A child when seized, Bohdan Kovalchuk has spent 5 years in Donbas militant captivity
It is five years since the Russian proxy ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ [DPR] seized five young lads and forced them to give videoed ‘confessions’ for DPR and Russian propaganda. One of the lads, Bohdan Kovalchuk, who was just 17 back in September 2016, remains imprisoned, because he refused to ‘repent’ and agree to remain in occupied Donbas.
On 12 September 2016, the so-called ‘DPR ministry of state security’ reported that they had ‘arrested’ seven young lads from Yasynovata on sabotage and terrorism charges. Although seven names were mentioned, it is possible that only five boys, aged from 15-17 had been seized. These teenagers were claimed to have been blowing up civilian and military targets for Ukraine’s SBU [Security Service]. The story was substantiated only by supposed ‘confessions’ which were widely shown on militant and Russian television. Such ‘confessions’ are regularly used both by Russian-controlled militants and by Russia’s FSB, and in virtually all cases, the people confirm, either when released, or when finally allowed to see an independent lawyer, that they were given under duress (normally under torture).
The age of the lads and those shocking ‘confessions’ aroused international outrage and demands for their immediate release. The militants actually promised that they would be released by the end of 2016, but instead ‘sentenced’ them to terms between 10 and 15 years.
The last real exchange of prisoners was in December 2019. The five young men were offered their freedom, but only on condition that they ‘repent’ and that they remain in the so-called ‘DPR’. After three years in captivity, four of them agreed. Bohdan Kovalchuk, who was 17 when seized back in September 2016, refused and said that he wanted to return to government-controlled Ukraine. The militants refused to include him in the exchange, and he has now spent over five years in ‘DPR’ captivity, with the 10-year ‘sentence’ passed by a ‘court’ that is unrecognized by Ukraine and other democratic countries, still in force.
Families of hostages are often afraid that they could make matters worse if they speak about the hostage’s captivity. It was only after Bohdan was not released in the last (rather symbolic) exchange in April 2020, that his grandmother, Tetyana Petrivna Hots, Radio Svoboda’s Donbas Service.
Bohdan is her only grandson whom she and her daughter raised together. “You ask me how it came about that all the lads agreed to the ‘pardon’, yet Bohdan refused. What should I say. He has always been steadfast and always like that. I remember how he said to me: “Babushka, please understand, if you betray once, you’ll do it again.
That summer, he was planning to leave Yasynovata. He wanted to come to me on government-controlled territory to train as a car mechanic. He had already, I think, gathered all the documents, but then they said that, in order to get in, he also needed a medical document that he could only get in Yasynovata. He left on 31 August 2016, and I was waiting for him to return. I kept ringing his mobile, but either nobody answered, or the telephone was turned off. I tracked down a friend of Bohdan’s who was supposed to meet him. And he told me: “Babushka Tanya, I also can’t get through to him.” I was in a terrible state”.
A little while later, her daughter rang and told her that Bohdan had been ‘arrested’ and taken to Donetsk, and that nothing more was known. He was later sent to a prison in Torez. His mother is allowed visits, and can send parcels with food, etc.
Bohdan’s grandmother says: “I so hope that people know about his act, and his stand. You can’t leave people like him, you can’t.”
It took courage to stand firm back in December 2019, and Bohdan is paying a huge price. It is Russia that decides on any hostage release, and that is now blocking any exchange. Pressure is needed on Moscow to ensure Bohdan’s release, and that of many other hostages, including some whose lives are in immediate danger.