Maryna Chuykova, a Horlivka citizen, along with 75 other Ukrainians, was released on New Year's Eve after nearly two years of captivity by the militants of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR).
The 48-year-old woman was detained at the Mayorske checkpoint in the spring of 2018 on her way from the occupied Horlivka — where she cared for her sick mother — to her sons in Kharkiv. In the fall of 2019, she was charged with espionage and sentenced to 11 years in prison for allegedly cooperating with the Security Service of Ukraine.
Her sons, Savva and Artur, held rallies near the Russian Embassy in Kharkiv and sought their mother to be included in a prisoner exchange list.
Now Chuykova and her fellow ex-prisoners are undergoing rehabilitation at Feofaniya hospital in Kyiv.
Hromadske asked Chuykova about the conditions of her detention in a pre-trial detention center and a colony in the occupied territories of Donbas, conflicts with other prisoners and a long-awaited meeting with her sons.
How do you feel right now?
Fine. I'm not treating the bruises on my legs. Wherever I had injuries, ultrasounds were done, everything is normal. I just have an exacerbation of all my chronic conditions: gastritis, pancreas, foot problems. In the women's colony, we were not allowed to sit – and had to keep standing up for 16 hours. We all had swollen feet and seizures.
How were you detained?
I was detained at a checkpoint. I filed my passport in the window to be checked. They looked at me and took my passport. They asked me to enter a separate room where they locked me up with a security guard. He took away all my phones. I used all the networks to reach my kids, so I had three phones on me. No documents were shown. They called a girl, stripped me naked, looked around, took my personal belongings. For a long time, I was sitting in this room under observation. Then an “MGB” (so-called “Ministry of state security of the DPR” – ed.) car arrived from Donetsk. Two big “MGB” guys came and brutally dragged me into the car. At the same time, they were insulting me, showing people that they detained "a traitor, a spy". They put on handcuffs and a hat and took me away somewhere.
To the “MGB” basement?
Yes, it turned out to be “MGB”. They threw me in the basement and left me there for 30 days. There were no windows and no exit in the cell. The cage closes, and there are some wooden boards and a mattress on top. There were two bottles of blood on the floor. And the boards were smeared with blood. It was clear that the person who was here the previous day had been tortured for a long time and had urinated with blood. And one could see that bandages were made. He may have been injured. I asked them to take out these bottles, but no one took anything and I slept with them beside me.
They summoned me for questioning, they abused me. It was all insulting and humiliating.
Do you remember your first interrogation?
They brought in a doctor for the first interrogation. She examined me and left. They gathered there for a council and asked, "What to do with her?", the response was: "Shoot her!" And they took me somewhere to be shot. Actually, I kept thinking that I would be shot until I got to the detention center. It was a long drive, they took me to the forest. Two guys that sat with me at the backseat clasped me with handcuffs and fell asleep. So I lifted my hat and saw that we were heading to the forest near the town of Yenakiyeve. So I thought, that’s all. But no. They drove for a while and then took me back. Later, they brought me food. I told them not to feed me because I would be shot. "Ah, you won't eat? We’ll punish you now."
They did punish me – they beat me with a stick on my legs.
Was that the only kind of punishment?
Also [by denying use of] toilets. When I went to wash, as there was no toilet in the cell. They took us out twice a day – in the morning and evening.
A man lights a cigarette and says, "I'm smoking, the cigarette is burning. If you don't do your things in time, you will be punished." While he is smoking, you must go to the toilet, wash, clean yourself. Of course, you can’t do all this during this time. Once a security guard came and said, “You are such a good woman, I like you, I want to help. You can wash as long as you wish." So I relaxed. I took off my boots, washed – for the first time I used as much water as I needed. I washed my dress. I dressed a coat over my underwear. He took me back, removed the handcuffs, and said to the other two men in the cell, "The woman took too long bathing, so you won’t go to the toilet." They asked him, they begged, but he never let them go to the toilet.
When you were put in the basement, did you understand what was going on and what to do next?
When I was brought in, they brought a man out of my cell. Then there was no one else, I was brought in first. And later they brought a man from Horlivka and a young boy from the Luhansk region. We were banned from communicating with each other. There was a video camera, it was constantly on.
I only felt fear. After those interrogations, I did not want to live anymore. As I was laying on those boards, I didn't pray for myself to get out of there, but for me to be shot. I imagined myself being shot.
The investigator did not beat me. I was brought in handcuffs and a hat for interrogation to another room. There were guys there and they did abuse me. They were smashed my head against the door if I didn't agree with them. One day they brought me in as a man was beating beaten. He was in a hat, but they removed my hat so I could see it all.
Released Ukrainians crossed the contact line and get off buses at the Mayorske checkpoint, Donetsk region, December 29, 2019. Maryna Chuykova (right) was captured by militants of the self-proclaimed "DPR" near Mayorske in the spring of 2018 when returning from occupied Horlivka. Photo: Presidential Office of Ukraine
Where did the militants send you after a month in the basement?
Then they drove me around like a monkey, showing me as a traitor and a spy in their institutions and law enforcement agencies. A month later, I was taken to a temporary detention center. But looking at that building, I thought it was where people were shot. I spent a night there. Then I was put in a car again and taken to a pre-trial detention center. When receiving me they shouted again: "pig", "traitor", they kept insulting me and pressing morally, but no one touched me. They said that they would put me in a cell with female militias and that I would not survive there.
There were six people in the cell. At first, there were 16 people, but it was difficult: the toilet was occupied all the time, there was a queue. The people were mostly addicts and murderers. One in two had HIV and hepatitis, one in five had tuberculosis. And we shared personal hygiene. Therefore, when we arrived at the hospital, they wanted us first to take tests for tuberculosis, HIV, syphilis, and hepatitis.
What were you fed?
I wouldn't call what we were fed food. The bread was terrible, porridge was some liquid mixture. For dinner, we were given fish, some kind of sprat, cooked all together. It was like a messy puree. We called it a "burial ground".
We were supported by our relatives. My children lived in [government-controlled territories of] Ukraine and I told them not to come, even if something happened to me. They kept looking for ways to pass parcels. In the pre-trial detention center, they did accept parcels in my name, but they did not issue notes that I was [in fact] there.
Given the difficult sanitary conditions, direct contact with patients, did you receive medical attention?
There was no medical care as such. All medicines that we used in the Donetsk pre-trial detention center were taken away from us. It was hard to get treatment. An unqualified doctor worked in the unit. I spent a long time persuading her to prescribe me treatment so that I could take the pills that I got from relatives.
I had hormonal pills that I mustn't stop taking. I got a problem — my pills were taken away. So I stole these pills back. I was summoned to their meeting where I was scolded and cursed. The talk was not about my health, but about politics. They brought a doctor from the city and she confirmed that I must not interrupt treatment. Only after that, they began to give one pill in the dining room after dinner. That’s why the diseases broke out – because people did not receive treatment in time.
International organizations record cases of sexual violence against women during hostilities and captivity. Do you know anything about this?
I just heard [about it]. I did hear screams, but I can't say what it was. A woman was brought to our cell, under the same article, and she was indeed abused. She was tortured with a current and raped by men. There were threats to other women as well, but only threats. This was not the case with me.
How did the "trial" take place?
Well, personally, I was not taken out for a year. Around August 10, 2019, I and many others were taken to the “MGB” for investigation. An investigator took me to his office and said, “You have years to read your case. But you have another chance. You don't read, you sign that you agree, we bring the case to court – you are given a sentence, then you are on the exchange list and you are going home."
This is such a happy moment that you cannot refuse. You immediately imagine that you are released, that you will see your children. At the time, I still had a living 80-year-old mother, this was the most painful thing for me. And I agreed. The investigator warned against making any attempt to write complaints because the lists depend on them as well. I wanted to be sentenced and no matter for how long.
On August 13, many of us were taken by bus, and each defendant was assigned a military man with a machine gun. It was definitely a Russian soldier that was sitting beside me.
They brought us to court. There were three meetings in one day. They pronounced the sentence. And they also said, you see why.
Where did you go to serve your sentence?
From the Donetsk pre-trial detention center, I was sent to the Snizhne ordinary regime colony. But I would say that it is a strict regime colony. It's a terrible colony. Everything is forbidden there, nothing is allowed. There were problems with water, we were given little water. 100 grams of tea for breakfast, borscht for lunch, no water, and dinner – tea, that’s all. We went to work on the sewing machine, we were given water to take, but it was very cold, the water was cold and we did not drink it. Because of this, we have thick blood, convulsions, and high pressure.
Ukrainians freed from the captivity by self-proclaimed "DPR" and "LPR" get on a military plane at the Chuhuyiv Air Base, Kharkiv region for flight to Kyiv, December 29, 2019. Maryna Chuykova (left) will be met at Boryspil Airport by her two sons
Who were your cellmates?
We had 55 people in the cell. Two-story bunks and one bedside table next to them. But you cannot sit on the bed. There is a special room with a TV where you can sit. But there are 55 of us and 25 chairs. The cellmates were people convicted of drugs, murder.
Did you have conflicts with other prisoners?
We were provoked by “female militias". They asked questions. For example, a “militia" convicted of murder approached me and using foul language said, "How did you come to a point to betray your Motherland?" And provoked me into a fight. I said, “I have a blue [Ukrainian] passport. What’s the color of yours? Which country are you a national of? Which country did you defend and which country did I betray?” And I asked, "After your release, where would you like to live, where would you go?" She says, "I would like to leave." That is, she doesn't like living here, but she decided to test me.
We, the political prisoners, tried to stay together. So if someone wanted to offend us, we would at least be together. There were 11 of us.
How did the escorts treat you?
The escorts were divided. In the presence of the head of the colony, they were prejudiced against us, the bullying continued. When she was away, they acted differently. There were also those who said, "We are so glad you are leaving. There's nothing here." Especially in Snizhne. There are issues with water, food, and gas.
Did you work at a sewing factory the whole time?
They find a job for you: unload the machine with food, firewood, coal, bags of cereals, cabbage, potatoes, sugar. If there is no work, you sweep leaves or move stones from side to side. Two hours of obligatory work, sick or not, and then chores. The first days were difficult for us, and we were offered to go to the sewing factory to sew from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. I couldn't sew but was seated at a professional electric sewing machine. So we did. There, too, you may not talk, you may not go out. The toilet is only available when they allow it. We immediately sat down in a group to avoid provocative questions. And we shared the news if there were any.
Were you counting on the help of the Ukrainian authorities?
We lived Minsk meetings to Minsk meetings, and waited for the Normandy meeting. But since we were busy all day, we couldn't watch the news. There is only Russian news, but we turned on [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy's speeches, so we could see a little.
We prayed that everyone would be listed. The lists were constantly changing: 50 people, then 100. Sometimes [“DPR’s” ombudsperson] Daria Morozova spoke and said that they almost agreed, but Ukraine is not ready, does not agree to the exchange, thwarted everything. In August, she said that they were ready to exchange all 15 people in the Donetsk pre-trial detention center, Snizhne colony, “MGB” and several other colonies. Then they said 50. Many people are still there. Not 15, not 55, not 75, but many more. For a long time, that side was not giving any note at all that we were there.
When did it become certain that you were on the list?
After the trial, we thought the exchange would be tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. People leaving the courtroom were saying [they were convicted for] 11, 15, 16, 18 years. The article on espionage in "DPR" provides from 10 years to execution. We were not allowed to contact our relatives and no one knew or was sure we were on the lists – we did not know until the last day in Snizhne.
Being there was difficult, but it was also difficult to fight for us. We found out two days before the exchange who was on the lists.
READ MORE: Prisoner Exchange in Donbas: How It Happened
When did you feel safe?
Only once we were in Zaytseve. Until then we were silent, nobody said a word when we were passing the “DPR’s” roadblocks. Everything was shaking and beating inside, arms and legs were trembling. I was afraid even to look at them. Masked men escorted us with machine guns.
When we got off in Zaytseve, we exhaled: we were free. There are no words to express these feelings. Everyone was offered to go bask in the hangar, but I asked a young man: "Give me a phone to make a call." He says, "To whom?" "To my children at Boryspil Airport, I want to hear their voice."
I called and said, "My children, I am free. I'll be in Kyiv soon." They said, "We are waiting for you, they have already shown you on the Internet." We were given tea and coffee, as well as pots with food. I want to thank all the people who organized that. And there was a small bag with a cake, probably the honey cake. It tasted better than black caviar! I was so touched.
Did you recognize your children right away?
On approach to Kyiv, I saw balloons and people. Again, the hands and legs trembled. And when the plane opened, I didn't see my children. There was such a crowd. I saw Zelenskyy meeting us. It was very nice, he hugged us, kissed, greeted and addressed by name. But I didn’t see my children, and suddenly I hear a cry: "Mom!" And those were the voices of my dear kids. They cry, they laugh, and there were roses. This was happiness or even something more.
Most of all I am glad to have raised such sons, who fought for their mother every minute. I am grateful to everyone involved in the exchange. It was difficult to get us out of prison.
Maryna Chuykova with her sons Savva (right) and Artur at Feofaniya Hospital, Kyiv, December 29, 2019. Photo: personal archive of the family, provided to Hromadske by Savva Chuykov
Have your sons changed in your absence?
Greatly. They have grown, matured. They speak Ukrainian, so fluently that I stand by and ask questions. They are my dearest. I wanted this moment for a long time. This is my pride.
What do you plan to do in the future? Did you decide where to live?
I understand that this is a real life, where many problems need to be addressed. Documents are required for each step. All but the passport remained in the “MGB”. They need to be restored. I have not decided yet what to do. It depends on which city I would live in. I do not want and do not imagine living close to “DPR”. I have a strong fear. The sons want to take me with them to Kharkiv. I’m telling them that I have not decided yet, they say, “This is done, mom. You’ll be only with us. Because we left you once, and we won’t do it again.”
The society had a dilemma before and after the exchange. Ukraine has released Kharkiv terrorists, ex-Berkut officers. On the one hand, there are feelings of relatives of the murdered [at the Maidan]. On the other, there was a possibility for families to reunite after a long separation. Many people have criticized this exchange. What do you think about this?
It was difficult to reach a contact, to achieve this dialogue at all. And Zelenskyy said that by any means we would take our people back. Any.
Maybe that was said by those who have not encountered this, who have no relatives in captivity. We very much expected this exchange and lived Minsk to Minsk. Sadly, not everyone is back. There is one woman left in the Snizhne correctional colony. It was difficult to leave her behind. Her two daughters were searching for her. I called them from the airport and told them what conditions she was there in and what she needed. Many women remain in other places. I would like everyone to be released.
I want everyone to know that the war is ongoing. I ask everyone not to leave those who are now in captivity on that side. They especially need our support. They need to know that they are needed and not forgotten. So they have the desire to live.
/ Interview by Yuliya Davydova, translated by Vladyslav Kudryk
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