Translated for MEDIAZONA and VICE by Shelley Fairweather-Vega and Benjamin Hugh
A version of this article was published on MEDIAZONA, a new website devoted to covering Russia's criminal justice system.
Andrei (not his real name) served time in Maximum-Security Prison Colony 27, a colony near the town of Gorlovka, Ukraine, from 2013 until March 2015. In September 2014, troops from the separatist and pro-Russian Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) entered the prison camp, allegedly to suppress a rebellion; fighters seized part of the camp's security arsenal and treated prisoners extremely brutally. Rumors of violence towards prisoners in Prison Camp 27 spread to other prisons of Donetsk Province, and as a result many inmates refused to take part in military action on the side of the separatists—though many were forced to become soldiers after their release due to lack of any other work.
MEDIAZONA recently talked to Andrei about the attack on the prison and the conditions that prisoners face in Donetsk Province.
MEDIAZONA: Let's start with the events of autumn 2014. That's when the media reported that fighters from the DNR had entered the prison camp.
Andre: The DNR fighters showed up on September 16, 2014, at 20 minutes till midnight, and they put the whole camp on its knees. Inmates always turn out the lights right after roll call at 10 PM. When there's soccer on, though, especially a cup game, the inmates get together, swarm the fences between barracks, and shout for a while, but that's all. That spreads and the guards turn on the lights. The guys could get away with a certain amount, you know? But there was one section chief everyone hated who was somewhere in the outside perimeter just then. When he heard the shouting start up he didn't know what was happening, and he fired two shots from his rifle. I think that was planned. The DNR fighters had just come back from the front lines. They call him and ask what's up. And he tells them there's a riot at the prison colony. So they came in and laid everyone out flat—the guards, the administrators, everyone. They clubbed people with their rifle butts, shot people. You're lying there, and one of them is standing over you, some fat idiot, firing right over your head. He went through three clips and knocked out all my teeth. It was this crazy bloodbath.
While there was real shooting back and forth [during the battle for the city of Donetsk], a few shells fell into the camp. One landed between the barracks but thank God, nobody was on the way to the cafeteria just then and the yard was empty. Another fell between the garage buildings. The bathhouse burned down, the building for conjugal visits burnt down, and all the glass was blown out of the barracks windows. But during that fighting, nobody died, and nobody was even injured. It's when they actually came into the camp that people started getting hurt. I was in Division 10, Sector 5, back then. One person was killed and two were wounded. One guy had his hand cut off, because he was so badly shot up that they had to amputate. In Sector 6, where the tuberculosis patients are, people got shot in the sides and in the shoulders. They stood people up against the fence and beat them with their rifles, tortured them, demanded to know where our telephones were and so on, because half of them had served time, too.
How did the prison camp staff behave?
When the DNR guys came in, the guards let them take over right away. There was one who resisted, but they got rid of him fast. They called him out, set him down, and worked him over for a few days. Anyone who didn't want to work for them left for Ukraine, and everyone who was left totally caved. Since the DNR can come in and out of the camp as they please and the prisoners are all terrified, they're selling the humanitarian assistance they receive. You have to pay for everything. They squeeze cash out of you any way they can. They're supposed to send you out to work for two-hour periods, and not every day, but now they do it every day for as long as they want. If you touch a fence somewhere, talk back shit to someone, get fed up with this fucking shit and shove a cop because he loses his boundaries, they bring you into the headquarters building, put a helmet on you, and start clubbing you on the head. Or they put a bulletproof vest on you and give you a pounding, or they stand you up against the wall and they shoot at you with live ammunition. Or, I won't name names, but they suffocate guys: They twist your arms back, one guy holds you, and the other takes a rod for cleaning a rifle and shoves it up under your collarbone. That's how they treat you. Nobody's going to talk things over with you.
Have there been any attempts to rise up against that kind of treatment?
After what has happened so far, nobody is even thinking about rebelling. Everyone has seen how that will turn out. The DNR took half the weapons for themselves then, the better half, and let the guards keep the rest.
What about food and other services?
Some good humanitarian aid comes through from Russia. A lot gets delivered, but not to the prisons—it all gets sold, both in the prison camps and in the stores.
Did the inmates organize themselves in any way to help each other out?
Sure. We'd arrange for shipments on the outside, from Artyomovsk, figure out how to get to the colony, where they'd let packages through. We'd hunt, gas up the cars, ship things in. That's how we survived.
Gorlovka itself was totally fucked over. This war is no fucking good for anyone. I came here, to Kramatorsk, and everything is alive here. But there, everything is dead. There are still taxies waiting at the train station, but other than that, no people at all. Nine o'clock and the city is totally dead. There have been shootings, executions.
Shootings of civilians, or in the prison camp?
Civilians. They don't give a fuck who gets killed in the camp, who or why.
What do they shoot the civilians for?
Well, I knew one guy, for example, who just got released. He was free for about ten days. He's walking by and these [DNR guys] are standing there. He walks up to them and asks for a light. But he used a Ukrainian word [rather than a Russian word], and for that they broke his ribs and killed him.
Have a lot of inmates gone to fight with the separatists?
The ones who were still there after the release have almost all gone to fight. Especially the ones with families, who have nowhere to go. There are no jobs here, and it's pretty clear that the only way to earn a living is to go fight. You don't earn much, just 8,000 rubles a month [$160], Russian money. If you go to the front lines, you get a little bit more. But in the city you can't earn anything.
And the people still in the camps aren't going to fight for liberation?
That's not happening. When the trouble started, half the inmates were for the DNR and the other half for Ukraine, but after the shooting in our camp—and they didn't come in shooting like that in any of the other prison camps except ours—everything changed. In any case, anyone with any brains knows that we have it much better with Ukraine. When you have some authorities to write to, you have a little bit of power over the guards. But now there's nobody back there. Nobody to complain or appeal to.
The worst part is that decent people are dying on both sides and nobody knows for what. Things have just played out this way and it's shit wherever you look.