• Iryna Dovgan was humiliated on the market place. (more images scroll above)

  • The Ukrainian soldiers were poorly equipped.

  • Iryna Dovgan shows the picture in her I-pad.

  • Showing on the map how they drove with goods to the soldiers.

  • Iryna Dovgan is now in safety with her family.

Interviews Interview with Iryna Dovgana. The Dignity of Donbas

Iryna Dovgan is one of several women that helped Ukrainian soldiers. But she was caught and imprisoned for several days. She was beaten, injured and humiliated. Today she stands up for her rights and is running in the election campaign.

Published on balticworlds.com on October 25, 2014

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* The article contains statements that reflect the views of the author and the interviewed, not necessary the view of Baltic Worlds’.

Today everything is calm in the city Sloviansk in Donetsk oblast.  Whatever road you take you have to pass a military control station before being able to enter the city. Yet there is no fighting since several months ago. Before the election to the new Ukrainian parliament  this Sunday an intensive election campaign is unfolding also here in Sloviansk.

When Russia after the annexation of Crimea this year draw up the strategy for creating at least a Russian-ruled Novaja Rosija, including the land north of the Black Sea and a great part of the left side of Dnipro, the city of Sloviansk, situated as it is in between Donetsk and Charkiv, became a city of stratigic importance.

The insurgence the 12th of April this year in Sloviansk was led by the former Russian security officer Igor Girkin, who, together with a group of masked soldiers from Crimea, took control over the central administrative buildings in the town. Sloviansk was for months  an important center for the Russian-assisted self-proclaimed Republic of Donbas; Donetskaja Narodnaja Respublika.

After a prolonged counterattack by the Ukrainian army Sloviansk was liberated on the 5th of July.

Election campaign

In a building in the center of Sloviansk Iryna Dovgana has installed her office during the election campaign. She is running for the mandate in the one-mandatory constituency number 47.  Her main slogan is “Donbass – Eto Ukraina!”, Donbas is Ukraina.

Her chances to win the elections is not very high, she estimates herself. More than 30 candidates are running for the mandatory in the constituency and several of them have much more money to spend than Iryna Dovgan.

If she had wanted she could for sure have placed herself at one of several party lists on a place so high that she would have had a secure place in the new parliament. Several parties, among them the party or block of president Petro Poroshenko, gave her such an offer. She could also have decided to run for a mandate in an one-mandatory constituency in another part of the country and she would also then most probably got into the parliament.

She decided however to run in Sloviansk. Although it’s not her hometown and she is not so well known here.

“I was born in Donbas. This is my part of the country. I wanted to show that there is political alternative also in this eastern part of Ukraine. My choose fell on Sloviansk.”

Iryna Dovgan is one of many Ukrainians who have went into policy during this elections.

“I never before had given it a thought to be a politician”, she says and continues: I disliked all the policy in the country. I was happy with our family life. With our house. With my garden where I grow my tomatoes. With our dog, our three cats and our veranda where I could sit down and have a cup of coffee in the morning.”

The house in which Iryna Dovgan, her husband Roman  and their 15-years old daughter Tatjana lived in before the war began in Donbas they had built themselves in the small town Jasynuvata some kilometers north of Donetsk. Today the house is totally ruined by the separatists and by normal people in her former hometown who turned against her and for reasons she cannot understand suddenly during the war “changed into unrecognizable human or inhuman beings”.

“I cannot understand this change. There was no conflict in our town before.”

Tragedy and heroism

The story of Iryna Dovgan is a part of the sad story of Donbas the last year. It’s a story of a tragedy but also a story of heroism and a story with many positive bearings, also for Donbas.

Iryna was brought up in an ethnic mixed family; her father was Russian and her mother Ukrainian and during her childhood she regularly visited her Ukrainian grandmother in Mariupol. She finished study at the agricultural university in Donetsk, but decided later to start her own business in completely  other fields; first she had a shop selling clothes and then she opened a beauty salong.

“I really liked that work. The contact with the clients. The conversations. You can learn so much from people. I must however say, that I have always been reading books.

My mother was the chief of the public library in Jasynuvata. I spent so much time there when I was a kid and a youngster. And could get all the new books first. And a red them. Also Solzhenitsyn.”

With this background it’s perhaps no wonder why Iryna and her family sympathized with the orange revolution in 2004, as well as with the protests against Viktor Janukovich`s corrupt regime 2013-2014, called Euro Maidan or the Revolution of Dignity, a name which may also symbolize everything what Iryna Dovgan has done since June this year. If Euro Maidan was a revolution of Dignity she is the symbol of the Dignity of Donbas.

The Ukrainian army which had liberated Sloviansk by July was  during the second half of June  coming  closer  also to Donetsk and Jasynuvata, the hometown of Iryna and her family.

When the artillery shouting was heavy over the city she stayed in the cellar of their house. Roman and Tatjana left early to family friends in Mariupol.

And why didn’t you leave with them?

“I had a mission to perform. I had a duty. I could not leave,” she states.

The mission which Iryna Dovgana took upon herself was to help the Ukrainian soldiers who were coming closer and should liberate Jasynuvata from the seperatists.

“I was not alone. Several, mostly women helped. One of them was Oksana who is working with me now during the election campaign. We was a group. We collected money, clothes, boots and food. We gathered it my home, ” she tells.

“Me and Oksana were the two deliveing the goods. In order to transport it to the Ukrainian soldiers, they were on the other side of the battle front, we had to make up a story. We told a lie; We told the separatists that we will go with all those things to people in need in Charkiv.

We packed all stuff in my car and went. But not to Charkiv. As we had driven out of Jasynuvata and was on the ‘Ukrainian side’ of the front we turned into to smaller roads and made contact with the Ukrainian soldiers. After unloading we waited some time before going back to Jasynuvata.”

This operations went on and on. Several times. Many times. Each “excursion” even more loaded with goods.

Iryna Dovgan describes:

“The Ukrainian soldiers were so poorly equipped. They were volunteers. No real boots. No real clothes. Lack of food. And they should fight against professional soldiers from Russia! I wined when I saw our soldiers. They could not wash neither themselves nor their underwear.  We took their underwear with us and washed them in Jasynuvata and brought them back. For the money we collected we managed even to buy from Kiev real military clothes. In August we were sure it’s only a matter of days before our soldiers would liberate our town. They were so close. Look here. I will show you on your map.”

Iryna calls for Oksana and both of them bend over my Ukrainian map. They show me how they had driven with Irynas car to reach the soldiers.

“Once , and that was when the front was near, we made a longer excursion to the soldiers who were fighting not on our side of Donetsk but southwest of Donetsk, close to the road from Mairupol up to Donetsk. We drove not on normal roads but across  fields, on roads made for agricultural purpose. When we reached our soldiers they shouted on us: what have you done! This field over which you came is full of mines! We unloaded our things and the Ukrainian soldiers drove before us with a military vehicle which normally is used to dig up military tranches.”

“Look here”, says Iryna.

She takes her I-pod and show me the picture how they are driving behind the military vehicle.

“There was a young soldier who asked me if he could not drive my car. ‘I have not been in a normal car for three months”, he said. Look here. Its this young man. Now I know. I should not have made this. I mean taking photos. It was not that clever. But I was so sure it’s only days, and our soldiers will be in Jasynuvata. And I thought: I want once in the future to show all this for my grandchildren! Look here! It’s me. There Ukrainian military lorries. There Ukrainian soldiers. There the  Ukrainian flag. And  there all those things for the soldiers we had brought with us. I also had a sort of bookkeeping in my I-pad in order to show for people for what the money we gathered had been used. On my I-pad was also my face-book and my contacts with people in Kiev and Mariupol who helped me and from whom we had bought military clothes.”

Without support from inhabitants of Jasynuvata the “mission” of Iryna and Oksana would not have been possible. But far from all inhabitants thought as they. The town was divided and someone whispered  into the ears of  the leaders of the separatist that in that house their lives an Ukrainian patriot.

Violence and threat

They came to Iryna on the 24th of August. Three men.

“They had a paper with them where Ukrainian patriots were listed. I was one of them. I was beaten. And threatened. They wanted that and that, one thing after another. What should I do? Alone woman in my own house? I gave them what they wanted. We had already got to know that they come and steel. I gave them the code to open the safe we had in a closet. I gave them the pin code  to my credit card . I gave them the password to my I-pad which they found in the garden where it was hidden. I thought, if they get everything they will  go and leave me in peace. But when they opened the I-pad and saw the pictures, they decided to take me with them. They put a black shrink over my head so I could not see anything and put me in their car.”

“I soon found that they were not from Donbas. They had to ask for the road when driving. I was taking into Donetsk and to the Vostok Battalion of the special Alfa security forces and direct to its chief, Aleksandr Chodakovskij. In the beginning there were only threats. They asked for the address to Oksana. I said I do not know. I was taken down to another room. There were ten men. Not one of them was from here. I could hear that on their dialect. Later I got to know they were from Ossetia. Now I was beaten. Severly beaten. They had my i-pad. There was my bank account in Privatbank and they saw I had 12.000 USD on it. There were pictures from our holidays in Vietnam and Philippines. You are a damned capitalist! They shouted at me. I had to give them all possible access to my bank account. Afterwards the money was stolen, although not all was available. One of them put his pistol against my head. Then he quickly moved it aside and shot with it just close to my left ear. I cannot still hear on that ear. ‘You fascist’, he said. ‘You shall make the Heil Hitler sign’. And he showed me what I shall do.”

Iryna makes a pause and then continues:

“I was beaten again. They pulled down my trousers so they could beat my back. I was no longer a human being. I was a plant. I thought only that the quicker they slaughter me the better it is. Suddenly came another man down into the room. He said: don´t beat hear any more. We take her away and leave her tied up in the area into which  the Ukrainian army are shooting with its artillery.’ ‘Thank God for this’, I thought. Soon I will die and it’s all over. But then another man said ‘No. I have a better idea’. I was then taken into a luxury car: a Lexus. It was the first time I had been in such a car in my life. They drove me to the big open market place in central Donetsk. They fastened the poster at me with the text that I am a capitalist and that I am killing the children. I was bounded to a lamp-post at the market place. The Ossetian soldiers were guarding me. When they spoke to each other it was in their own language. That was also terrible. Not to understand what they said and what they intended to do with me. People came up and spotted at me and beat me. Not military but  civil people. Not men. But in all eight women.”

“Once a luxury car drove up at the market place and when they saw me standing there they stopped the car and came out. Two young women. Perhaps 25 years old. They made photos with me. First one of them with me, than the other. Then they got into the car and drove away. I don´t understand this. How is it possible to behave like that?”, Iryna asks sadly.

“One of the Ossetian soldiers how “guarded” me went down on his knee and targeted me with his weapon. I was trembling. I thought: soon I am die. An American journalist saw me and made the photos of me being bounded and beaten. That how the world got to know about what was happening to me. After this I was released from the Street Lamp and put into the car again. ‘We will give you to all our men’, they said. “’But it’s only one hundred’. They pulled up my blouse and grabbed at my breasts. Then they said: ‘no you are too old, you are useless’.”

“They drove me back to the headquarter of battalion Vostok and I was  bounded in a small prison cell. There were several such cells. And I heard how other people also were brought in. Once they came with a man who they said was homosexual. He was beaten so much, so terrible and then taken away. I don’t know if he survived. I didn’t see, I just heard their accusations and the terrible sound when they hit him hard.”

“I was held in this cell for four days. I did not eat anything. I only drank some water when I was taken to the toilette. I was guarded by a pensioner from one of the coal mines in Donetsk. An elderly man with a big stomach. And a Kalashnikov in his hands. The second day I was taken to a new inquiry. This time by an Ukrainian police man. I was crying and I said ‘how can you who are an Ukrainian have heart to give away an Ukrainian women to people from Chechenya?”’ ‘No, no, he said, they are good people from Ossetia’.”

“After four days in the cell, during the fourth night the Ukrainian police man came down to me. I was sure he intended to give me away to Ossetians. I was trembling. ‘Be calm, he said. I will take you to another place.’ So I was taken to a room where the commander of Vostok Battalion, Aleksandr Chodakovskij held a press conference.”

An international case

The reason for Chodakovskijs action was that the Russian freelance photographer Dmitry Beljakov,  and the reporter Mark Franchetti from British Sunday Times, had raised the question what was happening to Iryna Dovgan during a meeting with him. The case of Iryna Dovgan was under way to be an international question.

Aleksander Chodakovskij tried to make a theater out of it in order to clean himself and he asked Iryna Dovgan who it was who had beaten her.

“I told him that I had been beaten from the first moment of all people under his command. He became totally red in his face and in a short while it was over. He ordered the two journalists to take me to hotel Ramada and drive me to Mariupol. He gave me back the key to my car which they had expropriated. I asked him to give back also my I-pad. And he gave it back. That’s why I have all the photos. I said: ‘I will not go to Mariupol without my dog and without my cats. I have to go home to our house in Jasynuvata.’ I got the permission and escorted by the Ukrainian policeman and another guard I was taken with my car to my house. I got back our dog, Matilda, and two of our cats. The same night Mark Franchetti and Dmitry Beljako drove me down to Mariupol where I joined my family.”

Iryna Dovgan had to stay ten days in a hospital in Kiev to be treated for all her injuries including a broken bone in the chest.

She and her husband lost everything they had gathered in their life. Their house was totally demolished by the separatists.

“We don’t even have our photos from our former life”, she says.

When she had recovered, more than one political party wanted to have her on their party list before the upcoming elections to the parliament. According to the Ukrainian election system half of the MP:s are elected on party lists according to a proportional system and half of the MP:s in one-mandatory constituency according to a majority system.

“I decided to stand up for Donbas, my region in Ukraine,  in order to show for people that also here exist alternatives.”

Iryna Dovgan decided to continue what she had began in her hometown by the end of June this year: to stand up for human dignity.

  • by Peter Johnsson

    Peter Johnsson is a foreign correspondent. Working for Nordic media and based in Warsaw he has covered the countries in East-Central Europe since 1980. He is the author of several books on Poland and polish history.

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