In eastern Ukraine, one text message can turn you into an enemy. In my case, it was sent to my father. “Talked to Borodai at night,” it said about an interview I had with a rebel leader.
“So, you are Borodai’s little friend,” concluded the camouflaged man reading my Nokia. His comrade pointed a Kalashnikov at my stomach. “We’ve got a Russian warrior here saying he is a journalist,” he called to someone in Russian.
It was July 25, 3 p.m. I was heading home to Russia from Donetsk when a routine inspection at a Ukrainian army checkpoint near Starobesheve village went bad. They saw my Russian passport and press card, and told me to get out and hand over my belongings. I tried to hide my BlackBerry. Then they found videos of separatists’ press conferences on my iPad. My guilt, whatever it was, was proven.
I managed to whisper a Moscow contact to my driver before being blindfolded and walked five steps to a waiting Hyundai SUV I’d seen approaching with masked men inside.
“You’d better shut up and think about keeping your pants dry,” one of the masked men -- I counted three voices -- said as we were driving to an unknown location something like 40 minutes away, off a bumpy rural road.
It reminded me, a 31-year-old Muscovite, of the many experiences I had with Russian police as a teenager. I was waiting for good cop-bad cop questioning, moderate use of force and a meticulous scan of my memories from rebel-controlled Donetsk.
I thought I’d still make my flight at 9:15 p.m. As I got to learn my captors better, I began to think I might be held for days, if only because chaos on the ground would keep me from being found.
The three captors -- Pavel, Ruslan and Dmitry, as I learned later -- were military intelligence officers from the Dnepr battalion, sponsored by Dnipropetrovsk governor and billionaire Igor Kolomoisky. In this war, oligarchs train, equip and fund detachments, which are then under the control of the Ukranian army.
Dubbed “Kolomoisky castigators” and “fascists” by Russian media, my captors turned out to be the same kind of people I met when talking to separatists: bored Russian-speakers, the blood and muscle of a conflict where random hatred reigns on both sides.
“So, what do the rebels say?” was the first question after I was taken out of the car.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, what do they say, in general?” a gunman elaborated.
I was still blindfolded, sitting on the grass in a place that sounded like a military camp. Soldiers were gathering around, joking and cursing at me. “You, Russians, are all pigs,” one said. “I’d love to shoot you down.”
This made me recall a salty Russian joke about World War II. I chuckled. He punched me twice in the head. It didn’t hurt much. I thought that was a good sign.
The questioning didn’t go as I expected. My captors were not asking about rebel positions, separatist leadership security or anything that military intelligence ought to be interested in.
They desperately expressed their own views, shutting me up when I argued. They asked me questions I couldn’t answer. How many Russians support the rebels? Why do they kill children? Why did the people on the Malaysian Airlines flight have to die? What does Vladimir Putin want? Do we really look like fascists?
It lasted for an hour or more. I was happy when they settled me back in the car. The driver explained that we were heading out to destroy a separatist truck-mounted Grad rocket launcher in a village nearby.
“You will now see how the Ukrainian army fights,” he said, and hit the throttle. The car bumped into a barrier, losing a fender guard, as I heard from their talks.
They stopped at another roadblock to get more weapons. We moved further in silence on a bumpy road. I started to fall asleep, wondering what message I would send to Polina and my son if I managed to get the phone back. A cursing voice woke me up.
The “Grad” turned out to be a grain harvester. The gunmen appeared to be relieved. They took my blindfold off and I saw a field of rye.
“Look how beautiful it is,” said Ruslan, a tall red-haired man in his 30s sitting next to me. He turned out to have a habit of pointing out picturesque landscapes. The three of them wore new combat vests and tactical sunglasses.
“You should be happy we got you and not the guys from the 39th unit,” Dmitry, the driver and the commander of the group, told me. “They are always drunk, so they would probably beat you to death first and then think.”
Dmitry, Ruslan and Pavel were small-business men before the conflict, they told me. Their companies had monthly sales of around 300,000 Hryvnia ($25,000) each. They used to travel together to Oktoberfest in Germany and organized weekend parties in country vacation houses. Dmitry turned out to be an expert in wind generators and dissuaded me from buying one for my dacha.
The three of them hated everything other than nature. They hated the Euromaidan protests for igniting the unrest, hated Americans and Europeans for supporting it, hated ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and, of course, hated Putin, journalists and Russians.
“Russians and Ukrainians are not brothers anymore ’til Putin dies,” Pavel, who looked older than his friends, said, as he played a disc of Russian rock pioneer Viktor Tsoi in the Hyundai.
They asked me if I had Ukrainian roots. I had to disappoint them.
We were heading to Mariupol, a city to the south of Donetsk, where authorities moved when the rebels occupied the capital. Pavel was advising me how to behave during questioning by their “much tougher” colleagues at the base, Dmitry was having a phone conversation about rebels’ salaries and Ruslan was staring at another field.
“Did you know there are giant rye fields between Ukraine and Russia, fields that go across the border, where nothing indicates what country they belong to?” he asked pensively.
“I know a village where a house is on our side and its toilet is on the Russian side,” Pavel said.
It was growing dark when they blindfolded me again.
The base was at the airport, as I understood from their talks. “Password? Four. Password? Six,” they said at the entrance, stopped the car and left me alone. Other men took me out of the car and ordered me to put my hands on the wall.
The pointless questioning repeated. “Do you know who Putin is?” a voice asked. “The president of Russia,” I said. “Incorrect. He is khuilo. Let me teach you a song,” he said about a soccer chant popular in Ukraine in which Putin is called that term, which translates to an unprintable reference to male anatomy.
“Bloomberg News? Are you sure? Maybe Life News,” another voice asked, referring to a Russian media outlet controlled by Putin allies. They told me they don’t care that I work for an international media and not for a Russian one.
“We got a truth room for s--- like you,” somebody said. Then they all left, leaving a guard who kicked me in the leg when I made attempts to kill mosquitos.
I had no way of knowing at the time, but my driver had managed to get through the message to my father to call Bloomberg’s Moscow bureau, setting off frantic activity from there to New York.
My colleagues in Kiev reached out to every contact they had, calling the army, the defense ministry, the security services, the president’s office. They scurried to find copies of my passports and assemble a portfolio of my recent work to prove who I was. Eventually, they found the right person.
In an hour, a new man approached. They called him colonel. He had a soft voice and a small palm. “I am an ethnic Russian,” was the introduction. “Looks like you were telling the truth and I have only one question left before you go. What do you think about all of this happening here?”
I answered with a bad Russian word. He agreed.
My three captors returned and drove me out from the base. “He said we should ask you to excuse us,” Ruslan said, taking my blindfold off.
“Here, take these. It’s Ukrainian-made s--- anyway,” Pavel said as he gave me his sunglasses. Ruslan showed pictures of corpses that he said belonged to Chechen mercenaries he’d killed in Ukraine. Dmitry said I can always join their raids when I come back.
My captors took me to Novoazovsk, a border checkpoint I was planning to pass seven hours earlier. Ruslan took a call from his father.
“All fine, Dad.”
“No, doing nothing. Just met some friends and we plan to hang out a bit.”
They ordered the border guards to let me go through. They left their e-mail addresses, should I wish to keep in touch.
At the Russian side, the Federal Security Service questioned me for an hour. I told my story in brief and a young officer asked if they could inspect my belongings. He was surprised when I refused.
I left the checkpoint and saw a field of rye. It was too dark to see if it stretched across the border.