Article by: Yuriy Lukanov
Translated by: Yuri Zoria
Oleksandr Hryshchenko is a 60-year-old Luhansk veterinarian who lives in Kyiv. In 2014, he spent six months “in the basement,” aka an unofficial prison of the Russian proxy “Luhansk People’s Republic.” After his release from the basement, the man moved to Kyiv as soon as he could. Oleksandr tells his story of captivity, torture, and unexpected release in great detail. Sometimes there are tears in his eyes. He was five minutes away from his death.
In the Ukrainian capital, Oleksandr takes odd jobs to get by. In Luhansk, he had specialized in large farm animals, while veterinary medicine in Kyiv mainly focuses on dogs and cats. That’s why he can’t get a job in his specialty. Oleksandr failed to apply for a pension because he doesn’t have a record of dismissal from his previous job in Luhansk. Without such a record, he can’t be employed officially. As he had to work off the books, the duration of his pensionable service wasn’t long enough to retire.
Texty.org.ua recorded Oleksandr’s story, which describes the initial chaotic period of the Russian occupation of Ukraine’s Donbas region. We bring you a slightly abridged English translation.
Summer of 2014. At that time I worked as the deputy chief of the Luhansk Regional State Hospital of Veterinary Medicine. At work, I was pretty much the only person who openly expressed his indignation at the separatist movement.
One of those outspoken separatists was my boss, ethnic Russian Vladimir Gneushev. He moved to Luhansk from Sakhalin, where he had previously worked. He couldn’t speak Ukrainian and allowed himself to ridicule words he didn’t understand. We had disputes on this topic. He scoffed at the words in the vocative case. Nowhere, he said, there is such a language feature, having forgotten that even Russian had it but lost it just a couple of hundred years ago.
During this period, pro-Ukrainian rallies often took place near the monument to [Ukrainian poet] Taras Shevchenko, and I was always there taking a lot of photos. I once gave an interview to a TV journalist as to why I was taking part in it.
The next day in the presence of his subordinates, my boss announced that he would fire me. He called the participation in a pro-Ukrainian rally a reason for that. I even wrote a post about it on Facebook. However, he didn’t dare to dismiss me, although he openly threatened me,
“Here come our guys, we will knock off your head!”
When the Ukrainian authorities vanished in Luhansk (in late spring 2014 – Ed), he was last seen, according to my former colleagues, crossing the Ukrainian-Russian border in the VAZ car that belonged to our hospital. After that, no one saw him in Luhansk.
My organization’s office was located in a high-rise building on the premises of the bus station. On the other side of the street, there was the regional military draft office, which by that time had already been seized by the separatists. Their detachment Zarya was stationed on the premises of the draft office. Igor Plotnytsky, the would-be leader of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic, was involved in it. The former prisoner, whom they tortured there, said that Plotnytsky also took part in the tortures.
From our office’s windows, KAMAZ trucks were seen entering the territory of the bus station, with something like anti-aircraft guns mounted on their bodies. When the shellings of Luhansk began, a shell hit the courtyard of our organization as it exploded on the roof of the garage. Due to the threat to the lives of employees, our management ordered them not to go to work until the situation normalizes.
A few days later, I decided to visit my office to pick up my things and feed the fish in the aquarium. A guard usually secured the entrance to our building. When I approached the house, I saw that the door and the window next door had been shot through. The door was locked. I knocked and called, but nobody answered. I photographed the damage and was about to return home.
A camo-clad man with a machine gun in his hands walked towards me from the gate of the military draft office. Swearing, he ordered me to stop and started asking who I was and what I was doing there. I explained to him and showed him my work ID.
He resented me for not having my passport. He said he wasn’t satisfied with my work ID, using mostly foul language. Then he started asking where I work and who I am. Getting to know about my position, he said: “Oh, you are a bribe-taker. Everything is clear about you.” I asked him why he thought so. He said, “Because you’re all bribe-takers there.”
Then another armed man approached and started asking the same things. When he heard about feeding the fish, he blasted: “What fish? War is coming! You are an artillery adjuster! You came to set beacons on us. Let’s go and sort it out.”
Here I realized what a stupid thing I had done. I was alone in the square. And the militants could have observed that I was trying to enter the building in front of their location while taking pictures of something from behind the stone wall.
I was searched and all my belongings were confiscated. I asked to be allowed to call my relatives. But they took away my cell phone and said I didn’t need it anymore.
On the memory card of my camera and on my flash stick, they found photos of their military equipment entering the bus station, photos of the shelling damage in Luhansk, photos from Luhansk pro-Ukrainian rallies, as well as photos of the Maidan in Kyiv.
It was reckless of me to carry all this information with me. But I thought in terms of peacetime. Could I have imagined that someone would suddenly check my camera without my consent? In the deranged minds of the militants, a person who films their equipment or the damage from bullets and shells would be a spy.
After looking at the memory card of my camera, one militant said that this was enough to execute me on the spot or shoot me in the legs. But they wouldn’t do it, because they had a kind of special counter-terrorist unit, “GBR Batman” (GBR stood for the “rapid reaction group”). And the Batman, as I later learned, was the call sign of their commander. Soon a car from that detachment came after me.
My first day in prison
I was brought to a small area between the dormitories of the Volodymyr Dahl East Ukrainian University (the Russian-controlled armed gang had seized its dormitories 2 and 5 in early May 2014, – Ed.). There was a group of militants. Among them, I saw an acquaintance. It was Serhiy Konoplytskyi, the driver and bodyguard of the former head of the Main Department of Veterinary Medicine in the Luhansk Oblast.
His department’s office was located in the same building as the office of my organization and I had sometimes talked to Konoplytskyi. Back then, he had turned out to be an ardent Ukrainophobe who openly said that Ukraine didn’t exist. I had argued with him. Later it turned out that those conversations could have become fatal for me. When I saw him, I had a faint hope that maybe he would help me somehow. But, as it turned out later, our acquaintance only significantly worsened my situation.
The commander of the Batman detachment, Oleksandr “Batman” Bednov, got into the car next to me. On my other side was a Russian militant Roman Omelchenko, call sign “Plastun.“
Bednov asked me why there was a picture of the Ukrainian trident on the cover of my ID. I told him that it was the form of the ID I received from my management. “Batman” stated that I’d have shown my civic consciousness and given up my ID with the trident to get a normal document. I asked why then they demanded my passport with the same trident.
They looked at each other. Instead of answering, I received a professional punch in my face from Plastun. He had a broken nose. Apparently, he was a boxer. I was made to understand that here only they were the masters of the situation and that it was not worth arguing with them.
“If you now tell us who you work for, what your tasks were, to whom, where, and how you were to report on fulfilling them, we would simply set you free. If you don’t tell us, we will beat you, skin you, cut you to pieces, and you will tell us everything,” said Bednov.
I looked at him and thought, “What kind of idiot can believe that you’re going to let me go if I talk about my ‘espionage’ activities?”
I said I had nothing to add and that, “I am a civil servant who just came to the building where I work. I did nothing illegal. If you want, you can kill me right here.” He replied: “We won’t shoot you here. Because it will take too long to wash off the blood and brains from the car.”
After that, I was taken out of the car. Batman said that I would be taken care of by their specialist, who is a great master of extortion.
The basement, where I was taken, was located under a multi-story dormitory, seemingly, having 9 stories. Lit by a dim light bulb, the room I was in had an area of about 20-25 square meters. The humidity was very high, so that condensate flowed down the metal pipes. There were about a dozen civilians and an armed militant.
One of the men was on crutches. Another had his face covered in cuts. The third behaved inadequately in general, having obvious signs of mental disorder.
I was surprised that the number of mattresses was less than the number of people. I asked, “How do you sleep?” and was told, “In turns.” The militant had a chair.
There was a toilet bucket in the corner, and it smelled accordingly there. I was not handcuffed.
A few hours later, the detachment’s regular torturer came to me, “Maniac” by his call sign. I found out his pseudo and position later. It was the same Serhiy Konoplytskyi that I had hoped for at first. Several other militants were with him. One of them, Sergey Zharinov, had a call sign Khokhol (a Russian derogatory term for a Ukrainian – Ed.).
They took me to another basement. There I saw a corridor 15-20 meters long. In the corridor, my watch was removed from my hand, and for some reason Khokhol asked what size my shoes were. There were doors on both sides. I was taken to the first room on the right. It was a room with bare walls without furniture, which housed more than a dozen prisoners – women and men.
I found myself in the center of the room. Militants surrounded me from all sides. Maniac ordered me to sit on the floor. It was dirty concrete. I squatted down and immediately received a kick from Konoplytskyi in the heart. I fell.
Another militant, call sign Yanek, electrocuted me several times with an electric shocker. After that, they started beating me with their feet, hands, and batons. Other prisoners saw this. Khokhol put a noose around my neck and used it to drag me to another room.
It was a makeshift torture chamber with bare walls having only the Soviet-time stands of civil defense instructions. Maniac demanded that I give them information.
I explained again that I was a civil servant who hadn’t done anything illegal. I stressed that he knew me personally. He looked at me more closely and recalled, “Ah, so you’re that Ukrop!” (укроп is the word that begins the same way as “Ukrainian” so Russian-led forces were trying to use it as an ethnic slur back in 2014 – Ed.). Our acquaintance and ideological differences only worsened my situation.
He said he’d move to more radical means. He pulled out a roll of synthetic cord and cut off two half-meter pieces. He made a slipknot at the end of each of them, and pulled them on my wrists, previously having forced me to strip naked. I was brought to a table, thrown face down on it, and my arms were stretched in different directions with cords.
Maniac started beating me with a piece of plastic pipe all over my body. I screamed, but he didn’t get any confessions. Then Konoplytskyi ordered his accomplices to fix my right hand. He grasped my right index finger with his palm and began to bend it gradually towards the back of the hand to break it.
I did my best to resist. The table on which I lay collapsed due to my resistance. Maniac swore and ordered his assistants to bring a door panel from another room.
During this forced break, he told me what and how he was going to do with me in a few minutes. He took out the tarpaulin cover of the surgeon’s field kit, unwrapped it, and started to show me the surgical instruments — cutting nippers, a surgical saw, and scalpels, commenting on how he would snap off my fingers, saw my hands, and cut me.
In a few minutes, his assistants brought a door leaf and dumped me on it. My left arm was fixed. Maniac started to make a surgical saw cut between the fingers of my left hand.
I screamed asking not to maim me. I was ready to admit anything. But Maniac insisted that I testify truthfully about my involvement in espionage. Then they started beating me with their hands and feet again.
I didn’t lose consciousness. He warned, “Don’t even think that losing consciousness would save you, we have special drugs to quickly bring you to consciousness and increase the pain. We will torture you as much as necessary until we get the desired result.”
I think he understood it perfectly well that I wasn’t involved in any espionage activities. He knew that I was indeed a civil servant holding a peaceful post. But at the same time, he had to perform Batman’s task as they needed to obtain information from me about my involvement in espionage activities in order to boost the profile of their so-called counter-terrorist unit.
When they got tired, Maniac said that they would take a break, during which I was given the last and unique opportunity to recall everything in detail and tell honestly about everything.
I was handcuffed and thrown into the first cell where the other prisoners were. Under threat of severe punishment, they weren’t allowed to help me. Also, I was forbidden to lie on the floor. No one came after me that evening.
Getting used to the pain
My whole body ached. It seemed to me that I had gone crazy, that I had gone mad. I didn’t believe it was happening to me. I didn’t understand how it was possible to accuse a person of something without any proof, to throw them in a basement, to subject them to bullying and torture. I couldn’t wrap it around my head. Then I stopped wondering because I faced even bigger idiocy. Like when people were thrown into the cell even because someone “gave them a funny look.”
It is very humiliating to be naked in a room where there were other prisoners, including women. One of the prisoners gave me a chair. Because I was forbidden to lie down, but not to sit.
I had broken ribs. The small of my back hurt after the electric shock. It took me a long time to get used to the pain of this kind in order to somehow sink into a reverie and fall asleep.
The handcuffs tightened and my hands began to turn blue. Only on the third day, at my numerous requests, a militant came to the cell with a bunch of handcuff keys. He messed with them for a long time and managed to unlock one hand but not the other. He said that the handcuffs might have broken or the key didn’t fit. The prisoners of this cell gave me a rag to wrap around my thighs.
It was another militant who managed to remove the handcuffs. He brought me to the surface because there was not enough light in the cell from two windows of about 20×30 centimeters with one of them totally blocked.
After removing the handcuffs, he asked me why I was naked. I replied that my clothes were left in the torture chamber. He took me there and I was able to get dressed. He asked why I was still not a member of a local armed group. I referred to my age and health.
He cited as an example that he was also not a young man, but came from Russia to help liberate Ukraine “from the Nazis.” It turned out later that he was a police officer and even worked as an investigator. After watching propaganda programs, he decided to go to Luhansk to “fight fascism.”
When Maniac saw me dressed that day, he was furious. He started beating me with a stick and demanded that I tell him who had allowed his order to be broken. I told him it was the call sign Transit. He promised to deal with it. But I don’t think he would have caused any trouble for a Russian.
Plastun visited the cell regularly. He asked me questions and punched me in the face no matter what I answered. His blows were professional. They caused a rather large hematoma under my left eye that lasted for quite a long time.
My cellmates said that he was coming only to make fun of me as he enjoyed it.
Maniac was a quite often guest too. Beatings were a part of his visits constantly. After another beating, I had a severely injured right wrist, which was swollen and very painful. I had bruises of soft tissues all over the body.
Maniac singled me out from among the prisoners. The reasons for this became clear later: his former boss, whom I used to visit on business matters, was fired due to some intrigues in the regional administration. Accordingly, Maniac was also deprived of his job where he had a good salary.
At another beating session, he said something like this: “All of you bitches who worked there then, those who are involved in this, should be beaten, squeezed.” He projected his personal outrage on me.
Sometime later, Maniac said that the conditions in the first cell, which had one small window 20×30 cm and a toilet, are too luxurious for me. I was transferred to the next “suicide” cell, as he called it. It was smaller in size, with no ventilation or windows at all.
Prisoners were there too. Two of them were in critical condition after being severely tortured. Maniac and Khokhol regularly visited the second cell and systematically mocked prisoners. During one of such visits, Khokhol broke several more ribs on my left side.
The prisoners suffered from suffocation. One night I had a heart attack. I had to knock on the door and ask to take me out of the cell to breathe. I was taken to solitary confinement. There was a big window without glass. The window was filled up with large boxes.
In this dungeon, I saw several people handcuffed to boxes. Among them was Antonov, whom I had known before, as I met him at the Luhansk Maidan. His wife was in the first cell.
At that time there was no electricity in Luhansk for almost a month, and we lived in semi-darkness. One morning Maniac entered the cell and aimed a ray of light from a powerful flashlight at my face. After being in the dark, I was blinded, and he hit me in the chest with a gun. I almost suffocated from the pain.
Maniac commented on his actions as follows: “I came to wish you good morning!” After that, I had chest pain for a long time, and at first even just getting up was problematic for me. After arriving in Kyiv, I had an examination and an X-ray, which showed that I had a broken sternum.
What were you jailed for?
One evening, three severely beaten elderly men were thrown into the cell. Two of them were under 60, and the third was well over 60. One of them had a severe concussion as a result of the beating and could not even sit on the chair as he was falling down. He had a deep wound in his thigh due to a bayonet thrust.
Another had bruises on his face and torn wounds left by the jaws of a trained German shepherd on his buttocks. The third had his ribs smashed by a brutal beating. What did these people have to do to be treated like that?
It turned out that one of these “enemies” and his wife went to their dacha, a summer cottage in the area of the memorial Hostra Mohyla to harvest cucumbers and tomatoes. They stayed there for several days. He went for groceries to a nearby store.
He was walking down a path when he suddenly heard a burst of an automatic firearm fly above his head. Then the same burst hit the ground at his feet. Shouts and orders to lie on the ground. He lay down. Armed militants ran up to him, put a sack on his head, and tied his hands behind his back. “What are you doing here, bitch? Our detachment is deployed here. We are being fired on.” And they called him an adjuster (being an adjuster for Ukrainian artillery or a Ukrainian spy were two most often used accusations for pro-Ukrainian residents of the occupied territories – Ed.).
They brought him to their checkpoint. At first, they just beat him. And then they tied a rope around his hands, tied them behind his back, threw it over a tree branch, and lifted him up to improvise a rack. He said that when he tried to transfer his weight to his legs to reduce the pain, they beat his legs, feet and face with a stick. Then they hounded a German shepherd on him and it bit his buttocks. I saw his wounds because I was treating them in the cell.
Two other men, who were walking to their summer cottages near the detachment, were also proclaimed adjusters and subjected to beatings and torture.
Later on, the basement was visited by an ambulance doctor, call sign Skoryi. People who got there earlier explained that he had also been jailed here. As the militants found out that he was a medic, he was released on the condition that he come in his spare time to help the victims of torture.
He helped three elderly men. He told one that his ribs were crushed so much that he should lie down all the time, otherwise fragments of broken ribs could pierce vital organs, leading to inevitable death. Then he said to Batman, “If you don’t need a corpse in the basement, you should release and hospitalize him.” He was released sometime later.
One young woman was regularly summoned for questioning. It only happened late in the evening or at night. There were no signs of beatings on her body. I noticed that when she returned to the cell, she felt awkward, avoiding looking at anyone. I realized that she was being raped regularly. When I shared this guess with someone, I was told that it was no secret to anyone. But I should keep my mouth shut if I don’t want to make matters worse for myself.
Apart from rape, forms of sexual violence included forcing women to shower in front of observant militants.
Periodically, militants from this and other units came to the basement in order to “look at these freaks, at these Ukrops,” to train on them like on punching bags. They also beat those who could not stand up, mocked them, hit them on the head with the pistol grip, put the pistol barrels to their temples, threatened to shoot them on the spot, and kicked them in the stomach. The fighter with a playful call sign Romashka (“Camomile”) especially liked to be engaged in it.
I was later transferred to another cell. In that cell, there was a minor girl aged 14 to 16. I don’t know why she was thrown into the basement. The guards treated her well. She felt quite free.
There was a ban on access to the corridor. It was possible to go there only with the permission of a jailer. But she was treated favorably, and often went out into the corridor without permission and chatted there.
At one such moment, Maniac saw her. He shouted. He said that she would be punished for violating his order. The punishment was that she was sent to combat positions of the militants to satisfy their sexual needs.
In other words, it was the repeated gang rape of a minor by members of an illegal armed group. Upon her return, she was housed in a dormitory. She was repeatedly taken to their positions. As one of the militants put it, “Why be ashamed? It’s a working hole.” No one tried to hide the fact that they were taking her to the front line for sex.
We were fed twice a day. Closer to noon and sometimes in the evening. It was porridge or soup – sometimes without salt, sometimes with some additions, cooked in the same kitchen as for the militants. But the quality of the food was completely different. We used to get some leftover meat so that we wouldn’t get completely emaciated.
From such “hearty” food my pants were slipping down. Moreover, they took my belt away at the start, so I found a cord and fastened them.
They were assigning two people from among the prisoners to work in the kitchen. Those did some work there, brought pots of food to the basement, and gave us disposable utensils.
None of the jailers cared about the hygiene of the prisoners. We didn’t have soap, toothpaste, or any other hygiene products. On the 40th day of our stay, at doctor Skoryi’s request, we were allowed to come to the surface, where they set small basins and gave soap and a bucket of water to every person. They said we had five minutes to wash ourselves and our things. Only in daylight did I realize how dirty my clothes had become.
One of the militants, a Russian, call sign Luish, who was the head of the prison at the time, later wrote memoirs about his stay in Luhansk in the GBR Batman detachment and published them on the Internet. He called his opus “Militiaman Tsykunov (Luish). Four months in Luhansk.” This memoir is still available online.
He recalled it this way: “I remember the astonishment of our fighters when they saw all my wards on the premises when I was taking them out for washing. Our people knew that there were a lot of people in the basement, but the march of nearly a company surprised them. That event looked very funny – summer heat, naked men washing in basins on the grass in the backyard, others waiting their turn.”
Water was supplied to us from the surface. There was a tanker truck on the territory. One or two people were sent for water from the basement with a wheelbarrow so that they could fill plastic bottles and bring them to the basement and distribute them among the cells.
We ourselves had to obtain hygiene products. How?
We were periodically forced to do labor of various kinds. These included digging trenches, filling sacks with sand, repairing equipment, cleaning the area and premises, washing the floor, washing clothes, moving furniture and household appliances in the dormitory where the militants lived, cleaning and restoring a room in the hospital after a fire, loading a garbage truck, and cargo loading-unloading jobs.
Prisoners were also used to plunder warehouses. Most often in the evening or at night, they took us to wholesale warehouses where they broke locks, and forced us to load various goods onto trucks. Thanks to this plundering, we sometimes managed to get soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and toilet paper.
After the militants seized the university and dormitories, students were given little time to pick up their belongings and documents. So there were a lot of things left in the university dormitories. The rooms had furniture, appliances, clothes, books, and even student record books and diplomas. Militants often tossed such documents in the garbage.
Periodically, we were sent there to perform various jobs. The militants who lived in this dormitory needed household appliances, furniture, and we were used as free labor. During such jobs in the dormitory, I found a pack of salt, a kettle, several packages of spices, and a knife. I managed to carry all these things into the cell.
Sometimes the plundering of warehouses caused conflicts with members of other illegal armed groups, who also had a claim on robbing the same storage. I don’t know why, but the militants from the GBR Batman detachment were frightened and ordered the prisoners involved in these forced jobs to get out of there quickly.
One day our guys were taken to plunder a confectionery warehouse. That day was a holiday for us.
Communication with the outside world
A very colorful individual appeared in the cell. They tossed in a person who claimed he was the founder of the GBR Batman detachment (which established the makeshift prison he was jailed in – Ed.), and of Mozgovoy’s [Prizrak battalion] in Alchevsk.
It was Viktor Vasylevskyi. He was a well-known businessman in Luhansk. He said that he was selling cars, building houses, and was engaged in providing legal services, and that he visited the head of the regional state administration, Volodymyr Prystiuk, by “kicking the door open.”
He said he provided those units with money, weapons, and food, organized the supply of weapons from Russia through the Red Cross (Euromaidan Press was not able to confirm this information or find any other accounts of the involvement of the Russian officers of the International Committee of the Red Cross in smuggling weapons into Ukraine – Ed.). He argued that through this organization it was possible to supply weapons by rail using the railway’s rolling stock. Vasylevskyi said that on his own initiative he was able to contact the Russian [security service] FSB and found warm support there. Large sums of money passed through his bank accounts.
He also said he was the person who received cash for armed groups and signed receipts for money received. There were considerable sums of money. As I understood it, someone in the FSB made a good profit from the aid for the Luhansk separatists, because, according to Vasylevskyi, they demanded that he sign two receipts for each batch of cash he received. Corruption is indestructible.
He also told us about food being supplied to militants from the territory of the Russian Federation:
“One truck approached the border from the Russian side. And a truck belonging to this group approached from the Ukrainian side. They were asking me, ‘Are these the ones?’ ‘Yes, they are.’ Then I stood aside ostensibly not having anything to do with it, as they loaded the cargo from vehicle to vehicle, and that’s it! ”
Vasylevskyi was indignant: “I founded these detachments, I provided them with money and food, and I procured everything they needed via the Red Cross.”
He said that he also spent a lot of his own money to finance the units: “Batman called me his friend and brother. But after I gave him all the reins, he didn’t need me anymore and threw me into the basement.”
Vasylevskyi was treated as a privileged person. After a while, he had a mobile phone with a charger, secretly. Thus, it became possible for us to call our relatives. I was able to call my niece.
From time to time, people who were imprisoned in the basements for some minor violations were released after being used in forced labor. We wrote notes and gave phone numbers we asked them to call. But when people came out, they didn’t really want to help anyone. Yet some still passed on information about me to my relatives.
But having a phone could lead to tragic situations. There was a man with a solid criminal record in our cell; he said he spent half of his life in prison. He was accused of assisting another militant in trading firearms.
When his mother began demanding a meeting with her son, she was told he had been involved in demining and died. His mother and wife held a memorial service and invited their neighbors. After a while, he called his mother. When she heard his voice she fainted.
When I was caught, they went through my phone trying to find compromising information in my contacts,
• “Moskal? [Ukrainian term for Muscovites – Ed.] So you, bitch, insult the Russians?” I said it was a lawyer who had such a last name.
•“Is the Carp for the Carpathians? Banderites in the Carpathians?”
•“Izvarina [a female last name – Ed.]. And there was a town of Izvarino near the border. What did you need at the border?”
I realized that they were idiots. But when you repeat every time that these are the names of the people you’ve been in contact with, you feel like an idiot yourself.
These individuals also browsed the Odnoklassniki [Russian social] network, trying to find some kompromat on me, but found nothing there. Fortunately, he didn’t know any other social media. Thank God that no one tried to search me on Facebook, because if they saw my Facebook posts, I simply wouldn’t have lived until morning.
But not all of them were idiots. It could have come to someone’s mind to look for me on FB. I constantly felt this sword of Damocles over my head. So, I had to contact an acquaintance through relatives, who could delete my profile. I found his phone number. Then at night under the blanket, I wrote him a text message giving him the passwords to my profile and my mailbox, and he immediately deleted my messages. My idea succeeded. In this way, I got rid of this very serious danger.
“Their guys” were also in prison
One evening a young man was thrown into our cell. During a search of his car, they found several rounds of ammunition and a kikimora, a camouflage net for snipers. He said he was from another detachment based somewhere else in the area. He had a
confiscated car. For some reason, his commander didn’t answer his calls. So he was brought to the basement.
The fighter, call sign Romashka (“Camomile”), also tried to call the commander of that man, unsuccessfully. He put the guy up against the wall, calling him a liar, and ordered him to count to 300: “If during this time the commander doesn’t call back, you get a bullet in your head.” The guy’s mother called. Romashka dropped the call.
We watched this scene with horror. When he approached 300, Romashka changed his mind. Apparently, he enjoyed terrifying people in this way. Rumors had it that later a commander from the guy’s detachment came and took his friend out.
One evening, two camouflaged militants were thrown into the cell. One of them was a very tall man with the call sign Tsyrkul (“Compasses”). Why were they imprisoned?
It turned out that one of the Batman militants was driving through the city. A commandant’s patrol stopped him. The driver had no documents, so they were going to arrest him. He called Bednov and gave the phone to the patrol. The driver was released. At that time, the GBR Batman detachment claimed to be the most important in Luhansk.
And Batman saw such behavior of representatives of the commandant’s office as a personal insult, as an encroachment on his authority, and decided to take terrible revenge. He urgently sent his soldiers to the scene. And the commandant’s men didn’t have time to leave. They were surrounded, disarmed, captured, and brought to the GBR.
Two of them, including the patrol commander, were thrown into our cell. Batman and Maniac arrived as well. Maniac was not just beating the representatives of the commandant’s office, he was literally killing them in front of us. Maybe he didn’t murder them in the end because he just got tired.
What saved them is they weren’t meticulously searched, and they had a first aid kit in their pockets. After Batman and Maniac left, they injected themselves with a painkiller to alleviate the pain. One of these guys was later released, and Tsyrkul, who had broken ribs, remained with us.
Rumors reached us on tensions between different detachments of militants. The city was divided into districts for different units. If one of the strangers entered someone else’s territory, it often could lead to shootings.
There constantly were militants in the cells, some for getting drunk, some for looting. They didn’t make it a secret and openly talked about their “feats.” They were fierce fighters against Ukraine. Among the militants were many people with a “long criminal past.” One of them openly said that he hadn’t been outside of prison for more than six months, “And now I’ve been free for several years. I’m surprised!”
Among the civilian prisoners were also ardent supporters of the LNR. They told us how they helped the new authorities.
Murder in the cell
One evening, two beaten men were thrown into the cell. They were really drunk. The militant from the detachment of Lis met his old friend and expressed his desire to join the detachment. They visited the commander together, and he agreed. After that, they went and got drunk from sheer joy. They were detained due to a conflict with a guard near our prison.
They could just get their faces beaten and be free sometime later. But one of them, being drunk and not realizing where he was, blurted out that he’d joined the detachment only to persuade his son to leave it, because “I am for a united Ukraine,” he said. His call sign was Termez, real name Oleksandr Skakun.
There were other separatists in our cell at that time. When they heard it, they immediately told a guard about it. He reported it to Maniac.
Maniac came with his henchmen, rubbing his hands with pleasure: “How successfully we’ve stopped you.” They beat the man with their hands, feet, a stick, a pipe, a metal hammer, and a hard rubber hammer. Then they grabbed his legs and dragged him to the torture chamber. We did not see what they did to him there. But he shouted frantically. When he was pulled back and thrown to the floor, he could only moan.
For some time, Khokhol visited the cell. He was originally from some location in Kyiv Oblast. He boasted his good knowledge of the Ukrainian language. He often spoke Ukrainian to provoke and identify Ukrainians. He complained that he had to leave Kyiv Oblast because of the “Maidanites.” I heard that he had worked in a pre-trial detention center or in a prison as a guard.
Khokhol grabbed the man by the legs again and dragged him to the torture chamber, where he continued the torture. The man shouted loudly. He pulled him back. The man only moaned. Khokhol demanded silence, yet the man continued to moan. Then Khokhol ran up and jumped on the man’s chest. Bones crunched and he fell silent. I once read about such a method of jailers in The Good Soldier Svejk (Czech Jaroslav Hasek’s novel about a middle-aged man’s service in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I – Ed.). But it never occurred to me that I myself would one day witness something like this.
In the morning the tortured man closed his eyes and went silent. Through the guard, we called the head of the hospital, a middle-aged woman, call sign Tigra. She checked his pulse, listened to his heart, and said, “I pronounce the death of this man. Do I need to sign something?” She was told not to. “Oh, all the better. Then I will leave.”
A friend of the tortured, call sign Omar, real name Oleksiy Kovaliov, survived. Through other militants who were in our cell for a short time for getting drunk, he passed information about the murder of his friend Termez to their commander Lis. He asked him not to call Batman, but to come in person since they could kill Omar as a witness to the murder.
Omar told everything when Lis and his fighters came to Batman. He hoped that the commander would be able to take him away. But Batman told Lis to get lost, and it escalated to nearly an armed clash. They transferred Omar to another cell and beat him severely.
This whole story became public, reached the LNR leadership, and leaked to their press.
Meanwhile, the “election” of the leader of the Luhansk People’s Republic was upon us. Both Igor Plotnitsky (future “LNR head”) and Oleksandr Bednov (call sign Batman) were going to run in the election. The latter created the public organization Liberation Front and actively advertised himself through PR-campaigns on YouTube.
Viktor Vasylevskyi, the [alleged] founder of the Batman detachment, who was in the cell with us, said that Bednov was very ambitious and didn’t want to acknowledge the superiority of the Russians. What is more, he loved luxury, lived in a nice house they had seized from someone, drove stolen expensive cars, and traded inmates. He profited off a lot of such trading. Moreover, he had military equipment and a detachment of up to a thousand men.
Meanwhile, Plotnitsky was very loyal to Moscow. That is why he was a more acceptable candidate for the Kremlin. In fact, this confrontation between Plotnitsky and Bednov saved us.
When Batman tried to submit documents to the so-called Central Electoral Commission on the eve of the “LNR election” to get registered as a candidate, he was not only denied registration, but also a group of his militants was fired on (in their video Bednov says three men were wounded – Ed.).
After some time had passed, information about our basement emerged on the internet. We heard rumors that an OSCE commission was set to visit us to check the conditions of detention (the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission has been operating in occupied cities – Ed.). If we knew that, then Batman would have heard the rumors well before us.
What could Bednov do in this situation? Cover up the tracks.
Death sentence and release
On 11 November, a militant, call sign Subota, named Nester, who was then the warden of the prison, looked into our cell. He ordered the founder of the Batman detachment, Vasylevskyi, and several prisoners loyal to the militants to leave the cell. After a while, he came in again and ordered us to fold down mattresses quickly, pick up our belongings, and come to the surface. A minibus was waiting for us at the exit from the basement.
They took us to the Chorna Sotnia transport company, located in the Dzerzhinsky Quarter on the outskirts of the city. The minibus drove into the premises of the company and entered a hangar. There were 14 of us. One by one we were ordered to get off the bus and climb down a square hatch in the floor. There was a basement about three by eight meters, three meters high. The walls of this basement were made of concrete blocks.
On one wall at a height of about 2.5 m was a rectangular hole filled with bricks. Apparently, it used to be a window. Standing on each other’s shoulders, we tried to knock out the bricks to make a hole and escape, but we failed to do it with our bare hands.
A lot of empty crushed brown plastic bottles (a typical style of bottles for cheap beer – Ed.) were scattered on the ground floor of the basement. It was quite cold, as we could see our breath. Most prisoners didn’t have proper clothing, and some wore light summer shoes.
Fortunately, no one searched us before transferring us to the new basement, so one of the prisoners managed to take his mobile phone with him. We called everyone we could reach – our families, friends, acquaintances.
Among us was an LNR militant, call sign Zmiy. He was allegedly arrested in response to the complaints filed to the police by the women he raped. However, an investigation showed that he traded in weapons, was engaged in extortion, racketeering, and selling fuel that was drained from military equipment. His guilt was proven. For some time, he stood in the corridor of our basement, handcuffed to a metal pipe near the ceiling. They were beating him and threatening to execute him. He ended up among us, but the next morning we saw him no more. It turned out that the guards set him free because he was one of them.
They were feeding us with liquid porridge, brought by Subota in a five-liter plastic bottle. For physiological needs, the guards provided us with a plastic container from a mini washing machine. They held us there until 13 November.
That day the guards showed their unprecedented generosity and gave us a pot of boiled potatoes. Apparently, they had recalled some foreign movies in which those sentenced to death were given a good dinner before being executed. At that time it didn’t even come to my mind that such food could be related to that.
On 13 November at about 6 p.m., the hatch opened, someone pushed a machine gun’s barrel through, and a man’s voice rudely ordered us to come to the surface. Everyone stiffened. Nobody moved.
There was an elderly couple among us. Realizing that these may be the last minutes of her life, the woman became hysterical. For the second time, an armed man ordered us to go up one at a time. We realized that they could execute us right in the basement if they wanted, and began to climb one by one up the metal ladder.
Upstairs, armed men took us aside and forced us to squat. We were told not to be afraid because they had come to release us. We were thoroughly searched. Then they wrote down our personal data and took pictures of us with numbers in our hands. The searching and interrogations were made by people in plainclothes.
Then, engaging one or two prisoners, they conducted a search in the guard room and found grenades there. The guards, now disarmed and tied up, testified that they had already received an order from Subota to throw those grenades at us down the basement at night. It’s clear that this was not his initiative, but Batman’s.
The soldiers who released us wore different uniforms. These were representatives of various military formations. And there were also Russians with strange chevrons depicting a skull (probably, one of PMC Wagner’s chevrons, many of which have a picture of a scull on them – Ed.).
After that, we were driven by bus to the Zhovtnevyi District police office at high speed. We sat on the floor in the aisle of the bus. They explained to us that Batman could carry out an attack to eliminate witnesses.
Near the local police precinct, armed men formed a living corridor from the bus to the stairs of the house, through which we got inside. They forced us to undergo fingerprinting there. We had several interrogations, conducted by representatives of the so-called military prosecutor’s office, the police, and some other strange organization, about which even the police themselves knew nothing.
We remained there for a day. The next day they took us under guard in [armored] Privatbank minibuses to the premises of the former Regional Tax Inspection at Kotsyubynskoho, 2a. Later they told us that after they drove us away, the Zhovtnevyi District police office was allegedly attacked by Batman militants.
When they collected all the information, we were told that the case had been handed over to Plotnitsky for review. In December, we were periodically taken to the courtyard of the former tax inspection that was transformed into a fortified militant base, to clear the yard of snowdrifts.
We were kept in the former tax inspection until late December. Then our group was divided into two parts. Several other prisoners and I were released on 29 December. The rest were released after the New Year, on 5 January.
On 1 January 2015, Batman’s cars and bodyguards were ambushed, riddled with a large-caliber machine gun, and burned down; Bednov himself and his bodyguards were liquidated. The military believes that a military flame-thrower Shmel was also used to eliminate Batman, which left the militants no chance to survive. His militants arranged a lavish burial for Bednov, but the next day his grave was desecrated and burned down.
In Russia’s Yekaterinburg, they buried the militant “Kot,” Batman’s security guard from Ural. Telling was his mother’s phrase [heard in the video of his burial], “Who called you there? “ [to Ukraine – Ed.]
It was too late; she should have asked the question earlier.
After the events around the GBR Batman detachment became public, the leadership of the “Luhansk People’s Republic” had to comment on them, putting forward its version of Bednov’s liquidation (the “LNR prosecutor’s office” insisted that Bednov refused to meet the demand of an LNR special force to disarm and put up fierce armed resistance, – Ed.). A number of Batman’s accomplices, such as Maniac, Fobus, Khokhol, Omega, and Subota, were arrested and sentenced (by the LNR – Ed.) to 12 to 13 years with confiscation of property.
So, the political rivalry and squabbles between separatist groups contributed to there being forces interested in liquidating Batman. And that saved us from death.