KIEV — The fear of torture was something that 29-year-old Maria Varfolomeyeva lived with for 419 days. The freelance photographer was detained on Jan. 9, 2015, in the breakaway republic of Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine, for taking a photograph of a rebel base.
She was interrogated, beaten, moved from basement to basement and threatened with torture. Her tormentors said they would use a “small electric machine” on her. But, finally, they exchanged her for a pro-Russian sniper this spring.
"My cellmates often came back looking like ghosts with scabs on their tongues, a sign that they were tortured with electricity," Varfolomeyeva told The Daily Beast. "While I was in jail my poor grandmother committed suicide; she could not stand the fear of me being tortured by separatists." During her last few weeks of detention, the always slight and slender photographer could not bring herself to eat. She was skin and bones by the time she arrived back in Kiev.
But make no mistake, there are horror stories told as well about conditions in the prisons run by the Ukrainian Security Service, the SBU, including secret detention centers in Mariupol and Kramatorsk, according to international observers.
"Ukrainian interrogators often use electric shock on the genitals of male detainees, as well as severe beatings and water-boarding,” says Stanislav Dmitriyevsky of the Committee Against Torture, one of 10 members of his organization who monitor implementation of the UN Convention against Torture. And this happens “at both SBU and rebel prisons," he told The Daily Beast.
“Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International carried out extensive research into enforced disappearances, incommunicado detentions, torture and other forms of ill treatment of detainees by both sides in Eastern Ukraine,” senior HRW researcher Tatiana Lokshina told The Daily Beast. “The report, based on interviews with victims, witnesses and other sources, will be released on July 21.”
Both sides of the conflict accuse their prisoners of spying; both used torture during interrogations, and both are playing a cynical game of barter.
“People get detained without a warrant to be later exchanged,” says Yevgeniy Zakharov, director of the Kharkiv Group for Human Rights Protection. “It is the business of war. … To exchange hostages, the security service needs to create a so-called ‘exchange fund.’” And the currency in it is human beings.
The grim patterns of incarceration and torture in this long-simmering war were set in place long before Ukraine’s independence and long before the current rebellion began. They are part of the sinister Soviet heritage still felt everywhere in the old republics of the USSR which dissolved, now, almost 25 years ago.
On a recent morning, Ukraine’s First Lady Marina Poroshenko and the director of the Mystetsky Arsenal Museum, Natalia Zabolotna, talked about the tragic fate of Kazimir Malevich, one of the great geniuses of modern art in the first decades of the 20th century. His “Black Square,” created in 1915, is recognized as “the zero point in painting;” his works were perhaps the first entirely abstract art.
The Soviets at first tolerated him as a revolutionary, then turned on him, and like many other artists he suffered in Stalin’s prisons run by the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB, which in turn spawned the security services in virtually all the former Soviet republics.
In 1927 and in 1930, the NKVD interrogated Malevich on suspicion of spying for Poland and spreading anti-Soviet propaganda. “I heard that the secret service pumped cold water into his bladder, which later caused him severe health problems,” Zabolotna told The Daily Beast. The artist died in 1935.
This month Ukrainians voted on the internet to name the international airport in Kiev after the Ukrainian-born Malevich. The gesture will “demonstrate our intolerance for injustice,” said Zabolotna.
But the injustice, and the torture associated with it, is far from over. When KGB files were made public last year, society discovered there were plenty of modern examples of abductions and detainees suffering from torture in today’s secret prisons, both in Kiev-controlled and pro-Russian rebel-controlled territories.
One of the more notorious tortures is called “the elephant.” Interrogators put a gas mask onto the victim’s face, then pump smoke or pepper spray into the air supply tube.
Some civilians end up beaten or tortured by both sides of the conflict. “One of our applicants, a 40-year-old overweight real estate agent, was first tortured for weeks in a basement by Ukrainian secret services; later, on coming back home to Donetsk he was held for weeks in the so-called DPR’s prison,” Dmitriyevsky of the Committee Against Torture told The Daily Beast.
Human-rights defenders reported that the real estate agent was still living in fear of more torture. He cannot shake the trauma he suffered when interrogators pushed him into a narrow iron locker, where they held him for three weeks. His fingers were broken, he was beaten, tortured with electric shock.
The real estate agent was later released into the “grey zone” near Mariinka, given 200 hryvnia (about $8) and told to go home to Donetsk, just to end up in one more cell and suffer more humiliations, this time at the hands of rebel militants.
Relatives appealing to human-rights organizations about their disappeared loved ones often receive threats and then beg observers not to reveal any details about what has happened.
In late May, the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture made several attempts to visit the SBU’s secret detention centers in Mariupol and Kramatorsk, but the Ukrainian security service denied them access. The international monitors tried to see how many more prisoners were held in illegal centers by looking at the number of people searching for their relatives. There were, at a minimum, dozens.
One of Ukraine’s most respected foreign policy experts, Member of Parliament Svitlana Zalishchuk, told The Daily Beast that she was “embarrassed” to learn that the UN mission was denied access to SBU detention centers in Kramatorsk and Mariupol. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs felt the same way: Ukraine is a signatory of the UN convention on prevention of torture and therefore has to follow the rules. At least, that is the official line.
According to the SBU, the UN mission could not visit prisons where a Russian citizen, or citizens, might be among those held. The Daily Beast requested an interview with SBU multiple times to clarify this question, and many others, but so far there has been no official response.
“From what I understood has happened, it was, excuse me, a fuck-up by our secret services, a total mess,” Zalishchuk said in a recent interview. “The UN said, ‘Thank you, bye, we are leaving.’”
To save Ukraine’s reputation, a number of Kiev officials appealed to the president about the issue.
“It was very important for me to see that our country follows the convention policy and allows the UN mission to travel back to prisons,” Zalishchuk said. “I asked influential people who are in contact with the president to inform the president about this issue, so the president contacted the head of the secret service at my request, and his message was clear: ‘Guys, you fucked it up and now you have to deal with it.’ So the secret services understood that there was no way to avoid obeying the international rules.”
Responsible officials in Kiev say they hope that the new post-revolutionary Ukraine can put an end to the hideous practices inherited from the Soviets. They say the SBU is going to allow the UN observers to visit in September. But skeptical experts insist that without fundamental reforms to the security services, the post-Soviet states cannot end their lawlessness. The game of security among the old apparatchiks has only one set of rules: to do unto others before they do unto you.