“Gun to my stomach”: Mariupol former theatre director survived 10 months of Russian captivity

10 ian., 2024

When Russian forces launched a vicious assault against Ukraine’s port city of Mariupol in the spring of 2022, the local theatre’s former artistic director Anatoly Levchenko knew his family should have fled. But by then, it was too late.

Moscow’s troops had surrounded the city in March and it quickly became the epicentre of a humanitarian catastrophe that shocked the world. Hundreds of civilians both inside and outside the city’s Donetsk Regional Academic Drama Theatre where he worked died as a result of Russian strikes.

For 54-year-old Levchenko, his wife, his son Artem, and his 92-year-old mother-in-law, there was little chance of escape. Their local shops had been looted and the family survived by roasting whatever foodstuffs they could find over an open fire, often tortillas.

The dark chapter was then marked by personal tragedy a month into Russia’s full-scale invasion when Levchenko’s mother-in-law died in her sleep. “I buried her on the lawn near the house, I took a shovel, dug a hole with my neighbors, and put her in a blanket,” recalls Levchenko, who was the director of the local theatre until 2018. “I cried for the first time in a long time.”

Another month had passed. In May, the family had prepared to escape but before they left, the doorbell rang. It was Russian soldiers. “They put a gun to my stomach,” he recalls. “People in uniform broke into (our) apartment and began to search it.”

“You will come with us,” they told him. They put a bag over his head and led him away to a car.

The occupying authorities accused Levchenko of being pro-Ukraine and of previously staging nationalist plays, and – like thousands of other civilians in territories occupied by Moscow’s troops – he was condemned to a prison in the Donetsk region. The former theatre director would spend the next 10 months languishing in detention.

An FSB officer, Levchenko recalls, tried to force a confession from him by getting him to falsely admit he had worked for Ukraine’s security services. “I replied that this is a complete delusion,” he said. “Ever since 2014, I understood that Russia is an empire that will never leave Ukraine,” he said, referring to Moscow’s 2014 invasion of the Donbas region. “But not everyone in Mariupol understood this.”

A month after he was detained he was charged with inciting ethnic enmity and transferred to a different prison. Levchenko recalls sharing a cramped, filthy old cell with four other prisoners. “Bedbugs, lice, cockroaches, and rats were everywhere,” he remembers.

Two months later, at the height of summer in July, he was moved to another prison facility. He recalls having difficulty breathing in the small cell in which he was held, and he didn’t know if his family was still alive. The precarious situation was driving him to suicidal thoughts.

“I knew that the (Donetsk People’s Republic) has the death penalty, and the investigators told me: ‘If you don’t cooperate with us, you will be shot,’” he said. “I wanted to throw myself out of the window.”

But Levchenko thought about his wife and his son, Artem, who is severely autistic and non-verbal. If he survived his ordeal, he wanted to be there to support them.

Anatoli Levchenko

Anna, left, Anatoly, middle, and their son Artem sit on the bench in the park in Kropyvnytskyi, Ukraine on September 1, 2023 (Photo: Oksana Parafeniuk)

According to data from Ukraine’s Ministry of Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, by November 2023, more than 4,300 Ukrainians were held in Russian captivity – more than 15 percent of whom were civilians, like Levchenko.

However, discovering the fate of civilian detainees can be difficult because official information on their whereabouts is hard to obtain. Some civilians are released or added to a prisoner of war exchange lists. But that can be largely down to luck.

According to a report by The Associated Press, which obtained Russian government documents, Moscow plans to open 25 so-called “correctional colonies” as well as six civilian detention centers in the occupied territories by 2026.

During his detention, Levchenko says some detainees were subjected to brutal torture by Russian troops. “There was a guy in the cell who was being (taken) for questioning all the time, and we heard him screaming,” Levchenko said. “He was electrocuted.”

Levchenko was eventually charged with inciting international enmity, extremism, and terrorism, charges he denied. According to Russian law in the occupied areas, detainees cannot be held for more than four months and Levchenko launched a legal battle against his captors.

He won his case and was released in March last year.

By then, he had spent close to a year in detention. “My health has deteriorated greatly,” he said. He believes it was a combination of poor material conditions, inadequate food, and long periods of psychological uncertainty. “You can only survive by clinging to some simple things: eating, washing, talking. I lived another day.”

When he left detention, Levchenko had to pay a driver 120,000 Russian rubles, about 1,000 Euros to take him to the border back into unoccupied Ukraine. He had raised money from friends and volunteers at the Znaiti Cvoih project, which helps Ukrainians reconnect with family after losing contact with them.

Levchenko’s wife and son did not know his whereabouts or if he was still alive while he was detained. When he returned home, the first question his wife asked him was: “When do we get out of here?” referring to the Russian-held region in which they lived.

“My wife Anya, when she saw me … did not cry,” he remembers. “For ten months, she simply tried to survive with (our) sick son. When I came in, Artem was lying on the bed, and when he saw me, he became nervous. I hugged him, happy that we were together again.”

Despite the urgency, it would take the family three months to save enough money to leave Mariupol. They also had to obtain Russian citizenship to leave the occupied area. Once they arrived in the unoccupied but badly damaged city of Sumy, they discarded their Russian passports.

Getting there, however, was not easy. After they had passed through Novoazovsk in the Voronezh region and reached the Belgorod border, they carried for two kilometres four bags with personal belongings – as much as they could manage.

The family now resides in Ukraine’s central city of Kropyvnytskyi. But Levchenko says his imprisonment has had a lasting impact on his mental health and that he still struggles to sleep at night.

But he remains hopeful. “When you live under constant shelling, you begin to get used to it, to the sound of alarms – especially at night,” he said. “When it’s dark and quiet outside, I’m starting to get nervous, as if I am expecting the shelling to begin.”

  • Edited by Stephen McGrath
  • Photo: Oksana Parafeniuk

Despre autor: Taisiia Bakharieva

Avatar of Taisiia Bakharieva
Taisiia Bakharieva este o jurnalistă din Kiev, Ucraina, care acum locuiește în România. Este în media din 1994 și a lucrat pentru agenția de presă RATAU, ziarele Kray și Vseukrainskie Vedomosti și ca redactor-șef al departamentului de cultură al ziarului și al site-ului FAKTI. Taisiia a intervievat numeroase personalități din Ucraina și este autor și prezentator al secțiunii de televiziune TV-FAKTI. După ce Rusia i-a invadat țara, Taisiia s-a mutat în România și s-a alăturat echipei CONTEXT. Munca ei se concentrează acum pe investigații privind crimele de război ale Rusiei în Ucraina și realizează interviuri cu victimele și martorii terorii rusești. Este de multă vreme membră a Uniunii Jurnaliștilor din Ucraina.

One Comment

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    420 19 ian., 2024 at 23:54 - Reply

    I’m always excited to see what you come up with next. Keep it coming! ❤️

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