Former child hostage spends 7th birthday in Russian captivity for wanting to live in free Ukraine
Bohdan Kovalchuk turned 24 on 9 November, his seventh birthday a hostage in the Russian proxy ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ [DPR]. Bohdan was just 17 when he and six other teenagers were seized by the Russian-controlled militants. He had just turned 21 when he was offered his release, but only if he ‘repented’ and agreed to remain in occupied Donbas. He refused and remains in captivity.
His grandmother, Tetiana Hots, has continued to campaign for Bohdan’s release, for him to be part of an exchange of prisoners. On 9 November she wrote: “My grandson is 24 years old, I love him so much, he is my life. My joy and my tears are all him, MY BOHDAN. Please wish him good health and endurance, that he does not lose faith and returns home.”
Bohdan’s ordeal began in September 2016 when he and six other young lads, aged between 15 and 17, were seized by the Russian-controlled militants and forced to give videoed ‘confessions’.
On 12 September 2016, the so-called ‘DPR ministry of state security’ that they had ‘arrested’ seven young lads from Yasynovata on ‘sabotage’ and ‘terrorism’ charges. 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. Russia regularly uses such ‘confessions’ after seizing Ukrainians from occupied territory both for propaganda and as ‘proof’ to justify horrific sentences. In essentially all cases where those imprisoned have been released or finally been given access to an independent lawyer, they have confirmed that the ‘confessions’ were obtained through torture and threats against members of their family.
The abduction of children elicited international protest and there were initially promises that the lads would be freed. Instead, however, a ‘DPR’ kangaroo court ‘sentenced’ five of them to terms of imprisonment from 10 to 15 years.
The last real exchange of prisoners before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine 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 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 seven years in ‘DPR’ captivity serving a ‘sentence’ passed by a Russian-controlled ‘court’ that no democratic country recognizes.
In April 2020, Tetiana Hots that 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.
Bohdan is one of at least 300 civilian hostages imprisoned before Russia’s full-scale invasion. While it is ultimately Russia that will decide on their release, any publicity will help ensure that their names are on exchange lists. Please help.