Journalist held hostage twice is freed
Lviv journalist Yury Lelyavsky is free after being held hostage by Kremlin-backed militants from the self-proclaimed Luhansk people’s republic [LPR]. This is the second time he was taken prisoner – the first was in Slovyansk, under the equally self-proclaimed Donetsk people’s republic [DPR]. He spoke with Kateryna Dyachuk from the Institute for Mass Information about his imprisonment and release, as well as comparing imprisonment under the LPR and DPR.
Lelyavsky was taken hostage the second time on July 23. He had gone with a priest to cover the latter’s missionary work and they were seized in the Luhansk oblast. He was held together with Father Valentin Serovetsky, driver Serhiy Zakharov and volunteer to the humanitarian mission from the Crimea Haide Rizaeva. He explains at the outset that some information he cannot give since Zakharov and Rizaeva remain prisoners.
Lelyavsky explains that while in Kyiv giving a lecture to young journalists about how to behave during military action he met Father Valentin who suggested going to the anti-terrorist operation area. They first went on a brief visit to Slovyansk shortly after the militants were driven out, and then returned to Kyiv. A week later Father Valentin suggested going to the Luhansk oblast. It was a missionary trip, the aim being to give out bibles. Lelyavsky had a video camera and had arranged with Lviv and Kyiv TV channels to take video footage.
They got through the first checkpoints in the Luhansk oblast without problems with Father Valentin handing out bibles and stressing the need to protect life.
Then at the checkpoint at the road out of Krasny Luch they were stopped and taken to Perevalsk, supposedly to go through some formalities. In Perevalsk they were taken to the headquarters of ‘Otaman Kozitsyn from Russia. “He began giving us a lecture about geopolitics, then they went through a performance where he pretended that they would be taken to another building, given food and a place to spend the night and could go on the next morning. The point of the performance is dubious since they rapidly discovered that they were prisoners.
Lelyavsky says that he was in despair that he’d been taken prisoner for the second time. At the beginning their arms and legs were bound with scotch tape and until the next morning the militants would come up and beat them, which he suggests was venting their grievances against the Ukrainian army. They were then taken in appalling conditions to some small city.
He thinks that they were taken into Russia, and says he could tell from the conversations, but that Russia refused to take them.
Those guarding them, he says, were OK, local residents mobilized into LPR and that they treated them normally. However the people who came to interrogate them beat them up. He was together with Father Valentin, Haide Rizaeva was by herself, as was Serhiy Zakharov.
The interrogators asked about the aim of their trip, of their “sabotage group”. He was accused of being the commander because he had a camouflage shirt on. The first lot, under Kozitsyn, had taking about their documents and when Lelyavsky admitted to being a journalist, they simply asked to see his documents. He says they were held there around a week. They were then taken to Luhansk where, after the interrogations ended, he was put to work in the kitchen. Interestingly, there being a journalist meant slightly better treatment.
Having been held prisoner by both the DPR and LPR, Lelyavsky was asked about any differences he saw between the two. The situations were different, making the answer difficult. He was held prisoner in Slovyansk at a time before the real fighting began. Also, however, he says that the residents of the two oblasts are different, not better or worse, just different. “Simply in Luhansk everything is on the edge, there are the steppes, the border, the genes of the Cossacks when they fled from serfdom, plus miners’.” He calls LPR captivity something in the middle between a German concentration camp for prisoners of war; a Soviet prison zone – there were a lot of people there who’d served prison terms on criminal charges; and probably a labour camp from the time of the GULAG.