Ukraine crisis: Kidnappings abound as the Donbass falls further into anarchy
Dmitri Podushkin had been anxious, full of trepidation, since the Ukrainian troops left. He was, he knew only too well, a target for the separatists; his wife and young daughter had gone to another town for safety, and their son was due to follow. Danger was closing in all around, he told friends, and there was no one to protect them.
The masked men came for the owner of Kramatorsk airport at just after six in the evening, four days ago. He was dragged out of his car at the entrance, which used to be guarded by soldiers, and dragged into a van. Two women watching from nearby allotments heard shouts for help as figures in combat uniforms punched and kicked the captive, firing bursts from Kalashnikovs into the air as they drove off in a trail of billowing dust.
The kidnapping of 46-year-old Dmitri Podushkin, was one of many in the Peoples’ Republic of Donbass, a grim and rising phenomenon in a disintegrating society sliding into civil war, with little semblance of governance; a place street justice is meted out by the baseball bat and the gun.
Some of the abductions are for commercial gain, with ransoms ranging from the equivalent of tens of thousands to a few hundred pounds. Others are political; dozens of prisoners are kept in the intelligence bases at the rebel strongholds of Slovyansk and Luhansk and the occupied administration headquarters in Donetsk. Some of them are paraded for media interviews, one particular Russian television channel invited to question hooded, sometimes beaten, inmates - an unpleasant and disturbing thing to watch.
But from the captors of Mr Padushkin, there has been nothing. “This is the most worrying thing. If there were just a demand for money, I would feel relieved. I would know that at least he is still alive,” said his wife Vera. “There is such a mixture between some of these separatists and robbers that we were hoping it was about money, but that hasn’t happened. We have tried to speak to their activists, their politicians, we hear rumours about where he might be but that’s all, we are just hoping that he is not harmed.”
There are, indeed, links between paramilitaries on both sides of the conflict and the underworld; among those orchestrating the mob which arrived in the slipstream of the militant gunmen who stormed Kramatorsk police station were two convicted gangsters, “Sktrok” and “Komar”, both recently released from prison.
But Mr Podushkin has made dangerous political enemies. The first time I met him, three weeks ago, at the same barrier going into the airport from which he was later taken away. At the time, he was waving a piece of paper given to him a team from the OSCE [the Organisation for Security and co-operation in Europe]. “This is supposed to stop the bandits, terrorists, from doing all the criminal acts, cutting off roads, harassing. You can see it has no effect at all,” he exclaimed, gesturing towards a separatist roadblock 50 yards away.
Two of the pickets had come up, standing three feet away: “You are a thief. You stole this place with your corrupt friends. Now you are helping the invaders,” one of them said. Behind us stood half a dozen Ukrainian soldiers, their faces covered by scarves, nervously fingering their assault rifles.
“These are my protection. I am not depending on the OSCE for anything. What I worry about is what happens if these soldiers leave. I have to stay here; my family stays here.” Mr Podushkin spread his hands. “They can have all kinds of international organisations saying all kinds of things, but what matters is that nothing is changing here. It’s a really bad situation.”
Dmitri Podushkin was kidnapped four days ago Despite his stated scepticism about the OSCE, Mr Podushkin sought the organisation’s assistance. He was particularly worried about the safety of his family and his staff and he had been given assurance of help and various numbers to contact; but by then the OSCE team had themselves been kidnapped: they would be held for more than a week at next door Slovyansk, only freed after an international campaign and the intervention of the Kremlin.
A few days after that, a Ukrainian Mi-8 helicopter gunship of was blown up by militants firing rocket-propelled grenades at the airport. Vera Podushkin spoke of her shock at watching the explosion 150 yards from their window. Then there was another attack on the airbase; this time the troops cleared the separatist checkpoint, breaking, claimed the protesters, a tacit agreement.
Clashes, meanwhile, were taking place between the Ukrainian troops and separatists in Slovyansk, Mariupol and Lugansk, while the contingent at Kramatorsk airport pulled out in their armoured personnel carriers. All those who had provided support and services for them were now on their own: three women who had cooked for the soldiers were "arrested" by militiamen and given a beating before being released.
“We were, of course, very worried about the soldiers going, the place was wide open” Vera Podushkin pointed out. “That is the reason I left with my five-year-old daughter. We were trying to work out what to do. Dmitri, of course, had the airport to look after. it was very problematic, and then this happened.”
Mr Podushkin could not be reached on his mobile by members of the family; his mother, Lidiya Afanasiyevna, rushed to the police station and hospitals without any joy. The next day Denis Voronkin, whose Facebook page shows a hooded figure in black holding an AK-47, and has links with neo-Nazi videos, posted a message saying: “I personally got the whore”.
But someone far more senior is being linked to airport owner’s disappearance. His red Volkswagen Polo has been seen being driven around Kramatorsk and Slovyansk by Alesksandr Mozhaev, who has become a local militia celebrity.
The Cossack with the flowing beard from a village near the Krasnodar region in Russia was among those whose photograph appeared in a dossier prepared by Ukraine’s caretaker government purporting to prove that members of the Russian special forces who had served in Georgia and Crimea were now in the Donbass. The "evidence" presented was questionable, but the Obama administration had used it extensively to claim collusion between the Kremlin and the separatists.
Mr Mozhaev, whose nickname is "Babay", or "the Bogeyman", denies ever being in Georgia, or being a special forces veteran. He had, he insisted, been a sergeant in the regular army who had to flee Russia after being falsely accused of attempted murder with a knife. “My misfortune was not having enough money to bribe those [corrupt officials] who had framed me, so I had to flee. That is what happens in some places, they arrest you and hold you to ransom.”
Mr Mozhaev could not be found today to ask whether he had any knowledge of Mr Padushkin’s disappearance. A fellow fighter from the Cossack Hundred militia thought he was dealing with the aftermath of an ambush near Kramatorsk in which seven Ukrainian soldiers, according to the defence ministry in Kiev, were killed yesterday.
Dmitry’s mother, Lidiya Afanasiyevna, has continued to visit various possible places of her son’s incarceration. Vera has been contacting separatist leaders, including Pavel Gubarev. the self-proclaimed "peoples' governor" of the Donbass, recently freed by the Ukrainian authorities.
There are those who believe the airport owner has certain questions to answer. One of those who had manned the separatist checkpoint at the airport was Sergei Nicolavitch, a policeman. He did not know where Mr Podushkin was, but he wanted to stress: “This man Podushkin bought this airport at a fraction of the price, and all the land around here.
“He was working with a senior police officer who also got a cut from all this. This is a strategic military facility, very sensitive; how can this go into private hands? I am now in criminal investigations, murders, robberies; but I used to be in economic crimes branch, so I have some knowledge of these matters.”
Mr Podushkin had vigorously denied the claims. In any event surely any such allegation must be backed up by evidence in a court? I asked a companion of Mr Nicolavitch who said he was involved in "security matters".
“It will take a long time to get all that back,” he shrugged. “That is a pity.”
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