On March 6, the Ukrainian news site 24tv.ua published an interview of Sergei Stepanov, a recently-released Ukrainian POW, with journalist Yevgeniya Mazur. The account was also published by the Krivoy Rog city site.
Stepanov, who was severely wounded, was released to be treated in a hospital 15 days after being taken prisoner at the Krasny Partizan checkpoint.
We first reported on January 25, 2015, about the captured men of the 20th Motorized Infantry Battalion, most from Krivoy Rog or other towns in Dnepropetrovsk Region, on January 25. A video was uploaded by Russian-backed separatists showing the men being interrogated.
Stepanov is the 8th man in the line-up, lying on his side, wounded.
Then as we reported later that day, Nikolai Kolesnik of Krivoy Rog, advisor to Dnepropetrovsk Governor Ihor Kolomoyskyi and patron of the 40th Battalion of Territorial Defense of the Ukrainian forces, reported on his Facebook page the list of the names of the men of the 20th Battalion were taken prisoner near Krasny Partizan, and those killed in battle. He noted that the battalion’s chaplain Father Dmitry himself came to negotiate with the separatists to pick up the dead at the scene and bring some medical assistance to the wounded.
Then in February, there were reports that several more wounded men from the 20th battalion POWs were released for medical treatment. Currently, four reportedly remain, awaiting exchange under the terms of the second Minsk agreement of February 12.
Stepanov, still undergoing treatment in the hospital, sent greetings to his fellow battalion members.
The following is a translation of Stepanov’s account.
Mazur: I’m a journalist, we’ve already been introduced, now let’s get acquainted.
My name is Sergei, my last name is Stepanov. I am from Western Ukraine, Ternopol Region, the village of Pochayev, where I lived 21 years before the army. Afterward, I moved to Krivoy Rog. There I got a job, a family, and a child…
In 2014, when this outrage began with the Crimea, and with the Donbass, I signed up as a volunteer, after which I was called up and was told to come to the military commission with my things, they sent me a notice — and starting May 3, I began service in the army. We went through training for about two weeks. After that, we went out to the first checkpoint that is beyond the city of Pokrovskoye in Dnepropetrovsk Region on the border of Donetsk Region. From that moment, my service took off.
Mazur: Were you mustered out as a battalion for territorial defense?
Stepanov: Yes. A month later we were removed from Pokrovka and we transferred to a location outside of Krasnoarmeysk, already within the ATO [Anti-Terrorist Operation] zone. Then we realized that we were no longer a territorial defense, but were just going to where they sent us.
Our battalion started out from Mariupol, where three of our guys were killed, including the deputy battalion commander. Then we went to Krasnoarmeysk, further on I will not name the locations, I don’t want to bring trouble on myself and my guys — where we were and what we did. On the whole, the job consisted of observing, monitoring the population, the flow of transport, and accordingly, the flow of armaments — so as not to allow all that crap to be smuggled into peaceful territory.
Mazur: Were there attempts to smuggle arms?
Stepanov: There were. We also intercepted attempts to smuggle valuables and large sums of money. In general, these were either Roma or police officers, as a rule, Donetsk people. There were gold items with tags, it was evident that this jewelry was still new; it was in a box, packed, with a seal, the price tag and so on. Upon the simplest questions — where did you get this — the person would begin to get flustered, he couldn’t answer, and then would think up some story, like “It’s from my aunt and uncle, they asked me to bring it out, I didn’t see what was in there.” In fact, the jewelry would be stuffed all throughout the car. That was the way they tried to take out large sums of money, too, whose origin people couldn’t explain.
We would turn over such people to the SBU [Ukrainian Security Service] right away. There were rumors that we took all this ourselves and then put it in our pockets. No. All the incidents were recorded, so as to keep ourselves out of harm’s way later.
Mazur: Then what happened?
Stepanov: Then — baptism by battle. Then Pisky. I wasn’t long there with the guys, I was wounded on the second day. I was sent to the hospital. The guys from Pisky were taken to Maryinka, and I came to them after the hospital.
Mazur: How did you get on with the local population?
Stepanov: I will say this: after Krasnogorovka, we ended up in rotation. And a letter came addressed to the battalion commander in which the people from Krasnogorovka begged us in tears to return. They had something to compare it to. They saw that order had begun to appear in the city, that the stores were open, that some kind of respectful attitude toward the residents appeared, although 95% of the population, probably were against you.
Mazur: Against you from the start?
Stepanov: Yes. Well, maybe not from the start. You know, it’s like the movie Svad’ba v Malinovke (Wedding in Malinovka) — “the government is changing again.” The population there is the kind that could care less who they live under. Just so that they’re left alone.
Mazur: Is all the population like that?
Stepanov: No. There were people who really changed their opinion. There were those who lived there, but remained patriots of Ukraine. And there were those like that grandfather from Malinovka who constantly changed his hat when the government changed. There were a lot like that.
Mazur: So what happened with the letter?
Stepanov: So this letter came. It was, it turned out, in A4 format, a page and a half — a request for us to return, and then probably seven or eight pages with the signatures of the local people.
Mazur: What happened after the rotation?
Stepanov: After the rotation we ended up in Krasny Partizan, where we didn’t even last a month. To the extent of our capabilities, we helped the local population, in principle, as we always had. With groceries, medicines, and warm things, the guys would hand them out…
On January 22, we were taken, let’s put it that way. I will not explain the details. It happened that the offensive began, they had the advantage in numbers and in armor. Afterwards, I saw a video after the battles for Krasny Partizan, how their battalion commander said that we had four BMPs and three tanks and about 80 soldiers. That’s all a lie.
Mazur: What was there?
Stepanov: One BMP-kopeyka and 22 men.
Mazur: What was on their side?
Stepanov: On their side was about 70-80 men and three tanks. There are some further nuances that I don’t want to mention.
Some of the guys fled. Fourteen of us remained. Of these, 4 were killed, there were wounded men, and I was among them. I ended up in captivity, where I spent 15 days. Then there was an exchange. And I had to go around Ukraine to different hospitals.
Mazur: Now are some of your guys still in captivity?
Stepanov: Yes. I am maintaining communication with my battalion, I constantly ask, I try to pull out some information about them, I ask who has been exchanged, when they exchanged them. I have been constantly looking for my buddies. When there was an exchange not long ago, they exchanged about 130 or 140 people, I read the lists over several times, I didn’t see my guys, but it turned out that two of our guys ended up on it anyway. They’re already home. Four people are still there.
Mazur: Let’s hope that everything will be alright with them…
Stepanov: I very much hope so, too. I talked with the guys who returned home not long ago, they told me about this situation. One of the fighters on duty guarding the POWs went into the building where I was, where the guys are sitting now, and wanted to execute them simply point blank. Because somewhere a rumor had gone around that they were going to take Donetsk. Therefore they wanted to execute the guys, but fortunately, not all of them are so “lost” there. They just took away that person’s weapon and took him out of there. They say they took away those ones on duty and put in others. They seem to be normal. But how the guys are doing there in reality…Understandably, they are tired, exhausted, and everyone wants to get home.
Mazur: What happened in captivity?
Stepanov: Knowing how they treat other POWs, we landed in presidential apartments. We lived in a building which was heated, we slept on mattresses. Since I was wounded, I got the VIP spot — I was on the bed.
Mazur: Did they give you medical treatment?
Stepanov: Yes. Once every two or three days. They fed us morning and evening. That is, the conditions were more than sufficient.
Mazur: Do you know anything about the conditions in which others were detained?
Stepanov: As far as I know, the guys who end up with the “Cossacks” and the Chechens are kept in a regular pit outdoors, they give them a loaf of bread for 10 people a day. Plus, they abuse them physically and mentally. We had only mental abuse. Each one would come up to us and say there “Ukropy, ukri [lit. “dill weeds,” pejorative name for Ukrainians—The Interpreter]…I won’t continue with what other interesting words were said about what we were, and what they thought about us.
Mazur: Did they threaten you?
Stepanov: Well, they didn’t threaten us that badly, but they did mock us. Like, “we’re come to your house, if you do the same thing.” That sort of thing. That is, they psychologically pressured us.
Mazur: Who was there?
Stepanov: I won’t say. They were all dressed essentially almost alike. They didn’t have written on their foreheads whether they were Russian or not Russian. I didn’t look at their faces in particular and I didn’t particularly listen to their conversation. It wasn’t the place or the conditions to do so.
I know one medic came to visit me who was totally in a Russian uniform. And his accent was far from Ukrainian. Even the Ukrainian Russian language was very different from his accent. It was obvious that the man was from Russia. I won’t be surprised if it turns out that he is from somewhere outside of Moscow, because his speech was very similar.
I didn’t see Buryats, for example. Understandably, information gets around. I had a friend who was laying in the next ward, he told me: they were ambushed, they took fire, and lost some men. But in fact, they took a small number, 20 Russian soldiers, into captivity.
Mazur: Who did you encounter?
Stepanov: We encountered the “militia,” the Vostok Battalion. We were told that they were all locals, all Donetsk people. But in the final analysis, as it turned out, not only were there Donetsk people there, there were people from Zaporozhe and my fellow countrymen from Krivoy Rog. There are people there from all over Ukraine. I don’t know how they justify their switch to that side. Of course they beat their chests that it is only for the sake of an idea, that no one pays them. But as for people from Krivoy Rog who possibly live with me in the same district, and we might have even crossed paths, they’re fighting there — and I don’t understand what idea they have. If a person is from the Donbass — that’s understandable that he has an idea. But what kind of idea can you have if you’re from Krivoy Rog — and you’re in Donetsk Region? I don’t think a normal person will go just like that under fire to another city. What interest he has — I don’t understand. Most likely they pay them pretty well there, but they’re silent about it.
By the way, that guy from Krivoy Rog came in to visit, he really wanted to take a look at us, because a large number of the POWs were from Krivoy Rog. He came to take a look at us, and he looked at us…Well, I don’t know, they look at bums nicer than he looked at us.
Mazur: How were you exchanged? On what principle do they let people out, in general?
Stepanov: I don’t know on what principle. The volunteer guys said that no one publicizes the mechanism for exchange. They don’t even publicize the approximate list and the dates. Because, for example, they’ll say: tomorrow we will exchange people, and somebody will get up in the morning on the wrong foot, and everything will go upside down. But for a POWs, the news that he will be exchanged is like news about the birth of a baby. You wait for that day like manna from heaven. You want to see your family, hug your family members, and forget about all of this.
This is how it was for us. Somewhere after lunch, their “zampolit” as I understood it came and said: “You two, get dressed, get your things, today you’re going to the exchange.” We were loaded up into a vehicle and they drove a bunch of us away.
There were eight of us driven, there were three ambulances and two minibuses. Our guys came to pick us up and had one ambulance and one Bogdan [a kind of Ukrainian car–The Interpreter]. The guys who had the Ilizarov frames, without legs, were simply traveling in the bus. I, as non-ambulatory, with broken, gun-shot legs, traveled on a stretcher on the back seats for four or five hours until Kramatorsk. Let’s say the conditions for exchange that the seps provided us were much better than ours. That’s how it was, somehow.
Mazur: What functions does their “zampolit” perform?
Stepanov: At first he came to visit us, he was just interested in how we felt, whether we were abused mentally or physically. We ourselves began to ask him what news there were, so as to somehow orient ourselves in space. Because you’re sitting inside the four walls. Yes, you seem to have your own guys with you, but each one is thinking to himself how he acted, correctly or incorrectly, well, you understand.
So we began to ask him, and he began to bring some information. Usually, the news was just from one side — just theirs. The only important thing that he said — it was possible that soon there would be an exchange, that only the wounded would be exchanged, but he warned us that he didn’t want us to get our hopes up yet.
Mazur: Maybe you can recall what he said at the very end, when he left?
Stepanov: Usually, they just kept pulling him away. That is, he would come visit us, bring some sort of news, tell some sort of stories of his own, that he was a civilian or something, that he couldn’t stand the outrage of the Ukrainian junta, and that he went and became a fighter. Like, he would tell us his life story. At the end of each visit someone would call him and he would supposedly have to get somewhere right away.
Mazur: That is, it was purely informational influence — he would come, he would ask how you were, then he would say, I’m so-and-so, how are you, and then load up on information?
Stepanov: Yes, yes, yes!
There were manipulations of sorts. “Look who you’re fighting against, everyone here are civilians, there are no fighters here.” He would say things like, “When you get out of captivity, the SBU will work you over.” the hint was, “Guys, it’s not worth fighting any more.”
All of those who came to visit us would ask the standard questions, and say the standard slogans. I don’t know how to say it correctly — whether it was an incubator or not, where he was a clown or not.
Mazur: What questions? What slogans?
Stepanov: I can’t reproduce them exactly. It was like, “Why did you come here, who are you fighting against? This is the civilian population here, women, children. You’re shooting at Donetsk.” It was like we were the first to take up arms, and we were the first to start killing people.
Mazur: How did you answer these questions?
Stepanov: Well, how could we answer? We were mobilized, we were given a command, and we are military people — they gave us a command and we moved out.
Mazur: How did they react?
Stepanov: Each one in a different way. Some of them started to get mad. Some of them were understanding, because a soldier is a soldier.
I can say that they have expressed aggression toward such battalions as Right Sector and Aidar.
Mazur: That is, to the volunteers?
Stepanov: Yes. They tried to push this information on us ,that the guys from there had started to rape girls, to cut off their nipples, to blow foam…I don’t believe it.
There were foul balls, that we shelled Donetsk…I personally saw, when we were at Maryinka, how they shelled the center of Donetsk from Petrovsky District. I personally saw how two separatist Grads fired a whole cassette in the direction of the city. Their location was not visible — it was behind the slag heaps, but I saw how a Grad was firing at the center of Donetsk. And then the news would go out that Ukrainian forces were shelling the city, and civilians and so on.
Mazur: Can you already analyze now to what extent the news that the zampolit was bringing you was true?
Stepanov: I didn’t gotten involved in analysis yet. For now, I’m trying to forget everything that happened in Krasny Partizan, in captivity.
But it was apparent that they were all working “from a textbook”. That was what really made me sick — the same questions over and over, sometimes you didn’t even feel like answering. This was in order to convince a person that he really was wrong, that he was fighting for some sort of incomprehensible junta, for fascism, for America…And convince him once again that really he was killing the civilian population. If a person was mentally weak, then it would eat away at him inside, and fester, and finally it would turn out that he would get home and he would start fooling around with alcohol or something even worse — he would start abusing his wife or his kid. That is, they work a person over so that when he gets out to civilian life, he will no longer be functional.
Mazur: What can you do? How can you resist this?
Stepanov: I don’t know. I’m the kind of person, for example, that doesn’t absorb a lot. I saw it, I was there. I will work all this over inside and then forget it. I discard excess information. Yes, for some people it is hard to talk about this, it is hard to remember. I can remember it and talk about it. At this point, I am dealing with it easily.
War is of course awful, but when you have to defend your family, your country your city — whether you like it or not, you have to. I am an opponent of war, an opponent of deciding issues by fists. It is easier for me to just talk with a person. You can punch somebody in the face at any time, but to talk with a person, understand why something is going on — that’s more interesting.
Mazur: Was it scary? Perhaps your hands shook…
Stepanov: The first time my hands shook was when I was standing at the first checkpoint. At that time the guys were going on trips, taking the “radishes,” the bad people, and the news came that somewhere they had taken one of the Chechens. Then there was a rumor that the Chechens had set put a large sum on our heads. Then you realized that you were at war. This went away after a few weeks, you simply forgot it, somehow. I was afraid in Pisky. After I was wounded, my instinct for self-preservation kicked in with each mortal shell, even when our guys were shelling, when it fell, I would try to crouch down in a pit so that if there was an explosion, it wouldn’t catch me.
Later on, it wasn’t so frightening. There wasn’t any fear in Krasny Partizan. There was an understanding of what was going on: a shoot-out, mortars were being thrown at you, tanks, and then the moment of capture. When there was only four of us, I saw how the guys one after another did not fall — there was no fear. I understood everything, I realized it. They asked questions — I answered, and saw what was happening around me. I realized that the line was coming closer and closer to me. I realized that they could shoot me now. Well, let’s put it this way, it is a hopeless situation and a situation in which you are helpless. But there wasn’t the desire to beg for something. You know, how they show in movies, where a person begins to sob hot tears and beg, “just let me live, I will kiss your feet.” There was nothing like that. I thought, well, what will be will be. It was like that, somehow.