Freed Donetsk airport ‘cyborg’ withstood torture in captivity
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)