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bearing witness

Screen grab of VICE journalist Simon Ostrovsky from one of his dispatches from Ukraine.

Bearing Witness: 2014 — The Globe and Mail looks back on the cataclysmic news events of 2014 through the eyes of the people who were there – be they bystanders, participants or journalists. Their accounts shaped our perceptions, while their witnessing the events changed their lives.

We stood in the beams of a black Volga sedan. There were five of us and about a dozen of them. One was swinging a machete. "Let's cut off his leg," he said. Another had a shotgun. "Let's shoot through his knee." They were wearing ski masks and someone was taking a body out of the trunk. I couldn't tell if it was living or dead.

"Which one of you is the American?" said the one with the gun. It was April 21 and these were the first moments of what were to be the worst three days of my life as a hostage of pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Following Russia's annexation of Crimea in March, groups of armed men began taking over government buildings across the Donbass region of Ukraine in a bid to bring more territory under Moscow's sway. It was too early to call what was happening a war but it was far past the point of peaceful demonstrations of pro-Russia "activists," as the gunmen liked to be called. The body count had reached double digits by now.

Over almost two months, our news dispatches from Crimea and the east of Ukraine had become a hit on and were propelling the new media venture into mainstream discourse. Our unvarnished reports were not lost on the armed separatists who had taken control of the city we were now filming in.

Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the self-proclaimed "People's Mayor" of rebel-held Slavyansk was now presiding over daily press conferences issuing threats to authorities in Kiev and independent-minded journalists. He had taken other hostages over the previous couple of weeks, including Euromaidan activists, the actual mayor of Slavyansk, a Ukrainian journalist and pretty much anyone who disagreed with the sudden rise to power of his rag-tag gunmen deployed at checkpoints throughout the city. It was probably after taking my questions at one of these press conferences that he ordered his men to find me and bring me to the already notorious basement beneath the local security-services building his men had captured.

They put me in the back of the Volga, flanked on each side by a silent militant. My four colleagues, I found out later, were released after an hour. But for me the ordeal was only beginning. I was led into the courtyard of the security building where the curses and punches started to fly.

A hat was pulled over my head and taped over my eyes. My arms were pulled tightly behind my back and taped together too. I was led down a set of stairs and thrown into an empty, damp room where I propped myself up in a corner. After an hour my elbows began to ache.

I didn't know what they wanted from me but, every hour or so, men would come into the room and alternate between shouting that I was a sellout and a liar and whispering into my ear that no one would ever find out or care if I died in that cellar. Someone clapped their fists on my ears hard. Suddenly the darkness of the blindfold exploded painfully into a flash of light in my head. I was punched and kicked in the ribs and fell over to the ground. "You look pitiful," said the man who enjoyed whispering threats into my ear and prodded me with his rifle.

Eventually I was moved into another room, with other prisoners: A computer programmer, a body builder, a city councilman and a Ukrainian journalist, most of whom had been there much longer than I had.

Because of international pressure and persistent questions from my friends and colleagues about my whereabouts, Mr. Ponomarev ordered my release on April 24. I was walked out of the basement with a plastic bag full of my belongings, dishevelled and stunned by the daylight and told to "just go." I wandered through the streets, worried it might be a trick, until I bumped into a crew from the CBC who greeted me with the words "We've been looking for you everywhere," and took me to Donetsk where my own crew were.

I was lucky. Many of the other prisoners had to wait months before they were either released or walked free when the separatists abandoned the city in July.

Although Slavyansk is back under government control, there is little to celebrate in eastern Ukraine. The war is far from over and the official death toll has reached more than 4,700. Meanwhile, Ukraine has militarized and Russia continues to feed men and arms into Europe's newest war zone.

Simon Ostrovsky is a reporter for VICE News and a documentary filmmaker who has spent years covering the former Soviet Union. He has been reporting on the developing conflict in Ukraine since March.

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