The men with guns came for Alexei Pichko in mid-afternoon,before the usual evening barrage of shells flew over this decrepitsuburb of dilapidated shacks and half-burnt houses. When his motherwent to look for him at the rebel headquarters in the securityservices building, they told her he was under arrest, but alive andwell.
One month later, the men who took him have fled their stronghold inthis sleepy east Ukrainian town, unable to sustain the Ukrainianarmy's barrage of mortar fire, and retreated to Donetsk, theprovincial capital. The building where he was held captive is nowhalf-destroyed, lined with mulch and detritus. The only evidence ofwhat has happened to him is on files found lying on the floor,coated in a thick film of dust, signed and stamped by theseparatists' feared commander.
"By order of the military-field tribunal of the [Donetsk People'sRepublic] militia on 17.06.2014," it reads, "I hereby proclaim thatAleksey Borisovich Pichko, resident of the city of Slovyansk, issentenced for looting to an exceptional measure of punishment -execution by firing squad - on the basis of the Decree of theSupreme Soviet of the USSR 'on martial law' from June 22nd,1941."
"The sentence has been carried out."
The three-month struggle for Slovyansk - which became thestronghold of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic whenarmed men seized it in April - has made the once-nondescript townof 119,000 all but unrecognizable. Buildings are smashed acrosstown. Half the population fled. Those without the means to do soturned on each other, deprived of electricity, running water, andcontact with the outside world.
Detailed transcripts from Pichko's case and two other tribunals,however, appear to show how the militia's enigmatic commander, aformer Russian intelligence officer known by the nom de guerre ofIgor Strelkov, kept order in the city through summary wartimejustice. Theft was prosecuted under a decree devised by Stalin atthe start of World War II. Trials were held summarily under thejurisdiction of men known by nicknames like Nose, Gray-Hair, andBaloo. Punishments were carried out "ruthlessly anddecisively."
Maria Pichko outside her home in Slovyansk.
The inner workings of the Donetsk People's Republic are largely amystery. Rebel leaders often make contradictory claims about whichone of them is in charge. Armed groups with apparently conflictingloyalties have attacked each other. The groups' political leaderssometimes disappear to Moscow for days at a time for vague"consultations" with Russian political figures. (Ukraine and itsWestern allies say the Kremlin is stage-managing the conflict,charges Moscow angrily denies).
But the documents - found by BuzzFeed and two other reporters onthe floor of the security services building (and corroborated bysources including a man who stood "trial") - indicate Strelkovenjoyed at least some degree of autonomy in running Slovyansk.Nothing in them links the rebels directly to Russia. Instead,Strelkov, whose real name is Igor Girkin, appears to haveimprovised his own justice system, based on Soviet wartimenostalgia and a need to keep the local population in check. Writtentestimony from the accused and witnesses is made out to Strelkov.The execution orders are signed and stamped by him.
Miroslav Rudenko, a spokesperson for Strelkov, said that the rebelsin Slovyansk had carried out multiple tribunals for looting -including one first publicized in May and detailed in the files -under the decree, issued on the day Nazi Germany invaded the SovietUnion. "We needed a military legal basis to prosecute looting andsimilar wartime phenomena effectively, so we turned to history foran example," he said.
A local man arrested for treason, Alexander Pirozhenko,confirmed an account given in another set of documents of histrial, which the rebels held under Ukrainian law. Pirozhenko washeld for eight days on charges of shining a flashlight in order tobetray rebel positions, which were dismissed for a lack ofevidence.
Strelkov's order to execute Pichko.
Pichko's case, however, shows Strelkov involved himself in evenpetty crime cases with no connection to the militia. An unemployedwelder recently released from prison after four and a half yearsserved for stealing a phone, Pichko, 30, had intended to move toMoscow to work as a laborer but got stuck in Slovyansk when theconflict broke out. Though he told his mother he had found odd jobsaround town, he wrote in a confession that he found no work apartfrom standing around at rebel-built barricades.
Neighbors standing on the dirt road where Pichko was arrested inthe run-down suburb of Krasny Molochar claimed Pichko regularlycommitted burglaries during regular drinking bouts. "He was badfrom the day he was born," a middle-aged man said. (He and nearlyall the other local residents declined to give their names, fearfulof both the Ukrainian army and the separatists.)
According to the confession, Pichko got drunk on June 14 with afriend and a local man he had just met on the street. Afternoticing a house whose owner had fled the suburb to escape theconflict six weeks earlier, Pichko broke in through a window tosteal two shirts and one pair of pants. Neighbors then ran to findthe nearest militiamen, who arrested him a few hours later.
The next day, a rebel nicknamed "Lawyer" inspected the housewith two armed men from the nearest checkpoint. He filed a detailedreport including a blueprint and several photographs. The armed meninterrogated several witnesses, who testified that Pichkoburglarized the house with his two friends.
In his confession and trial, however, Pichko claimed that hecommitted the crime on his own and asked to be sent to the front."I want to die as someone who was of use to the DPR," he wrote. "Ialso have a pregnant wife, Rydkovskaya Inna Vladimirovna … I wantto see her and nurse children and be a useful member of society,"he wrote.
The entire transcript of his trial, held three days after hisarrest, is less than two pages long. After a brief exchange with"Lawyer," the prosecutor, the three members of the tribunal sentPichko out of the room to deliberate on a verdict. Baloo -apparently named after the wise bear from Rudyard Kipling's TheJungle Book - and Gray-Hair suggested sending him to dig trencheson the front lines. But Nose, the chairman, insisted on executinghim under the Stalinist decree.
The same day, Strelkov published an order. "I warn all fightersand commanders of the DPR militia, and also residents of Slovyanskand the Sloviansk area, that any grievous crime committed in thezone of military activity will continue to be punished ruthlesslyand decisively. The command of the DPR militia will not allowunchecked criminality," he wrote. "Punishments for crimes will beunavoidable, regardless of the status and service of thecriminal."
With Donetsk People's Republic officials unable to confirm thatPichko was executed, his ultimate fate seems destined to remainunclear. Neighbors said one of Pichko's friends told them that hesaw the rebels execute him from a machine gun the same day, thendiscard his body on the front lines to be blown to bits byshells.
Maria Pichko, however, kept up hope that her son was alive untilthree reporters knocked on her front gate on Thursday. She burstinto tears when she learned of the tribunal.
His death sentence was signed on the day she went to look forhim.