Russians captured the former soldier Serhii Kovalsky near the house where he lived, tortured him with electric shocks, and took him to a detention center in the temporarily occupied Crimea, and later to Moscow. The occupiers accuse the man of “international terrorism” and want to imprison him in Russia for 20 years.
The Slidstvo.info journalists talked to the mother and civilian wife of the former soldier Serhii Kovalsky, who are fighting for his return home.
“WE HID THE WOUNDED AND SENT THEM TO THE GOVERNMENT-CONTROLLED TERRITORY”
Since the beginning of the full-scale war, Serhii’s family has not lived at home. It was too dangerous. Back in the first days of the occupation of Kherson, the Russians received lists with addresses and contact numbers of ex-soldiers and those who are currently defending Ukraine.
Serhii Kovalskyi, a military officer by profession and a participant in the anti-terrorist operation in 2015–2016, understood that he could be taken away too. However, the man has been engaged in farming in recent years and has not been involved in military affairs, so he hoped he would be lucky.
According to his mother, Iryna Kovalska, during the occupation of Kherson, her son helped wounded Ukrainian defenders get to the territory controlled by Ukraine.
“When the war broke out and our soldiers were defeated on the left bank, there were a lot of boys, our soldiers, who got stuck in the reeds. Serhii, I don’t even know where he got that boat, took them away. He brought 15 people, and we hid them: we dressed them, fed them, and sent them to the government-controlled territory,” the woman recalls.
The man himself flatly refused to leave the occupied city, and his entire family stayed with him.
“We stayed here with him, we are his family, we supported him as much as we could, we helped him. It was very scary, but we prayed, hoped and believed. On August 3, he was taken. And the hell began,” says Iryna.
His wife, Oleksandra Shatalova, did not see Serhii’s detention. The woman had just left for her parents’ apartment, but a few hours later the Russians brought Kovalsky there.
“I immediately realized everything. He could not have gotten there on his own, because he would not have gone through the checkpoints on the bridge. He stood there and said: “Give me the phone that’s on a Russian SIM card”. I said: “Come in,” and he shakes his head and points behind his back,” Oleksandra says.
Serhiy took the phone and left. Through the window, she saw that he was being escorted by five armed men and put into a white SUV with tinted windows.
“A WHOLE LETTER ON A SMALL PIECE OF PAPER”
A few days later, Kovalsky was brought home for the first time by FSB representatives to collect some documents. Each time, they did it in a group: four of them entered the house, while at least two others always stayed outside to watch.
“They work heavily on psychology: they try to make you feel sorry, to gain your trust. They tried to show how good they were. They always spoke to me calmly, assuring me that everything would be fine, that it was all a formality and he would be released. But I’m not from another planet,” says Oleksandra.
During one of these visits, Serhii managed to pass a note to his family. He left a folded piece of paper, only a few centimeters in size, in the toothbrush holder in the bathroom.
“You realize that he is passing us some information, and you read every word very carefully. Because you know he can’t write 10 such letters, but a scrap of paper like this contains everything he thinks we need to do, who we need to find,” says Oleksandra, holding her youngest daughter Elia in her arms.
It was for her children, Elia and Eva, that she was most worried, she admits. It was they who kept her from giving up after Serhii’s detention.
“We were able to eat for the first time only a week after he was taken. I could do nothing but sit by the window. I was waiting for him to be brought at any moment. I couldn’t even go far from the house,” the woman says.
In his notes, Serhiy apologized for not being with his family and not being able to protect them. He told about the conditions of detention, constant torture, and was able to pass on the names of the guys in the cell with him and their wives’ phone numbers.
They were held in a basement on Lutheranska Street in Kherson, says his wife, reading a fragment of one of Serhii’s notes: “In the basement, you can hardly hear the explosions, but you can hear them. How could I spend the whole day without eating before? Here, we are fed only if they remember – a half of a disposable plate of pasta or half a can of stew. Sometimes they don’t let us go to the toilet for 3–4 days.”
According to Oleksandra, the Russians are keeping Serhii in the basement with nine other men whom the occupiers have grouped together in one case. The woman assures that she does not know any of these prisoners.
“THERE WAS A CONTINUOUS BRUISE FROM THE NECK TO THE WAIST”
Oleksandra recalls that one day the FSB brought Serhii Kovalsky home to collect some documents and allowed him to take a shower and change his clothes. Despite the Russians’ ban, Oleksandra went into the bathroom and saw her husband’s beaten body.
“For you to understand: it was one continuous bruise – from the neck to the waist. He was a blue man. He only said ‘electric shock’ and I understood everything,” the woman says.
The man also writes to his mother about the constant torture. In his notes, Serhii says that even women and children were held with him in such conditions.
“Today they took a child for interrogation. I heard the boy’s age – 14 years old. Apparently, he was taken for taking pictures of the equipment. My heart is bleeding because he is sitting in such conditions and seeing all this,” Serhii writes.
According to his mother, two months after the abduction, on October 6, her son was taken to a pre-trial detention center in the temporarily occupied Crimea.
“Simferopol is the most terrible place. These two months that he spent here (in Kherson – ed.) are, of course, like hell, but Crimea is the worst. The conditions there are inhuman: they were beaten, tortured, and mocked. He stayed there for about four days, as far as I understand, but those were the worst days,” says Iryna Kovalska.
“I’M AFRAID HE WILL STAY THERE”
Now Serhii is in Russia. He is being held in the Lefortovo detention center in Moscow. The Russians charge him with “international terrorism,” which is Article 361 of the Russian Criminal Code, which entails 10 to 20 years in prison. The man has been banned from visits, parcels, and even letters, his mother says.
“We have a lawyer, but we have to pay him, and there is no help. It’s just me, Oleksandra, and three children. We have already given everything we could. Nobody cares. I can’t get through to anyone: “I’m sorry, there’s an overload. Please try again later,” says Iryna.
The lawyer is going to try to visit Serhii again in the next few days, says his mother, but she and Oleksandra fear that they will not be able to get him out of there, because he is listed as a civilian.
“The exchanges seem to be going on, I understand that they are trying to get our men out, but the process is very slow and it scares me. I am afraid that civilians will remain there,” says Oleksandra.
On New Year’s holidays, it will be five months since Serhii has been away from home, Oleksandra says. In more than three years of relationship, this is their first long separation.
The woman holds a small piece of paper rolled into a tube. This is the last note she wrote for Serhii, which she never had time to give him. She decided that she would keep it until her husband returns home to free Kherson.
The video has English subtitles.