On June 2, 2016, Tetyana Honcharova was summoned in for an “interview” by the so-called security services of the Russia-backed separatists controlling the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. It would be the last time she would see family and friends again for three and 1/2 years.
Charged with espionage, Honcharova was held for one year and three months at the so-called Isolyatsiya center, which in its former, pre-conflict life was an abandoned factory that had been transformed into an art gallery. The separatists seized the building shortly after taking control of the city of Donetsk in May 2014 as fighting erupted across the Donbas in a conflict against Kyiv’s forces that has killed more than 13,000 to date.
The separatists used the site to interrogate and torture those they deemed disloyal to their Russia-backed regime, according to the accounts of those interred there, including Stanislav Aseyev, a blogger and journalist who has worked for RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service among other Ukrainian media.
Honcharova spent the rest of her time in detention at a women’s penal colony in separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine where some inmates, fed a steady diet of Russian state media, branded her a “traitor.”
On December 29 her ordeal came to an end when she was freed as part of an “all-for-all” prisoner swap near the city of Horlivka.
The swap, reportedly of around 200 prisoners in all, included Russians, fighters from the separatist ranks, convicted terrorists, and civilians and servicemen long held in the breakaway regions.
Honcharova said that after the separatists seized control of Donetsk she began providing information to Ukraine’s security services. It was nothing top secret, she said, just what she observed on the streets of her hometown: the movement of military hardware and fighters through the streets. The information was handed over clandestinely in briefcases.
“It wasn’t hard, living in the center of the city…I didn’t even have to go to the outskirts, where the military hardware is concentrated and where there is shelling. In the center it was quiet and peaceful. There you only heard the echo of gunfire, but at the same time there were lots of places where there were military units,” Honcharova told RFE/RL’s Russian Service in a recent interview. “So, you’re heading to work, or leaving work, you go into a store, and even if you don’t want to, you see all this.”
She said in those early days, it was clear that Russian military hardware and soldiers were among the separatists moving around the city.
“Yes, in the first years, 2014, 2015. They didn’t even change the markings on their vehicles then. So, as they took them from Russia, with Russian license plates and the markings of the Russian military divisions, that’s how they brought them here,” Honcharova explained, adding that many of those in the vehicles had Moscow accents and style of speech.
Honcharova said after a friend was detained by the separatists, her turn came to go to the so-called ministry for state security, or the MSS, as she calls it, of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), the name the separatists have given to the area of the Donetsk region under their de facto control.
“When I arrived at the ‘MSS, DPR’, they took me to an office, sat me at a table, and then a man came up to me and struck me in the head. He then gave me a piece of paper and a pen, and told me to write. What to write wasn’t clear. They just told me and then walked out,” Honcharova recounted.
She was again beaten, including being punched in the jaw, when she refused to give the separatists the confession they wanted.
At this point, she explained, the separatists put a hood over her head and transported her to the Isolyatsiya center.
“In Isolyatsiya there was more torture. They took me down to the basement, tied my hands and feet to a chair, removed my shoes and socks, doused my feet in water and applied electrical current. At that moment, they weren’t interested in what I had done, they tried to find out whom I worked for, names, ranks, and if there was anyone else in Donetsk who was doing the same thing,” Honcharova said.
“I spent a year and three months in Isolyatsiya. After that first electric shock, the same questions were repeated, and I gave the same answers. After the second bout [of electric shock], I lost consciousness; they revived me and took me to another room called the ‘glass’, that’s what they called it. It was a very small space. It had been a shower stall, Honcharova said.
Sometime in 2017, Honcharova is not sure exactly when, she was “tried” by a court in Donetsk in a process that lasted literally minutes. It was also the first time she was able to see her mother, albeit from a distance.
“My mom saw me for the first time in the summer, probably 2017, when the trials started. They didn’t let her into the trial. She saw me from a distance on the street when the convoy brought us to court.”
Eventually she ended up in a Ukrainian female correctional facility on territory in Donetsk controlled by the separatists in the town of Snyizhne, some 80 kilometers east of Donetsk city.
Honcharova said that, beside the primitive conditions, including little if any access to water or toilets, she was placed among people who were getting information about the conflict in Ukraine through Russia state-controlled media.
“They put me in a general ward with criminals, drug addicts, and people with tuberculosis, AIDS, and syphilis. You live with them, eat, drink, and sleep with them. And naturally, most of them saw the conflict that is still going on in our country on television. And in the prison, that means Russian channels. The news is mainly about Putin, Russia, and how wonderful and magical it is to live there,” Honcharova said.
One of the inmates accused Honcharova of being a “traitor.”
“She told others: ‘Now, because of her, our houses are being shelled, children are dying.’ I was taken out of the ward for a week, but when I returned we had a fight. She hit me and broke my nose. The administration did absolutely nothing to her. The warden pretended like it had only been a verbal argument.”
When not trying to avoid conflict with her cellmates, Honcharova was put to work outside.
“I carried coal, cinder blocks, stone, sand, cement; unloaded trucks with flour, cereals, cabbage, vegetables. That is hard work. Sometimes we dug holes, built fences — which fell into the prison grounds because of the wind. I also carried bags of flour weighing 50 kilograms a piece.”
‘Disillusion And Disappointment’
When she was first detained, Honcharova said, her mom kept her spirits up, giving her updates on key developments in the Donbas conflict, including the so-called Minsk peace process. Cease-fire deals announced as part of the Minsk accords in September 2014 and February 2015 have contributed to a decrease in fighting but have failed to hold.
“In jail and in prison I was in contact with my mom. She always kept me up to date with what was going on with the Minsk talks; what they were about; what had been agreed.”
Ultimately, Honcharova believes that the separatists are doomed due to their incompetence at governing. And she is convinced Russia won’t step in from the shadows to save them.
“People, living there, see it and understand it. Those who believe in some fairy tale that Russia will take them in are few. Russia doesn’t need poor people and empty territory that, in fact, does not belong to it. Especially territory with a huge amount of weapons and people with not the best reputation.”
Even among its earliest stalwart supporters, “disillusion and disappointment,” has set in. Honcharova said she met many in the prison in Snyizhne.
“There were girls who before being arrested and sent to the prison had served in the DPR army. They were disappointed with what had happened. They often told me: ‘This is not why we went to serve in the DPR.’ They are mainly disappointed with the lawlessness in the territories. A criminal code, rules, a constitution for the DPR — all exist, but in reality there is still lawlessness. And everyone is disappointed and dissatisfied. Many said that once they are released they will either go to Russia or [mainland] Ukraine. Nobody wants to stay there.”