DNR translator: This is a spectacle for the whole world

By Zoya Lukyanova

Why are Russian humanitarian convoys half-empty? What kind of seized tanks are filmed by Russian journalists? Who is actually fighting for the DPR [the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic] and what is the local civilians’ attitude toward those people? We managed to record an interview with a Latvian citizen who served as an interpreter in a reconnaissance group of the DPR forces for 21 days.

He was born in Latgale, the eastern part of Latvia, which is home to about half a million native Russians who have repeatedly complained of “political discrimination by the Latvian authorities.” In the wake of current events in Ukraine, pro-Russian sentiment in Latgale has risen significantly. Even an image of a “Latgale People's Republic” flag can be found somewhere on the Web. Pro-Russian propaganda is also working over there, so our interlocutor, who is Latvian, came to the DPR-held part of Ukraine absolutely sure that he was going to defend the Donbas people from the brutal “ukry” [a derogatory term recently created in Russia for Ukrainians, mostly Ukrainian military]. But he quickly changed his mind and tried to leave the territory of the self-proclaimed republic. He actually managed to make it out, which he counted a big success. The former interpreter for the DPR agreed to tell about what he had seen in the DPR, on condition of anonymity under the pseudonym “Latgalets” [born in Latgale].

When and why did you decide to go to the DPR?

Because of all of this propaganda I had a pro-Russian stance, despite the fact that most of the world is behind Ukraine. I wanted to go there [to the Donbas] and see what was happening there. Quite a few people come to the Donbas from Latgale. There are many ways to get there. I got through with a fake passport, not a citizen’s passport, so no visa was needed in Russia. First, I went to St. Petersburg, then I rode by bus to the city of Rostov, that is - I had to switch transport in Gukovo, where I got on a smaller van and then rode to Rostov. That was at the time when the Donetsk airport was being “cleaned up” [attacked]. I got on a training base. Today, I’d rather call it a terrorist training base. The base is located east from Rostov.

So, it’s on Russian territory, isn’t it?

Yes, it is on Russian territory. It might be Volgodonsk or somewhere around this town. Quality military gear is provided at that base, of a type that can’t be found in Donetsk and Luhansk. The base is situated on route to Torez and Mariupol. I was there for one week, as I underwent physical and mental tests – on my reactions and mental stability. About 500 people were training there at the time.

I was asked if I had any experience. I replied that I had. In general, I’m sort of a military guy [“Latgalets” refused to elaborate – Ed.]. Then there came some dude, not the instructor, but from “Sparta” [the DPR militant group led by “Motorola” - Ed.], with a corresponding stripe [on his sleeve]. He took me to another room and asked, “So, are you that cool? You know languages?” I know four languages: Polish, Russian, English, and my native language. I was taken out of the barracks, and my passport was seized. I was given a DPR passport instead. My civilian clothes were taken away, and the camera, too. So I went with them. I was appointed an interpreter. I wore two ribbons: the St. George ribbon and the Latvian - nobody objected. After I got involved, my opinion about what was happening has changed 180 degrees.

How did you get to the territory of the DPR?

We had a convoy of 117 vehicles from Russia. Russians are literally swarming near your border. The checkpoint is Russia-controlled. Everything is mined to the right and to the left. I saw those modern tanks, the 72’s [T-72 tanks - Ed.] They have been repainted as if they were Ukrainian, well, how you paint them, with two stripes. But they’d been driven for only 40 engine hours - I looked it up. And then come [Russian] TV crews, and these tanks are repainted – as if they were once Ukrainian, and now they are seized. And then this convoy of tanks goes on its way. And the TV is showing it all.

A training base on Russian territory, then these tanks – were you not alerted immediately?

Like I said, I felt patriotic, and I perceived everything from that perspective.

I get it. What was your job, what did you do?

Well, I became an interpreter. I got into a group of four people. We were dressed in camouflage, which only Russians have – Jungle-type. I was interrogating foreign POWs, mostly Poles. I believe, one of them was from “Valkyrie” - that’s what they said, they showed the stripes. He was in a brand new uniform. Actually I'm not sure where he and the rest [of the POWs] were from. He wouldn’t break down, so they’d beat him, and then take him to the lock-up. In Donetsk they made a decent lock-up. I was always accompanied by one person from the “Sparta”, I don’t know his title or name. Just his call-signal.

He was from the “militia”?

No way! I'll tell you more. I think that the Russian officers were brought in to the Donbas a year before it all started. There's no regular Russian army there, there are Special Forces. Regular troops remain on their territory, doing laundry or whatnot. And in the Donbas there is another Russian army. For each group there is one specialist who gives you a map, a map of the infantryman, the scale of one to 2500, just on the battlefield. While they have other maps, GPS, UAVs, they have GRU [Russian military intelligence service] behind them. They have normal storages packed with uniforms, with everything. They’ve got stuff that you can’t find anywhere in Donetsk or Luhansk. Those who wear that Pixel-type camouflage, you can’t even go up to them and ask something. They are from the outside, they appear and then disappear. When the firefight begins - they disappear, leaving only the front-line people. There was a professional army, everyone knew what to do. I'm sure they were brought in beforehand.

All this “Givi” and “Motorola”, all that garbage. They are never at the front line. They work for the cameras. And mercenaries - both on the base, and over there, are people who had already been to war. In my platoon, there were those who had already gone through three wars, they were both in Yugoslavia and in Afghanistan, they are all scarred, it’s all just fun for them, “Hey, let's beat that ‘ukrop’” [“ukrop” – is another derogatory term used by Russians for Ukrainian citizens].

How much did they pay?

Actually, they promised $500 a day for frontline engagement, if you are stationed rearwards, it’s $250 a week. But I still have not received any money from them. These commanders are paid UAH 1,500 a day. They have nice cars and houses. I don’t know whether these have been extorted, or ‘squeezed out’, like they say there, but they are nice. There’s munitions storage, [new] police has been appointed, all from A to Z. Locals hate them now, as everybody just wants normal peaceful life.

What about the locals? Are they of any help?

Everything shown on Youtube is total garbage. There is no longer any support [from the locals]. Stones were thrown at our convoy as we passed. Even in Donetsk. I really felt bad then. They were just throwing stones. Nobody has jobs, everything is closed down. Patrols were organized to give away food to the locals, to show off, like they’re cool guys, and then at 0400, when everyone is asleep, they would be like “Let’s shell those houses with ‘Grads!” [‘Grad’ is a Russian-made rocket launcher]. Or they would drive off in their SUVs somewhere to Donetsk, Shakhtarsk, or Avdiyivka, turn around and open fire on their own men. And also they shell [Ukrainian territory] from Russia with “Smerch” [a Russian-made multiple rocket launch system]. I was near the border and I saw “Smerch” rockets flew over in the direction of Ukraine. I have no idea where they landed, maybe they hit civilians. What they say on the TV, that civilians bring them food, it’s all bullsh*t. Their food comes in convoys.

What’s up with these Russian humanitarian convoys”?

I'll tell you what’s up. As they move on their way, they make regular stops, and they bury these military cases to the right and left of the road. Then again, “On march!” Another 300 meters, stop, bury. And the contents of those cases – there’s everything there. I saw it myself. I couldn’t snap a photo as all cameras had been seized. My cellphone was also seized. I just managed to make a small gallery of pictures on my phone around the Donetsk airport. They sort of trusted me, so I managed to sneak my phone to the airport. And then what happens - these half-empty trucks arrive in Donetsk, and there's everything you wish for the cameras - water, salt, all that stuff. As far as I know, the next “humanitarian convoy” will be used for provocations.

Is there a lot of staged filming in general?

There are lot of fakes. I saw these Lifenews [crews]. There were fake OSCE [mission members]. Well. There were real ones as well, but they would appear when there are TV crews and when everything is over. There are many fakes.

For example, in regard to “ukry” high on drugs. The roadblock has been seized, 200s and 300s [military codenames for killed in action and wounded respectively] are being taken away, they [militants] come, drink, shoot up drugs, throw syringes and empty bottles around, and only then the TV crew arrives, to show as if there had been drug addicts and alcoholics at the seized roadblock .

But it was nothing like that. I saw that that they didn’t even have dry rations there.

Are there supplies of alcohol and drugs to the fighters?

Chechens have their own drugs and syringes. They said that it was morphine, but I've seen people under morphine influence, so that was more likely heroin. After morphine people just lie on the ground, but after heroin they are still able to walk and shoot. These guys couldn’t care less - they just go and kill people.

Yes, there also were disciplinary battalions, [former] convicts consisting of 32 and 64 people. Those are just crazy. They are in overkill mode. We would spend 120 rounds of ammunition overnight, while they could easily spend 40,000.

When did you realize that you wanted to leave?

They would make people change clothes. The people who passed through the training base, I don’t know who they were. They were brought in the APCs, having being arrested. They would dress them up in Ukrainian uniform, with Ukrainian stripes and all that; they’d let them out somewhere, and then shoot them. Then comes the TV crew, when all is quiet, and they just show how many “ukropy” have been killed. I was disgusted. It’s the show for the whole world, it’s no political war. There are local rebels there, but these rebels sit in the cellars with their children while the whole other kind of people roams the streets. There are Special Forces of the Russian Federation there, I insist on this point. They are Special ops. As I had gained some authority, I told them, “Either I’m leaving, or just shoot me.” And I just disappeared via Rostov, again. They don’t let the others leave. Either you leave and die, or you stay. It's like a prison camp.

So they just let you leave, after all that you had seen?

Well, I’ve been really helpful over there. They’ve taken away everything, there are just a couple of pictures left in my phone. When I was leaving, someone shouted “Stop!” behind me. I thought, they would shoot me in the back of the head, I already began to tremble, and he goes, “Give me back the ticket.” That was the only way he would give me back my passport, in exchange for a ticket. I came back the same way as had come. I'm afraid that they would figure out who I am. Either those guys or the SBU [the Security Service of Ukraine]. I know that two Latvians failed to return.

What is your subjective evaluation of what you saw?

Just hold your territory, don’t go on offensive. There’s no help for the Russians there, no support – the locals hate them. Civilians have no jobs and no peace because of them. Everybody is dying from idleness and even from hunger. This is yet another Holodomor. Both in Luhansk and Donetsk. All this made me stutter for a couple of weeks. Now I’d like to fight for the other side. Against these people, not against the civilians. This is banditry, I can’t find no other name for it.