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Ukrainian Journalist Details Her 419 Days In Separatist Captivity

10.03.16 | Anna Shamanska

The separatists would tell Maria Varfolomeyeva that she had "resort conditions" in her captivity. "As if, when you donít get beaten up, thatís a resort, " she said.

www.rferl.org

March 07, 2016

Ukrainian journalist Maria Varfolomeyeva spent 419 days in Russia-backed separatistsí captivity in eastern Ukraine, where the 30-year-old woman was accused of spying.

On March 3, the separatists exchanged her for two people -- a Russian citizen who was fighting for the separatists and whom Ukraine had sentenced to 11 years in prison, and Luhansk local Oksana Lytovchenko, whom Ukraine accused of helping the separatists.

Three days after Varfolomeyevaís release, Ukrainian news portal Levy Bereg†spoke to the journalist in her hospital room†in Kyiv about her detention and captivity, which began more than a year ago.

Members of the Russia-backed separatist group that calls itself the "Luhansk Peopleís Republic" detained her outside of a residential building, which another journalist asked Varfolomeyeva to photograph. Thinking there was no danger, Varfolomeyeva said she took photos of the house and tried to confirm its address with the people who emerged from the building.

"They looked at me completely stunned.... íCome with us, í they said.... They were wearing civilian clothes, but inside there were people with assault rifles.... Turns out it was pretty much [the Luhansk separatistsí] general staff headquarters, " Varfolomeyeva said in the interview.

Yuriy Aseyev, the journalist who purportedly asked her to take photos, claimed Varfolomeyeva knew well what the assignment was and the dangers it entailed. Aseyev allegedly told her not to risk her life for this.

"I watched the video of Mariaís interrogation released by [the separatists] and understood that she did exactly the opposite [from what I had told her], " Aseyev said in†an interview†with Ukraineís Fakty newspaper.

Varfolomeyeva claimed that Aseyev was lying. "He came to the exchange [of prisoners], but I couldnít look him in the eye, " she said. "I still canít understand how one could have done so."

íIíve Been In All The Cellarsí

After detaining and questioning Varfolomeyeva, the separatists found a photo of the woman wearing the radical organization Right Sectorís kerchief and showing off a business card in the Right Sectorís signature red and black colors. Besides looking through her social networks, the separatists also searched her house and took everything, she said, "even a tent."

Varfolomeyeva said that at first they assured her that she would soon be let go. Later, however, the separatistsí so-called interior minister said on TV that they had detained a dangerous criminal -- in reference to Varfolomeyeva.

"It was like a zoo that doesnít have an elephant because it canít afford one, but there is a pony with fake ears and trunk. The unsophisticated public will eat it up, " the journalist said. "íLook, she has the Right Sector symbols. It means she isnít just a member, but a coordinator.í"

During 419 days of captivity, the Luhansk separatists reportedly moved Varfolomeyeva frequently from one building to another, from one cellar to the next. "All the basements in [separatist-controlled parts of Luhansk] are mine, Iíve been everywhere, " she said.

At the beginning of her captivity, Varfolomeyeva was often interrogated, she said. Separatists wanted her to give up passwords and safe houses. "I didnít know anything at all. I told them, íI could make them up, if you want, I could confess to murdering Kennedy, í" she said.

The separatists used psychological pressure, but Varfolomeyeva didnít mention any physical torture. "They would put a gun to my head, to my knee, these huge men, and would start shouting that they will cripple me. They didnít shoot. But the threats with the gun were very realistic, " she said.

In time, however, she said, their attitudes toward her changed significantly. "When one exchange fell through, then the other, they told me: íDonít worry, everything will be alright. Hang on.í They couldnít find the right words, but they tried, surprisingly, " she said.

íPhoning Obamaí

The separatists would tell Varfolomeyeva that she had "resort conditions" in her captivity. "As if, when you donít get beaten up, thatís a resort, " she said.

Many of her cellmates, however, werenít so lucky.

Fighters from the groupís security arm claimed not to beat people up, Varfolomeyeva said. "But those who left for interrogations would come back with broken ribs, hematomas. The halls were just ívery slippery; people fell, í" she said she was told.

The separatists tortured some captives by attaching generators to their ears, Varfolomeyeva said. "They call it íphoning [U.S. President Barack] Obama.í"

While in captivity, Varfolomeyeva tried to keep herself busy, including by studying French, Italian, and German, and read books that her father sent her. She was not allowed to go outside except to be moved.

"If I calculate how much time I spent outside in a year -- it would be about 24 hours, " she said.

Varfolomeyeva is reportedly recovering in the capital, Kyiv. In the Bereg interview, she said she was unsure about what to do next.

But the same day the conversation was published, Varfolomeyeva was said to have been offered a job at one of the biggest Ukrainian TV channels, 1+1. The anchor of the evening news made the announcement on air.

"We are proud to call our colleague a person who wasnít broken by militantsí cellars, who betrayed neither her principles nor her country in the ordeal."

see also:
Luhansk journalist Maria Varfolomeyeva freed after 14 months captivity
Militants again refuse to release Luhansk journalist Maria Varfolomeyeva
Put Donbas Hostages on Normandy 4 agenda now
Kremlin-backed militants prove nobody is safe in Donbas
New wave of íarrestsí & attack on Ukrainian churches in militant-controlled Donetsk
Will the West accept Potemkim elections in Donbas?
Kremlin-backed Ďrepublicí bans Ukrainian media
Special Zombie Status? Kremlin-backed írepublicsí block all independent media
Call for Action to Free Luhansk Journalist held Hostage for 5 Months
Desperate plea from Luhansk hostage facing 15-year Ďsentenceí