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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

To the hell and back

Denys Hryshchuk gives an exclusive interview to Den about his captivity
6 August, 2014 - 17:34
Photo by Mykola TYMCHENKO, The Day

Denys Hryshchuk is 29. He comes from Donetsk. He has set two junior records in Ukraine in swimming. He has worked for eight years as a forensic scientist. Last year he moved to Kyiv. He is an artist, a volunteer, and an organizer of exhibits.

On April 25 Denys and his friend, theater director Pavlo Yurov (born in 1980, Antratsyt, Luhansk oblast) came to Sloviansk to see everything with their own eyes and were detained by so-called “militia.”

Denys and Pavlo spent 70 days in illegal captivity. Our newspaper supported the campaign of their liberation in its publications.


How did you manage to get into a situation like this?

“Everything started with the Maidan and desire of changes in the country. Later there was Kharkiv Euromaidan in March: I was visiting my acquaintances there, coordinated a bit the groups on Facebook. In April I went to Donetsk to see my parents. Then Pavlo came to see me. We had an opportunity to go to Sloviansk and see what was going on there. We expected to spend six hours there. But we stayed there for 70 days longer.”

What happened on April 25?

“We asked the employees of the railway station about the situation. They said that everything was calm. We had tickets for 6 p.m. We visited the square near the city council. We saw several armed men, but now ‘green men.’ It was quiet there; there were children in the streets; the town was alive. About 4    p.m. we came to a cafe to have a snack before we go. Among other visitors there were two Russian journalists from Izvestia. A local resident came, saw that we were watching TV, and asked about the news. We answered from our standpoint: there are no punitive expeditions, no fascism. That was our mistake. Maybe it makes no sense, but we thought we had the right to express our opinion. They started calling us Banderites, we showed the documents to prove that we were locals. During the conflict, which lasted for about 10 minutes, one of these journalists even tried to start a fight with me. We took our things and left. After we passed 400 meters, two men in camouflage ran up to us, one with a pistol, another one with an automatic gun, and shouted, ‘On your knees!’ and threatened us with weapons. We had to obey. At the same time three Ukrainian policemen approached us. They were told we were detained at mayor’s order and it was an order to bring us to the SBU. The policemen said that if we were not guilty they would release us soon. We asked them to go with us to provide at least some legal support. Somewhat scared, they refused and left.”

Was there an investigation?

“They thought I was a serious coordinator, or, according to their words, ‘a sotnyk of the 100th sotnia.’ We were brought for interrogation once, on April 26. We understood immediately that we had to tell them the truth, otherwise it would be worse. I told them about my activity in Kyiv and Kharkiv. They said, ‘go and think more, you haven’t told us everything.’ They brought us back to the basement. That was the end of the investigation. One day a military specialist who interrogated me came in and said that a girl had died on the hands of his commander, and that it was our fault. He told me to think again, but it was not clear about what. So, I kept on thinking.

“The second time I was brought to the interrogation, they asked me about the password to my banking account: they probably expected there was money there. The other night they wanted to know another password, from my iPad, to install games on it. They did not ask me for anything anymore.”

How did they explain your further imprisonment?

“At first they asserted that everything was not clear with our case, and in the middle of June they said, ‘You are for exchange, you belong to the people on the top, you are the guaranty that they will safely leave Sloviansk, so stay here till the end of the war and don’t jerk.’ In June they gave us a possibility to call home, tell our names, and say that we are alive; they seemed to be ready to exchange us, but the negotiations broke down.”


What were the conditions of your captivity?

“Till May 9 we were kept in the basement of the Sloviansk SBU, later – in the temporary detention facility of the city police station. The SBU basement is a room with a 10 to 5 meters’ area. It was very damp; there was only one lamp, a five-liter bottle in a corner served as a toilet. The captives made a bed themselves by covering two doors with a heap of warm clothes. If you were allowed to sleep on the bed, on the one hand, it meant that you were there for long, and, on the other hand, mitigation of the regime. For the first week we were sitting either on the floor, or on a wooden bench. We were handcuffed, with our eyes and mouths being stuck with an adhesive tape. Only on the third day I was untied, the handcuffs were removed, and I was allowed to sleep for several hours. Then they took me for an interrogation, but they didn’t show it to anyone: I must have told them the wrong truth; they let me sleep for a night, tied me again, and continued ‘communication.’”

Didn’t they feed you?

“They brought some soup at the end of the second day. They put a plate, made me sit on the floor, without untying me.”


“I had to sip it.”

What about the toilet?

“Other captives who were not tied could help. On the whole, everything was at the word of command. If you wanted to ask something, they could simply ignore you or allow you to ask your question in three hours.”

Did they beat you?

“At the beginning, from April 25 till May 4. Later they stopped doing this, trying to influence me psychologically.”

What for?

“For our political views. Besides, they wanted to beat out the evidence and break us, they hoped we would tell them we were the coordinators of the Maidan and who sent us. But we were telling them the truth. Sometimes they beat us because they were bored, and some of them had sadistic bents. I won’t tell the details because I can’t and I don’t want to. I have to undergo medical treatment, but basically I am functioning normally. Many wounds have healed since May 4. There are problems with my nervous system, with my arm and my leg, with ribs, and a bit with my head. Mostly psychological traumas have left, but I can cope with them too.”

Was it easier in the detention facility?

“There was a plank-bed, a toilet, and a sink. However, the water and electricity appeared only on May 21. Before that there was not enough food and water. Pavlo and I were given New Testament each, and we were reading it and praying. Nobody answered our questions. We didn’t understand anything. On May 21 all prisoners were brought from the SBU to the temporary detention facility, and they started to feed all of us better.”


Did you do anything except for staying there?

“In the SBU I was taken out to clean the territory, wash the toilets – that was a privilege, because they untied us and removed the tape from our eyes, let us go outside, breathe the air. And in the detention facility we offered our help with handing our food and cleaning, owing to which we could go freely to the corridor. Several times we went outside to paint the window frames.”

The attitude to you must have changed.

“We got on well with everyone. The prisoners got imbued with our story. Even the guards recognized that we were innocent. One day one rebel expressed his outrage that he had to stay there without a reason. Those who were working on his case replied, ‘Denys and Pavlo are staying here without reason. The eighth cell is all like that. They are innocent, they have been staying here for two months, and they are more useful than you. You are only whining.’

“If I were at their place after what they did to me, I would not do the same to them, not because I felt pity for them, but because it is wrong. If they knew me personally and did what they did, I would feel offended and angry. But I don’t have a reason to feel angry for them. They do the same to everyone; you can’t do anything about this. In this sense I can forgive them. I     don’t wish them to die, but I won’t care if they die.”

“Prisoners received parcels. We by some miracle received a parcel from Kyiv only once: there were clothes, tooth brushes, and some food. Therefore the rest shared food with us. Pavlo and I handed out the food to everyone, and they gave us bread, honey, some sausage, and cookies. We didn’t look well: we were skinny and pale, with shadows under the eyes. But if we had enough food, we shared it among the rest. There were days when we received humanitarian aid and we were fed well.”

What did you remember from the prison food?

“They gave us MSM (mechanically separated meat) sausages. I was trying to understand what kind of animal was this MSM. It turned out to be bones and skins with remains of meat after the processing. They were ground and mixed with soy beans. Frozen sausages. On the whole, they gave us the same food many times in succession. They could cook a huge pan of buckwheat, and we were eating it for breakfast and supper for two weeks. After that there was a week of pea soup.”


Who were the guards?

“There is no one word that could describe our stay there, good or bad. There were bits of this and that. The same thing with the guard: policemen, former Berkut, contractors, and military specialists of unknown origin, and local population, afraid of the Right Sector and the National Guard. Some of them had Russian accent. Even priests fought in their Russian Orthodox Army. There were criminals with typical tattoos, both among the guards, and among the prisoners.”

So, you were guarded by former prisoners? That’s interesting.

“One of them was taking us to the city police station from the SBU. Earlier he did an 8.5-year sentence. Later his people imprisoned him. So, he was the master of our lives, but in the end we were bringing food to him.”

Who were the other captives?

“There was a student of Kyiv National Aviation University from Chervony Lyman. He was passing a barricade on May 2 and was told, ‘Come here, go to the basement and sit there.’ For some reason they didn’t like him. There were Svoboda Party members from Kostiantynivka, the ex-mayor of Sloviansk, Valentyn Rybachuk; he was a mayor before Shtepa, and they wanted ransom for him. There was a soldier from the Dnipro battalion. On the whole, there were six Ukrainian military men, but three of them were released soon. Rybachuk was in a one-man cell, and the military men were kept in another cell. There was a cell for real criminals. The rest were either local residents, or rebels who did something wrong. They were later released to the penal battalion to dig the trenches, or immediately to the frontline. There was a permanent flow of prisoners, that’s how we could understand who was fighting. They called us the prisoners of war. They limited access to us, and on the door of our cell there was a printout which listed the pseudonyms of about 15  persons who were allowed to visit us.”


Did you know about the campaign for your liberation?

“I learned about it only on May 27 or 28. Before that we were told that nobody was looking for us and that nobody needed us. I was lucky to call my parents, and they told me what was going on here. This put me in good heart.”

The campaign increased your value.

“Judging by everything, yes. But there is a double meaning again. On the one hand, it prolonged the time of our captivity, on the other hand, it changed their attitude to us. They understood what we were worth of and that they should not kill us. The regime was mitigated, and that was very important.”

Do you have a Stockholm syndrome?

“Personally I don’t. I thought then and I still think that they should not do what they are doing. I understand their behavior very well: they have paranoia, they are at war, they are afraid of everyone who’s not with them. I don’t want to accuse them of this, but I don’t pity them either. I have no pity, compassion, or hatred. I forgave them already while I was there.”

What does it mean, you forgave them?

“If I were at their place after what they did to me, I would not do the same to them, not because I felt pity for them, but because it is wrong. If they knew me personally and did what they did, I would feel offended and angry. But I don’t have a reason to feel angry for them. They do the same to everyone; you can’t do anything about this. In this sense I can forgive them. I don’t wish them to die, but I won’t care if they die.”


How soon does a man lose touch with reality when he’s in prison?

“Soon if he is alone and without support. But Pavlo and I were kept together. We tried to verify everything we were told, we talked to other hostages, and the guard. We counted days, put control points from one date to another: maybe they will release us on May 9; we have been staying here for 40 days; we have beaten someone’s record: he stayed here for 43 days, and we – for 45. We tried not to lose touch with reality, because the window of the cell in the detention facility looked at a brick wall, therefore we saw the sun from 6 p.m. till 6:40 p.m. The guards found a shelf with books and gave them to us to read. It was quite a strange Soviet literature. The funniest thing was when they brought a book published in 1966 in the series ‘A book for your travel, romantic’ – Notes of a Prisoner by Feliks Dzerzhynsky. It turned out that out of 47 years of his life he spent 11 years in prison. He taught me a lot: how to behave, what to think about and what thoughts to avoid.”

What were you lacking the most?

“There was a period when we were talking about food all the time. We were thinking about what we would eat on our return. We saw food in our dreams. These dishes were floating above me when I was asleep.

“But first of all, we lacked freedom, of course. We lacked the possibility to be responsible for our lives, because they belonged to armed people.”

Were there moments of total despair? How did you overcome them?

“At first there were such moments, because I was tied and scared all the time. There were even moments when I was sitting on this bench, heard that someone entered, then heard another person’s cries because he was being beaten, and I was not thinking that someone was suffering, but only thanked God it was not me. Later I had this kind of reflections because of despair and monotonousness, so I went to bed or went to the corridor to smoke. I was smoking and thinking that everything will be okay, I just needed to wait. We also took a social analysis: asked each other questions, tried to understand what was going on. There was a period when we were laughing a lot, not because it was funny, but because there are only two defensive reactions in such a situation, laughter or tears. We chose the laughter. It was absurd there. In fact, a theater of the absurd.”


How did you come out?

“There were no signs. Several men from the cell went to the penal battalion to dig the trenches and bunkers, and they told us that the procurement was bad in the frontline, there weren’t enough cartridges, and the army was pressing and shooting all the time. On July 4 Yaroslav came back from the penal battalion and said, ‘We didn’t have time to do anything. We lied in the bushes, crawled to the car, and left. They were shooting from Grads violently.’ He added that it seemed to him the Ukrainian army would be there soon, because they were firing from the cannons from a close distance and very accurately.

“At 8 p.m. they fed us, the guards being very nervous and tense, then they closed all the cells. We thought it was a council of war, but at 10 p.m. we heard them running along the corridor, ‘quickly-quickly,’ and 20        minutes later we heard active shooting outside the windows, then the cars left the yard. Our reaction was calm. About midnight one of the captives, a former rebel as well, who did not allow crashing a plant or something like that at the beginning of May, opened the door (he had the key): ‘They have left, we should leave too.’ I found a phone, called to Kyiv and said that we were free and asked them to call the ATO, so that they told us where to go. At 3 a.m. we left the city police department, looked for our goods and documents – to no avail.

“We had a walk and saw that some of us were scared, others – surprised, someone was running and shouting: ‘We are free! Don’t be afraid to go out!’ All local residents were eagerly waiting for the army, because they were tired of bombing and inadequate armed men. We received a call from the ATO, they told us to stay in the dormitory house till morning. The guard opened a room for us. We drank beer, cooked macaroni. In the morning the military men gave us a car, on which we were brought to a checkpoint, then to Izium, then – to Kharkiv, and only when I came to Kyiv did I understand that I was free.”


What is your main problem now?

“I thought it would be easy. But I have noticed that it is easier to put up with reality squeezed into frames than to come back to a normal life. The fear that was hanging in the air for all these 70 days. Now it is hard for me to communicate with people I don’t know well or see for the first time. I also have a feeling that I am abroad. It is very calm here. And this is surprising. For I have gotten used to be surrounded by danger, shootings, prisoners, people with automatic guns. This is not a colossal problem, but I have to overcome it, and it is not as simple as I thought.”

Are there any legal consequences?

“The case of our kidnapping was launched at the European Court on Human Rights. They are also filing a class action suit from all the hostages in Sloviansk with an aim to receive compensation for moral damage that would allow us to pay medical treatment. Besides, there are human rights organizations and the OSCE. I am testifying. I receive medical and legal assistance. It would be good to receive some compensation as well.”

In your opinion, who is to blame for the war?

“Above all, we are guilty, because we allowed bringing the country to such a condition. There is a huge abyss between the east and the west. The east feels oppressed and continues that there are only Banderites and fascists in the west, whereas the west thinks that there are only people with Soviet-type mentality and lowbrows in the east. We know each other very badly. I have friends in both parts, and I have never felt any hostility. But most of people have stereotypes that have appeared not in one year’s time, and nobody wanted to change this. We need to build a new country with normal values, not be running about with weapons and killing one another. When the ATO is over, we will need a policy of cultural exchange between different parts of the country, so that Ukrainians got to know Ukraine on all sides.

“There is one more thing: there are many young people among the rebels. They didn’t have a way to express their emotions, a possibility to realize themselves; the social lifts didn’t work (smiling). Our youth needs more dzen Buddhism, so that they understood who they are, where they are from, and why. Realization of one’s potential is very important, because everyone has many plans in youth – and now they have nowhere to go.”

What are you going to do?

“This is another question I am trying to get rid of. I need to regain senses. I want to continue to work in the sphere of arts, to start working as soon as possible. But I haven’t thought yet where exactly I am going to work.”


Finally, was that experience useful?

“There we understood that we were given this not without a reason. That was captivity, army, a pioneer camp, and ‘Hotel California,’ training of my personal growth. I think I have changed a lot.”

Do you like these changes?

“Yes. I started to appreciate life and people more. I dream less, I enjoy the present day. I have found a sense of life and desire to live. But I haven’t changed ultimately. I feel that I’m in a borderline state between what I was before the captivity and what I am going to become. Any beginning is an end, and any end is a beginning.”

By Dmytro DESIATERYK, The Day