Humiliated pro-Ukraine woman still bears scars of abuse

KIEV (AFP) - Clad in the blue and yellow of Ukraine's national flag, Irina Dovgan stood on a street of the rebel-held city of Donetsk as passers-by punched, kicked and spat on her, sometimes crushing tomatoes in her bruised face.

Days later, the 52-year-old still has the bruises from her time spent in the custody of the separatists, accused of acting as an artillery spotter for the Ukrainian army, subjected to battery in private, and public humiliation.

Freed after four days, when international media turned the spotlight on her plight, she has now taken refuge with friends in Kiev, unsure whether she can ever return home to Ukraine's contested east.

The slight blonde, wearing a T-shirt which exclaims "Thank God I'm Ukrainian", tells of her terrifying ordeal.

On August 24 - Ukraine's independence day - Dovgan claims a dozen men raided her home in Yasynuvata, near Donetsk.

The local native was one of a tiny minority who had openly supported Kiev's troops, despite the rise of pro-Russia's separatists. But her captors accused her of going further, helping Ukrainian forces direct their artillery fire to rebel targets. They placed a hood over her head and transported her to separatist headquarters in Donetsk.

"They shot their guns so close to my ears that I practically went deaf," Dovgan says. "They told me in detail how they were going to gang-rape me. They beat me with their fists, feet and the butts of their weapons.

"I was huddled on the ground, begging them not to touch me," she says. "They showed me a picture of my 15-year-old daughter and said, 'How many men will she be able to take before dying, in your opinion? Forty? Sixty?'."

Amnesty International has accused both pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian troops of war crimes - including indiscriminate shelling, abductions, torture, and killings - during nearly five months of hostilities in eastern Ukraine.

"All sides in this conflict have shown disregard for civilian lives and are blatantly violating their international obligations," Salil Shetty, Amnesty's secretary general, said in a statement Sunday.

After her beating, Dovgan says her torturers threatened to tie her to a spot in the crosshairs of Ukrainian artillery.

"I thought: 'Thank God. I'll just be killed'," she says. But the rebels changed their minds and paraded Dovgan in the centre of Donetsk, draped in Ukraine's blue-and-yellow flag and wearing a sign reading "She kills our children".

Men insulted her, and young people took photographs. It was the women who were the cruellest, she says.

"One woman passed by and told her husband to stop the car. She opened the boot and began to throw tomatoes at me. Then she crushed several in my face," she remembers. "A woman in her 70s beat me on the back of my head with her stick."

Dovgan's ordeal might have gone undocumented but for the arrival of a team of foreign reporters. A photo showing her being beaten by a young woman appeared in the New York Times - and, Dovgan believes, saved her life.

The shot set off a social media campaign to identify and save the unknown woman with the bruises on her face. Dovgan was released a day later.

During her captivity, her house had been looted and parts of Yasynuvata were damaged by shrapnel from artillery shelling. She made it into Ukrainian-held territory and, from there, onto Kiev.

Even as the region descended into fierce fighting between pro-Kremlin separatists and Ukrainian troops, Dovgan had refused to leave.

"In every war, when the liberators arrive, there are those who welcome them waving the flag. Well, my destiny was to be there to welcome ours," she says.

She spent two months collecting donations to buy food, medical supplies, uniforms and cigarettes for Ukrainian soldiers. And it was the images of these purchases stored on her tablet computer, along with a set of binoculars, that rebels used as "evidence" of Dovgan's collaboration with Kiev.

Her family, which she describes as well-off before the conflict, has lost everything. "Friends told us not to set foot in the village if we didn't want to be killed," she says.

Despite a shaky ceasefire that has already been undermined by renewed fighting, Dovgan claims it is futile for Ukraine to bargain with its insurgents.

"Now is not the time to believe we can reach an agreement with the rebels and call for common sense," she says. "These people have no laws, no honour or mercy. They are savages."