Ukrainian theater director Pavel Yurov and artist Denis Grishchuk are recovering in Kyiv after being held hostage for more than two months by pro-Russian separatists in the country's restive east.
Both are undergoing psychological treatment. Yurov is preparing to have surgery for a broken nose.
While abductions are rife in eastern Ukraine, the disappearance of two recognizable cultural figures had caused outrage not only in Ukraine, but also in Russia, where a number of prominent actors signed an open letter calling for their release.
Yurov and Grishchuk, who are both from eastern Ukraine but live in Kyiv, were abducted on April 25 on their way from Donetsk to the capital.
What began as a quick detour through the rebel-held city of Slovyansk quickly turned into a protracted nightmare at the hands of armed rebels.
"It all started in a cafe where we had stopped for lunch. There were Russian journalists and local residents there," Grishchuk recalls. "We were watching the news on our tablets and a woman asked us what the news said. We told her. I can't remember precisely what words we used, but obviously it gave away our belief in a united Ukraine."
Grishchuk says the locals shouted at them and called them 'banderovtsi," or neo-Nazis, a common slur against pro-Ukraine sympathizers.
The two men left the cafe but were detained outside by armed insurgents and taken to the rebel-occupied building of the SBU state secret services, the Slovyansk separatists' headquarters.
That's where their first, and most severe, beating took place.
"They hit us on the head and body with their hands and feet," says Yurov. "Denis's hand was slashed and they called a medic. While this medic was treating his hand, they beat him in the ribs. They put cotton in my nose to stop the bleeding and hit me in the back at the same time. They also tried to intimidate us, they threatened to cut off our ears and call in someone to rape us."
Grishchuk says the separatists flew into a rage after finding a Ukrainian flag on them, along with a video from the pro-European Maidan protests in Kyiv last fall and a telephone number for Maidan activists in Kharkiv.
Like all hostages held by the insurgents, Yurov and Grishchuk were not allowed any contact with the outside world, fuelling concerns about their wellbeing.
While most captives have made it out alive, a number of them were killed or gravely wounded.
The only information about them came from the man who then controlled Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, who has since been sacked and detained by fellow rebel leader Ihor Girkin, aka Strelkov.
Ponomaryov confirmed to the men's' families that they had been captured.
But although Ponomaryov told Grishchuk's father that they were "not guilty of anything serious," the two men were freed only when Ukrainian government forces reclaimed Slovyansk earlier this month, after 70 days in captivity.
They were first held in the cellar of the SBU building, a dark space with rust-stained walls and old mattresses spread on the ground.
On May 9, they were transferred to the city's main police detention center.
Disarray In Rebel Ranks
A handful of other hostages shared their cell the entire time. One was a local student detained outside the SBU building. Another was a member of the Ukrainian ultra-nationalist Svoboda party. Valentin Rybachuk, the former mayor of Slovyank, was also held with them.
They describe a steady stream of captives detained for a few days before being released or taken elsewhere – a woman arrested for taking a photo, Svoboda party members, a local businessman, a drunk priest, Russian and Ukrainian journalists, and a U.S. Hare Krishna worshiper who sang mantras all day in his cell.
Confirming reports of disarray within rebel ranks, insurgents who had fallen out with their superiors were also among those held.
"They jailed one of the guards who escorted us from the SBU to the police building," says Yurov. "He stayed there right up to the end, until our release."
As for their captors, Yurov describes them as local Ukrainian men, mostly uneducated, many with criminal pasts.
"Those actively involved in this movement are lowlifes, petty thugs, criminals, former police officers and soldiers, and people using heavy drugs," he says. "As before, I suspect these people are taking orders from Russians."
Yurov and Grishchuk plan to seek redress for their ordeal. They are now working with human rights group to file a complaint against Russia with the European Court of Human Rights.
But the 70 days they spent in captivity, they say, have dulled their anger at their actual captors and forced them to pore over the reasons prompting so many eastern Ukrainians to rebel against the government in Kyiv.
"We are all guilty, no one should be categorically blamed," says Grishchuk. "We ourselves allowed this rift to divide our nation, a rift that is now prompting people to take up arms."