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A Ukrainian prisoner of war reflects on the photo that saved her life

It’s been four years since the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army broke out that saw Irina Dovgan tied to a lamppost and tortured

In August 2014, Roman Taibov picked up the phone to a friend, who called to break harrowing news that his wife, Irina Dovgan, had been captured in Ukraine’s war-torn region of Donetsk. A photograph had just appeared in The New York Times of Dovgan, tied to a pole, draped in a Ukrainian flag and holding a sign that read “she is a spy and a child-killer”.  

Taibov ran to a Wifi café in the city of Mariupol, some 60 miles south of Donetsk where he had been caring for his dying father, to see the photo of his wife. She’s tightly closing her eyes as an enraged passerby kicks her.

Dovgan had refused to join her husband in Mariupol and insisted she stay to look after their dogs and cats in their hometown Yasinovataya, just outside of Donetsk. Unable to contact each other for several weeks due to the loss of phone connection and electricity in the area, Taibov assumed she was safe in the bunker in their garden.

“At that point, we didn’t realise how dangerous the conflict was,’ Dovgan tells Dazed.

Almost four years ago, an armed conflict between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army broke out in the Donbass region in east Ukraine. The conflict erupted in the aftermath of a large wave of protests – the Euromaidan movement – demanding closer integration with the Europe.

On August 24, 2014, Dovgan was abducted from her home by Russian forces and accused of spying for Ukrainian forces. Dovgan, who worked as a beautician, denied she was ever a spy. When Dovgan was made a spectacle in Donetsk’s city centre, she was subjected to hours abuse from the public. “They hit me, kicked me, spat on me and screamed ‘fascist’,” she recalls.

That same day, a French photographer named Maurico Lima happened to walk by and capture a moment of the horror, that would make the pages of one of world’s most widely read papers. Upon its publication in NYT, the photo sparked international outrage, prompting a social media storm that drew the attention of United Nations and human rights monitors. In a meeting with a senior rebel military commander, Aleksandr Khodakovsky, British and Russian journalists raised the Dovgan’s case, precipitating her release at the end of August.

But the photo that saved Dovgan’s life reveals only a tiny fraction of the suffering she endured at the hands of separatists. When captured, Dovgan was taken to a building that had once been a prosecutor’s office, where she was thrown into a cell, beaten for hours, and threatened with rape. “They put a gun to my head and shot past my ear, then they hit my face with the butt of the gun. I remember crawling on the floor begging them to just kill me.”

In her view, no one in Donetsk thought a revolution or war in Ukraine was possible. When conflict did break out, people thought it would be over soon, Dovgan adds, “they just waited in their bunkers for one side to win, not knowing which it would be. Most people who were against Russia fled but many could not leave. Many are still waiting.”

During the summer that Dovgan was alone in her house, she began to help the Ukrainian army by providing them with food and clothing. “They literally had nothing,” she says. That is when she caught the attention of pro-Russian separatists.

“There are lots of stories like this – of neighbours telling on each other to save their own skin. It was a very scary moment in our history when friends suddenly became enemies”

Her exact location became known to the separatists through her husband’s colleague. When the colleague was himself captured by Russian separatists, he offered in exchange for his survival the address of a woman who had been helping the Ukrainian army. Dovgan was arrested shortly after.

“There are lots of stories like this – of neighbours telling on each other to save their own skin. It was a very scary moment in our history when friends suddenly became enemies,” she observes.

Dovgan, her husband, and 16-year-old daughter are getting ready to spend the rest of their lives in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv – some 435 miles away from the conflict.

“We built another bunker here, because I would not feel safe without it,” says Dovgan.

The war has claimed over 10,000 lives so far, according to the United Nations, and continues to simmer amid a ‘frozen and forgotten’ humanitarian crisis. Dovgan never lets herself forget how lucky she is.

“I knew a couple who were shot just trying to bring water to the soldiers. They died because they refused to be indifferent. I often think that, if they carried on living, they would carry on helping the Ukrainian army.”

“I got to live, so how can I, now, become indifferent? I have an obligation to continue helping. I’ve been visiting freed prisoners of war in hospital, we talk about what we experienced and I bring them my husband’s jumpers. He says ‘Ira! I have no jumpers left!’ but I tell him, ‘we have to’,” she continues.

When I tell her she’s very kind, Dovgan replies frankly: “No, it’s not ‘kind’. It’s just what a person does if they have empathy. This war is killing so many empathetic people.”

“To be honest, I wasn’t happy when you got in contact with me. I wasn’t happy about the prospect of retelling my story to you. But I did –  I told you everything. And I did it for them.”