Posts Tagged 'prisoner exchange'

At last

The best news of the year comes right at the end. Ukraine and its separatist eastern regions yesterday exchanged around 350 hostages who had been held prisoner for up to three years because of the conflict.

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Natasha and Mykola Herasimenko on their way home (not my photo obviously, thanks to Perviy Krivorozhsky) 

Since 2015, I’ve got to know four families of Ukrainian soldiers held in Donetsk. I’ve written about them several times: Natasha Herasimenko, Natasha and Ludmila Lazarenko, Nadia Kalyn and Viktoria Pantyushenko. It’s a strange thing to come to know their stories so well when the central character is missing – just a face in a photograph which the wives and mothers carried with them everywhere they went: to the local administration, the regional administration, to Kyiv, to separatist-controlled Donetsk, to Paris. From 2015, the demonstrations the women organised and brought the photos to grew, from meetings in the local park that no one was interested in, to a flight to Paris last week to meet diplomats and politicians.

“I can’t not do it,” Luda Lazarenko told me, one of the times I met her in Kyiv outside the presidential administration or parliament, when as usual no one bothered to came out to speak to them. “At least I know I’m doing all I can to make sure they are not forgotten.”

From summer 2015 the women got regular phone calls from their men captive in Donetsk. In summer 2016 the phone calls stopped and it was only infrequent letters. It got harder to know what to talk or to write about, after so long. Sometimes there were videos on YouTube made by Russian and separatist propagandists, where relatives could catch a glimpse of  their captive husbands and sons answering loaded, disingenuous questions. But the photos stayed the same. In one vital relationship these families have been frozen for up to three years. Children have been growing up, grandparents dying, parents splitting up, mothers falling ill. But the photos stay the same.

“In a thousand days other people have children, work, travel, live,” Viktoria Pantyushenko said, last time I met her. “While you’re just hanging. You’re alive but you’re just existing, constantly waiting, just wanting each day to go quickly so that the release will come. Sometimes I appreciate that I’m free, I go to work, I have support, but at the same time everything is closed off, like prison. I just think about one thing: when will he be freed? How can I make it happen quicker?”

I can’t say how happy I am for these families who never gave up. These amazing, determined, courageous women, who kept going to meetings and knocking on doors and sending messages, nagging and insisting and standing out in the rain and hoping, hoping, hoping.

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Natasha and Aleksandr Lazarenko (photo Perviy Krivorozhsky)

Like the last really good news from Ukraine two months ago, of the release from politicised charges in Crimea of Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov, this latest exchange is bittersweet. Viktoria Pantyushenko’s husband Bohdan was not released yesterday. Last time I saw her, after the announcement that there would be an exchange before New Year, Viktoria said she believed Bohdan was second on the list for exchange, because he’d been in prison in Donetsk for the second-longest time. She was so bright with hope.

This is the biggest east Ukraine prisoner exchange, after 15 months of deadlock, but there are still confirmed prisoners on both sides and in Russia who have not been released. And then there are all the missing ones, whose relatives hope and believe they are also somewhere in captivity, waiting to be found.

And there is the question of afterwards. Ukraine has promised rehabilitation and financial support for families of conflict-related and political prisoners. To date, it has failed to provide either. Instead former hostages have found themselves denied medical care and under suspicion from the police and security services. Some of these released prisoners can’t go home, because their home is on the wrong side of the frontline. Like Chiygoz and Umerov, political prisoners from Crimea, who were exchanged by Russia and flown to Kyiv under very murky circumstances.

I saw Ilmi Umerov a few days ago; he said “in all the scenarios I ran though about what might happen, I never thought of this one; that I’d be exiled from Crimea.” As with Viktoria today, hard to grasp their feeling, for which disappointment is a completely inadequate word.

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1001 nights

A thousand and one nights. I never counted up how many years that is before – it’s two years, eight months and 22 days. It’s how long, to date, Ukrainian soldiers Sasha Lazarenko and Kolya Herasimenko have been prisoners in Donetsk.

1001 is a number I always associate with stories, and telling a different one every day to save your life. Ever since February 2015, when the Minsk II agreement supposed to end the East Ukraine war was signed, ever since I first met Lazarenko and Herasimenko’s families in summer 2015, the story to save Sasha and Kolya’s  lives has been the same.

Here it is: “Provide release and exchange of all hostages and illegally held persons, based on the principle of “all for all”.

Not much of a story, is it. It seems pretty straightforward and uninteresting. Who would have thought you could spin 1001 nights out of it. Who would have thought you could spin out of it dozens of meetings in Minsk of the humanitarian sub-group supposed to deal with humanitarian matters that fall under the agreement; hundreds of plane fares, bottles of mineral water, grudging disappointments at the rubbishness of Belorussian duty-free. One attempted hunger strike by relatives, dozens of protest banners and photographs, how many propaganda videos, how many children forgetting what their fathers look like.

So few letters, in 1001 nights. You could count the letters on one hand. The sleepless miserable hours: uncountable.

Such a short story – 19 words. And how many government representatives (recognised and unrecognised) spending 1001 nights failing to agree on what exactly ‘hostages’ means; what exactly ‘illegally held’ means; what exactly ‘all for all’ means. After the latest Minsk meeting, A has decided ‘all for all’ means ‘all confirmed for all confirmed.’ B has long insisted that ‘all’ does not include those who are ‘legally held’; A insists B’s ‘legal’ is ‘illegal’. A complains that B has split A’s ‘all’ into categories of very guilty/less guilty/a bit guilty. B complains that half of A’s ‘all’ are guilty of things  completely irrelevant to the current conflict. A complains that while its ‘all’ are neither ‘terrorists’ or ‘criminals’ but ‘ordinary people’, B’s ‘all’ ‘came to kill the people of Donbas’.

But what does ‘terrorist’ mean? What does ‘confirmed’ mean? What does ‘ordinary’ mean?

And at the core of it all: what does ‘war’ mean, and why is it never mentioned in those 19 words of point 6 of the Minsk II protocol, or in the 13 points, 796 words that make up the whole document?

Minsk II is a terrible story. No one can agree where it begins or ends, whether the middle should be at the beginning, what order the events come in, what is action and what is consequence. The main thing it’s about is never even mentioned.

And this story is the only thing the Lazarenkos, the Herasimenkos, the Pantyushenkos, the Kalyns, all those other ‘all-for-all’s and their families have got. A story that hasn’t changed in nearly three years, give or take some numbers of ‘all for all’. A story no one believes.

“At first we believed in Minsk. But then we saw the meetings were constantly derailed. We’re waiting for the next one, and the next one comes and nothing is resolved, and then again the next one, and that’s it: we lost faith.”

That’s Viktoria Pantyushenko. She’s small and determined and 25 years old. She’s been waiting more than 1001 nights for her husband Bohdan to come home. How many protest banners, how many talks with officials, how many Minsk meetings. How few letters.

There are the stories the prisoners tell in those few letters.

Bohdan writes to Viktoria: “If before I used to dream about something, like events that evolved, now everything comes down to a static picture: my release, I get off the bus, and you’re standing there and meet me, and then a freeze-frame.”   

Kolya Herasimenko writes his wife Natasha lists of food he’d like to get. “Here they don’t know what salt is… When I come back I’ll be ashamed to look pigs in the eye, since I’m eating their feed.”

He writes “If I live to that day that’s called exchange (‘obmen’), and not a trick (‘obman’)”.  He writes “They promised us ‘soon’, as usual, although for me personally the word ‘soon’ is missing from the dictionary.”

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A letter to Nadiya from her husband Sasha Kalyn, imprisoned in Donetsk since september 2015  (photo by Emine Ziyatdinova)

 

Fortunes of war

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.

Wives and mothers of imprisoned soldiers demonstrating in Kyiv

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.

Catch 22

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.

free gerasimenko

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.

 


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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