While the conflict in Ukraine has so far avoid spilling over into all-out warfare, a different kind of violence — personal and often brutal — has been taking a place a smaller scale, much of it directed at journalists trying to tell a story.
Those paying attention to the capture of VICE News journalist Simon Ostrovsky in Ukraine breathed a sigh of relief yesterday, when news broke that Ostrovsky had been released. However, Ostrovsky was quick to tell the CBC that he was not only one targeted by his captors. He was abducted him, along with four other journalists, at a checkpoint, but there are many others who have taken and remain captive.
He added that "they beat me up as an introduction to the whole situation, blindfolded me, tied my hands behind my back... then they eventually untied them and I was just hanging out in the room with the other prisoners."
Human rights organizations, including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, have condemned pro-Russia militia groups for targeting journalists. The Christian Science Monitor's Anna Kordunsky reports that this seems to mark a new low in Ukraine's "information wars." She writes:
As the crisis as Ukraine has rolled on, Western journalists have increasingly been viewed by those in the east as "provocateurs" attempting to further Kiev's goals and destabilize the Russia-leaning regions.
Indeed, a number of journalists have been held or gone missing in recent days, often after being accused of being Western spies. Irma Krat, a Ukrainian journalist, is still being held after appearing in a video with her pro-Russia abductors. Photojournalist Yevgeny Gapich and his brother Gennady have also been missing for several days. Sergei Lefter, a reporter for the Polish Open Dialogue Foundation, a human rights NGO, went missing from Sloviansk on April 17 and has not yet been heard from.
The incidents also part of a continued effort to intimidate (or eliminate) the most outspoken Ukrainian advocates. A number of activists, journalists, and local officials have been threatened, attacked, kidnapped or killed since the ouster of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The brutal incidents call into question the narrative of a largely peaceful standoff, but they also show how dangerous the country for those in the middle of the conflict.
Below is a just partial list of some of those who have disappeared or been injured or killed since the crisis began. Taken together, they paint a rather frightening picture of the situation on the ground.
Polozhy, editor-in-chief of the independent news site Panorama, was reportedly beaten outside his home by two assailants earlier this month. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported on April 17 that he had been hospitalized following the attack, Panorama catalogued his injuries, noting that he had suffered a broken skull, concussion, dislocated elbow and multiple facial bruises.
Andrei Schekun and Anatoly Kovalsky
The two political activists were taken by armed men in Crimea in March, and released after 11 days. Schekun told Human Rights Watch (HRW) that he had been tortured, according to the rights organization:
A group of men in camouflage detained them at the Simferopol train station. The men held them for 11 days, interrogated and beat them, and on March 20 handed them over to Ukrainian military officers at the Chongar checkpoint, on Crimea’s northern administrative border. Kovalsky and Schekun said their captors claimed they were members of Crimea’s “self-defense” units.
Ukraine-based news site Podrobnosti (translation via the Institute for War and Peace Reporting) reported further on the incident, adding that Schekun and Kovalsky weren't the only ones held:
Two of those released, Andrey Schekun and Yury Shevchenko, were taken to hospital. As part of the torture, they were shot with non-lethal firearms and the bullets are lodged in their torsos and legs. Schekun, Kovalsky, Shevchenko and the other captives were held in a basement of the military commandant’s office in Simferopol.
The well-known Ukrainian musician was beaten and tied to a tree after participating in pro-Ukraine rally earlier this week, according to witnesses. The assault was captured on video and uploaded to YouTube, as his assailants emptied his pocket and displayed his possession to the camera, before turn them over to plainclothes policemen. He is still in custody.
According to the site Maidantranslations.com, the Ukrainian Kobzar (bard) community issued a statement on the attack, saying:
The Kobzar community of Ukraine is deeply worried about the fate of one of their brothers, the Kobzar and community activist Vasyl Liutyi. He was the emcee/leader of the rally for united Ukraine in the town of Rubizhne in Luhansk oblast, in eastern Ukraine. We have learned that on April 21, during a rally in support of a united Ukraine in the town of Rubizhne, Liutyi was severely beaten and then arrested. During his arrest, he was tortured.
The association added that they"condemn the excesses of Russian chauvinists and protest against the inaction of the law enforcement authorities," and are demanding their fellow musician's release.
The local Ukrainian politician, along with another unidentified man, was found dead after disappearing in April. It appeared that he been tortured before being thrown into a river, alive, to drown. According to video footage, he was assaulted by a pro-Russian crowd before he disappeared, per Reuters:
The footage from April 17 on local news site gorlovka.ua shows angry scenes outside the town hall of Horlivka, between the separatist flashpoint cities of Donetsk and Slaviansk, as Rybak is manhandled by several men, among them a masked man in camouflage, while other people hurl abuse.
The 39-year-old father of three disappeared after participating in a peaceful protest against pro-Russia separatists in Crimea in March, and was later found dead. Ametov identified as a Crimean Tatar, a Sunni Muslim minority that has been historically discriminated against by Russia, and was not in favor of the annexation. According to local media, Ametov's body showed signs that he had been killed violently. The Huffington Post UK reported at the time that "the marks on his body indicate Ametov may have been tortured before his death, with transparent tape wrapped around his head and hands."