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With a bag over my head, I heard the sound of a gun: a journalist’s story after 15 days of Russian captivity

Journalist Volodymyr Martynov, who was abducted by the Russians, shares his story: How did he survive isolation and escape from illegal detention?

With a bag over my head, I heard the sound of a gun: a journalist’s story after 15 days of Russian captivity
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Volodymyr Martynov, a journalist from the village of Novoaydar in Luhansk Region, was illegally detained by the Russians in December 2022. He was initially held in a basement in Luhansk for several weeks. Later, he was taken to an unknown location, left with his hands tied, and ordered to find his way home.

Have abducted civilians from Luhansk Region been met in places of detention?

Volodymyr Martynov: I had a very specific detention. Out of the 18 days I spent in the basement, only during the first three days did I have people with me with whom I could communicate. I was alone for the remaining 15 days. I met my countryman when we were already released. As it turned out, he was nearby, in the same basement.

Not everyone always wants to talk about themselves. For example, I lived in a modular town where there were IDPs from different regions, including Luhansk. When journalists came to the town, people did not open up to them. I managed to record a few stories because they treated me as one of their own.

About the occupation and collaborators in the village

Volodymyr Martynov: The village of Novoaidar was occupied by Russians a week after the invasion began. When the occupation troops came, it was unexpected. We did not believe until the very last moment that a large-scale war would take place.

My wife had a train ticket for the 24th, but the roads were immediately blocked, and there were huge traffic jams. No one would take her.

I always emphasize that Russians pay a lot of attention to ideological processing. That’s why the first people to arrive were Russian journalists. They walked the streets, stopping passers-by. Someone sent them the course of a Russian ship. But there were also people who gave them comments. Some of my friends even cooperated.

I met one of them and asked him about it. He replied, «What does it matter with whom you trade?» There were people who were waiting for them. There was a man who lived next door to me who used to put on a St. George’s ribbon every year on May 9th and demonstratively go out into the village.

It was very difficult to watch this morally. After a while, I stopped going to the village because every trip involved a mandatory dispute about the fate of Ukraine.

Volodymyr Martynov / Photo: «Sevierodonetsk Online

One of my good friends, a retired police lieutenant colonel, said that he had taken an oath and would never betray Ukraine. When the Russians came, he went to the administration a week later and offered his candidacy for the position of museum director. The museum has now become a center for military and patriotic training. Ukrainian symbols have been removed, and a huge stand with portraits of the Romanov dynasty tsars has been installed. Children are always taken there because they understand the need to educate them from an early age.

From the very first days, I was most impressed by the fact that the occupiers went to the library first when they entered the village. They took away Ukrainian literature in cars. Then I learned that the Russians also visited our district library. Some of the library staff told them that under Ukraine, they were forbidden to read Russian-language books.

As soon as the occupiers arrived, there was a sense of internal resistance. There was no sense of self-defense.

Read also: 20 years in prison for speaking Ukrainian on social media: the story of a kidnapped volunteer from Melitopol

«The house was surrounded»

Volodymyr Martynov: From the beginning of the occupation, my friends from Lysychansk offered me the chance to help them pass on information. Of course, I started to cooperate. Thanks to the location of my house, I could see how much and what kind of equipment the Russians were moving and in which direction. I passed this information on.

I was always told to destroy all records. This continued until the Internet went down, and then the connection was cut off. We got their SIM cards in our phones, and I couldn’t get in touch with my friends anymore.

I switched to working from home. Even then, my wife went to visit our daughter. My daughter’s husband went to the frontline. My wife underwent a humiliating procedure, giving her fingerprints to get to Luhansk. From there, she went to Moscow and then to Lviv.

I was left alone. I completely distanced myself and worked. On December 10, when I sat down to work, I didn’t even think that I would have guests.

That morning, as I was later told, the house where my apartment is in the village was surrounded by the military. They put us in a ring. My neighbor said it was very scary. No one was allowed in or out. My wife’s granddaughter and her husband lived in that apartment. They did not know anything. The Russians broke down the door and started to break everything. They put my granddaughter and her husband on the floor. Only after half an hour did they realize they had captured the wrong person. They ordered everyone not to call me.

At that time, I was in a house on the outskirts. I made myself a pie. Suddenly, the door slammed, and huge men with machine guns came in and immediately ordered me to lie down on the floor. I was standing there, holding a pie and a knife. I immediately said, «Guys, I just baked a pie, and this is a knife; so you don’t think I’m throwing myself at you.» They threw me to the floor and blindfolded me.

The occupiers entered the office and saw books on the shelves, a lot of historical literature. A flag was flying above the desk. They started shouting, «Look, a patriot lives here!» Then it started. I was lying on the floor with the door open, and it was December.

One of them leaned over and asked me, «Grandfather, why didn’t you leave?» I replied that this is my land, where I grew up and live.

He asked why I was being detained. They replied that I was being detained on terrorism charges. I said, «What kind of terrorist am I? I am 71 years old, guys.»

The occupiers then gave me a few minutes to get dressed. Then I saw what was happening in the house. They even smashed my guitar.

Then they pulled a bag over my head, put my hands behind my back, and dragged me from the doorstep. They pushed me into the car, bending me over so my head touched my knees. I don’t know how long I was in that position. I am hypertensive and felt bad because of my heart. I prayed and tried to analyze where I was being taken. Due to the noise of the tram, I assumed we were in Luhansk.

After the stop, I was taken to some kind of dungeon. I counted nine steps. Then they shoved me into a cell and took off the bag through the open door. So, I didn’t even see any of them.

Read also: A year and a half of ignorance: how the Russians kidnapped a grain businessman

«The hardest part was when I heard the sound of the gun»

Volodymyr Martynov: I stayed in the basement for 18 days, 15 of which I was completely isolated. Then I was called, my hands were tied in front of me, and I was taken to a car.

At that point, I was ready for anything. I had the opportunity to write my home address, passport number, and surname on pieces of paper. I put these notes in my boots, under my collar, and in my side pockets, in case my body was found somewhere so that it could be identified.

When they took me out, I realized it was a forest. I felt the branches on my face. They made me kneel there. The worst moment was when I heard the sound of a gun. Those were the most difficult seconds. Then they gave me a package. As it turned out, it contained my passport and phone.

I was told that I would take the bag off myself in 20 minutes. If I did it earlier, I might not make it home. I started counting the seconds out loud, all 20 minutes. When I dared to take off the bag, I saw another man kneeling 6-7 meters away. It turned out to be my friend from Novoaidar. That’s how I found out that he had been captured on the same day and kept in the same basement.

We ended up in an abandoned cemetery. We followed the sound of a car. We stopped quite a lot, then some guy got in and brought us to the city, even giving us money for the journey.

Read also: Lack of medicine threatens people with death: what happens to illegally detained civilians in Crimea

In times of war, the program «Free our relatives» tells the stories of people, cities, villages, and entire regions that have been captured by Russian invaders. We discuss the war crimes committed by the Kremlin and its troops against the Ukrainian people.

The program is hosted by Ihor Kotelyanets and Anastasia Bagalika.

This publication is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the framework of the Human Rights in Action Program implemented by Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union. Opinions, conclusions and recommendations presented in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, the United States Government. The contents are the responsibility of the authors.

USAID is the world’s premier international development agency and a catalytic actor driving development results. USAID’s work demonstrates American generosity, and promotes a path to recipient self-reliance and resilience, and advances U.S. national security and economic prosperity. USAID has partnered with Ukraine since 1992, providing more than $9 billion in assistance. USAID’s current strategic priorities include strengthening democracy and good governance, promoting economic development and energy security, improving health care systems, and mitigating the effects of the conflict in the east.

For additional information about USAID in Ukraine, please call USAID’s Development Outreach and Communications Office at: +38 (044) 521-5753. You may also visit our website: http://www.usaid.gov/ukraine or our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/USAIDUkraine.


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