Ukraine crisis: Tortured politician’s widow mourns, as Russia vows to defend its interests

‘So many holes in his body’. Elena Rybak describes the terrible injuries suffered by her husband but refuses to blame pro-Kremlin militants

Donetsk

The death of her husband under torture had played a part in the president of Ukraine’s decision to resume military operations against separatists. But Elena Rybak’s immediate feelings were very personal: devastating grief and numbing incomprehension about what had happened.

There was the added horror of seeing the body of someone she loved with terrible injuries inflicted. The body of Vladimir Rybak – a town councillor and member of Yulia Tymoshenko’s Our Ukraine Fatherland party – had been found floating in the river, having disappeared after a confrontation with separatist militants.

The journey to the morgue in the city of Slovaynsk, a militant stronghold, to carry out the identification had itself been fraught, through checkpoints controlled by comrades of those who may well have committed the murder; the constant searches of the car she was travelling in by masked men with guns.

“I don’t want to go into details about what had been done to him. My first impression was there was so many holes in the body, holes in the body of someone who was so much to me,”  Mrs Rybak, 49, told The Independent. “I was hoping that it was a mistake. We had been searching for him for such a long time and you build up hope. Then I was told by the police that he had died, but they would not tell me much more.

“Even after I had been told of his death, I had to wait for a day to go and identify him. It wasn’t safe. When I went, we met these men with beards, armed, I think they were Chechens. We must have gone through eight or nine of these road blocks with inspections, with searches, before we got through.”

Events continued to move fast in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s Foreign Minister promised a firm response if its citizens or interests come under attack – a vow that came after Ukraine announced a renewal of its “anti-terror” campaign against those occupying buildings in its troubled east.

 

Although Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov did not specifically say Russia would launch a military attack, his comments bolstered wide concern that Russia could use any violence in eastern Ukraine as a pretext for sending in troops. Large contingents of Russian troops – tens of thousands, Nato says – are in place near the Ukrainian border.

“Russian citizens being attacked is an attack against the Russian Federation,” Mr Lavrov said in an interview with Kremlin-funded satellite TV channel RT. “If our interests, our legitimate interests, the interests of Russians have been attacked directly, like they were in South Ossetia, I do not see any other way but to respond in full accordance with international law.”

Mr Lavrov’s comments painted grim picture of what is to come in Ukraine. But for Mrs Rybak, the worst has already happened.

Mrs Rybak, a gynaecologist, said the couple’s 25-year-old son has now become aware of what had happened, but their 13-year-old daughter has not yet been told. “I know I have to tell her, but it is very difficult. How can you explain to a child something like this? How people can just take away a life. The last conversation I had with my husband was about our daughter, her education, what plans we should make. We never had a chance to finish the conversation. Five nights before Vladimir disappeared, I had a bad dream; it was of a grave, we were looking at it, my family, my daughter was in it…..” her voice faded away.

Yelena Rybak, the widow of Vladimir Rybak says she cannot understand why her husband was killed (AP) Yelena Rybak, the widow of Vladimir Rybak says she cannot understand why her husband was killed (AP)
Mr Rybak was a councillor in the city of Horlivka,  where government buildings had been taken over by pro-Russian protestors. Six days ago he had arrived at the Council headquarters, which had been stormed, and tried to take down the Russian and People’s Republic of Donetsk flags which had replaced Ukrainian colours. There is video footage of heated argument and the politician being dragged away by a man, face hidden. A little later, a car pulled up and he was bundled in, not to be seen alive again.

His body, along with one yet to be identified, was fished out 80 miles away near Slovyansk on Easter Sunday. The city’s newly installed separatist mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, announced the recovery of the bodies, blaming the killings on the Right Sector, a hardline nationalist group the separatists claim are carrying out attacks on behalf of the Kiev administration.

Oleksandr Turchynov, the country’s caretaker president, accused pro-Moscow militants of the crime. “The terrorists who effectively took the whole Donetsk region hostage have now gone too far. They dared to toss a challenge not just to our country, but to the whole world as well.”  He accused the Kremlin of being complicit. “These crimes”, he said, “are being committed with the full support and connivance of the Russian Federation.”

Mrs Rybak, however, declined to blame anyone. “The police told me that they have started an investigation and we will be told the results. I hope that is the case. They may find out very quickly. My husband used to be in the police force himself and he was even thinking of rejoining, some of them have said they want to come to the funeral, so yes, I hope they investigate thoroughly,“ she said.

“What I do know is that my husband was a very honest man. He campaigned against corruption and he always stood up for poor people. He may have made enemies, but I have never heard him speak about any threats against his life. In fact, when he walked through town, people would come up and thank him for help he had given them through his work as a councillor. He was always trying to get things done. His view on life was constructive, not destructive.

“But there must have been quite a few men who took part in this kidnapping of Vladimir. I heard that when they tried to get him into the car at first he said that he had to go home, then they dragged him in. They must have planned this. This couldn’t have been something they did just that minute. Why? Even if he did have an argument with some people, it would not lead to something like this. It is so difficult to understand.”

Asked whether the separatists or, indeed, the Kremlin had played a part in the abduction and murder as Mr Turchynov, a fellow member of her husband’s Fatherland party, had claimed, Mrs Rybak shook her head: “I cannot go into that, I do not know.”

The caution was understandable. She admitted being unsure about the future. “I do not know whether we will stay in Horlivka; I must focus first of all on the funeral arrangements. All the paperwork that needs to be done, then we will have to make our judgment. We will have to consider everything, including safety.”

Mrs Rybak was accompanied to identify the body by Aleksandr Yaroshenko, a friend of her husband. He was convinced: “The police must have lots of details, they have CCTV footage, they would know who was in the car, but, at the moment, they are not sharing this with us.”

“We asked about the second person who was with Vladimir. Again, if they knew, they would not tell us. He seems to be a young man, 22 or 23. There is some talk that he may be a journalist, or an activist, the kind of people now being targeted.”

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