Serhiy Lefter, a Ukrainian journalist working for a Polish NGO, spent nearly three weeks in captivity by pro-Russian militants in the city of Slovyansk in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. Shortly after his release on May 6, Lefter spoke with RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Dmitry Volchek about his ordeal.
RFE/RL: Tell us about the people who were holding you. Did they really think you were a spy?
At first they really suspected me. They suspected all of us -- that some of us were from the nationalist political movement Right Sector or were 'Banderovtsy" [eds: a reference to the World War II-era Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera], especially if someone is from the right bank of the Dnepr. They suspected everyone, especially if you weren't a local. Then they started checking up on you. There were interrogations. They checked documents, really carefully. In my case, they suspected that I was a spy because they detained me, I was reporting to my coordinator at the Open Dialogue foundation some information about what was going on in Donetsk. Later, during interrogation, you could tell from their questions that they knew I was a journalist, but they were trying to find out some sort of information about possible contacts with the Right Sector. Even though they knew I was a journalist, they began looking into me on social media and they saw that I had been on Maidan [eds: the Kyiv square that was the site of months of pro-European demonstrations], which was already a bad thing from their point of view. That's how it was.
RFE/RL: Were they easier on journalists?
They don't beat journalists quite as much. At least, compared to the others, they treated journalists better. That doesn't mean they treated us well. Just keeping someone hostage is already a bad thing. But compared to how they treated the others, it was better. They did beat me several times.
RFE/RL: Tell us, please, a little about the conditions that you were held in.
It was a basement. Three rooms. We slept on the floor, of course. Those who were there for a long time were allowed to sleep on a makeshift bed that we made out of some doors and some warm clothes that they gave us. And they slept on that bed. That was the biggest room. All the others -- the new ones that were brought in -- sat on benches and slept sort of half sitting. At first, I also slept like that on some sort of crates -- half sitting, half lying down. It was cold, of course. It was a basement, after all. They didn't let us out to walk. There was a toilet outside, so when you asked to use the toilet, you got to go outside for a bit, walk around a little and get some air. Those who were there for a long time -- me and a few others -- also went out to clean up. They didn't force us to -- they just came up and said, "Give us a hand." It was a request, but we took it like an order. We went out, picked up some trash, cleared the yard. For 10 or 20 minutes, we got some fresh air and walked around. For us, it was sort of a privilege.
RFE/RL: And how about the food?
They gave us something twice a day. Some kasha or some soup, some borscht. They brought us tea all the time because it was cold in there. So they gave us warm tea. A little bit later, the local people who were there for a long time started getting food from their relatives. Of course, that helped us, since they shared with everyone and we all ate together.
RFE/RL: What about the people who were holding you? Who were they?
As far as I could tell, there are former military among them. And there are some ordinary people who managed to get weapons. They have some sort of faith, ideology, and, of course, they feel a little stronger with weapons. They have a structure. That is normal considering that they are military. They are orders and they are obeyed. There is no anarchy. Everything is strictly in a military fashion.
RFE/RL: Were there any Russians among them?
Definitely not. I know there is information that groups of provocateurs and others have come here from Russia. But as far as I understand, they aren't dealing with the hostages. Definitely no one showed up there in that basement and I didn't see anyone. Of course, you can't tell by looking, even if a person isn't wearing a mask, for sure whether someone is from Russia. But as far as I could tell from the conversations I heard, definitely no one was there from Russia. They were all locals. Mostly locals and the rest were from other parts of Ukraine, other cities. Maybe there are some Russian military intelligence people [in Donetsk], provocateurs, but I think they have other things to do.
RFE/RL: There were two young activists from Right Sector who were held there the same time that you were and who were later killed. Did you speak with them?
Yes. They were promised that nothing would happen to them. But then later... well. They were captured some time during the night and brought there. They admitted that they were from the Right Sector. They spoke about that even before they were interrogated. After about a day, they were taken away somewhere unknown. Later, after I got out, I heard that those two young men had been killed together with that [local] deputy, [Volodymyr] Rybak
RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report from Prague