On Monday April 21, VICE News reporters Simon Ostrovsky and Freddie Paxton were stopped at a checkpoint by armed pro-Russia forces loyal to the self-proclaimed mayor of Sloviansk, Vacheslav Ponomarev.
They were pulled from their car along with three other journalists they were traveling with. After a thorough search and questioning, Paxton and the three other journalists were released. Ostrovsky was held in a basement cell where he was blindfolded, beaten, and accused of being a spy.
For days, his whereabouts were unknown, which sparked a furor among journalists in the region and people from around the world who had been following his work. On Thursday April 24, Simon was suddenly released onto streets of Sloviansk with little explanation.
This is his story in his own words.
Before the Kidnapping
In the two days prior to when we were captured at the checkpoint, we were trying to figure out what was happening in terms of various incidents, various shootings. But we also had a wider investigation about whether there were actual Russian citizens involved in the pro-Russia forces in Eastern Ukraine.
That’s one of the big questions that a lot of people were trying to answer for themselves and haven’t been able to answer for themselves definitively and that’s what we were looking into. And on reflection I think maybe that’s what got them angry with us specifically.
On Monday I’d gone to a press conference in the morning outside the Ukrainian Security Services building which has now been taken over by the pro-Russia separatists and they wheeled out a Ukrainian activist-journalist called Irma who was led out and blindfolded and then the blindfold was taken off her and then she gave an interview to a bunch of journalists.
And then in the afternoon around 5PM, they were organizing the press conference in the city administration and we went into the press conference and it was one of the strangest press conferences I had ever been in because it consisted of Stella and another woman and then the mayor telling all of the journalists that if they were caught lying that they would be expelled from the city and that they would and that they would be watching our work. And they had taken our names down, and that they know who we are so we better be careful what we say.
We’d been working around town openly as press the entire time without any problems outside of the usual, you know, people saying “don’t take pictures, don’t take pictures” and getting in our face.
But when we were returning home from filming that night back to the hotel in Sloviansk — there’s a few checkpoints in between Kramatorsk and Sloviansk that we went through that were perfectly fine. We had a Russian journalist with us who waved his Russian press credentials and helped us get through checkpoints. But when we got to the final checkpoint which was literally maybe 300 or 400 yards away from our hotel, a man pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket with my face on it.
He shined a light on my face, showed it to his friends, his face lit up and he’s like “I got him, I got him. This is him.” And so they just opened the car door, pulled us all out of the car, lined us up in a row next to the car and then led us away into a alleyway nearby where they lined us up again and went through our pockets.
(They) asked everybody what their nationality was and there was a group of — I don’t know, its hard to say — maybe about 10 people, who were sort of circling around us with weapons and threatening us and there was one guy who actually had a machete and said “let’s cut off his leg.”
And there was another guy with a shotgun who said “Let’s shoot him right here” and there were a couple of other guys who were like “No, no, no we have to take him to the SBU building” which is the Ukrainian State Security Services headquarters that’s now been taken over by the pro-Russia forces. And it was really frightening, I have to admit and really eerie because as we were being lined up in that alleyway a black Volga sedan was being unloaded and somebody was pulling out what looked like a body from the back of the car.
But I think it may have been somebody who was alive but was just being transported in the trunk of the car and then the other four journalists including Freddie (Paxton), Simon Schuster and the Russian and Ukrainian journalist was sort of left behind.
And I was put into the same Volga which they pulled the person out the back of just moments earlier. They drove me silently to the SBU headquarters that are just a couple minutes away from where the checkpoint was and they led me out to the courtyard behind the SBU building and that’s when things got really rough.
Intimidation and Beatings
What happened first was that they pulled a hat over my eyes then went through all of my pockets they took everything I had out of my pockets. They took my coat off of me, threatened to make me get on my knees — didn’t end up making me get on my knees — and then they taped my hands behind my back and you know, threatened to shoot me a couple of times. The whole procedure seemed like its purpose was to intimidate me as much as possible.
So I was led down the stairs into the basement of the SBU with my hands tied behind my back and I was blindfolded. And I was thrown down to the floor of the cell and made to sat in a corner and then eventually — I don’t know maybe two or three people came in and started beating me up on the floor. And I rolled over and tried to protect myself and they were kicking me and punching me in the ribs and hitting me on the head on the ears with open palms which is pretty painful and shocking and creates this effect of a photo flash in your brain but doesn’t actually leave any lasting damage.
And I think everything they were trying to do was to hurt me enough to make me scared but not hurt me bad enough for me to have any lasting damage that they could get blamed for in the future. And I think I kind of recognized that pretty early on.
And pretty much realized that they weren’t punching me in the face and they weren’t trying to leave any marks on my body. And that was actually very encouraging and I sort of thought to myself well I mean I can probably take a beating and if that’s as bad as it’s going to be then this isn’t going to be so bad after all. But there was also a lot of — you know — I didn’t know for sure those were the kinds of things that I was telling myself but they also did everything that they could to make the first night as horrific as possible.
Every half an hour or so somebody would come in and ask me some questions. Asked me about my ethnic background, asked me if I was a spy, tell me that they could easily kill me if they wanted to and then you know, leave me alone for another half an hour.
The effect was that you know every time that I heard footsteps in the corridor walking by I was wondering whether they were going to come in and like hit me again or do something to me. So it was actually pretty terrifying.
Halfway through the night I asked him if I could have my hands retied in front of my body and they sort of leaned me forward and took a knife out and told me that they had a machine gun trained on my head and if I made a false move then my head would fall apart.
He cut the tape on my hands and then they retied my hands in the front of my body and you know as they were doing that they were both very close up to me and holding me and my hands were actually pressed up against an AK that the guy was holding. And then they left me alone for a few hours and I kind of slept after that until I don’t know what hour it was I didn’t even know whether it was even light or dark in the room I thought I was in a totally pitch dark room but eventually when I sort of gathered up a little bit of courage I pushed the hat a little bit up my nose so there was a crack of light at the bottom of the hat. And then I could see that the room I had been in the entire time that I thought was just a dark basement cell was actually a totally lit up the entire time.
It was a really filthy room with a sort of roll up mattress that was half rotted away and a coat that I had been put on in the corner and the walls were so damp that the plaster was coming down like it was sand every time you moved on it. And there was water from condensation dripping from the ceiling the entire time so it was really hard to find a position where you wouldn’t get dripped on. And that’s how I spent I guess the first day and a half on my own until other people, other detainees, were put into the same room as me.
Reasons for “Disappearance”
I found out afterwards that the mayor had been feeding journalists at the press conferences all kinds of reasons for my disappearance I think none of which were true. He was also trying to keep everyone on their toes about where I was actually being held so nobody was sure 100 percent if I was abducted or where I was being held and part of the reason was because he was saying that I was actually on an exclusive assignment to write a story about the goings on inside the SBU. Which was totally untrue.
It was funny because one of the guys actually mentioned the Geneva Convention to me. He told me that you know according to the Geneva conventions they were required to give me food, water and cigarettes if I asked. And they did. You know so if I wanted water they gave me water if I wanted food — they didn’t — I never asked for food, they just brought food regularly — I wasn’t hungry.
After about a day and a half, some other detainees were moved into the small cell that I had been in with me and they made me feel much more relaxed about what was going on because they told me what I could expect. And they were the guys who let me know that I hadn’t actually had my real interrogation yet. They were like “oh they haven’t questioned you in the other room? Oh well that’s gonna happen, you might get beaten up” kind of thing.
There were two sort of groups of guards that we had, maybe even three. There were our caretakers who were unarmed and wearing civilian clothing. Then there were a group of guards who were definitely locals from Sloviansk, the town itself who had ragtag camouflage clothing that they managed to put together themselves. Then there was a higher group of what everyone in the cellar called the special ops guys. They are what’s also called the little green men that everyone suspects to have some kind of ties to Russia but nobody has been able to prove it yet.
To me, I couldn’t verify 100 percent for myself whether they were Russian or not. They sounded like they had Southern accents to me which could be Ukrainian or from Southern Russia.
My true feeling about the people who were dealing with us was that they were military veterans who had been members of some kind of organization together even before this conflict began. They had this sort of nationalist, religious, fundamentalist, orthodox, Christian ideology that they kept talking about.
Eventually a man came in, one of the special ops guys as we called them, woke me up and asked me for my computer’s password. And I got up and told them that I was very sorry but I couldn’t give them my computer’s password. He said “Ok, you want to do this the hard way? You can wait for the hard way.” And then he left the room and then I sort of waited for another hour and a half until he came back.
You know one of the other guys was like “Oh you shouldn’t have don’t that, you’re gonna get it pretty bad now.” But I think that was the whole point of not really doing anything initially just to sort of make me soak in my own expectation of the bad things that are gonna happen to me because I refused to cooperate. So he eventually came back and he took me into the other room and they sat me down on a box and I was blindfolded again.
First he asked what the computer password was and I refused to give it to him again and the other guy who was with him used a truncheon to smack me on the arm. And then he told me that they had already cracked my computer anyways so they didn’t need the password from me and that I had failed their test. And then he asked me if I worked for the CIA, if I worked for the FBI, if I was working for the Kiev government if I was a spy for the Right Sector. And I said I wasn’t and he asked me if I was sure — I said I was sure.
And it was actually a pretty short interrogation and besides getting hit on the arm with the police baton it wasn’t that bad or intense and I had already spent almost two days there by that stage and I think then they had already figured out what the real situation was. They were just ticking boxes like “Ok we’ve got the detainee, we’ve got to interrogate him, we’ve got to ask him the usual questions.” And it sort of lasted about 10 minutes and then they left the room and they left me in that room to spend the night.
So that night I spent alone in the big room.
Day of Release
But the main change in the atmosphere of the building happened on Thursday, the day of my release when I didn’t know at that point why this was happening but most of the gunmen had left the SBU building what I found out later in the day was that when the gunmen came back was that there had been a gunfight and that the Ukrainian troops were moving into town. And so then they were preoccupied with that and so even when we were asking them if we could go to use the toilet they told us that they didn’t really have time for us today.
And so I think that that might have had also something to do with my release because they were so busy with the security situation changing on the ground for them that they thought that maybe having me around was just too much — more trouble than its worth.
Roman, one of the caretakers, came down and told me “get your things, you’re going.” But he didn’t actually give me my things and he led me upstairs and there was a cameraman from the Rossiya Television station which is a Kremlin backed state owned media. And this Russian reporter interviewed me. His name was Evgeny Popov. He wanted to know how I had been treated, what my political views were, he said I had been accused of being a Right Sector spy and asked if that was true. And then you know when I had told him how I had been treated he didn’t really want to dwell on that because that didn’t make for good news in Russia—that the pro-Russia forces were beating and taking people hostages.
And so he tried to shift the conversation to my view of the political situation in Ukraine overall and whether I agreed that it was the Western backed junta in Kiev that was being sponsored by the Western governments to ferment this conflict and what the West’s role is in fermenting the conflict and you know what my opinion was of the Kiev authorities. He was trying to tease out my political position.
I don’t even know if he published that story because I felt like I didn’t say anything that would have made good propaganda for them. So what they did was they said “You’re being released. Wash your face, comb your hair.” And then they led me up to a cameraman, so they tricked me basically.
And then out of the blue, sort of around 5 or 6PM, Roman came down with a plastic bag full of my things and said, “You’re free to go.” Then I just walked through the barricade with my little plastic bag and walked past a group of gunmen, went around the corner in the direction of the hotel and immediately bumped into a crew from the Canadian broadcasting company.
I walked up to their car and they saw me and they said “We’ve been looking for you everywhere! Give us a real quick interview.”
They put me in their car and their security guard put me in the back of the car and told me to take my glasses off and put on a beanie hat when we were going through checkpoints.
I feel really great to be released and you know I wasn’t hurt badly I was just beaten a couple of times, which is bearable.
But I feel really bad for the people who are still being held there some of them have been held for like two weeks.
There’s a journalist there, just a local guy who wanted to set up a webcam across the street from the building we were being held in and that’s the reason why he was captured.
There was another guy who was from the Euromaidan protests who came to town with some Right Sector people and he was roughed up pretty bad and he’s been there for about a week now I think.