It was in July 2015, during a meeting in the town of Kriviy Rih with relatives of Ukrainian soldiers missing in the east Ukraine war, that I met Luda Lazarenko and Natasha Herasimenko.
The two women were a bit apologetic. They realised they were fortunate because – after an initial three hellish months of silence – they knew where their son and husband were: held by separatists inside the former SBU (Ukrainian security services) building in Donetsk. They got to speak to Sasha and Kolya quite regularly on the phone. The two mobilised soldiers were on a confirmed list of prisoners for exchange, unlike the missing ones who figure in numerous competing lists, neither dead nor alive, reduced to a million rumours and the incomprehensibly cruel percentages of a DNA match.
I didn’t write about Luda and Natasha then. I assumed, as they did, that Sasha and Kolya would be released soon.
It’s now 9 February 2017; two years ago to the day that Sasha and Kolya were captured. The two women I first met 19 months ago thought they were fortunate, because the men were on a confirmed list for exchange; they thought they were lucky because they knew where they were, and got to talk to them on the phone.
But a list is just a list, not a guarantee or even a promise. In Summer 2016 Sasha and Kolya, and all the other prisoners in the former SBU building, stopped calling. They’ve been moved to a remand prison in Donetsk, to be tried for something like ‘crimes against humanity’, or ‘attacking innocent civilians in Donbas’. Because they are not, by law, prisoners of war, with the protections that entails, not when no one officially calls this thing they were sent away to fight in a war.
Every time I meet Natasha and Luda, there is something more important going on. Even when they come to Kyiv to protest outside the presidential administration, somehow the reason they’re there is not quite important enough. Their cause gets hijacked by alleged ‘provocateurs’ and ‘Russian agents’. It gets hijacked by that high-profile former prisoner Nadia Savchenko and her political ambitions, and by journalists out to smear her. Their lives got hijacked by the Minsk accords, which are supposed to release all prisoners while ending the war that cost them their liberty, but which have become a huge intractable geopolitical bargaining chip, as Sasha and Kolya and Natasha and Luda are tiny, individually insignificant bargaining chips.
After one of those protests broke up in August 2016, and all the journalists left, Luda and Natasha started a hunger strike. Two mothers and two wives stood by the railings outside the presidential administration with handwritten ‘hunger strike’ notices pinned to their chests. Next to them on the railings hung their handbags, shiny and square and completely inappropriate for street protest.
They made me think of Reshat Ametov, the Crimean Tatar who began a one-man protest against Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014. The picture on his facebook page, still there two years after he was abducted and killed, shows him sitting in a public square with just such a handwritten ‘hunger strike’ notice. It’s from an earlier one-man protest, his brother told me. He was always protesting. “Don Quixote tilted at windmills. It was something like that.”
Crimea and ‘provocation’ and ‘Ukrainian agents’ made Russian president Putin say last August, just around the time of the women’s protest, that there was no point in holding Normandy Four meetings to resolve the Ukraine conflict. That’s the Normandy Four of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany who agreed the Minsk accords. Who supposedly hold the key to unlocking the doors so that Sasha and Kolya and all the other prisoners, on both sides, can go home to their families. That important man Putin decided “There’s no point.”
Luda and Natasha went back to Kriviy Rih. The two mothers, in their fifties, found it too hard physically to starve. “So it was just us two wives, and there was no point,” Natasha said. A bit apologetic, like when I first met her. Tilting at windmills without even a Sancho Panza to remark on it. Defeated again by not being important enough.
I feel a bit apologetic myself, banging on about these people. Like them, I know there are worse tragedies. I know their stories are just two far from the worst of a hundred thousand awful stories from this war. They’re not even the worst prisoner stories.
What about this one: last year Ukraine quietly released several men it had been holding in relation to the conflict – and torturing – in secret prisons. This was after an international scandal raised by the UN and human rights organisations.
These secret, unacknowledged detainees were never officially charged with anything, although some of them fought for separatist militias or organised so-called ‘referendums’ on founding the separatist ‘Donetsk People’s Republic.’ Luda and Natasha and other relatives of separatist-held prisoners were angry and confused – why had Ukraine just released them, when they could have been exchanged for their own prisoners?
But, these people were never on the separatists’ list of people to exchange. The ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ might have used them, but it didn’t want them back. Nobody wants them; not Ukraine, not the separatists, not Russia – not even, in one man’s case, his wife, who apparently turned him in to the Ukrainian security services in the first place. If Sasha and Kolya are not by law prisoners of war, these people are not by law ‘separatists’, ‘terrorists’, ‘Russian saboteurs’, pardoned or released prisoners, or even – since at least one has had his passport confiscated – presumably, Ukrainians.
Oh the fortunes of war.