By Tetyana Zarovanaya
Translated and edited by Voices of Ukraine
Danylo, a district election committee member (we are not publishing his surname or photo due to an existing danger to his life), has spent five days in the torture chamber of a terrorist organization, the Donetsk People’s Republic [DPR]. He told Obozrevatel about the terrorists’ commanders, their ways to pressure the hostages, and why he tried to commit suicide while being imprisoned.
Danylo is 30 years old. He is a former private business owner. He lost his property, income, and health because of the self-proclaimed DPR. With a broken bone in his temple, kidney contusion, torn eardrum, and other consequences of his imprisonment, he is now being treated in one of the hospitals in the capital.
The terrorists captured Danylo and two other members of the [election] committee in which he worked on the eve of the presidential election. The captives spent the next five days in the basement of the SBU [Security Service of Ukraine] building in Donetsk Oblast, which is now under the control of the self-proclaimed deputy commander of the phoney Donetsk People’s Republic, Serhiy Zdrylyuk, nicknamed “Abwehr.” Talks on freeing the election committee members were held by UN representatives.
We are talking with the former hostage in a hospital corridor. Danylo has a furrow on his neck from strangulation, bandages hide cuts on his wrists, his legs and face are bruised. He cannot hear at all out of one ear.
How were you abducted?
Road police stopped me on the street for a minor infraction and called the DPR guys. Gunmen, armed with assault rifles, searched the car, found a Ukrainian flag, and told us we were under arrest. We were brought to the Donetsk SBU building, where everything was taken away. I had UAH 350, a bank card, three phones, some things, and training shoes.
After the first interrogation, a military orderly approached me. My hands were tied behind my back. He let me drink some water and started rummaging through my pockets.
There are different people there. Some are ideological. Some believe in justice. But most are in it just for the money. These people say, “Give me an honest business, which has purchase orders from Kyiv, sign over your car and apartment to me.” That’s what they’re interested in.
Testimonies were beaten out by people who liked doing this. Some sympathized: “It’s easier for me to shoot a man than treat him cruelly.” Some received pleasure [from it], they would beat [me] and keep repeating, “Are you afraid of me? Do you want to live?”
What was asked during the interrogations?
The interrogators were people who absolutely did not understand what the elections in Ukraine were or what carousel [voting] meant. They do not understand life here. They asked how I got into the elections, which organizations were setting up the falsifications. When I said that it was the Party of Regions, I thought I was gonna get it in the liver. But they didn’t know the difference between the Party of Regions and Svoboda. Besides Right Sector, they didn’t know anything.
They really are paranoid about Right Sector, they demanded that I turn in Pravoseks [members of the far-right group Pravy Sektor], Euromaidan protestors, and other election organizers. They asked who my friends were and whether I was at Maidan.
They suggested [that I] lure out the district election committee head, so that they could abduct him. They hit me with whatever they could find all over my body. I had a bootprint on my back for a long time.
How did you spend your days imprisoned?
In the darkness. Blindfolded. In a basement. Alone on a concrete floor where there was a piece of foam plastic from shotgun cases. 55 by 70 cm–that’s how big my “bed” was. I measured it with my elbow, and back at home I made sure. You could lie only in a fetal position.
For one-and-half days my hands were tied behind my back. My hands and shoulders got swollen. They untied my hands when they fed me, took me to the restroom, and put me to work. Once when they left me with my hands untied, I tried to commit suicide.
My shoulders were really swollen and aching, so lying on a cold basement floor was somewhat pleasant.
Later, they took me out to work in the yard. I had to disassemble high voltage cables–coils [of cable] were standing there (he laughs–Ed.). Well, what else was there for the DPR guys to do besides take apart high-voltage cables for the copper? And we also loaded the sand…
The work alternated with the beatings. All the while they kept trying to recruit me. They said many people went over to their side after the interrogations. But you shouldn’t believe that, they lie there en masse.
Is it true that they are all crazed with orthodoxy there?
For them, torture and victimization are normally combined with orthodoxy. There is a chapel in the SBU yard, and an orthodox priest attended it. When I tried to hang myself, they started berating me for sinning. Furthermore, one of the torturers said he attended the SBU chapel regularly. I asked him, “How come you can pray away the hundreds of lives you’ve taken, but God won’t forgive me for taking one life–my own?” He replied, “Well, that’s the way it is.”
Did you see other captives?
When I was taken out of the solitary cell, they led a Pole there. He was a Roman Catholic priest. They wound him all up in tape and didn’t even want to enter his cell afterwards, so he probably had to soil himself. They announced him to be a nonconformist. He told them, “I’m a Catholic,” and they replied, “Yeah, we’ve had a Scientologist like you here.” Catholics and Scientologists are the same to them… I doubt they’ve ever held a Bible.
There was also a journalist among the captives with a residency permit from Lviv.
They go through the cells and do roll-calls, while I listen and weigh the information. So, I found out that at the time of my abduction there were 23 people in the SBU basement, and by the time my colleagues and I left, there were 30.
Why did you try to kill yourself?
Before the suicide [attempt] they were beating [me] particularly well. I thought they would beat me to my death. They threatened to slaughter my family. They demanded that I turn in to them those I knew. “Think of a way to lure them out, and we’ll treat you differently.” I couldn’t bring myself to entice people.
They gave me two hours to sleep on it and promised torture after that. That’s what they said–torture. I found the key to my apartment in my pocket and started sharpening it against the concrete floor. I tried to open a vein. I had to saw, that was unpleasant… It didn’t work out, there wasn’t much blood. So, I took the laces out of my sneakers and made a noose (after me, they took everyone’s shoelaces away)… I regained my senses in another cell. At first, I was barely aware of anything and couldn’t hear much. It seemed as if people were moving silently around me and doing things I couldn’t understand. I bit through my tongue when I hung myself, and they couldn’t unclench my jaw for some time. I was resuscitated by their doctors–also separatists. There were also women among them–I think one of them was pregnant.
When they resuscitated me, they threw me on the floor and poured water on me for a long time. They told me that a military orderly found me hanging. He was a normal guy, 18 years old. He said to me, “You might not believe it, but I haven’t laid a finger on anyone.”
After the hanging, epileptic fits started, but my [attempted] suicide might have saved my life.
Are there many Russian [citizens] there in the SBU building? What’s their role?
It’s hard to tell the exact number, but there’s quite a few Russians there. There are also people from the Caucasus. Everything is run by GRU men (GRU, Main Intelligence Directorate, the Russian Defense Ministry’s foreign intelligence service–Auth.). I overheard some phrases and passages and realized that a lot of them had been in Crimea.
The Russian officers were planning to commission one fighter from the ranks of the local insurgents for their own needs. The DPR supporters from Donetsk were undergoing a kind of exam in the SBU [building], and we were the teaching material. All the other DPR supporters from Donetsk serve as Cargo 200 (cannon fodder–Auth.).
There were insurgents among the captives as well–some wound up in the cells for getting drunk, others for drunk rioting. I spoke with one of them–he said he was from a commanding unit and took away someone’s car while drunk. For that, he was sent to load sand, just like me. Such people are like consumables there.
Can you give names or nicknames?
Their leader is Vladimir Ivanovich Kerch. I wouldn’t call him cruel, he is quite an interesting person. He was the only one who controlled everything, including even… I’m guessing the “Abwehrs” and “Strelkovs” don’t make the decisions. I came to the conclusion that he had about 20 years of war behind him.
Those who did the beatings wore masks, and more often than not I was blindfolded during the interrogations. I identified them by their mannerisms and voices. They were conducting their investigation, while I conducted my own.
The most evil was Svyat [means “holy”]. He was about 20–22 years old with a Moscow accent. He was called Kerch’s son, I don’t know if that’s true. He is like an evil child who is allowed to do anything. When they were driving us to the SBU, someone said the phrase, “So long as Svyat doesn’t get them, I can’t work with people after what he does to them.” I understand that I ended up with him. I got it in the head from this Svyat.
Svyat immediately told me, “I’m from Russia, the Kremlin School (Moscow Higher Military Command School–Auth.).
They call each other by nicknames. There was Hunter, South, Skull–I think the last one’s [real] name was Yuriy.
They called us “politicals.”
I’d like to point out that the groups inside the ODA (the regional state administration building seized by terrorists–Auth.) and the SBU are completely different. There, where I was, that was Abwehr’s group.
What other tortures did they use against you? Which one was the worst?
One night they got me up, stood me against a wall, and silently started beating me with electroshocks. After the [attempted] suicide, they tied my hands in different places and also tied up my legs. They left me like that for eight hours. But this wasn’t so important compared to how much I worried about my family while I was there. There was also this one moment: they were beating a man right in front of me and told me that his life depended on me. It was terrifying that people I knew could suffer. They promised to shoot me, to cripple me, to send me to a Russian prison for ten years or so.
Although, they are shameless liars there. One of them said, “Nine men were beating me, but I didn’t hang myself,” and the next day another one told me the same tale about nine men. And everyone there had either a pregnant girlfriend killed by Maidan supporters or a brother burned alive. Some said this was in Odesa. Others said, “My brother in the Berkut was burned in Kyiv.” You can’t trust them–niether when they threaten to shoot you nor promise to set you free. Now when I hear the Russian akanye [characteristic of the Russian accent], my defenses go up–I perceive it as a stupid lie.
How did you get free?
First, they nearly seized the members of the UN mission who went to negotiate with them. Then they told them there were no people like me or my colleagues inside the SBU. Next, Kerch summoned us and said they’d done a check and were setting us free. When we were leaving, I got so bold that I said, “Give me a certificate of release,” and he wrote up some little paper.
We left with the Donetsk police. There were several men in civilian clothes. They took us beyond the perimeter, put us into police cars, and drove us to the municipal UMVS [Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs]. We were brought into the office of the chief Yuriy Sednev. And they said, “Thank this man, he’s the one that got you out and decided everything.” They were referring to the chief of the Donetsk police.
It seems like the Donetsk cops know those who perform the abductions and tortures.
When I was at the SBU, I often got the impression that local SBU men were nearby. They called themselves operatives. There were quite a few of them there. And the Donetsk police… they’re allowed in there. They keep in touch. It’s just like after the Maidan victory in Kyiv when the Maidan Self-defense patrolled together with the police, but there the police work with the DPR. They copy many things from Maidan.
What mistakes should you avoid if you’re captured?
I didn’t show much emotion. I think it saved my life, as well as the lives of others through whom they tried to influence me. They forced one person, who was with me in the [election] committee, to tell them the PIN to their credit card by threatening to kill me. Some do break there. One of the captives told them he could help them–to tell them where the troops were and to send poisoned food there… Referring to him, they told me, “See, he’s good, he’s cooperating.”
By the way, cigarettes are also a means of influence there. So, I quit [smoking]. After my [attempted] suicide, they offered me a smoke, and I replied, “No, smoking is bad for your health.”