, all five of them disappeared. For three days, their relatives, friends, and acquaintances along with other activists searched for them. The story has a happy ending. The prisoners were found.
Today, I got a chance to talk to Katya and Shura about what happened. I came to the Automaidan headquarters at the Ukrainian House. My press pass was not enough to get inside.
Shura Ryazantseva meets me at the door and takes me past security. She makes me a cup of tea. Everyone here knows her and says hello. Then Katya Butko appears. She’s the press secretary for the organization. I only have time to say, “Let’s talk?”
But the girls are “stolen” again for half an hour by the French TV reporters. While waiting for the interview, I watch the headquarters at work. The volunteer rotation is on the board; a woman sitting nearby is answering the phone diligently. The work looks well-coordinated here. Between business tasks, there is casual discussion of the news being broadcast by the TV on the wall.
Today [March 20], there were the first deaths in Crimea. Everyone is visibly concerned. The girls finally return. I don’t need to pry–they volunteer their stories readily.
– Why were you going to Crimea?
Shura: – My parents live in Crimea. I wanted to visit them. I was worried. We also wanted to see everything with our own eyes. There was different information coming in, and we wanted to see the truth for ourselves, as Automaidan representatives and as concerned people.
We were also bringing some support–innocent letters to Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea from girls at Maidan along with a Ukrainian flag covered in messages and lipstick kisses, sprayed with perfume.
– What happened?
Shura: – We approached the border without any fear, because my car is registered at my place of residence, in Crimea. I have Crimean license plates. I was born there. It’s a girly car. It would have been ridiculous to suspect us, two girls, of carrying something forbidden.
At the checkpoint, I was asked to show my documents and open the trunk. As I was opening it, I heard someone saying “Gotcha!” (except a rude version), like they had found something. One of the militants pulled that same flag out of my backpack. That’s when it all started.
– What kind of militant? What forces were they? Who did you manage to see when you approached the border?
Shura: – When we approached, we saw representatives of the local “self-defense,” but neither DAI [traffic police] nor border guards. Then other personas started appearing–Berkut [former special riot police force, now officially disbanded except in Crimea where it was integrated into Russian forces], Cossacks, militaries. Almost everyone was wearing balaclavas. The soldiers had no insignia other than a small Russian flag patch on their chests.
Next, they moved our car. We were told to kneel, while held at gunpoint with AKs. Now and again, they’d come over to us, insult us, swear. They took our phones and laptops. Like some sort of barbarians, they took all our things out of the car, took it all apart like Lego toys, mocked us, held our clothes against themselves, tried things on, laughed, and commented on everything.
Things got “interesting” when they opened up our laptops and phones.
– Who opened them up?
Shura: – There was some man who looked like he was responsible for IT work. It wasn’t clear which force he was with. Then they took us to the tent camp. There were more women there.
Katya: – They put us in some sort of trench…
– A trench?
Shura: – It was grassy, some kind of natural ditch, like for cows to lie in. There were some benches there. There was a field kitchen nearby and some tents. One APC [armored personnel carrier].
– Any license plates?
Katya: – We couldn’t see.
Shura: – Katya was hit on the sides of her body with the butt of a gun. They hit me on the knee and threatened to shoot it. In my laptop, they found a photograph of my “Heaven’s Hundred” tattoo and my most recent blog post. They walked around and read it out loud.
– Were you standing in the trench at the time?
Katya: – Sitting there.
Shura: – Then they took me aside, because I started having a pre-epileptic seizure. They even gave me some calming medicine.
Katya: – Some kind of drops.
Shura: – But then, the same woman who gave me the medicine was pulling my hair. Katya and I were separated a bit. I was on the bench with those women. While Katya was surrounded by men.
–Katya, would you say a little more about that?
Katya: – The women didn’t approach me. Among the men, there were Berkut. They were the meanest and the most aggressive. They shouted a lot. One of them came up to me–I think he was one of the superiors, and everyone listened to him. He had a big knife, and he said, “I collect ears. Which one of yours should I cut off–left or right?”
Then he took my sneakers and cut the tongues out of both of them. After that, he told the others to put all our documents in a bag and burn them. He said that they should “pass us around” and then shoot us, but Sasha [Olexandra] started having a fit. There were also a few people among our captors who tried to protect us. There was a man who said he was in intelligence. He said that beating women is wrong and that he’d protect us.
Shura: – And for that, he said, “You’ll take me to Maidan.”
Katya: – He said, “Put those three over there [Ed. –the three from the other car]. I’ve got a different mission for these two [Katya and Shura].” He said he’d “done a lot” the day before, so they should listen to him. He said he’d ask to let us go with him on his scouting mission and that he’d use us to get to Maidan. He also said that he’d beat the guys badly. And then he beat them.
Shura: – Yes, he immediately demonstrated just exactly how badly he was going to beat them.
– Was he also from “Berkut”?
Katya: – No, he seemed to be from special forces. At first, he was wearing a mask, and later, when we were taken to the basement, he took it off. There was also a Russian officer there who came up to us several times saying, “You’re busted. We know you’re from Maidan. Now tell us the truth!”
There were several other Russian soldiers there. They all studied our passports and tried to talk to us. The Berkut would only come with beatings and threats, but these [soldiers] wanted to talk.
– What information did they want about Maidan?
Katya: – They wanted us to confess that that’s where we were from and to tell them about it. We spent a long time in the trench.
Shura: – They detained us at half past two. We spent maybe three hours in the trench. It was very cold, even a bit of frost.
Katya: – Shura didn’t have a jacket. We kept asking to be given some warm clothes. They found my vest and put it on Shura, but her hands were tied, so the vest kept falling off. Even those who helped us were getting annoyed by that, because they had to keep putting it back on her.
Shura: – They almost tore my shirt when they were lifting it up to look at my tattoos.
–Did both of you have your hands tied?
Katya: – Yes.
Shura: – With some kind of cord.
Katya: – They had already seen Shura’s tattoos, and decided to see if I had any. I said I didn’t. I was wearing a ski jacket, with fingerless gloves attached to the sleeves. They demanded I show them my arms, even though they had tied them together over the sleeves, so I physically couldn’t do as they said. Then they cut my jacket with a knife and saw for themselves that there were no tattoos. That’s when they took us to the basement.
Shura: – This checkpoint used to be manned by a unit from the traffic police, and a two-story building was still there. We were taken to the basement of that building. We clearly weren’t the first there. We could see bullet holes, and blood stains, and the remains of some personal belongings. All five of us were taken there. They made us kneel facing the wall. Our hands were still tied. Now and again, they’d come up and kick us, or hit us on the sides with truncheons.
Katya: – They approached each of us separately and asked for our information–first name, last name, place of work, and purpose of going to Crimea.
Shura: – Some time later, I heard my father was there. I didn’t believe it at first, I thought they were going to take us outside and shoot us. To make sure it was my father, I asked a Russian soldier to ask him what my mother’s maiden name was. He came back about three minutes later and said, “Shapoval.” That’s my mother’s maiden name.
That’s when I burst into tears, got scared, and wanted to run out of the basement. I didn’t care who was around, Berkut or whoever else… A Russian soldier took me and Katya outside to let us go.
Katya: – They even untied our hands.
Shura: – It felt like being in a movie about refugees. A sunset in the field, the sun shining right in our eyes. They led us out. My father and mother were there. I was crying and started having a fit. When this happens, my breathing becomes irregular and there’s a chance of an epileptic seizure. My mother was very worried.
They even started negotiating about my car. Then, all of a sudden, a Russian soldier with an AK ran towards us from the other end of the post shooting in the air. He shouted, “Get back! Where are you going?! There was no order to let you go!” Then we were taken back.
After that, they put us in a Kamaz [truck] and took us somewhere, leaving our stuff behind. Originally, we were going to have a Berkut convoy. But the Russian soldier who wanted to let us go, he helped us. He gave me a sugar cube when I was having a fit (it helps against an epileptic fit). He went with us and untied our hands.
He tried to warm us up by putting our hands under his bulletproof vest. He gave me a pack of cigarettes, saying they’d be useful. He lit a cigarette for me.
– How long were you in the Kamaz?
Shura: Maybe six hours.
– Who else was there with you?
Shura: – Oles [photographer], Zhenya [Yevhen, driver], Lena [Elena, journalist], Katya and I, and two soldiers. It was very cold on the way. At times I thought they had taken us as far as the Ai-Petri plateau–I thought I could see snow through the tiny window.
– Did the Russian soldier have any insignia? How old was he?
Shura: – About forty-five. No insignia.
Katya: – I think he was younger, maybe forty. He’d been awarded the Gold Star Medal [Hero of the Russian Federation] six times. He had fought in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Abkhazia, Ossetia…
– Did he tell you that?
Katya: – Yes. He said he had nothing to hide. His face was open the whole time. He said his name was Vlad and that he’d been to war.
The trip took a long time, so he tried to calm us down somehow. We talked about the mountains a lot. He said that he would climb the Elbrus five or six times a year. He tried to calm us down by talking about unrelated things.
Shura: – We arrived at the detention barracks of the military prison, which is on the territory of the Russian Federation. We waited in the back of the truck for maybe fifteen minutes, while people outside discussed where they should put us. Then we were let out and lined up facing the prison wall. We were told not to lift our heads. Our hands were behind our backs, and we stood like that for two hours. The guys had to stand there even longer.
It was frightening. Everyone around us was wearing masks, and we couldn’t see a single face. They kept whispering behind our backs and chambering the rounds of their AKs over and over again. I thought they were going to shoot us. We were crying and shivering with cold. They kept asking us, for some reason, “Are you scared? Are you cold?” Then they took us inside. I went through all stages of being processed into a prison. They stripped and examined me.
– By female personnel?
Shura: – Yes, women, also in balaclavas. They took blood samples from me, and filmed everything. Then they started summoning us for interrogation one by one. I was recorded as a super-radical nationalist.
Because of my tattoos, my plush tartan shirt, my belongings, and the pictures in my phone. They said I was a member of Pussy Riot and a representative of the White Power movement.
– What did they find on your phone?
Shura: – Some photo-manips [digitally manipulated images], some memories of a person who saved my life, some patriotic pictures that just warm the soul. Some pictures from our events.
Just a chronology of the emotions and everything that had happened to us over the last few months.
– Did they say anything about Maidan during the interrogations?
Shura: – They said that I killed people back there, asked if I was given drugs, whether I drank tea there.
They shamed and blackmailed me, saying, “You’re a Crimean, with such lineage, such family, such grandparents–how can you be such a disgrace to everyone?! You Banderite!”
– Were the people interrogating you working for the FSB [Security Service of the Russian Federation]?
Shura: – I can’t say for sure. I didn’t see their IDs. But I can presume that yes, they were.
– Katya, what happened to you after you arrived at the prison?
Katya: – We were lined up by a wall. It was so cold there that we were shaking. Standing next to me was Oles Kromplyas. He had no pants or underwear, and he’d been badly beaten. He probably had a concussion, and he kept slumping onto my shoulder. When that happened, they would come up to him and straighten him out again.
They’d also come up to me and ask what was wrong with me. I told them I was cold. Then they said to wait some more.
– Who approached you?
Katya: – Soldiers in balaclavas with weapons. An hour and a half to two hours later, they led me inside. There were two women who examined me head to toe. They even checked my veins, checked all my possessions, did a drug test, and put me into a cell. Some time around three in the morning, I was summoned to an interrogation.
– Were you all put in solitary?
Katya: – Yes, I didn’t seen anyone for three days, only heard them. All that time, I thought Lena was in the cell behind mine and Shura was in the one in front. It turned out to be the opposite.
– What happened at the interrogation?
Katya: – I was very sleepy. They asked me where I was going and why. There was a small pile of our laptops and phones. They told me to find mine in it. They tried switching it on, but the battery was dead.
In the end, they switched the phone on, and people started calling right away, since they got a message saying I was within range again. The phone was ringing off the hook, but no one picked it up. I asked them to switch it off, because I couldn’t keep hearing it ring all the time. “Either let me answer, or you pick it up!”
Thanks to the phone being on, my friends managed to track down my location. They [the captors] kept forgetting to switch the phone off, so it was often possible to track it down very closely. I think it helped the people who were looking for us.
I asked them to let me call my mother–Shura’s parents saw her, but mine knew nothing about my whereabouts.
They also asked me to write down my full name, date of birth, and my parents’ information. Maybe that’s standard procedure, I don’t know. I decided that if they wanted me to talk, then I’d talk. I spoke my mind, admitted that Maidan stood and is still standing, and that I was there.
I said that the result we achieved so far and the actions of Batkivshchyna did not satisfy us. When they heard that, I think they started treating me a bit more nicely.
I spoke about it a lot, and really said what I thought. They were surprised–how can that be, first I stood there, and now I’m criticizing things. But I explained that we didn’t stand there for the things that are happening right now.
I said that it’s true that we’d neglected Crimea for 23 years straight. That the current events are to be expected. That when people are not heard, they have to take to the streets. And that the same is happening in Crimea.
They listened and reacted, and then they sent me back to the cell. I went back to sleep. [Later] in the morning, they gave me some weird porridge for breakfast. Nothing else happened for the rest of the day.
– What were you doing? What were you thinking about while in the cell?
Katya: – Mostly, I slept. Maybe because of all the stress and the hopelessness of the situation. I only woke up when they brought food, or to ask for water. When I asked how long they were going to hold me there, they answered right away, “We’ll let you go as soon as you tell us everything! We won’t kill you. It’s all up to you.”
That’s what they told me at the interrogation, and then they didn’t say anything for a whole day. That frightened me. They wanted to hear something from me–but then they vanished. It’s not like I could talk to the walls.
Still, no one came [to talk]. They only brought food. Once, they brought me some chocolate. Roshen, even! That was unexpected.
Then a chief came. I was temporarily moved to another cell–Shura’s, as it turned out, while she was being interrogated. I heard something happening in my cell. When I returned there, I saw that they had taken down all the hooks and mirrors. They had also taken away my belt and shoelaces. When I asked again when they were going to let me go, they again said, “Once you’ve told us everything.”
That was when I asked them to contact my mother, but they said, “Later.” As they left, I asked them to tell the other guys that if they wanted to find anything out, then summon and question me.
Three hours later, they summoned me. The interrogation took a very long time. They filmed everything, and we were forced to take a break, because the battery in the video camera ran out.
During the interrogation, they went through all my contacts and messages. They read and commented on each SMS [in my phone], asking, “Who’s this? And that? And that?” During the revolution, I had a different phone. It was lost after the incident at Kriposniy Alley on the night of February 22nd, when Berkut attacked our car.
As a result, there was little in my new phone. Plus, the people at the checkpoint took out the memory card. The only things left in the phone were the contacts on the SIM card and text messages.
Since I’m the press secretary, they saw many journalists in my contact list, many of them tagged: Channel 5, TSN, as well as many international media.
In addition to that, I had a journalist’s ID. They saw it and decided that I wasn’t only an activist, but also a journalist. They asked, “What are you going to write now? You didn’t see anything in Crimea!”
They told me that everything was stable, everything was fine, life was going on as usual. Hearing those words in the place where I was being held–that was surreal.
I told them that I came here to see with my own eyes if everything was okay and how life was going on. They started complaining about Channel 5, saying that it only showed one side of the story. I agree with that to a certain degree–Channel 5 has started resembling Inter, just on our side. I even promised to call the editor [of Channel 5] when I got back and tell him about it.
They also pulled lists of Automaidan members from my computer and questioned me about our ideology and financing. They really wanted to tie Automaidan to firearms. I answered, “No, we don’t operate that way.” I tried to make it clear that we oppose violence.
– Were the interrogators wearing masks?
Katya: – During the three days in the prison, everyone I saw was wearing masks. Every single one. When they summoned me for the second interrogation, they said, “There’s a lot of noise about you on the news, people are looking for you.”
I think that played a part. At some point, they promised to let me go and that they would try to give me a tour of Sevastopol, possibly together with some TV channel.
The next day, they woke me up and asked if I was ready for the tour. Then they took me to Sevastopol together with a Sevastopol TV channel, represented by a cameraman and a journalist.
– Can you remember the name of the channel?
Katya: – “Sevastopol.” That was the name.
– Did the cameraman and the journalist have masks too? Would you be able to recognize them later?
Katya: – Of course. We were accompanied by one of the investigators, who remained in the mask. They took me around Sevastopol and said things like, “Look, here’s a Russian flag on the SBU [Security Service of Ukraine] building, they hung it up themselves. They also put flags on their cars, because they wanted to. We didn’t ask them to. You see, everything is peaceful! Everything is well!”
– Were any of the other guys given a tour like that?
Katya: – No, just me. Afterwards, the masked guy said he’d stay in the car to avoid scaring anyone while the journalists and I went out to Nakhimov Square and talk to people.
– Were you wearing the same clothes you had on when you were detained?
Katya: – Yes, the same clothes, cut up, and following three days of heaven knows what. I imagine I looked strange. But because there was a journalist with me, people would stop and talk to me–even though they didn’t film what I was asking.
Naturally, people in Sevastopol told me, “Yes to Russia, yes to stability.” The journalists walked around with me, repeating, “You see, everyone here is for Russia!”
– Did you try asking passers-by for help?
Katya: – I realized that if they were giving me this tour, then they were going to let me go. Asking for help would mean leaving the other guys behind. I considered an escape. But I understood that I had nothing–no passport, no money, no phone. And I would set up the others if I ran. So I gave up that idea.
It was freezing at the waterfront. I decided I’d talk to one last person and leave. We stopped another passerby, who turned out to be a citizen of Russia. He said, “No! Crimea must not go to Russia, not under any circumstances! It’s a despotic dictatorship. Ukraine must go to the EU. I’ve been to Maidan myself.”
That was where we wrapped up.
The journalists also filmed an interview with me. I don’t know if it aired anywhere. Then I was sent back to the prison.
Three hours later, we were all taken outside. We were given a convoy: a marine without a mask who said that his job was to protect us from Berkut and any risks in Bakhchisaray and to get us to the mainland safe and sound.
Members of Berkut respect Russian soldiers, but don’t obey them. The marine told me that in case of any incidents with Berkut, he would try to save our lives. So we set out for home with him and two other Russian conscript soldiers.
When we were passing through Bakhchisaray, the marine said, “There can be terrorist acts here. So, I’m watching the right side, you [one soldier] watch the left, you [the other soldier] watch the road ahead, and you [the prisoners] listen only to me. If something happens to me, listen to the other two.”
– Were they afraid of terrorist acts in Crimean Tatar settlements near Bakhchisaray?
Katya: – Yes. There’s some checkpoint there, and they thought there would be shooting there. Then we made it to the checkpoint where we were originally detained.
The marine left us there in the minivan which we took out of Sevastopol, told us to close the doors, and went to try and get our cars back. Berkut started accumulating around the minivan.
The guys said, “We should lie on the floor. They might shoot us, anything can happen.” However, I said, “But the border is right here. We’re almost home. We can’t lose hope. We’ve gone through so much. We can’t die here, a hundred meters from the border…”
In the end, the marine got our cars back, gave us a bag with our things in it, and filmed it on camera as proof that everything was returned. We got back our passports, computers, telephones, even my belt.
But whatever was left in the cars had been stolen. Every single thing. They even took the keychain. All our personal items, backpacks, money–absolutely everything. The marine then got into the passenger side of the other car. That was why Berkut let us through.
The marine got us to the checkpoint and got out, and we went home.
It was very good to see our soldiers at the Ukrainian border. The Ukrainian border guards recognized us, because they had seen us on TV. Then we drove to Kherson, where friends from Automaidan met us and gave us some money and gas. And here we are.
After we left, the border in Armyansk was closed down entirely.
– How would you evaluate your state right now? Did you undergo any expert analysis? Have you seen a counselor?
Katya: – There hasn’t been any time for that. I only visited a neurologist, because I’d been beaten.
– Did they make official records of the beating?
Katya: – No. I was offered help, but I don’t think I need any.
– Am I right in understanding that of all the forces you encountered in Crimea, Russian soldiers were the most reasonable?
Katya: – Yes, because many former and experienced officers were sent there. They are good psychologists who know how to talk and convince.
They told us, “I don’t need to beat anyone up. After talking to me for half an hour, you’ll tell me everything.”
Berkut, on the other hand, always intimidate and brutalize people. They are out of control and don’t listen even to the Russian soldiers. They are incredibly angry, so full of hate. Beatings have always been their method–I learned that from experience–and now they have become crueler than ever. They must think that if they present themselves well, they’ll get Russian passports or something.
They’re out for revenge and full of resentment that everyone has abandoned them. They’re hoping to get privileged treatment from Russia. There’s no going back to Ukraine for them.
– Were they from Berkut units based in Sevastopol?
Katya: – Probably, yes, many spoke about that. I can’t tell for sure.
– After coming back to Kyiv, did you want to go somewhere, take a vacation, and get away from all this?
Katya: – At first, we met with ambassadors, then there was a peaceful day full of work; however, in the evening, we heard that our guys had gone missing. So we joined the search. There’s no time to rest.
At the time of this interview, some fourteen people were missing in Crimea. Some of them had been gone without a word for over a week.
This morning [March 20, 2014], seven hostages were set free. The fate of the rest remains unknown.
VOU note: Over the 24 hours following the publication of the original article, the remaining hostages in Crimea had been freed.
Source: Ukrayinska Pravda
Mariam Dragina speaks at Amnesty International Press Freedom Night, May 5, 2014