Bohdan Panitushenko, the commander of the First Tank Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces would have recently marked his fifth “anniversary” of imprisonment by Russian forces. But he was freed a few days before the New Year, in a prisoner exchange agreed on between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Normandy talks in Paris.
Hromadske spoke to the tanker and his wife, Viktoria, about his experiences of detention, their plans for the future, and his wife’s efforts to bring her husband home.
Bohdan, how are you now? You’re supposed to have an operation on your nose. How do you feel?
B: Right now, everything’s fine. Though I thought I was fine [when I’d just returned], but time showed that the first week was, in fact, difficult. I was really slow on the uptake, lost. Now, I’m more or less fine and adequately process reality.
How did you end up fighting in the war? You lived in Bila Tserkva, working as a programmer.
B: A few years prior to the war Vika and I lived in Kyiv. Yeah, I worked in the IT sphere. First there was the Euromaidan, and we took part.
After September 5, 2014, I was mobilized and ended up in the first tank brigade. That was in the village of Honcharivske. We trained for four months, and after the new year we went to the warzone. There were a few skirmishes, and then there was an operation to unblock the Donetsk Airport. And I was captured there.
Vika, what were you thinking when Bohdan left for the war?
V: Our family understood that there was no other scenario. This wasn’t discussed – whether he’d go or not, it was his duty, and we understood this.
Of course, it was scary. We understood that he was going to war, and there could be unexpected and terrifying situations. We prepared ourselves for anything, we even thought about his death. But we weren’t ready for his capture. This is a very stubborn, patriotic person, and I also understood that he had to defend his government.
You actually had a very difficult operation. Can you tell us about what happened?
B: That which the General Staff had developed. This was an operation to unblock the Donetsk Airport. But I personally had a simple task: I had to get to a certain point, then link up with infantry and do my work in a defined direction, that’s all.
You had to blow up the Putylvskyi Bridge?
B: I personally didn’t have to blow up the bridge, I wasn’t given a task like that. (smiles – ed.)
The army has this concept of subordination: What the higher ups know isn’t necessary for those underneath them. What the actual goal of the operation was – we, on the tank commander level, didn’t know.
Later, when you were retreating, how was your tank captured?
B: We were working on a scenario: we broke through [enemy] lines, and met fierce resistance, which we didn’t expect. Our surveillance data did not closely correspond to what was really going on.
Our group reached the Putylivskyi bridge. A battle occured. The command of the group decided to retreat. We left, and halfway to Spartak (a village near the Donetsk Airport – ed.) I was hit.
The crew and I evacuated the vehicle, and we tried to retreat, but it was impossible. We were in enemy territory. And that’s how we were captured.
Where were you taken? Were you immediately removed from the battlefield?
First, we spent some time in place. Then we were taken. Dmytro Kostetskyi was taken in another direction, the wounded Ivan Liasa was taken to the hospital, and I – to Donetsk, Travneva Street, number 66. There was a base for the “cossacks.”
Ivan had an operation – trepanation. The next day he was taken to me. I didn’t see Dmytro again, but later learned that he was exchanged after a few months. Ivan was exchanged only at the end of 2017, while myself – a month ago. I was a little late. (laughs – ed.)
This was a period of anarchy between the [“DPR”] fighters, and they were in-fighting. How did you react, were there any ransom demands? Where were you held?
We were held in a cellar. It wasn’t large, maybe five by six meters. First there were three of us, and then more and more. In total, for the time we were held by the “cossacks”, there were up to 13 of us.
No one asked for a ransom. They did those sorts of things, but they would only ask money from specific people. When they knew that they could get real money – $30-50 or 60 thousand, an apartment, a car. We were held only to be exchanged.
The conditions during my detention by the “cossacks” were the toughest. They took physical methods, they tortured us. And without any real reason, it just, apparently, made them happy. But it wasn’t long, maybe three and a half months.
After that, Zakharchenko decided to combine all the divisions of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic”. Anyone who refused to join was disarmed. On April 30, 2015, the “cossack” base was seized, and we were transferred to the “izbushka” (the former SBU building in Donetsk – ed.)
Vika, how did you learn that Bohdan was captured?
V: We had an agreement that he would call me every morning and evening. He didn’t call one morning. I didn’t know that he was out on a task.
And in the evening, I got a call from Safonenko (“Cossack” leader Yuriy Safonenko – ed.) He introduced himself as the “Ataman of the Donetsk fighters” and said “We’ve captured your husband Bohdan.” Then he gave the phone to Bohdan, who confirmed it. We only had two minutes to talk.
B: But it was an exception that I got a phone call. Others didn’t. Just at the time some local journalists were shooting a story and came there, and that’s why it was allowed.
Then, later, if I compare it to freedom, the conditions were bad. But if I was to compare [being held at the “izbushka” to] being held by the “cossacks”, then it was fine. We were held in the archives, they’d placed mattresses there, and we slept in bunks laid out in six rows. We ate more or less fine. The cafeteria that fed their fighters also fed us. Everyone was sent to work at different military bases, we were used as unqualified workers.
What happened next?
B: On June 22, 2016, we were transferred to the Makiyivka prison colony no. 97. Then we were held in the prison, in two-three person cells. I was with Kolya Herasymenko and with Serhiy Hlodar. But people were changing all the time.
In the morning we were let out for walks, and we spoke a little. In the evenings we were taken to watch TV for two hours. This changed near the end, but in the beginning it was like this.
What were you allowed to watch?
B: At the time, they had added “1+1”, “Channel 5”, and various ‘republican’ local channels, and the whole package of Russian central television. If that information had reached the top, then probably, they would have banned it, but on the level of guards and workers they sort of didn’t care about what we watched.
We watched our news, local news, and Russian news. We would compare them and follow what was going on with the exchanges, with Minsk, and generally in the world.
Journalist Anna Tokhmakhchi speaks with freed tank command Bohdan Pantiushenko and his wife Victoria in Hromadske’s studio, Kyiv, Ukraine. January 26, 2020
Bohdan, you said that you had seen your capture and your conversations with fighters and with others prisoners as a social experiment. That’s how you kept yourself in shape, and tried to convince people. What did this experiment reveal to you?
B: It was personally interesting to me, what they all thought: the fighters, the guards, the management. I was always engaging them in conversations about the political, social, and economic situation of the different sides. I always offered them the [Ukrainian Security Service] program “To Come Home” (a repatriation scheme offered by the Ukrainian Security Service for Donbas residents – ed.)
I think that the “Russkiy mir” (‘Russian world’) was pressed on the people, and not everyone accepted it. They were promised something, but not that which happened in real life. People believed in it, and they were tricked.
Bohdan, what did you see when you left the plane [carrying the exchanged prisoners to Kyiv]? You left first, right?
B: Yes, first. What I saw? The president was standing with his deputies, his team, but the perimeter was surrounded by people. I got a little stage-fright.
There they told me how everything would happen, so you see, there’s the president there, you’ll stand to the side. I exit, report my arrival, and [Zelenskyy] says “Well that’s it, go see your family.” And I’m standing and thinking “Well, they did say that I had to stand, as everything was planned.” We’re military people: we do precisely what we’re told. (laughs – ed.)
But I’m thinking: if they said it twice, then I should go. And I didn’t know where to go, what way. I thought I’ll go somewhere at random and I’ll get somewhere and be met. And I went in the direction where most people were waving bouquets.
V: But this wasn’t us. We didn’t recognize him, then my mother started yelling that this was Bohdan and we went running. And I thought that this isn’t him, that some worker had left the plane, we weren’t ready for him to be first. He was in his military uniform. Security held us back when we were running. I said “Why are you holding me back? That’s my husband.” And they let me through.
What are your plans now? First you have your operation, right?
B: Yeah. I’ll go through rehabilitation, and then we’ll see.
V: We plan to live in Kyiv. I work here, Bohdan will also raise his skill level in the IT sphere. We lost a lot of years, and then he’ll also try to find work.
B: Yes, education is mandatory, because the level that I had doesn’t suit me anymore, and I want to raise it.
If our interview will be watched or read by people who are still imprisoned, would you have any words to tell them?
B: Yes. I want to tell them that we haven’t forgotten, and we’re fighting from our side. We’ll do everything to make this question [of imprisonment] solved. And every time I meet different people, such as the media and government representatives, or some public people, I’ll absolutely raise the question about the fact that we still have prisoners there.
I want to say that they should just have faith. Everything will be okay, and don’t get bitter. Have faith and hope.