Home Again In Ukraine: Dark Tales From A Donbas Prison

The New Year's Eve prison exchange between Russia and Ukraine was a rare softening of hostilities in the occupied region in eastern Ukraine. Here's the story of one of those released.

Andryi Yarovoi is being treated at a hospital since his release
Andryi Yarovoi is being treated at a hospital since his release
Nataliya Shimkiv

On New Year's Eve, 76 people returned to Ukraine as part of the exchange of prisoners negotiated with Moscow: 64 civilians and 12 military personnel. Under various circumstances, all these people had been captured by the pro-Russian militia of the self-proclaimed Donbas and Lugansk People's Republics (LNR/DNR). Here is one man's story.

KYIV — A tall thin man meets us near the hospital. He is 52, there is a small scar on his face, in his hands an electronic cigarette that he will smoke almost the entire time that we speak. He is now undergoing treatment in a hospital near Kyiv. The interview is conducted during a walk through the woods near the hospital. He smiles and says: "I dreamed of walking freely like this. You can't imagine what happiness this is!"

Andriy Yarovoi is a human rights activist for the Alliance of Public Health charity foundation, and was detained on August 26, 2018, at the checkpoint by LNR fighters, while he was traveling to the occupied Donbas area on a monitoring mission. Then the connection broke: the basement, the local pre-trial detention center and the penal colony. He spent 489 days in captivity. We will let Yarovoi tell his story:

The way to the hospital where Andriy is receiving treatment after detention, Feb. 2020. — Photo: Maks Levin/LB

The mission

It was not the first time I traveled to the occupied territory as a representative of the Alliance since 2015. I've been to Donetsk, Lugansk, and to small towns as well. My mission was to study the situation of HIV/AIDS, viral hepatitis, and tuberculosis.

The trip usually lasted three to four days. I obtain information from local health system employees and communicate with those groups that are high-risk: drug users, sex workers, LGBT. The main question is whether they get the help they need in terms of screening, contraceptives, treatment.

Every year it's getting worse in Donbas.

Monitoring of the uncontrolled territories is critical: Every day, thousands of people cross the contact line between Ukraine and the occupied territories of Donbas in both directions. Every year it's getting worse in Donbas: The local government doesn't consider these people there, and nobody helps them.

After my detention, no one from the Alliance wants to go to the occupied territories, and in 2019, all HIV prevention programs supported by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS in the Lugansk region were closed.

The detention

Why did they detain me? I had pharmaceutical pills with me. In the past, I used heroin, but since 2009 I went to an opioid substitution therapy program and quit. Since then, medicines have always been with me; there have never been problems with "crossing the border." I had permission from the Kyiv hospital with me. But that time at the checkpoint, LNR fighters explained that substitution therapy in LPR, as well as in Russia, is prohibited, my pills are just dope, and all the papers are not important.

They took my passport and told me not to worry, "everything is fine, we'll talk to you tomorrow." The next day they took me to Lugansk for a "conversation." As we arrived at the local government building, representatives of the Ministry of State Security of the LPR took away my phone, handcuffed me, and put a bag on my head.

Andryi in the forest near the hospital during the interview in Feb. 2020. — Photo: Maks Levin/LB

The basement

The next six months I spent in the "basement."

There are no windows, very bright light round-the-clock, many cameras and a very strict set of rules — you can't even talk too loudly. You understand what time it is only when the food is brought. And, of course, by the interrogations. They were carried out only at night. Those who were in the "basement" before say that the conditions are much better compared with the past.

If the interrogations night is coming — it's better not to eat in the evening, easier to go through that way: They handcuff you and put a bag on your head then they start to beat the information out of you.

They are all angry there.

At first, they suspected me of cooperating with the Security Service of Ukraine, asking what kind of information and for what purpose I gathered for the Alliance. Finally, they suspected that I worked for British intelligence. The parent organization of The Public Health Alliance is located in Brighton, UK.

The voices of those who beat us constantly changed. I only remember one, a young voice, always angry like a dog. They are all angry there.

Andryi in the hospital during the interview. — Photo: Maks Levin/LB

The investigation

On October 15, 2018, I first met with an investigator from LNR, the only face I'd seen. There was already a lawyer in the office hired by the Public Health Alliance. He lives in Lugansk and collaborates with international organizations.

The investigator smiled and asked if anyone had touched me? I calmly answered: "No, no one." They let me sign a document saying that the LNR security officers did not exert physical or psychological pressure on me. A lawyer sitting next to him with a serious face asked if this was true. Of course, what else are underground cells made for?

Besides "smuggling," they charged me with "possession and transportation of drugs," and no matter what I said, the prosecutor's final answer was that such a charge would be better for the exchange of prisoners. I have the feeling that I was seized to replenish the "exchange fund."

In February 2019, I was transferred to the "Lugansk pre-trial detention center," I was there for almost two months, before the "trial." After the basement, the detention center seemed amazing: There was a window, you could see the sky, walk, and there was even a TV with local and Russian channels.

Andriy hugging his mother on Dec. 23, 2019 in Boryspil, Ukraine. — Photo:

The trial and the colony

On April 19, there was a "trial." I did not deny that this is my medicine, but no one paid attention to papers with permission to use them. I got ten and a half years. I learned that the criminal code in Lugansk was 90% percent taken from the code law of the Russian Federation. I was sent to a high security penal colony.

Now there were barracks instead of the cells, 70-80 people in each, no free movement between the barracks. There is no running water in the camp, so it was brought in barrels, and five convicts pushed this one and a half tons to the barrack. There is no sewage, and toilets are outside; in winter, we'd heat stoves with coal. This zone was built in the early 1950s, and so it remained like it was in Stalin times.


I learned about the exchange just a few days prior, there were no expectations for this year, although I was in the exchanging lists from the very beginning. There were also talks that the Minsk talks broke down again, and I thought that I would certainly be in the camp for another New Year.

Now I need to get over what happened, get used to the world.

Even after the exchange, there are still many people left who somehow helped Ukraine. There is organized human trafficking going on there. When we were driving to the checkpoint for the exchange, LNR fighters were constantly asking if someone wants to stay in the occupied territory.

Near the hospital outside of Kyiv — Photo: Maks Levin/LB

In Boryspil​, my younger brother and mother came to meet me. While I was away, my father died of cancer.

It is very difficult to lose contact with the world. The lack of replacement therapy pills also affected my mood, and depression is constant. In the hospital, they offered a psychotherapist, but I have not yet talked to him. Now I need to get over what happened, get used to the world, and somehow forget everything that was there. I have a few more medical procedures and that's it, I need to return to work. Until now, I have not fully believed that I am home..

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Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung


BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

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