On the morning of 27 May, Hanna, was sitting in her flat in eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, when there was a knock on the door. As her boyfriend Feodor lifted the latch, seven armed men wearing balaclavas and camouflaged fatigues barged through. They said they were from the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), the pro-Russian separatist group which had recently seized power in the city.
This was the start of a terrifying six day ordeal for the 30 year old pro-Ukrainian activist. She had been involved in demonstrations providing medical help and first aid to protesters injured in clashes.
As the gunmen searched Hanna’s flat, she knew she was in trouble when they found a Ukrainian flag and pro-Kyiv leaflets. She and Feodor were marched down the stairs, blind-folded and bundled into a waiting car. They were taken to the Department for Crime Control for questioning.
Hanna describes how, held in a small basement, a middle aged man led the interrogation. She was accused of being a member of a far right group. They looked for tattoos of the numbers 38 or 39 associated with fascist groups
“There were crazy assumptions… the situation was dreadful. How can a person can be held for groundless accusations? It’s like the world was inside out.”
Hanna says that she was questioned about the EuroMaydan protests, about her participation and asked for details of journalists and civil society activists. The consequences of refusing to cooperate were dire.
“They said ‘you are going to tell us everything – unless you do this you are not going to be freed. And even if you do, you are not necessarily getting out from here’.”
Small, slightly built and quietly spoken, Hanna nervously recounted her story to us in a shabby medical storeroom on the ground floor of the local hospital in Kyiv. She fled to the city after her release and now helps out distributing medical supplies and helping others escaping the violence in eastern Ukraine. The shelves are stacked with medical supplies – drugs and bandages – all donated to help those, like her, arriving with injuries from torture suffered at the hands of armed groups in eastern Ukraine.
As we asked what happened to her, she looks to the floor with a sense of disbelief. She told us that after half an hour of questioning, her interrogator turned to violence.
“My face was smashed – he punched me in the face with his fist, he was trying to beat me everywhere, I was covering myself with my hands… I was huddled in the corner, curled up in a ball with my hands around my knees. He was angry that I was trying to protect myself. He went out and came back with a knife.”
Hanna showed us the scars on her neck, arms and legs where she was sliced with the blade: there is a stab wound in her knee, her right index finger is still heavily bandaged in a plastic splint. She describes how, as she was trying to protect herself, the blade sliced off the skin of her finger, “peeling it like an orange”.
“I was in shock, so I didn’t feel any pain, but you look at these cuts and you think that it’s not you. It was sick. Your own countrymen interrogating you with such cruelty. I was lost, I was so worried, I thought it was the end… I thought I might be killed… At the end of the interrogation [he said] “Pray now – I’m going to kill you”, and then he slit [the back of] my neck with the knife.”
Not only did Hanna have to endure the agony of the violent beating, but she says her interrogator was intent on humiliating her too, trying to crush her spirit. He made her write a pro-Russian slogan on the wall, in her own blood.
“He said: write with your blood on the wall ‘I love Donbass’, and if you can’t do this, if you run out of blood, I will shoot you. So I had this open wound with skin flapping off, I took the blood from the wound and wrote with my left hand on the wall… When someone points a gun at you and says I’m going to kill you – and there’s nothing you can do – you think it’s going to happen.”
Hanna says her torturous ordeal stopped following an order from higher up the chain of command. She was held for a further six days before being sent to the city of Dnipropetrovsk as part of a “prisoner exchange”. Prior to leaving she was allowed to call her parents.
“I wanted just to be back home, just to get back to life as normal and to imagine that this was just a nightmare… I was very upset because I hadn’t seen my family. They let us call, so I rang them and told them that I was alive, and that I was leaving…. Obviously I wanted to go home, but I couldn’t.”
Hanna has still not seen her parents. She is trying to rebuild her life anew, but her future, just like Ukraine’s, is far from certain.