Ukraine Stories #Week16: Three foreign fighters sentenced to death in separatist-held Ukraine

Ukrainian artillery returning fire. June 2022. (Credit: General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine on Facebook)

In this live blog, at the heart of our project we’ve called “Ukraine Stories”, Ukrainian and Russian journalists write about the harsh living conditions that the Russian invasion has inflicted on them. We cannot always verify the events described in their articles, but their short reports and feature stories describe two countries in the turmoil of war. This blog is also available in Ukrainian and Russian

Three foreign fighters sentenced to death in separatist-held Ukraine

The Supreme Court of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) has sentenced to death Sean Pinner and Aidan Aslin, both British, and  Moroccan national Saadoun Brahim. According to RBK, the three men were captured while fighting with the Ukrainian army. Charges against them include mercenarism and forcible seizure of power.

According to Mediazone, Aslin followed his fiancée to Ukraine and began serving in the 36th brigade of the AFU Marines in 2018. He was reported being captured mid-April on Twitter. Sean Pinner, 48, is an ex-military officer of the Royal English Regiment and served in the same brigade. His relatives note that both he and Aslin were officially serving in the Ukrainian army in accordance with the law and aren’t mercenaries.

Brahim Saadoun, 21 years, arrived in Ukraine in 2019 to study at the Department of Aerodynamic and Space Technologies of the Kiev Polytechnic Institute. A year ago, he dropped out of university studies and started serving in the same 36th brigade of marines.

In Khakiv, war never stopped

In May, Ukrainian troops pushed back the Russian occupiers from Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, and residents started going home en masse. But a few weeks ago, shelling resumed and the death toll rose, including among those who had hurried home. This time, the Russian army began hitting Kharkiv’s social and cultural sites.

by Stanislav Kibalnyk, 09.06.2022

On 7 June, a Russian missile ripped through the Vostorg supermarket in Kharkiv’s Industrial District. This part of the city had been considered quiet in recent weeks. Fortunately, there were no casualties. At about 11 o'clock the next evening, another rocket landed on New Bavaria. There had been no shelling in this south-western suburb since a month and a half. A cafe, shop and school library were destroyed, and the school building was also damaged. According to preliminary data, 2 people died and 5 were injured.

Kharkiv Specialized School № 17 after shelling (Credit: suspilne.media)

On the night of 2 June, a Russian rocket tore out the heart of the Kharkiv Specialized School № 17 in the Saltovsky residential area. Several elderly residents were using its basement as a shelter, and one of them was found dead on the steps of the building. The victim was a 71-year-old woman who’d come home only two days before, thinking things had calmed down. The school’s central building, which also housed Ukraine’s only museum dedicated to Russian poet Sergey Yesenin, was completely destroyed by the explosion. It was also a humanitarian aid point.

May 26 was also tragic for Kharkiv. The Russians fired on a former kindergarten which housed the district’s education department. A young couple with a 5-month-old baby in their arms were  walking in the street during the shelling. The woman was injured, the man died on the spot and the baby was thrown onto a roof where its body was later found. This family had also just returned. Three other people were killed in the same attack.

A word from our editors

9 hrs., 10.06.2022

One hundred and seven days since the heroic opposition of the Ukrainian nation to the Russian military invasion began.

Last night Russian occupiers fired on the Dnipropetrovsk region, followed by a morning missile strike, injuring one person according to Head of the Dnipropetrovsk region Valentyn Reznichenko in Telegram.

In the Donetsk area the enemy continues to fire at our units along the entire line of contact, launching missile and air strikes, including in populated areas, while failing to establish full control over the city of Sievierodonetsk.

In the Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia regions the main efforts of the enemy are focused on maintaining their front lines.

“We have a certain positive in the Zaporizhzhia region, where we manage to thwart the plans of the occupiers”, stated Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi last night.

Despite coercive measures from the command of the occupying forces, refusals to fight by units of forcibly mobilized personnel from the temporarily occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk continue to be recorded, according to The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Facebook page.

“It became known that due to the losses received during the fighting with Ukrainian defenders in the Kharkiv region, the entire motorized infantry unit of the 1st Army Corps refused to participate in hostilities.”

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reacted to the death sentences of three foreign nationals in the so-called "DPR" and called on Russia to comply with humanitarian law.

“We are gravely concerned by reports of a sham “trial” and its judgements against lawful combatants serving in Ukraine’s Armed Forces. We call on Russia and its proxies to respect international humanitarian law, including the rights and protections afforded prisoners of war”, he wrote on Twitter.

Renowned Kosovan centre helps Ukrainians rape survivors

Heroinat memorial in Pristina, Kosovo. May 2022. (Credit: Liudmyla Makei)

by Liudmyla Makei, our correspondent in Kosovo, recently evacuated from Ukraine

In Pristina, the Heroinat memorial depicts with 20,000 pins, the face of an Albanian woman. Each pin commemorates a wartime victim of sexual violence.

Although rape was weaponised during the Kosovan war (1998-1999), women raped by Serbs don’t talk about it openly. The topic remains a strong taboo.

“Many families still believe that it is better to be killed than raped. That's why only one out of ten victims talk about the sexual violence they have been through,” said Sylvia, a psychologist at the Kosovo centre for the rehabilitation of torture survivors. The first of its kind, the centre is headed by Feride Rushiti, the 2018 US International Women for Courage Award winner.

For survivors, dealing with an ongoing trauma depends on their work with psychologists, health professionals and human rights activists.

Today, the centre's specialists help Ukrainian counterparts working with residents of Bucha, Hostomel, Irpin and other Ukrainian cities where rapes of civilians by the Russian occupiers took place. They also help Ukrainian refugees in Kosovo. According to Prime Minister Albin Kurti, the Republic of Kosovo is host to 5,000 Ukrainian refugees.

Although destruction from their war has almost disappeared, Kosovars believe scars are left on their souls.

A home in exchange for sex, love and housework

"I live alone and am looking for a girl to live with me permanently", "I would like to meet a refugee to start a family", "I'm looking for a cute, slim woman aged 20-30".

Such are the messages appearing since 24 February on online refugee aid groups, according to Verstka, a media exploring Russian society. Two journalists combed through hundreds of them and contacted the authors to understand their interest. One of them even asked Anna Ryzhkova and Daria Kucherenko for help in his quest for "a lonely refugee woman without children, aged 30 to 45".

While some men are looking for Ukrainian women for sexual or domestic services, others say they hope to find a serious relationship. Some of them think that if they "save" a girl in a difficult situation, she will become a faithful and grateful wife.

Dimitri, 29, from Moscow, says he will marry the woman he meets if he loves her. "I will help her get into university, obtain a Russian passport, give her love, a house, a family, and a good lifestyle.”

Russian parliament votes to quit European Court of Human Rights

On Tuesday 7 June, the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, adopted a law by which Moscow will stop applying the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). This decision follows Russia's exit from the Council of Europe on 15 March.

Only one MP, Mikhail Matveyev from the Communist Party, voted against the law. He reacted on his Telegram channel: "the amendments to the law, including mine, were rejected". Over 18,000 court verdicts for cases initiated by Russians will not be enforced.

A word from our editors

9 hrs., 09.06.2022

We are in the 106th day of the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian people to a Russian military invasion. Russia has pushed Ukrainian forces to the outskirts of Sievierodonetsk after a successful Ukrainian counter attack ran out of steam. Heavy Russian artillery and missile bombardment continues along the line of contact, with a focus on urban civilian infrastructure.

“Battle for Sievierodonetsk is probably one of the most difficult during this war, and in particular the fate of Donbas is being decided there” according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi.

Russian bombardments have intensified in the border areas of northern Chernihiv and Sumy regions. In the Kharkiv region Russian engineers are fortifying lines and defensive positions, laying mines and massing artillery. There were fatalities in Kharkiv last night. For a general picture see here.

Volodymyr Zelenskyi also called for international assistance in resolving the issue of unblocking Ukrainian ports so that Ukraine could export grain to prevent the global food crisis and famine in many countries. Ukraine is negotiating with a number of countries, but for the President, the most powerful guarantee is the protection of the marine corridors.

Previously Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced that supplies of Russian grain to the international market require abandoning direct and indirect sanctions against Russia. As for negotiations on grain supplies with Turkey, Peskov noted that it is “the Ukrainian aspect, Ukrainian grain”.

‘Almost like a concentration camp’: residents describe life in Kherson

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People queue at a cash machine in Kherson. (Credit: (KEYSTONE/SPUTNIK/RIA Novosti)

In occupied Kherson, the new reality means high prices, shops filled with Russian products, rubles, no education, and doctors forced to work in military hospitals. Recently, the city in the south of Ukraine also experienced four days of total internet and phone signal blackout. Read the full story by our Ukrainian correspondents Olha Holovina and Svitlana Vovk.

Russian passports will be issued in Southern Ukraine next week

Yevhen Balitskyy, the Russian appointed head of the Zaporizhzhya regional administration, made the announcement on 6 June, according to TASS, one of Moscow’s main press agencies. The news outlets also reported on 6 June the opening of passport offices in Berdyansk, Energodar and other cities in Zaporizhzhya Region.

Last Friday, the representative for foreign affairs and security policy at the European Union, Josep Borrell, said that it would not recognize Russian passports issued to residents in occupied regions. He strongly condemned the Russian presidential decrees of 25 and 30 May, which simplify the procedure for granting citizenship and issuing passports to Ukrainian citizens in territories under Moscow’s military control since early March.

Russia has already distributed over 800’000 passports to residents of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, small Russian-controlled states created in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

A word from our editors

10 hrs., 08.06.2022

It is Day 105 since the start of Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine and, according to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the head of the military administration of Luhansk region, Ukraine has seen some success near Severodonetsk.

“Fierce battles are ongoing in Severodonetsk. Our defenders are fighting for each centimetre of the city,” Serhiy Hayday, the head of the military administration of Luhansk region, said. “The Ukrainian soldiers are repelling the Russians in Severodonetsk. They are repelling the assault.”

According to Hayday, Russia’s attempts to invade Toshkivka and Ustynivka, in the direction of Severodonetsk, were unsuccessful.

According to Operational Command “South”, a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile unit has destroyed Russia’s reconnaissance, unmanned aerial vehicle Orlan-10 in the Mykolaiv region, south of Ukraine. Other Russian military equipment in Ukraine was also destroyed as a result of four strikes by Ukraine’s missile and artillery units.

In other news, the Armed Forces of Ukraine has announced that the soldiers have mastered the self-propelled artillery that was provided by France and are using it to defend the country from the occupants. According to the Ukrainian service of the Voice of America media outlet, the US and its allies are working on providing more anti-ship missiles and systems for Ukraine.

Keep on reading to see what life in the seaside city of Mykolaiv is currently like.

Life in semi-besieged Mykolaiv

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Mykolaiv is a sunny seaside city in the south of Ukraine but life has been quite gloomy for its residents recently. Beaches are shut, there are food shortages and queues for drinking water, and Russian missiles strike from time to time. Our Mykolaiv-based reporter Oleksii Platonov has more.

by Oleksii Platonov, 07.06.2022

Despite constant shelling and being under partial siege, Ukraine’s southern city of Mykolaiv continues to function. Public transport is operating, medical centres and shops are open, government services are working, and drinking water is being supplied. As the police and authorities document damages in the city, the cost of restoration is believed to be millions of euros.

At the same time, the entrance to the city from the occupied Kherson region is closed off. People who try to escape by car are being forced to go through a filtration camp but can’t get through it. Cluster shells, which are normally used after 9pm, cause damage to residential buildings, infrastructure of the city and region, and kill humans and animals.

Read the full article here.

Geneva Solutions contributor wanted by Russian authorities

"My first criminal case! ❤️🔥 I am accused of discrediting the Russian armed forces for an Instagram post," author Dmitri Gloukhovski wrote Tuesday on his Telegram channel. He added: "I am ready to repeat everything it says: 'Stop the war! Admit that this is a war against an entire nation, and stop it!"

Dmitri Gloukhovski is also a journalist contributing to Geneva Solutions’ "Ukraine Stories" project in collaboration with Le Temps.

Moscow's Basmanny court has condemned the author for his 12 March Instagram post, which it considers "false information" based on a penal article published at the start of the war.

According to the independent Russian media outlet Mediazone, this criminal case puts Dmitri Gloukhovski on the federal authorities’ wanted list.

Russia tries to make military contracts more attractive

Three new orders were announced by the Russian Defence Ministry on Monday 6 June. They aim to improve housing benefits for soldiers in order to popularise the army's contractual service, reports the independent media SOTA.

According to the brief explanations available, the families of wounded or dead militaries will be able to keep the housing allocated to them by the Ministry of Defence. Soldiers fighting in Ukraine for a limited period of time and foreign fighters will now also be granted accommodation.

These orders are expected to come into force in November 2022, which, according to SOTA, suggests that the authorities expect the war to still be going on by the end of the year.

Foreign soldiers in Ukraine face death penalty in Donetsk

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Crédit: Canal Telegram RBK

The trial of Brits Shaun Pinner and Aidan Aslin, and the Moroccan Brahim Saadoun began on Monday 7 June in Donetsk.

Captured in Mariupol by Russian forces last April, these fighters risk the death penalty, according to the business daily RBK. They are accused of having carried out mercenary and terrorist activities, and of having participated in violent takeover of power.

The president of the Donetsk People's Republic, Denis Pushilin, denounced the "monstrous crimes they committed", according to the separatist news agency DAN.

A word from our editors

11:30 hrs., 07.06.2022

Day 104 since the start of Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine. Several Russian airstrikes and shelling attacks have been reported overnight. As a result of one shelling attack in the Bashtanka community of the Mykolaiv region in the south of Ukraine, two people were killed and one injured.

Forty attacks from grenade launchers targeted the Sumy region in the north-east of Ukraine, according to Dmytro Zhyvytskyy, the head of Sumy’s military administration. No casualties were reported for this instance.

However, good news comes from the Melitopol district in the Zaporizhzhya region (south-east of Ukraine), where the occupants have withdrawn from nearly all the regional entry-exit checkpoints. This was reported by the Mayor of Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov. Fedorov believes that Melitopol will be completely deoccupied over the next couple of months.

Areas of the Donbas region continue to sustain heavy fighting.

In Donetsk, women protest against the forced mobilisation of their sons and husbands

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Mobilised from Donbas, taken prisoner at the base in Shestakovo near Kharkiv. (Photo from eyewitnesses provided Stanislav Kibalnyk)

Almost two months ago, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced the start of the “battle for Donbas”. Russia focused its offensive there after withdrawing from the north of Ukraine. However, there has been no significant changes in the frontline positions since then. Stanislav Kibalnyk brings us a story from Donetsk, a part of Donbas occupied for eight years. The residents of the self-proclaimed republic are actively mobilised for war with Ukraine.

by Stanislav Kibalnyk, 06.06.2022

After the protest of women near a military office in Luhansk last month, a similar action is announced in Donetsk.

In an anonymous publication, women called to gather around the monument of Lenin:

“Women of the Donetsk People's Republic express their strong opposition to the actions of the head of the Republic in relation to the general barbaric mobilisation! For the second month in a row, on the streets of Donetsk and other cities of the Republic, our men are brutally caught and sent to the front. Any medical examination is performed! Recruitment training - is only on paper! No supply! Called men do not get what they need, they are given machine guns, some ammunition.

There are horrible cases when people with disabilities, 16-17-year-olds, weak old people who have never held a weapon in their lives are sent to the front!

We can't understand why our fighters are sent to the Kharkiv region, to the territory of another republic - LPR, to the south of Ukraine. Why does the DNR army not protect the native republic and is instead used in the special military operation of the Russian Federation in Ukraine? While fully equipped units of the Russian army are on the 2-3 line, DNR conscripts are used as live reconnaissance. Every day we receive reports of deads, our husbands and children return home without arms and legs! Woe has come to every DNR family! Our men are used as canned meat!”

Among the demands of women are an end to forced mobilisation, the start of an investigation into all cases of the use of those mobilized outside Donetsk, and the resignation of self-proclaimed Defense Minister Kononov. DNR authorities called the action a provocation by Ukrainian special services.

So very few people came out to protest. But in a conversation with the women, the head of the military unit promised to let their husbands and children go home.

Mass events could be thwarted by rumors that activists in Luhansk have been arrested and face up to 20 years in prison. And the danger of shelling is really real. The previous case with the death of 23 people who gathered for a mass event is called a Russian terrorist attack on social networks:

“Everyone was just shocked, especially since they could easily throw a couple of mortar shells into the crowd and say that this is all Ukraine… As it usually happens…”

According to Kateryna Monastyrska, a resident of Donetsk, the central and rear districts of the city have been affected by shelling over the past few days. On 29 May, the shell landed on Budyonny Square, although there have been no shillings in the area since 2014. The next day, they hit a school near the Central Market in the Voroshilov district. According to her, in the first case the fire was conducted from the territory of the Botanical Garden, in the second from the mine Zasadka. That is, it looks like the work of the Russian military.

The front came to a standstill. Both sides have only local promotions. Therefore, all available resources are involved.

“It would be better for me to spend 5 years in prison than to see all this horror,” said mobilized from the city of Horlivka, Donetsk region, when in the Kherson region at the beginning of the war loaded cars with corpses of Russian soldiers to send to Crimea.

So even if after the women's protests some of the inhabitants of the unrecognized republics are released, others will be taken away immediately.

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