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“They act like bandits in the 90s, only instead of iron and blowtorch they have firearms”: Invaders Kidnap Activists in the Luhansk Region and Cut Off the Region from Communications

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The Russian-Ukrainian war began on February 20, 2014, when Russian mercenaries invaded Crimea and the Donbas. The invaders “annexed” the peninsula to Russia and formed pseudo-republics in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Eight years later, Russia restored its forces on the borders and launched a full-scale war against Ukraine. In the territories that were occupied by Russian troops after February 24, the occupiers committed atrocities, pillaged, raped and tortured people.

Bucha, Moshchun, Borodianka, and Hostomel became known worldwide as a result of their atrocities. There is a lot of information about the Kharkiv, Sumy, and Chernihiv regions. And very little about the Luhansk Region, which, according to the chairman of the Luhansk OVA, as of May 25, was 95% occupied. It is because residents have their communications jammed, their calls tapped, and they are prohibited from communicating with residents of non-occupied territories.

We were able to speak with residents of Svatove, Luhansk Region, which was occupied in early spring. We use it as an example to talk about the crimes committed by the invaders in the temporarily occupied territories, their methods of kidnapping activists, the food situation in the city, and the local quislings.

“We were told ‘that’s it’ and there was nothing we could do.”

The small town of Svatove has about 18,000 inhabitants, and you might have heard of it, for example, back in 2014, when the “LNR referendum” was disrupted there. Or in 2015, when an ammunition depot exploded outside the city. Then its name was simply added to the list of settlements close to the frontline and forgotten. But already in 2022, the city’s population increased dramatically, sheltering thousands of residents from surrounding towns seeking escape from war and occupation.

Militants of the so-called “LNR” occupied Starobils, Troyitske, Novopskov, and Shchastia one after another, effectively encircling Svatove. At first, Russian vehicles were spotted in the vicinity. Then the visits began. There were several of them, locals called them “negotiations”, and lasted a whole week, from February 28 to March 7. What did the invaders want to talk about? About the need to replenish food, water, and fuel supplies. About “orders to restore order”. About “coming in peace”. Their “peace” looked, however, rather peculiar. According to the locals, during the first “negotiations” the Russians fired machine guns right by the feet of the citizens, to discourage them from getting too close.

When the above-mentioned reasons for coming here were no longer sufficient, the Russians began to make them up. One night they broke into the local military enlistment office, then claimed they had just come to turn off the lights. Later they took an allegedly forgotten bottle of water and left. Obviously, they simply needed to keep a constant presence in the city to monitor, control, and find a suitable moment for the occupation. That moment came during the next round of “negotiations”.

On the morning of March 8, the invaders entered the city for good. According to the locals, they could not resist the armed soldiers, and only tried to express their opinions and raise Ukrainian flags. “These events are banned. This is no longer the territory of Ukraine. Ukraine, period, is no more,” the locals quoted one of the invaders.

“Then their chief arrived. When we saw him, we understood why they waited so long, he was on a tour all over the region,” says Oleksandra, “We were told ‘that’s it’ and there was nothing we could do because they were armed. And when they said that ‘it was it’, our whole crowd started weeping.”

According to Yevhen Rybalko, the former head of Svatove, Vita Slipets, who headed the community, did not immediately realize that a full-scale war had begun: “On February 28, we went out to meet the invaders. After that, I came to my senses, and talked to her, because there wasn’t even a military blackout in the city, but she said: “Why are you sowing panic?” and that was it.” Vita Slipets ignored our request to confirm the information via a web messenger.

After the “new government” occupied the town, Vita Slipets and the acting head of the Svatove police, Natalia Ruban, immediately surrendered their powers. The heads of the Svatove administration and the district council, according to local residents, were already absent from the city on February 24. Then it would become known that the head of the district council Liudmyla Rusanova defected to the “LNR” and received their passport. We tried to talk to her, but Liudmyla Rusanova blocked our number. There was also no Territorial Defense or the Armed Forces of Ukraine; everyone was fighting in Rubizhne.

“Bag on the head, handcuffs – it’s their standard procedure.”

A week after the occupation of Svatove, the invaders entrenched and began “working”: they intensified their hunt for activists, and stepped up searches and kidnappings. In their language, this was called “restoring order”. One of the activists, Oleksandr, was also kidnapped by workers of the so-called “Security Ministry of the LNR”. The invaders broke into his apartment on the morning of March 16.

“There were about 8 or 9 of them. They conducted a search, put a bag on my head, and handcuffed me. They interrogated me from the morning until 5:30 p.m. They had information that I had disrupted the referendum in 2014 and that I had trained Azov and Aidar and collaborated with the SBU. But I didn’t cooperate and didn’t train anyone. When they took me out, they didn’t beat me up, but they hit me a little on the arms, and with the butt of a rifle. They put a gun to my head and made it click, they intimidated me. And then they started recruiting me, but I told them: “No, I’m already old.” At first, I thought they took me to the military enlistment office, but then, when they took me back, the bag was not tight and I saw that the place was like the local warehouses outside the city, where in 2015, ammunition exploded,” says Oleksandr. He is in safety now, he left because the invaders were looking for him again, but his relatives stayed in Svatove.

Active locals began to leave the city because of increased repression. The occupiers went (still go) door-to-door, checking, looking for activists, soldiers, and men with a military background.

“They are catching, interrogating. There was a young policeman who was badly beaten. But not all of them were,” Oleksandr says, “There were policemen kneeling in front of the station and being interrogated one by one. Also with a bag over their head, handcuffs – that’s their standard procedure. I wouldn’t call their methods professional. They act like gangsters in the 90s, only instead of iron and blowtorch they have firearms.”

The invaders brutally treated the activist we codenamed Yu. L. Locals said that he was away from home for a long time, and then people found the activist in the treeline, badly beaten, and took him to the hospital. The locals thought Yuri was dead for some time, but one of his friends refuted this and assured them that the man was at home. However, there is no contact with him.

Among those interrogated by the invaders was also Yevhen Rybalko, the former head of the city, who managed Svatove from 2002 to 2005 and from 2010 to 2020: “Three times I was checked by various armed groups since the beginning of March. On the night of March 22-23 at 3 a.m., a special raid came for me. They searched me, turned everything over, and found some documents (official correspondence on the explosions of ammunition in 2015). They didn’t find my weapons and took 3 damaged hunting rifles from the safe. Searches were also conducted at neighboring houses. They took me away demonstratively, boldly, questioned why I stayed in the city, what activities I was planning, they asked for passwords, and I got in trouble for the Orthodox church, because there was no more Ukrainian church in the Luhansk Region, only in Svatove, and I had something to do with it, for Mozgovoy, whom we kicked out in 2014 [Mozgovoy was a collaborator who represented the so-called “LNR” and came to Svatove in 2014 for a “referendum”, in 2015 he was killed by unknown people]”.


Yevhen Rybalko

The former mayor was interrogated at the premises of the “LNR Security Ministry”, trying to persuade him to cooperate in various ways: “On the first floor, they did not take the bag off my head, they did not take the duct tape off, they “accidentally” poured boiling water on me, used electric tasers, and broke my ribs. In the evening they took me up to the second floor, that’s when they finally took all those things off me and offered me tea and coffee and good, original cigarettes, not “Serbian junk”, as they said. Now, these were Russians, dressed in good tactical clothes, they spoke English. If on the first floor they told me that I was an enemy of the “republic”, that the people of Svatove did not like me, on the second floor, they told me that I was honored and offered to head the district. They knew that my daughter and mother were here, and they said they would control me. They also asked what happened when they saw the [burns] from the boiling water, I said that I was treated to tea and spilled it.” At the end of March, Yevhen Rybalko left the city.

“We have a woman on the street praying for Chechens to come to Sievierodonetsk and exterminate the Nazis.”

The traitor Liudmyla Rusanova, former head of the Svatove district council and now a collaborator with the invaders, was not the only one in the city. The former deputy mayor of the city Liudmyla Zhadanova was spotted with her at the celebration of the anniversary of the “LNR”. Liudmyla Rusanova

Liudmyla Zhadanova (next to Rusanova)

Together with them is Tetiana Korolko, formerly a teacher of Ukrainian language and literature, who also took the side of the invaders, and now, according to local reports, claims that “nothing Ukrainian will be taught at the school anymore”. We tried to talk to the teacher, but she refused: “I’m sorry, but I don’t know you, so I can’t give any information.” Other teachers from Svatove also agreed to cooperate with the collaborators: teacher Iryna Bila, who now heads the General School №7, and Natalia Volkodav, who has been appointed “head of the education department” by the invaders.

Tetiana Korolko (photo from her Facebook page)

Natalia Volkodav (photo from her Facebook page)

Iryna Bila (photo from her Facebook page)

According to one of the representatives of the legitimate authorities in Svatove, at least seven local policemen, including the former deputy chief of the Svatove police, Ihor Dechko, also began cooperating with the occupiers. According to our source, which requested to remain anonymous for safety reasons because his relatives remained under occupation, after the arrival of the “new authorities”, Ihor Dechko was engaged in stealing cars from local businessmen, but then, the invaders “transferred” him to the Novopskov District to one of the leading positions in the occupation police.

Ihor Dechko

And the PR (Informational) Department in the Svatove district administration under the so-called “LNR” was headed by Pavlo Kushch, formerly a journalist of the local TV company, editor-in-chief of Radio Svatove, and a volunteer in 2014-2018. This was reported to us by his former colleague, who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns about the safety of her relatives who are fighting in the Luhansk Region. The page of the “youth integration center” in “VKontakte” shows that Pavlo Kushch was present at the “Descendats Worthy of Their Fathers” event, and he was also spotted at the anniversary celebration of the “LNR”.

According to local residents, there are enough traitors among ordinary citizens in the city as well.

“We have a woman living on our street who is always waving to tanks and saying that she prays to God that Chechens come to Sievierodonetsk and exterminate the Nazis. She has a daughter who lives in Sievierodonetsk herself and says, “It doesn’t concern her,” a resident Olha (name changed for safety reasons) told us. “We see Ukrainian missiles flying at the occupants’ positions and when they shoot them down, we are disappointed, and our neighbor walks and laughs like a horse, and when an invader was around here and crouched here on the edge of the road, she would run towards him, saying, “Oh, maybe you feel bad, maybe you need some water?”

“There will be a lot of information when we get liberated, but right now it’s dangerous”

There is practically no communication in the city, the invaders try to avoid any information leaking outside the “republic”. But sometimes we do manage to talk to the locals. According to a local woman we contacted, the invaders are busy “organizing” their everyday life. The soldiers break into locked, empty stores, and get into abandoned houses. They have already robbed the only Orthodox church in the region, leaving behind a shot-up door (photo).

Their basic products were brought to the city from occupied Starobilsk, but they either were expensive or of poor quality. There is no cash in ATMs, and local “businessmen” withdraw money for a 35-50% commission. Our interviewee Olha says that she only ate bread once in the last month. The woman simply cannot afford to buy food. The woman says that despite this, she is not going to go to work “because Ukraine won’t thank her for that later”.

Farmers are forced to sow at gunpoint and give 70 percent of their crops to the “republic”. According to an employee of one of the enterprises, grain is regularly stolen.

Oleksandra says that much is being silenced in the city. For example, there is no information anywhere about the three local young men who were shot when they went to remove Russian flags from buildings. There is also no information about the Ukrainian wounded prisoners in the Svatove hospital, which has now been turned into a military field hospital for the so-called “LNR”.

“There will be a lot of information when we get liberated, but right now it’s dangerous,” say the locals. They are now trying to help in any way they can. For example, when someone has an Internet connection, they send information about the collaborators to the Security Service of Ukraine.

Albina Karman, Maksym Opanasenko

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