Freed Donetsk air­port ‘cy­borg’ with­stood tor­ture in cap­tiv­ity

Kyiv Post - - News - BY DARYNA SHEVCHENKO [email protected]

When 42-year-old Yurij Shk­abura gets ner­vous, he starts tug­ging a blue-andyel­low rib­bon tied to his wrist. The rib­bon, bear­ing the col­ors of Ukraine’s na­tional flag, is dirty and shabby, but the soldier re­fuses to take it off. Shk­abura’s wife gave him the good luck charm as a farewell gift be­fore the war. He never took it off even un­der the threat of be­ing maimed in cap­tiv­ity by Rus­sian-sep­a­ratist forces.

Shk­abura was a “cy­borg,” the moniker that Rus­sian-sep­a­ratists gave the out­num­bered Ukrainian troops who staunchly de­fended the Donetsk air­port for 240 days be­fore it was re­duced to rub­ble. He was one of the few who man­aged to leave the air­port build­ing af­ter the sec­ond of two ex­plo­sions de­stroyed it on Jan. 20.

Ever since Ukrainian forces re-took the air­port in May 2014, Rus­sian-led sep­a­ratists had tried to win it back. The de­fense of the fa­cil­ity lasted eight months, with less than a hun­dred men in­side the air­port build­ings at any one time, ac­cord­ing to the sol­diers.

By the end of Jan­uary, Ukrainian forces were re­duced to hold­ing the sec­ond floor of the new ter­mi­nal, flanked by the en­emy on three sides. The last air­port de­fend­ers left the area on Jan. 21, af­ter two ex­plo­sions on Jan. 19-20 killed most of their com­rades and when there was noth­ing left to de­fend.

It is still not clear how many peo­ple died de­fend­ing the air­port. Vol­un­teers say they are in the dozens.

Shk­abura re­mem­bers that some­one helped him out of the air­port. But with se­vere shell shock and a wounded, crushed leg, he went the wrong way and walked straight into a Rus­siansep­a­ratist check­point, where he was taken cap­tive, to be held for a month.

He was put in a base­ment to­gether with about a dozen oth­ers, in­clud­ing some air­port de­fend­ers. “They were beat­ing us, try­ing to break us just for the plea­sure of see­ing us break,” Shk­abura says.

He says that he was made to face a wall and shot at twice. “The first time they re­leased au­to­matic gun­fire above my head and then started ask­ing each of us to shoot at a com­rade, one agreed to shoot me,” Shk­abura says. “The gun wasn’t loaded of course. But it’s only later that we un­der­stood they didn’t re­ally want to kill us.”

Shk­abura says he holds no anger to­wards the soldier, who agreed to shoot him. “I know how dif­fi­cult it was not to break,” he says clos­ing his eyes at the painful mem­ory.

The guards tried ev­ery pos­si­ble way to break them though. They even threat­ened to cut Shk­abura’s hand off if he didn’t re­move the blue-and-yel­low rib­bon. He didn’t.

Shk­abura joined the army in Au­gust 2014, and af­ter three months train­ing his unit was sent to the war zone. He de­fended the rear of the air­port from tanks and en­croach­ing heavy ar­tillery. Af­ter a short Christ­mas va­ca­tion, he was sent on Jan. 15 as part of the last troop ro­ta­tion at the air­port.

Shk­abura’s hands still trem­ble when he talks about these last five days at the air­port. The most dif­fi­cult thing was watch­ing his com­rades suf­fer from wounds and not be­ing able to help. All the food and wa­ter stocks were lost in the de­bris when the walls col­lapsed dur­ing the first ex­plo­sion. By the end of the fifth day al­most all the sol­diers were ei­ther wounded or suf­fer­ing from shell shock, wait­ing for the or­der to leave their po­si­tions. No or­der came though. “When be­ing sent to the air­port, we were told to hold there for a cou­ple of days and then a big mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion would be held and the air­port would ap­pear in the deep rear, but it never hap­pened,” Shk­abura says.

Mil­i­tary an­a­lyst Vy­ach­eslav Tseliuko says there were at­tempts to strengthen the air­port’s de­fense from side of Pisky and Spar­tak. All the at­tempts failed due to the lack of com­bat ex­pe­ri­ence in the Ukrainian army. The de­ci­sion not to give re­treat or­ders was com­pletely po­lit­i­cal, Tseliuko says.

“Politi­cians were afraid of so­ci­ety’s dis­ap­proval and mil­i­tary com­man­ders hoped that at least a small area of the air­port could still be held,” Tseluiko says. “And it could’ve been if the en­emy hadn’t blown up the build­ing.”

When noth­ing re­mained to de­fend, and the res­cue mis­sion failed, those alive de­cided to leave on their own. Out of 55 peo­ple in Sk­abura’s 95th bat­tal­ion present at the air­port build­ing, only 14 man­aged to leave rel­a­tively un­harmed.

Shk­abura’s mother is Rus­sian and his fa­ther a Ukrainian who had served in the Red Army, sta­tioned in Lithua­nia. Shk­abura never ques­tioned his own loy­al­ties.

“I couldn’t sit at home while young boys were fight­ing and dy­ing,” he says.

His wife Natalia Shk­abura says he even started to work out and lost some weight be­fore go­ing to war. “We tried to tell him he was too old for this war, but he was un­moved,” she says

Shk­abura was freed dur­ing a pris­oner ex­change and has been back home in Bila Tserkva since March.

“He still doesn’t eat enough and doesn’t sleep at night, he is still there... At the air­port,” his wife says.

Af­ter months of phys­i­cal treat­ment, Shk­abura is still in need of psy­chi­atric re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. Al­ways mod­est when called a hero, Shk­abura says he has no re­grets about his de­ci­sion to join the army.

“I don’t know how it could have been dif­fer­ent. Was I sup­posed to ig­nore the war in my coun­try, or what?” he says.

Yurij Shk­abura, 42, was part of the last Ukrainian mil­i­tary unit that de­fended Donetsk air­port in Jan­uary. He spent a month in cap­tiv­ity en­dur­ing mock ex­e­cu­tions and tor­ture by Rus­sian-sep­a­ratists. (Pavlo Po­d­u­falov)

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