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'They Want To Frighten People' -- Donetsk Native Recalls Captivity In Rebel-Held City

Ukrainian businesswoman Svitlana Matushko
Ukrainian businesswoman Svitlana Matushko

Svitlana Matushko is a middle-aged businesswoman from Donetsk with a harrowing story to tell.

It all began when she was at work one day last month.

"Armed men came, with automatic weapons and camouflage," she told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "And they arrested me at work. They took all my electronics and documents. They searched my home twice without any warrant or anything. Twice they searched my workplace. And they locked me in the basement of the former building of the Ukrainian secret service in Donetsk."

Matushko then spent seven days in the basement cell, locked up with a motley group of prisoners that included separatist militia fighters, a pregnant separatist sniper, accused drug dealers, local businesspeople, a woman whose husband had been a member of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's political party, and a karate instructor.

Most of them were imprisoned -- and possibly facing execution -- entirely on the basis of denunciations filed by people they knew. That's what happened to Matushko -- she deduced from the interrogation sessions that she had been denounced by a man she had been dating.

"I said to the guy who was questioning me, 'I know who did this. Did you give him a medal or some money or some other benefit? Why did he do this?' The interrogator said, 'You know, in times like these, the basest parts of people rise to the surface,'" Matushko says.

The man's statement accused Matushko of photographing separatist militia positions and transmitting the photographs to the Ukrainian military. She says the accusations are absurd.

However, she does not deny that she is a Ukrainian patriot and opposes the pro-Russian separatists. She participated for a couple of days in the Maidan protest in Kyiv and attended pro-Ukrainian demonstrations in Donetsk before the fighting broke out.

"I went to demonstrations," she says." I talked to all my friends. Explained to them what was going on. You know, the power of [former President Viktor] Yanukovych and his family was so strong that literally everyone suffered. Literally everyone. The corruption was boundless and touched every single person."

'A Week In Handcuffs'

She says that when one of her interrogators, who identified himself as a former Berkut riot police officer who had also been at Maidan, saw her Maidan photographs, he threatened to shoot her "with his own hands" for "throwing Molotov cocktails" at him.

Although conditions were bad and she was constantly afraid, Matushko says she was not beaten or tortured. Others were not so lucky. One man spent a whole week in handcuffs. Another told how he'd been held in a solitary cell without food or water for days.

Matushko doesn't know why she was released after spending seven days locked in the basement cell.

"Sometime around the fourth day -- you know, every time they summoned me I thought, 'this is it; they are going to shoot me' -- on the fourth day, the guy told me that they weren't going to kill me," she says. The following Monday, they let her go.

"What are they trying to do?" Matushko asks. "They want to frighten as much as possible the people in Donetsk who are loyal to Ukraine, who want a united Ukraine, so that they will leave the region on their own. Then they want to populate that territory with people who are loyal to Russia. I think that is their goal."

As far as Matushko is concerned, the Donetsk separatists have achieved this goal. She made her way to Kyiv and now works with the Displaced Persons Committee.

She tells how the conflict in eastern Ukraine has divided friends and even families in the self-proclaimed Donetsk Peoples Republic (DNR).

"This also affected my family," she says. "My mother participated in the elections on November 2. She went into Donetsk and voted in the so-called elections of the DNR. I tried to explain to her that you are voting for someone who wanted to beat your child, but she doesn't understand that. She said, 'I voted for peace.'"

When Matushko asked her mother what the separatists' program was, she said she didn't care. "She just voted against the 'Kyiv junta,' as they call it," Matushko says.

Now, from Kyiv, Matushko insists the government must put down the separatist revolt, which she considers "pure terrorism" on the model of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's Great Terror.

"It is a real partisan conflict," she says. "People are afraid to leave their homes. They are hiding; they are resisting in any way that they can."

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report

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