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© ZOYA SHU, 2019

          The  loss of government control over parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014 created a legal vacuum in Donetsk and Lugansk regions, leaving the Donbas, Ukraine's long-standing industrial heartland, exposed to all kinds of human rights violations. Among those, which exploded in this war are the kidnapping, unlawful detention and torture of civilians and combatants by various armed groups. According to international law it is firmly considered a war crime. It has been happening in Ukraine for five years and represents a return of the traumas of war to Europe for the first time in the 21st century.

После плена

Dmitry Kluger is a Jewish Ukrainian and a former resident of Donetsk. He was a civilian when he was captured. In captivity he tried to commit suicide to avoid giving up Ukrainian volunteers under repeated torture.

Captivity is not the same as imprisonment. Prison has its rules, but when someone is taken hostage and unlawfully held against their will, unthinkable things can happen. People are kept in cellars on absurd allegations, for ransom or as human shields, without sunlight, fresh air, food or a toilet. They face beatings, rape and torture, and they never know when and if they will be released. In human history a number of moral and legislative norms regarding hostages and prisoners of war have been developed, but captives in modern Ukraine are no less at the mercy of their captors as medieval victims of war. The wanton use of violence towards civilians, in particular those in captivity, is a crime against humanity and can be considered a means of psychological warfare aimed at humiliating, dehumanizing and desocializing the population in an armed conflict zone.

Dmitry war prisoners project

Dmitry says he and his fellow captives were beaten constantly, and his tormentors would work in shifts.“When you heard someone being beaten in the next room,” he said, “you knew you had 20 minutes for a nap, just like in the morning after your alarm rings.”

In five years, more than three thousand people were taken captive and endured both physical and psychological violence in war-torn eastern Ukraine. Nearly half of them were civilians – men, women and even teenagers. As of now, more than 300 people remain locked up by militias of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples' Republics that once were an integral part of Ukraine.

Vitaliy war prisoner

Vitaliy Paraskun demonstrates a photo of himself, taken after he was set free. Vitaliy is a part of an Evangelical church. He preached the Gospel in Lugansk region, tried to talk people out from participating in armed groups and helped refugees to find accommodation when he was captured by a gang of cossacks. He stayed in an unheated basement with rats, was underfed and regularly tortured for 199 days. He wasn't scared to die when militiamen would shoot around him, but couldn't stop thinking about a pregnant rat when they threatened to damage his knee. Vitaliy does not harbor animosity against his tormentors. He is glad that in captivity he managed to convince four people to become believers.

Just as a definite body of principles for the treatment of captives is absent in the conflict zone, it is also non-existent for released people in the Ukrainian post-captive world. Lawlessness, only in a different form, continues for these people even after their release. Former captives have to deal with psychological, physical and financial problems without any support from the state. Politicians sporadically bring up prisoners of war, trying to create an image of the state’s involvement or improve their own, but in reality it is a cynical exploitation of human dignity.

Anna Gutsulka

Anna is a civilian; in captivity she endured horrible tortures. Before the conflict in the east of Ukraine she was a real estate agent in Donetsk. Now she lives with her two children on the outskirts of Kiev. She was promised rehabilitation by Ukrainian authorities and was taken for a ride on a yacht and given lunch.

Due to the lack of a real system of state support, liberated people feel that they are forced to play a role of a victim, against which politicians are benefactors. After release, attention to former prisoners often ended with taking a selfie with them. One heterosexual male former captive, who preferred to stay anonymous, mentioned that after being diagnosed with hepatitis C and failing to find help through various institutions, the only way to receive treatment was to get a medical reference claiming homosexuality and getting support through LGBT community. Various organizations receiving large grants to help prisoners of war often also do not have a proper perception of these people's needs. Selective, rather than systemic, support for all those who have been freed is an additional factor in traumatization for people whose “state support” often ended with the words of officials “you have been freed, rejoice.”

Dmitry Kluger

In the comfort of his home Dmitry wears a robe he was given in captivity and demonstrates how he was tied up. Release is only the first step towards freedom. People who get released often psychologically keep staying in the "basement".

Release from captivity is only the first step on the path to freedom. The subject of post-traumatic stress syndrome is being discussed more and more, but people who have experienced violence need rehabilitation, which is different from the rehabilitation of those who took part in military action. This problem is complex and few psychologists deal with it. A person who has lost everything and gone through the hell of an illegal detention experiences numerous difficulties. Even after physical wounds have visibly healed, they still endure the psychological damage they  received while in captivity. Many commit suicide or die as a result of acquired health conditions. For example, one former detainee developed a blood condition due to a consistent lack of oxygen in his hot sauna-like confinement where the only source of air was a gap under the door.

People who survived in captivity have to survive after they get released. 

war prisoners after captivity

Tetyana kisses goodbye to the urn with ashes of her husband. Alexander passed away at 41, a year after returning from captivity.


Fernando was captured to be a human shield for the militants. He was not kept in the basement, but on the third floor of a building. It raised security concerns for the event of shelling.

However, do not consider these people as victims. They are not victims, they are survivors.

According to Fernando, a foreign national working for an international organization, who was held captive by militants for a month in 2014, “people who went through traumatic experiences are better healed with respect and recognition of their claims for justice and their added value in society than by a psychotherapist. A traumatic experience doesn't make you necessarily weaker. It can make you more knowledgeable. And that's why the concept of treating a "victim" with superiority and condescendance is wrong. "Victims" don't need only a compassion which is displayed as a ritual. They have important contributions to make, probably more important than those who claim to be experts. From the pain comes creativity and impulse to help others, and also wisdom. But if we disregard this added value we only contribute to diminish these persons as victims just with passive needs, and not as positive contributors.”


“Captivity is one of the most difficult ordeals, and if you survived, did not break, then you gain invaluable experience. You become stress-resistant to external threats, you know the price of time and labor, you transform, and your body and soul acquire a completely different image." Anatoly Polyakov spent 288 days in captivity

After being released from captivity, Anatoly realized the necessity of the law that would regulate the support for the released people.

“I live as a hermit, I am obsessed with the law, the legislative regulation of issues related to the search, release and reintegration of captives, this problem must be solved in a complex way. It's about human life and dignity, which is an absolute value for me. This is not something for manipulation or bidding. One should treat an individual as a whole universe. Who has the right to violate this world? Nobody. A person has no right to interfere in anyone’s fate. And after going through torture and violence no one should be forced to defend their rights. It is very important to create a foundation so that everyone released from captivity can start life from scratch."

In Ukraine prisoners of war legally are called hostages, although the word "prisoner of war" is vastly used in media and society. Anatoly believes that even the word “prisoner of war” contains a therapeutic effect, in contrast to the word “hostage”, which radiates role of a victim. 

captive journalist Maria Varfolomeieva

Maria Varfolomeeva was a journalist when she was captured in Lugansk.

In captivity, she spent 419 days - a year and a half.

Maria says that “being there - in prison, in a pre-trial detention center, in the basement, you begin to understand how valuable it is to just walk down the street. All our problems are very relative. I used to have big and small problems, and then all my big problems became small. We must understand that for the most part we are all happy. "

Maria studies to become a psychologist. She notes that Ukraine lacks specialists who can help people survive the heavy stress in conflict situations and she hopes to achieve a high level in this area.

We are all familiar with stress and how it prevents us from functioning normally. In countries where the population has gone through strong traumatic experiences, a complex phenomenon known as collective trauma occurs when trauma becomes imprinted in social and historical memory. It not only transforms and slows down the pace of societal development and a country as a whole, but in a longer historical perspective can even affect foreign policy. In the Balkans, for example, many years after the end of the war, the process of collective healing is still ongoing.


Former civilian resident of Donetsk demonstrates a swastika, engraved by militiamen on his back during his 10 hour captivity on 24 May 2014, after he was taken by armed men from his workplace. They also removed his two fingernails, which later naturally restored. Bogdan recalls his tormentors discussing that he should not be released alive after this, in order not to let their actions be given to a public eye. Most of the people who had their bodies damaged either way usually weren't let survive the captivity. 

The war in eastern Ukraine is not over yet; not all the missing have been found, not all the captive have been freed and not all survivors have returned to a normal life. Even after the visible scars are healed, overcoming the consequences will take a very long time for the whole country.

© ZOYA SHU, 2019

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