A guard told me, ‘We will shoot you’: Life in a Donetsk prison

Natalya Zelenina, a Ukrainian social worker, was imprisoned by Russia-backed separatists for five years.

Natalia Zelenia
Natalya Zelenina spent five years in a jail run by Russia-backed separatists, where she says she was subject to abuse [Courtesy: Natalya Zelenina]

Natalya Zelenina, who hails from Donetsk in Ukraine, was 35 when she stopped using hard drugs and began opioid substitution therapy (OST).

She then became a social worker and spent her days helping others who wanted to quit street drugs.

In 2017, as she travelled around eastern Ukraine for work, she was stopped on the border of Donetsk by Russia-backed separatists who had seized the region three years earlier.

The so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) is recognised globally as Ukraine’s territory but has been run by pro-Kremlin rebels since 2014 when Russia occupied Crimea and threw its support behind separatists in Donetsk and the neighbouring Luhansk region.

The rebel officials accused Zelenina of drug trafficking, and after a trial she says was a sham, she was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 last year, Zelenina feared her chances of a pardon had shrunk to zero.

But on October 17, the Donetsk native was among 108 women freed from Russian captivity in a prisoner exchange.

As the war stretches into its 12th month, Zelenina has returned to social work in Kramatorsk, a Ukrainian-controlled city in northern Donetsk.

(FILES) This file handout picture taken and released by Ukrainian presidential chief of staff, Andriy Yermak on October 17, 2022 shows freed Ukrainian female prisoners posing for a picture after their exchange in an unknown location in Ukraine. - Ukrainian nurse Viktoria Obidina spent over five months in Russian captivity, forced to drink dirty water, endure beatings and hunger. (Photo by UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE / AFP)
108 Ukrainian women were released on October 17 in a prisoner swap with Russia, including Natalya Zelenina [File: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/AFP]

This is her story, as told to Al Jazeera:

I used drugs for 15 years – hard drugs, opioids. When I started opioid substitution therapy, OST, in 2006, my life changed completely. I refused to get any more street drugs.

I became a social worker in Donetsk. With my own experience, I could help others. I could show that it’s possible to quit street drugs and that HIV is not a death sentence.

When the war began [in 2014], I was terrified that people would arrest us and take away all our medicine because Russia doesn’t have OST programmes.

There was a lot at stake. We had seen the progress of people on OST, so we couldn’t just say that we were afraid and stop our work.

In 2015, the DPR state began to track harm reduction organisations. They threatened us. We had to close that office and move.

Then on November 4, 2017, I was crossing the checkpoint in Olenivka, headed to Donetsk. I was carrying prescribed buprenorphine for myself and one other patient. They told me I was carrying illegal substances.

I was interrogated for three days in the Donetsk police station, and they [the self-appointed DPR authorities] took all my medicine. Soon, I felt very, very bad due to the withdrawal. It was really painful.

I couldn’t control my thoughts. I fell down and lost consciousness at one point. They didn’t feed me, and the most they’d do was give me a tiny amount of water.

Initially, they wanted me to sign a paper saying I’d bought the drugs illegally and was trying to sell them in Donetsk, but I refused.

That’s why they banned me from seeing my mother and nephew. They said I had to confess, or I’d go to jail for 25 years.

But I can’t admit to what I didn’t do. I was acting within the framework of Ukrainian law, so everything was legal.

They brought in a boy who was addicted to drugs and beat him in front of me. They said it would be the same with me if I didn’t sign the documents.

After three days, they put me in a temporary detention centre. By that time, I understood it was serious. They weren’t going to just let me go. I felt there was not enough air. When I was brought to this detention centre, I just couldn’t breathe.

On my third day in the detention centre, they charged me with drug trafficking. I didn’t really expect a fair trial.

When you are in prison, you perceive things in a very different way, so I had really severe depression. I wasn’t able to sleep. It could have been much worse.

In prison, I saw people who fainted or felt really bad because they didn’t receive proper treatment. And I wasn’t receiving OST or antiretroviral therapy [ART].

My ART was interrupted for three months. In prison, they wanted me to sign a document saying I’d refused to take the therapy, but I wouldn’t sign. After three months, my mother helped. She went to my doctor and made sure I could access my medicine.

The biggest thing was the depression. I felt really depressed, really weak. I just wanted to lie on my bed all day and do nothing. I didn’t really want to eat. Sometimes I drank coffee. I was just waiting for evening when I would call my mother and nephew, to hear their voices.

Calls were not officially allowed, but if you knew people and had money for bribes, then you could buy a phone and hide it.

In our cell, we had one phone for the six of us. The girls would hide it in places where the guards wouldn’t find it, like in the floor. They’d dig a hole and then cover it.

I was treated differently as a non-separatist.

There were extra security measures for me, and even in the cell when I was talking about my views, I had to be careful.

For example, once I said that the checkpoint was not the real border of a real country.

Others told me, “Just shut your mouth, or you’ll get more serious charges.” Word of my views spread, and police officers told my lawyer to tell me to be silent.

The food was bad: porridge, pasta and thin, meatless soups. You couldn’t really eat what they gave you. It just wasn’t possible, so we mostly ate what our family members brought us. I lost 7kg [15 pounds] due to the stress.

I had the impression that the trial was a formality.

Throughout the whole trial, the prosecutor was just looking at her phone. It seemed like they knew their decision from the very beginning. The first court hearing was in March, four months after my arrest. In total, I spent two years and seven months waiting for the verdict.

The day they handed down the verdict, I knew that they’d already decided I was guilty. The night before was a nightmare, anticipating the final decision. They announced that I got 11 years.

I just couldn’t understand it. Even murderers get less.

After the sentencing, I was taken to the correctional colony.

Officially, it wasn’t a labour colony, but we had to work all day long, irrespective of the weather, even when it was raining or snowing. The work was mainly maintaining the colony: to clean everything, paint, put things in order, do the maintenance, things like that.

Once a week, we had the so-called banya.

There was no shower, but there was an area with hot water and cold water and we could either clean ourselves using these big vessels, or we could do the laundry. There were no laundry machines. We had to do our laundry with our hands.

There was coal heating, which was okay when heating was working, but sometimes the equipment was broken. Then it was cold, and we would have to put our warmest clothes and coats on to sleep.

They reminded us all the time that we were prisoners. There was verbal abuse, bad words used to humiliate people.

I hoped to be exchanged before a full-scale invasion happened. Then, after the invasion, I thought, “Now it’s war, and people have bigger concerns than exchanging us,” and I lost hope.

So the exchange was very unexpected and joyful for me.

The head of the correctional colony called me in and told me I was pardoned, which I thought was strange because I hadn’t signed anything. Around 9pm, I was brought to another prison. They put a bag on my head.

I asked, “Is this the way they pardon people in the DPR?”

A guard said, “Shut your mouth, or we will shoot you here.”

And I replied, “If that’s a joke, it’s not a funny joke.”

Then they took my hand and led me to some kind of underground room. But I realised that since they didn’t want me to see anything, it must be an exchange, and I was happy and ready to go through anything to get back to my homeland.

The next day, they put different bags on our heads and adhesive so we couldn’t see anything and taped our hands together. We remained that way on the bus and plane.

Now I’m back to work in harm reduction. I send a big thank you to my colleagues and to the government of Ukraine.

The fact that they didn’t leave me there shows that they care about all the people of Ukraine, including OST programme clients and people living with HIV.

We are all important.

Source: Al Jazeera