Since this piece on exchange of prisoners in Ukraine was published in March, not a thing has changed. Since I first met Natasha Lazorenko and Natasha Gerasimenko back in August 2015, not a thing has changed for their husbands, mobilised Ukrainian soldiers who have been prisoners in the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ (‘DNR’) since January 2015.
I say ‘not a thing’: Ukrainian volunteer fighter Nadia Savchenko got released from imprisonment in Russia (presidential plane, international interviews, bouquets of flowers), and for a few days there was talk of this being the first of many exchanges, until the latest contact group meeting over implementation of the Minsk protocols (supposed to resolve the east Ukraine war) announced that no progress could be made on freeing ‘hostages’.
I say ‘not a thing’: Sasha Lazorenko’s mother Ludmila gets more enraged and bitter (“I got angry with the whole world”). Natasha Gerasimenko accepts she is yet another day, week, month, year away from any possibility of conceiving the child she and her husband Kolya so wanted to have. Natasha and Sasha, married just a week before he was called back to the frontline last January, have less and less to say to each other on the phone when Sasha calls.
(He never knows when, or if he’ll be able to call; whether some more friendly guard will decide to lend a phone. He never knows if he’s going to get fed again. If he’s going to be sent to do unpaid labour today, or sent back to the lightless basement he spent three months in when no one knew if he was alive or dead. If he’s ever going to get out alive. If he comes home; if he’ll recognise his wife anymore when he does).
Last summer when I first met her, Natasha recounted the phone conversations when Sasha talked about new recipes for fish soup he wanted to try, and plans to rebuild the balcony when he came back. Those conversations are long past – Hard to still have plans for balconies and ideas for recipes, after all this time. “Now his first question is always: When? What have you heard, what’s new? I could lie and say it’ll be in the nearest future, but he’s been there a year already; what nearest future? Or tell the truth, that he’s been forgotten – because sometimes that’s what it feels like.”
Meanwhile the two Natashas, modest clear-eyed young women working in ordinary dull low-paid jobs in Kriviy Rih, the kind of town and the kind of women Kyiv and history ignores, get more involved in a life they could never have imagined for themselves.
As their husbands’ world got smaller, theirs got paradoxically larger. They are ‘hostages’ wives’ now, endlessly trekking to Kyiv with posters of their husband’s faces, to try and make someone take notice and do something. “I hardly recognise myself; I’m completely used to photographers and TV cameras now, I’m used to talking to government officials as if they were my friends.”
But they aren’t, those officials playing an incomprehensible game with the lives of the Sashas and Kolyas and Natashas of this world. The pilgrimages to Kyiv can feel like a pointless game too. “Every time we go to Kyiv we say we won’t go again. It’s just to tick a box, so we can tell ourselves we aren’t just sitting and waiting and doing nothing.”
The Natashas know they aren’t important. They aren’t even in the worst situation – Sasha and Kolya are in fairly good health, unlike some prisoners; they are not being beaten or tortured anymore; everyone knows where they are even if the ICRC still has no access to them.
But they worry about what their men are eating, whether they’re getting medical care, what’s going on inside their heads. What they’ll be like when they are finally released. How angry are they going to be, how disappointed in a country that apparently abandoned them. “I don’t think he’ll be able to go back to being a taxi driver. He’ll end up shooting his passengers.”
Whether they have all become different people now.
Savchenko was exchanged after she was tried and sentenced in Russia, then pardoned and exchanged for two Russian officers tried and sentenced and pardoned in Ukraine. This process was a lengthy piece of theatre of the absurd, complete with murdered lawyer, hunger strikes, public admission then retraction (Yes, OSCE monitor, we are acting Russian officers; no we’re not, world, we’re retired Russian officers…), magnanimous petitioning victims’ relatives, memorable semi-mythical analogies (Joan of Arc of Ukraine…)
They were show trials, while the real show that is the war grinds on in the background, the thing everyone knows but no one can admit.
War is never mentioned in the Minsk protocols, which call for ‘release and exchange of all hostages and illegally held persons, based on the principle of “all for all”’, and – which the ‘DNR’ and ‘LNR’ in Luhansk insist must be implemented before any exchanges – ‘pardon and amnesty by way of enacting a law that forbids persecution and punishment of persons in relation to events that took place in particular departments of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts of Ukraine.’
(What does ‘all-for-all’ mean when neither side can even agree how many it is holding or how many it accuses the other side of holding? What the hell does amnesty of ‘persons in relation to events in particular departments’ mean?)
No country or organisation calls what’s happening in East Ukraine an international armed conflict, not even Ukraine. So at the same time as Ukrainian government officials talk about Russian aggression, they can’t actually say that those people they sent to flight and who are now being held in Donetsk and Luhansk, or those Ukraine is holding prisoner on Ukraine-held territory, are prisoners of war.
Instead “There’s no war, there are no prisoners, there’s no nothing,” says Natasha, wife of one of those ordinary Ukrainian soldiers few bother to write about or support campaigns for their release because they’re not martyrs or medieval saints; no one would notice if they went on hunger strike since no one is obliged to feed them anyway; they have no lawyers; they’re not in Russia; they’re not prisoners of war; they haven’t been charged or sentenced; they aren’t even actually literally in prison.
They’re down the rabbit hole in Donetsk listening to ‘DNR’ radio and reading old books about Ukrainian independence from the SBU (Ukrainian security service) archive. They’re sleeping on the Donetsk SBU’s archive metal filing shelves like sardines in tins, day in day out for days and months and already years. They’re guilty of being soldiers, but at the same time they have none of the legal protections that soldiers should have in war.
They’re guilty of being sent to a war that isn’t a war, and leaving their wives behind.
Before he was moved to Donetsk, when Kolya Gerasimenko was unearthed from that lightless cellar he’d been kept in with Sasha for three months when no one knew if they were alive or dead, he said to his wife over the phone, “In these three months I thought you’d have already buried me.” He and Natasha got married in August 2014, when he was on leave from the front: “I wanted to be his wife in case he got injured or killed and then I’d be no one.”
And now who is she? The wife of a soldier who is and is not a prisoner of war; who may or may not even be an ‘illegally held person’ since the unrecognised ‘DNR’ and ‘LNR’ – following Kyiv’s example – have begun to try their prisoners under their criminal code. That code is the Soviet criminal code – laws from a country that no longer exists.