“Run away! Run while you still can!”

While news coverage and analysis are important, they should be taken together with first-hand accounts, not to replace them. For one, familiarity with first-hand evidence is immensely helpful when trying to determine the validity of reports and analyses; also, some accounts are simply worth reading to better understand human nature. This is one such account.

See footnotes and links for references, UN documents confirming Lilia's account, and further reading.


“Run away! Run while you still can!”
Interview by Marina Ahmedova

Types of Dead Men
Lilia Rodionova is a member of the DPR Committee on Prisoners Of War. I came to her with a list of names – Ukrainian soldiers that went missing back in August.

"We don't have them" – I got that answer in the Cossack unit in Sverdlovsk, where their mothers thought they might be, and before that in Donetsk, and other DPR and LPR units. Mothers of the missing soldiers say their children have been taken to Russia by FSB operatives. Every time I have to tell them yet another inquiry has been fruitless, then they ask me: "Why can't we find our children?"

–Remenuk… – Lilia goes through the list of names. – Remenuk's KIA. And his mom knows about it. They just haven't come to terms with it, even though there is a DNA match. They still refuse to believe.

For example, I talked to one father, he'd call every day... His son worked in Moscow for 15 years, visited home, literally the next morning military commissars came and conscripted him. He had some fancy combat boots... The dad was asked to identify the body by the boots, but he refused. He was told - "okay, if you don't want the one in the boots, just take another one”.

I also have a story where they had a complete DNA match three times, but the mother doesn't agree with the results. A mother knows her son – if a grown man was missing a tooth, he's not going to grow it back. And they were giving her a body with an extra tooth. "I'm sorry… But there is an extra tooth… I won't take that one." - "What do you mean? He's a DNA match. Take him."

= You mean the DNA tests are sometimes forged?

– I don't know. I don't have a way to find out what goes on over there. I also meet parents that refuse to believe their children are dead, even if there is a DNA match. Some crooks already cheated Remenuk's mother out of 50 – 60,000 hryvna [12 average monthly salaries] by promising to bring him back from captivity.

What started it all were rumors or claims that Russian soldiers took them prisoner. I had a list of 40 people. Remenuk was in there,Karpov too, Oleg Chizh… The mothers claimed they were supposedly held in Lefortovo, [St. Petersburg, Russia].

- "What does your son do?”
- “He's a taxi driver.”
- “Yours?”
- “Plumber.”
- “Yours?”
- “Teacher."

Why would anybody bother dragging them to Lefortovo? Nobody is interested in common privates. They aren't there, of course.

There were a few cases when the wounded UAF soldiers from Ilovaisk encirclement were taken to Russia. Hospitals here in Donetsk were 60 miles away, and the roads were shelled. So it was easier to send them to Russia, to the Rostov hospital.

We also had some cases when we'd help a prisoner's family move to our side and then with him to Russia, because he did not want to be forced back to the frontlines if he goes back to Kiev side*. But common privates in prisons in Russia - that’s just fairytales.

Then there were rumors they were sold to Chechens as slaves.

All the psychics suddenly started telling mothers they see their children working in harsh conditions in brick factories near running water.

There we started getting other versions – "they are working in the coal mines in Donbass!" What mines?! They are mostly closed down, and there are tons of unemployed miners around here competing for work. Completely insane!

Nowadays, there's another vision from the psychics - they are cutting snow somewhere around the North Pole or thereabouts, I have no idea why. Also that they are working at the grape plantations in Crimea. Etc. etc.…

Also there is a POW list from the well-known general Ruban (Ukrainian general known for his work on prisoner exchanges – ed.). Those "missing in action" are listed as "prisoners of war" in there. Why? I don't know.

= Missing in action – is that the same as dead?

Nine out of 10 times. There are places still remaining with possible mass graves, we're still searching for them. And yesterday, we were also searching for remains… In Lugansk, a CSI worker told me this: he lives in Hryschevatoe, and right when all the fighting happened, pro-government fighters came to him and asked for gasoline. He asked them why – they told him they need to burn the bodies. He goes:

- "What are you thinking? Burning the bodies is really bad! The DNA analysis wouldn't work".

– "But what about the corpse poison?"

And they told him bunch of myths about poison seeping from corpses and destroying everything around. He says - "Bury them! Burning is forbidden! In the earth, they will be good for DNA analysis 50 years from now. If you burn them, no way!"

Who can identify the burned bodies?
- The people away from the war, on the other side, they don't understand that when the ammo blows, there's nothing left of the tank. The armor gets red-hot and melts, flows like glue. What body recovery? Everything gets burned to a piece this big - Lilia shows her fist - no DNA in that. We can only ID the crew by the unit number of the tank. That's all we can do. One woman was coming to me and kept demanding and demanding we "give her back her son": (in Ukrainian) "Where he is? Not captured, not dead..." And where is he? Well, where?!

In Starobeshevo, there were body fragments hanging on power lines and trees. Bodies torn to pieces. And yesterday, we were in Uglegorsk, digging up fragments. Guys from the other side took them, but could not go back because of the shelling. So they spent the night, and went back this morning. They were shocked by the shelling yesterday, of course… Also, foxes and dogs drag the body pieces all over the place. And also sometimes the other side only takes what they like, and doesn't take the rest.

= What don't they want to take?

- So in Novogrigor'evka, the guys gathered up whatever they could and buried it in the foxholes. The "Officer Corps" representative came for it now, her callsign is Changar. She did take the recognizable remains, but the burnt stuff – fragments, arms, legs – they just left there. Who needs them? Who will recognize them?

= So why did you take them?
– To send them back.

= So you take rotten body fragments, load them up in a car and send them back?
- Of course. In Chernuhino, when people started coming back to the smashed houses, they started finding bits - simply bits of skull. We gather what we can, put it in a Ziploc bag and send it.

Talk to the draft board

- Chizh Oleg… I've been talking to his sister for a while. She only had her brother, nobody else. And she was one of the first to start calling: "Oleg Chizh! Oleg Chizh, missing in action!"

We started asking around - did anybody see Oleg? And one of the POWs said that it was him, but once he was exchanged, turned out that it was a lie. When they asked him why he did that, he said: I heard that everybody's looking for him, so I thought if I say I'm him, I get home quicker. So he turned out to be a liar and we all thought Oleg is alive. We've been looking for Oleg everywhere and went through all conspiracy theories, even Russia and Chechnya. And the whole time, he was already a DNA matched.

= From the remains?

- Yes. He perished somewhere by Saur-Mogila or Stepanovka. They found his dogtag, and his personalized cross. But on the other side, for long time, they were telling the sister that he is alive - a prisoner here or there. I think they are probably trying to conceal their losses that way.

We also had this prisoner, Nikolai Surmenko from Kherson, I talked to his mom a lot. He is a Chernobyl kid, all sickly, had diabetes and was like 5 feet tall, - she shows the height with her hand.

= Why did he go to war, if he was that sickly?

- Nobody asked him. We've seen conscripts that were taken despite missing fingers. Some have had prior heart attacks.…

- Yes, – Lilia answers her cell phone – I'm busy. No, let's do it in half an hour…

- This is a call from the other side – Lilia explains – the "People's Memory" foundation. We collaborate with them on the POWs…

- Back to Nikolai - his mother was worried that her son is here, but she was also afraid that if we get him back, he will be conscripted again. And the whole village was laughing at her: they didn't believe her son was at the war. They said: you're probably hiding him from conscription somewhere. And when our side released him and he came home, the whole village chipped in - 5000 hryvna to cover medical costs for him…

I had another case where a woman from some backwoods village in western Ukraine, who didn't even know how to use a cell phone, found Ruban's list of POWs somewhere, and her son was number 200-something in there. And she was counting off how many have been let go, how much longer she has to wait. Somebody gave her a cell phone, punched in my number and she asks me (in Ukrainian):

"Dear Lady, please let my son go home.
– Why your son specifically?
– His birthday is tomorrow. He is turning 19, my love.
- We don't have him, and never did.
– How could that be? He is on Ruban's list. "

And she couldn't get the hint that her son is not with us. Not anywhere, any more. I always tell them: go talk to the military commissar's office. They came and took your son, so they are responsible for him. They should be the ones making inquiries. But you know, the government doesn't much care for mothers**…

- There was that one officer that got out of Ilovaysk encirclement. He called me, every day: "How are my men doing? What about this one? And that's one?" He didn't demand that we release them immediately, he simply asked about every single one, and eventually I learned every name along with him. He was the only officer that cared for his soldiers. The only one!

= Do have prisoners of war at the moment?

- Yes. Not many, but we do have them. We use them for prisoner exchanges. I visit them quite often – they got phones, they talk to their relatives. They've got a nursing station in there, they get all medical aid that they need. But in general, we try to hand over the wounded as soon as possible. We had a guy from Debaltsevo. He was in this small truck – they were taking out the wounded. And it was cold back then, you know. Their truck got hit when trying to break through, and those still able to walk, they… left the wounded. He got wounded, and they took his boots and wristwatch: "You don't need it anymore, we do". The wounded were moaning for a few hours, but stopped by evening. He was sitting in the cab with a lieutenant. Lieutenant was 22 years old, also wounded. The lieutenant told him: "Press against me, so we don't freeze". Then the lieutenant died, and he was warming against him, until the body got cold. For three days, he would crawl out of the cab to lick snow, but on the third day, he got too weak to crawl back inside. When the militiamen came and picked him up, he thought they were angels in heaven.

= How did they understand he was alive?

- He was moaning. They brought him in with severe frostbite. I forgot to tell you -he was a surgeon himself, military medic. His blood pressure was low, whole body wasn't bending. We arranged everything with the other side right away – ready your best medical team! We wanted him to keep both his hands. But he lost the right one.

Politics in prison

= Do you have information about the treatment of captured militiamen?

- They're treated badly, but we don't take revenge. We just want them to understand: we are civilized humans, and want to treat each other as humans. Those that have brains will get the message.

= You don't take revenge because you're against violence, or just because you want to get your message across?

- So that nobody would hurt anybody! They need to understand us – nobody should act like that! Beasts don't act like that! Some civilians take up arms after being imprisoned. We had one hardcore criminal here, he lorded over a huge prison before the war. He lived in Debaltsevo. After shelling he stepped into the street to check what happened to his house, and was arrested as a suspected separatist (for breaking curfew? - ed.). Then they made us take him in a prisoner exchange. Afterwards he immediately volunteered for the militia, although mafia law is that criminals are against working with any sort of government and don't meddle in politics. Although that’s no longer true, prisons are politicized now. When our comrades are accused of separatism and sent to prisons, the inmates do horrible things to them.

= What do inmates care?

- Well, I guess they are still from the other side, or something. Don't know really, why they care. Although I will tell you a different case. Some civilians were captured near Snezhnoe. They were first kept at Kramatorsk airfield, in the holes in the ground with some dead people with them, and later one of them was sent to a prison in Poltava, housed with criminals. That's another way of government torture – getting thrown in with them. And this kid was severely beaten, and when another one, Alexei Zhukov, was thrown in there, they knocked all of his teeth out. He has diabetes. So his blood sugar started getting unbalanced, he started having seizures. Then the local mafia boss found out about these tortures, and everything went away instantly. The criminals were even chewing food for Alexei. So, there are lots of different cases.

Held prisoner near my home

- I've been a prisoner on the other side myself, too. In July 2014. I started going to Slavyansk, evacuating the wounded and sick, both military and civilian. We took everybody we could fit in the ambulance. Then I started going to Snezhoe. That time, I was going to Marinovka to pick up a wounded Ukrainian soldier and bring him to Donetsk hospital.

= Why did you decide to risk your life for an enemy soldier?

- What does it matter to me? We spent the whole day transporting the wounded, and in the end, he was last one left, and he needed to get to the hospital. It was already dark, and we drove into a Ukrainian checkpoint. Don't know how it appeared on that road. They shot up the ambulance, don't know how we survived. We hid in such small spaces in there, don't know how we even fit.

= Who was manning the checkpoint?

- Border guard, I assume.

= But the Ukrainian border guards supposedly don't beat or abuse prisoners?

- They didn't beat us. They were even unsure what to do. Let us go, maybe? When I got out of the ambulance in a nurses uniform, they were like: "Holy s**t, doctors!" And I was like: "Who did you expect in an ambulance?". We had our lightbar on, so everybody could see. But they shot because they were scared, thought it was a sabotage group. After lots of arguing, they decided to send us along, to prisoner camps. We were sent to Uspenka, from there – to Solntsevo, in Starobeshevo district. That's where physical abuse started. From there, we were taken to Kramatorsk by helicopter.

= What do you mean by physical abuse?

- Beatings with rifle butts – my shoulder still hurts sometimes. Stripping naked, not sure why. Being forced to crawl on the ground, staging fake executions***.

= Did you crawl?

- The rest had to crawl, I was walked with a bag on my head. And were beaten with rifle butts.

= What did you feel when you were stripped naked? Shame?

- I thought nothing. I had a bag in my head. I was asked later – "did you pray?" Yes, I prayed. "Lord help me." That was all I could think of.

So, they liked to do that for some reason. It was hard for me to strip, of course. But then I thought - if they want it, I don't care. Later, they allowed me to stay dressed. But the bag on my head had stayed on.

= So, you haven't seen them?

- No. I've seen this sneakers of one of them in Solntsevo, that's it. Only heard their voices.

Later, they took us to Izum. There were cops there, they were like the border guards – "You are medics, why did they even take you?" Brought us water, then some bread and tea, and put us in a simple jail cell.

There we were sent to State Security prison in Kharkov. We were waiting in the car for a while, and started talking with the guards, even though that was forbidden. But one of them said:
- "I was born in Russia. And during the Maidan, I was in the riot police there".
- “You were with the riot police? What are you doing here then?”
- “I kept my oath of service.”
- “Who did you swear to?”
- “To the people.”
- “Well, I'm "the people". And I'm sitting here in front of you in handcuffs and with a bag on my head.”
- “But you're a separatist.”
- “You know why I'm a separatist? Because one other people were rioting, I worked during the day. And in the evening, when I came from home from work, I switched on the TV and tried to figure out what was happening. And when they started beating you guys, throwing Molotov cocktails at you… I went to the rallies and I shouted… I didn't shout – "I want to join Russia!", I shouted – "The police are the real heroes!" We didn't know how else to help you. We just came to the rallies and shouted, so everybody saw that we supported you. Live with that, if you can!”

And when they were taking us away, he patted my hand, and then found my hand in handcuffs and shook it twice. That's it.

= Was that handshake a dear gesture to you?

- Let that be a dear gesture to him! If he survived the fighting, let him dwell on that!

- The Russian Foreign Ministry even asked the State Security in Kharkov about us, but they were told we were not there. Because we were there illegally, without paperwork. I was told my fingerprints - which I was never even fingerprinted - that my fingerprints were found on four grenade launchers. And then talking started: "The people are looking for them already". That was a joy – somebody's looking for us. Then they stopped beating us so badly. My mom lives in Solntsevo. It's about 7 miles from the place we were being held to the house where I was born.

A being without anything

- Back then, we also gave an amulet to one Ukrainian officer. I don't know if he survived, Starobehevo meatgrinder was very hardcore later on.

= Why did you give him the amulet?

- Cause if not for him, we would have been killed. There was some other battalion stationed around there. They all talked in Ukrainian. And when that officer went to lunch, they came up to us, started talking in West Ukrainian dialect. Started kicking us:
- "You, fascist, came to take my land"
- "My mother lives seven miles from here! How far away is your house?!"

The officer came back, saw what's going on, shouted everybody away and posted guards, forbid coming up to us and talking. Otherwise, God knows what would've happened. Could have easily ended up raped or crippled – looked like that's about to happen. They were pissed – this was 23rd or 24th of July, and 21st through 22nd they had lots of friendly fire.

You see, they had a large unit in Kashty. This village is so small, it's not even marked on the maps, but many of the parents call me now to talk about it because that's where their children went missing. See – Lilia draws a map on a piece of paper – there are some fields here, then there is a river, and then – that village. And for some reason, they started shooting that unit from there, and this side started shooting back. And it escalated so much, the whole place was burnt to cinders. I know because we were thrown into a shell crater, and I touched the ground around. That's where the strawberries used to grow – I'm local, I know. Now, only cinders.

= Why did they shoot their own side?

- Happens quite a lot, actually. Back then, it was mostly accidental, because everybody was scared. Somebody fires – everybody fires back. At that same time, 95th brigade was hit by friendly fire near Kramatorsk. They were scaring us: "We will send you over to the 95th, they are pissed now, they will do you in." That is what they said to me, word for word. You were asking if I imagine what they looked like. Yes, one of them I imagined. Tall, with a nose like this – shows a bent line.

= You are painting some sort of a devil right now.

- He was very cruel. Very. And talked in West Ukrainian dialect. But when we were sitting in the car, someone came up, his voice sounded like he was a very young kid. Started putting a piece of chocolate in my hand: "Eat... eat..." (in Ukrainian). He was whispering, afraid that someone will hear. "Eat... eat…"

= Did you think of yourself as a victim?

- Yes.

= Did you feel violated?

- Yes. I felt powerless. I felt like a being without any rights, without anything.

Not an enemy anymore

= Did you regret your work?

- No. Of course not. I was taking the wounded from a hospital in Seversk. We got there, and there's no electricity – we had to find the hospital in the dark. The nurse called from there, asked us to pick up the wounded. And when we already left, she called some time later and said that half an hour after us, Nazzies (Nationalist Guard paramilitary) came there and looked for wounded. When we were taking the wounded to Donetsk, they couldn't believe someone came and got them.
And two months later, father of one of them called me and said: "Remember the guy named so-and-so?" "– Yes, I do." - "He's dead."
How can I pity myself? Although, yes, before everything happened I had a good job, a cat, dogs.

= Where are they now?

- My house was in the occupied territories for a while.
On August 7th, at night – there was no electricity, I visited home.
I was there for seven minutes exactly.
Met my mom. Petted the dogs, the cat too. And left.
The dogs refused to eat after this. The cat followed suit. And they all died. Now I don't have any pets…
Before, would always have dinner served at seven, pretty tablecloth, flowers on the table. I did not know that I would be able to sleep in tents, eat whatever we can find, in any conditions. Live without any money. Live without any makeup. Without anything that seemed necessary before.

= In the past year, the people here have seen unimaginable horrors. Something worse than in any movie. Why did it happen?

- We, local Donbass people – are just microbes, ants. Who cares about us? There are other forces in action here, huge forces. Everything happened because such was the flow of history. I think that, after all, the Soviet times were good. People here don't want Novorossiya, they don't want Russian Federation. They want to be one Union again.

= To go back to a society that may not have been fair and equal, but at least tried to be?

- I am an obstetric nurse. I've been delivering babies since 1985. I remember a lot of the bad things we found out about when USSR fell. Still, I delivered lots and lots of babies. Eventually, I was delivering babies of the babies I delivered.

= And what do you feel now, when you pick up the pieces of those who you, possibly, brought into this world?

- I saw a lot of dead people… And even if I don't know them, it's hard… We had a case recently. A mother of one kid named Haritonuk called me – her son is missing. And three days later I was in Logvinovo, there are hills there under power lines… And a burnt tank. And this young kid from the militia showed me a gravesite. He buried a pro-Kiev soldier in a shell crater. I look at it, and there is a board on it that says "Haritonuk". I go:

– Oh, his mom was looking for him.
He asks: How old was he?
– I don't remember. How old are you?
– 21. I buried him.

- So, when combat was still happening, he buried the other soldier in a shell crater. Made a mound, found some sticks, tied them in a cross, and even made a board with the name and put a helmet on top…

– He is your enemy. But you did this. Why?
– Noope, he is not an enemy anymore. Will you tell me sometime, how old was he?
– I will.

His mom called. He was 19 years old, that tanker.

= People don't want to kill each other?

- Of course not. We brought prisoners for exchange recently – Lilia starts a new story – and to give back the dead ones, too. And there are trenches right by the car doors at the checkpoint. I stepped out of the car – it's dark. Almost stepped on one soldier's head. They tell us: we don't know anything about the exchange.

– “I'll make a phone call”. And cell phones don't work and like 20 of them already got out of the trenches, and were walking around me – they were interested. One kid comes up to me: "Tell me, is it true that you have wounded children over there?" – "Of course. Wounded, without little feet, little hands, little eyes…" – "You are not lying? That is the truth?" – "That is the truth".

Then a car comes with our guys. I brought four of theirs, and they had eight of ours. And they said: no, then we only give back four.

And you know, even when I was lined up against a wall in front of a firing squad, my hands weren't shaking so much. It's good that it was dark and they couldn't see. I couldn't accept it… They are in front of me, standing with hands tied behind their backs, with bags on their heads. And if I can only take four, what about the rest? I started bluffing as much as I could.

= How?

- I was joking, hugged someone. Said - "I promised you three, and brought you the fourth as a bonus. Give me a bonus too!" And when they gave back all of them, to leave sooner before they change their minds, I took the body bags myself and was moving them to the other car.

Then I went to give back a flashlight they gave to me, and the same kid said from the darkness: "Tell me, what do I do now?" – "Run! Run, while you still can. Run away from here!"
That kid – him, I will remember…

And what would happen with our people from this side and theirs, after the war… It’s like dogs that tasted blood. Such dogs are very hard to deal with later, and people are even harder. Especially women. If she took up arms and started to kill, she becomes very cruel and dangerous. War is an addiction for her. I saw women like this.

People ask me: "what if you had a gun back then?". I don't know what I would do, but I think I wouldn't be able to kill. Just wouldn't be able to. And they also tell me: "you have to hate them". Wait a second… Why do I have to hate someone? I always try to understand a person and understand why they do what they do. They made their choices for a reason. Maybe, they don't understand something, maybe, I don't understand something… But I don't hate…



*There are indeed fairly common cases when UAF soldiers end up POW for the 2nd or even 3rd time, i.e. they’ve been put back on the frontlines
** I.e. “Soldier's mothers of Ukraine” NGO is under constant government pressure, their main website has been closed down. See materi-ua.com/ for more.
*** Despite denials in the mass media, lawless detentions and torture of prisoners are standard policy among pro-Kiev forces, i.e. see UN Reports on Human Rights:
**** Lilia asked to work with POWs after being released from captivity, because that seemed more important to her than her work as a nurse


Other first-hand accounts:

Humantarian Aid and civilians:

LittleHirosima (Evdokiya Sheremet'eva) - Bloggers www.liveleak.com/view?i=d49_1428772269. Now they go weekly.

Alexei Sakhnin, opposition activist who takes shelter from Putin's regime in Sweden, www.liveleak.com/view?i=065_1412532046

Maria Koleda, a www.liveleak.com/view?i=ae8_1411367443

Militiamen and friends:

Goodwin: www.liveleak.com/view?i=8e0_1432350151
Don: www.liveleak.com/view?i=ccd_1428114907www.liveleak.com/view?
Women at war: VIDEOS - www.liveleak.com/view?i=612_1431975128
Murz: Leutenant's daily nightmare - www.liveleak.com/view?i=5ba_1428038478
Faces of the Resistance: www.liveleak.com/view?i=e92_1411522793
Pavel Dremov, CO of Pervomaisk militia: www.liveleak.com/view?i=4e2_1410919197

President's advisor Biryukov: www.liveleak.com/view?i=baa_1422989162
Kiev officer explains Debaltsevo operation - www.liveleak.com/view?i=20b_1424556820