A pro-Ukrainian activist accused of spying for the Ukrainian army in Donetsk has endured hours of public humiliation orchestrated by the armed rebels in the centre of the eastern city.
Freed with the help of foreign journalists, Iryna Dovgan was on her way out of the rebel held area when the BBC’s Dina Newman spoke to her.
Ms Dovgan is a gently spoken 52-year-old resident of Yasynuvata – a town just outside Donetsk. Before the war she ran a beauty salon.
When the conflict started, she decided to help the Ukrainian army. So she collected donations from local residents – she said there were plenty – and delivered food and medication to an army unit stationed in the region.
One day, she decided to take photos of the supplies on her tablet in order to account to her donors for the money she spent on their behalf. Those photos turned out to be a very bad idea.
“This was my mistake. Someone must have found out what I was doing, and informed the separatists,” she said.
“Fighters from the rebel Vostok battalion came to my town, Yasynuvata, and detained me in the garden, while I was watering my plants. Most of our neighbours had fled by then, so no-one noticed when I went missing.”
Iryna was blindfolded and taken to the battalion’s base.
During the first interrogation, she revealed the passwords for her online accounts but refused to name those who helped her.
The fighters got frustrated with her and sent her to another group of interrogators, whom she believes came from North Ossetia in the North Caucasus.
“Those guys had an altogether different approach. They beat me, they threatened and tortured me, they shot pistols next to my ears, so I lost most of my hearing, they made me shout Sieg Heil.
“They threatened to rape me in the most sadistic ways they would describe to me in detail. I was crawling on the floor, begging them to shoot me.”
‘Praying for death’
But the rebels did not want to kill her, yet. Instead, they came up with another elaborate torture.
“They wrapped me in a Ukrainian flag, they hang a poster around my neck saying: ‘She kills our children.’ And they took me to the centre of Donetsk”.
The rebels accused Iryna of providing the Ukrainian army with information on targets in Donetsk. Many residential areas in the city have been shelled, so this is a strong accusation in the eyes of the locals – even when it comes without any proof.
“I stood there, holding to lamppost, in order not to collapse. I was in tears. One woman squashed two tomatoes against my face, and tomato juice was running into my eyes so I couldn’t see much.
“Passers-by were curious. People would drive up in nice cars, come over and pose for photos with me. Young men came with their girlfriends. Men did not hit me, but local women were vicious. One elderly woman hit me on the head and shoulders with her walking stick.”
Iryna said she stood there for three hours, guarded by armed Ossetian fighters. They would hit her every time she started to collapse.
She says she heard them laughing and discussing what else they could do to her. She was praying for death the whole time. She was scared of what they could do to her afterwards, in private.
“Eventually, some strangers came up to me, they were calm, and that’s how they stood out from the crowd. They turned out to be photographers. They took a few pictures and left. These pictures saved my life.”
Foreign journalists who had witnessed Iryna’s plight, got in touch with the commander of Vostok battalion, Alexander Khodakovsky.
The commander, a former military man, said he had not been aware of the story and was outraged by the cruelty of his fighters.
Iryna was released with apologies. Today, fleeing eastern Ukraine, she doubts that any of her tormentors will ever be punished.