The skin across Sasha’s forehead and around his eyes is slightly yellow and there is a recent scab on his temple. He is healing well.
Ten days before our meeting, the 19-year-old was barely recognizable: the skin on his face stretched tight, swollen and bruised. Abducted and tortured, Sasha believes he is lucky to be alive.
After the city of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine came under control of separatist armed groups in April 2014, he was an obvious target.
Sasha was part of a “self-defence team” which came together to protect pro-Ukrainian activists during clashes with anti-Kyiv counter-protesters in Luhansk’s streets. There were hardly any police officers present, and those who were there did nothing to protect the demonstrators.
He proudly shows us a photo on his mobile phone of a young man wearing a balaclava on the “frontline” of the protests. “That’s me,” he boasts.
This is undoubtedly the reason he was targeted.
Sasha believes another member of the self-defence group turned him in. He called Sasha, saying he had just returned from Kyiv and had some news he needed to discuss. Sasha agreed to meet outside the block of flats where he lived, at around 8pm that evening. But when he arrived, his friend was not there. Instead, a group of armed men leapt out from parked cars, shooting in the air and yelling at Sasha to lie on the ground.
“First of all I tried to run away, it was a shock,” he says. “I didn’t understand what was happening and I didn’t know who these people were. I started to run but they shot near my legs. I lay on the ground because there was no-where to run. Then they started to hit me in the head with guns. They kicked and punched me, cuffed me and took me to the car.”
Some of the men searched Sasha’s flat, while he remained in the car where he was repeatedly punched and kicked until they returned. From there he was blindfolded and taken to the Ukrainian Security Service building, which the armed group had taken over. In a room on the second floor, he was questioned about his role in the protests. His captors demanded the addresses of other activists and details about the Ukrainian military. They even accused him of being in the pay of America.
“There were a lot of people, first of all they started to punch me. They punched me in the face… on my arms and legs. They made no secret of it; they told me that they were going to kill me. After half hour, 40 minutes – you stop feeling the pain. I started to lose myself, I lost consciousness,” he tells us.
Sasha says when he passed out he was dumped in a basement. Every time he regained consciousness, he was taken upstairs for questioning again. Each time, the severity of the torture increased.
He describes how he was beaten with anything they could find, including a chair, flayed with plastic hoses and choked. He describes how they attached cables to his wrists and electrocuted him. Then he shows us a deep scab on his inner thigh. There is a hole the size of a fingertip.
“They took the cigarettes, they were stubbing cigarettes in my leg, and then [they] stubbed another cigarette in that hole… How can do this to other people? It’s not normal,” he implores as he points to the healing wound.
Sasha says he was tortured repeatedly for 24 hours, and taken to the second floor room around a dozen times. Finally he was dumped again in the basement.
“I was lying in the basement when the door opened and one guy put a gun to my head and said to go straight to the corridor – and don’t say anything. While I was walking through the corridor, the armed people who were there, they told me ‘goodbye – they are going to kill you’,” he says.
“I thought only one [thing]: I’m dying for nothing. I’m not dying like a hero of Ukraine, I’m not dying for something I did – I’m dying for nothing.”
But they didn’t shoot Sasha. Through the family’s network of friends his father made contact with his abductors. Within three hours he had to raise US$60,000 to save his son.
Sasha was driven to a disused building in a park. He was told to sit on a window ledge and not to move or he would be shot by a sniper. It was there that his father found him. He eased his son into the car and drove immediately to the railway station. There he put Sasha, still wearing his blood-stained clothes, into a compartment on a train bound for Kyiv and said goodbye.
Sasha now shares a room with his mother on the outskirts of the capital in a run-down apartment block. He is desperate to find work, not only to pay the rent, but to pay back the family and friends who raised his ransom.
“Now I’m living in another city. I lost everything, I lost my flat, I lost my car, every single thing I had. I have to find a job, all I have is my passport in my pocket. I need money to pay for this flat and I need to pay money to the people in Luhansk who gave money to my family. Sixty thousand dollars!” he says with an air of desperation.
There is nothing that can justify the beatings and other torture Sasha endured following his abduction. What is saddening, is not just his material loss, but the steeling effect his ordeal has had on his resolve. There is anger in his eyes when we ask him of his future.
“I will go back to Luhansk – and continue the war,” he says.