Oksana Vasilenko, Kiev

November 2009

Russian transcription: Olga Zelinska

Translation and editing: Sophie Pinkham

I live in Kiev now, but I was born in Dnepropetrovsk and lived my whole life in Krivоi Rog.  For the last seven years I lived in Ternopol.  The last time I was sent to prison, it was in Ternopol.

My problems with my leg started in prison—I almost died.  I was sentenced to two and a half years, but they still hadn’t brought me from the prison [where inmates are held in cells] to the camp [where inmates live in barracks].   There’s a law that someone who hasn’t yet been brought to the camp yet can’t be sent to the hospital.  It was impossible to bring me to the camp, because I was just dying.  They were just waiting for me to die.  There was no one.  No family.  No one.  But I survived.

I spent two and a half years not in the camp, but in the prison hospital.  The doctor was great.  If it hadn’t been for him they might have amputated my leg, or I might have just died.   My hip had completely rotted away.  They said I’d never be able to walk again.  They predicted that I’d be in a wheelchair and in the home for invalids.  I told them, “Either I’ll kill myself, or I’m going to walk.”  And they told me: “No. Here’s the home for invalids.  You understand, there’s no joint.”  And I said: “I understand everything.  But you don’t understand my situation.  I have no mother, no father, no one to take care of me.  And the home for invalids—that’s it.  I’m not going.”

And after a while I’m getting to be OK.  I’m already starting to walk on crutches.  I’m thinking about what to do.  I think—enough of this already.  And about six months before the end of my time in the camp I start looking for some kind of social center for prisoners, for women—there has to be something.  I start sending letters everywhere.  They give me loads of addresses.  And I get answers: “No.  We can’t.  There’s a center somewhere, but there you have to do manual labor, in Western Ukraine—you have HIV, you’re on crutches, we don’t need you.”  And all the other centers are either Charismatics [a religious sect] or another religious group.

I have three weeks left [in the camp].  I’m thinking, what am I going to do?  I have to leave, and I have no idea what to do.  I decided that’s it, I don’t want to live the way I used to…

I had three weeks left until the end of my sentence.  A man came for a meeting with me. He says, “Do you know who I am?”  …He looks familiar.  I don’t understand…He says, “Do you know who Konstantin Stognyi is?”  I say no.  He says, “What, you don’t watch TV?”  I say, “Listen, I was dying for two years.  I didn’t watch a lot of television.”  He says, “Konstantin Stognyi is the person who hosts the TV show ‘Kriminogen.’  And I work with him.  I’m opening a center like the one you’re looking for.  A social one.”  “Kriminogen” is a show about prisoners.  Stognyi hosts it…and this Vova Sokol says to me, “Oksana, I’m opening a social center for former prisoners…And I want you to come there.  It’s new.”  I say, “Vova, I’m not against the idea.  I’m just against pressure.  I know a lot of girls like me who are tired, who go to centers like that.  And then they get their papers taken away, everything, they get locked down.”  You can’t do that, you can’t do this.  You have to pray three times a day—you don’t know how, you don’t know to who.  It’s not Orthodox Christian.  They speak in foreign languages.  And a person’s there for a week, two, three, and then goes and starts shooting up again, stealing.  Because he wanted to start living in a normal way, and he isn’t allowed to.

Vova says: “Are you going to come?…I’m going to come and see you with Konstantin Stognyi.  Not with him, but with his people.  We’re going to film a show.  You talk about how this center opened.  Just don’t say anything about God.”  “But it’s still there, some kind of faith,” I say to him.  And he says, “Everything will be OK.”

I get out.  They meet me, take me to some village.  They’re filming the show.  A house.  It’s great.  The TV crew leaves.  They tell me: “Come here.”  A hand on my head.  “Now God is with you.”  CharismaticsAnd this Vova has left.  I live there a week.  They tell me, “Go pray.”  And I say, “I’m not going to pray.  I was christened in the Orthodox Church.  I’m not going to scream who knows what in some foreign language.  Where’s the director?”

Vova comes back.  I say, “Vova, I don’t understand.  You said it was a social center.  You promised.”  He was a Charismatic.  “What’s your problem?” he says.  I say, “This is my problem.  You promised you’d help me get my documents.  I don’t have a passport.  I have to get registered as an invalid so I’ll be able to buy medicine.”  He says, “Then go through rehab.”  I say, “What rehab?  For what?”  “For drug addiction.”  I say, “I was in prison for two and a half years.  I don’t shoot up.  What drug addiction?”

It turns out that I’m the only prisoner in this center.  Everyone else is homeless.  He found them who knows where.  They’re just working on them…And they took me because they needed a TV show.  He just wanted money…

So I’m sitting in this center.  “Pray, cross yourself.”  I was able to stand it for three weeks.  I took some crutches.  I said I’d gotten my documents.  And I left.  I think, I’ll go to Kiev.  And he [Vova] says to me, “What?  You want to leave?”  I say, “Yes!”  He says, “What, you want to shoot up again?  Steal?”  He thought I’d just leave and go shoot up and no one would ever find out about anything.  I say, “No, Vova.  I want justice…”

I go to Kiev.  I don’t have a cent, but I have a phone card.  I call this number [I had].  No one picks up the phone.  I call again.  I think, I’ll get there somehow.  A woman picks up.  They say, “Who are you?”  I say, “What difference does it make who I am?  I need to talk to Igor Kaminnik.”  They say, “He’s not in today.”  I say, “Tell me how I can get to him.”  They say, “You shouldn’t come today.”  I say, “Look.  This is my situation: I was released.  I’m not from Kiev.  I’m on crutches.  I have no money.  I have to speak to Kamennik.  I’ll come to your office and sit on the bench and wait for him.  Because I don’t want to do something I don’t want to do—and for that I need Igor Kaminnik.  Tell me your address.”

They say, “Stop.  What neighborhood are you in?”  “I don’t know.”  “Ask someone.”  I asked.  They said, “Do you have money?”  “None,” I say.  They tell me that if I’m on crutches I can ride [on public transportation] for free.  And explain to me how to get there.  I got there.

It was Tamila who met me.  She works in HIV service organizations…I told her my story.

She says, “When I saw you, you reminded me of myself ten years ago.  Now I have work.  I have everything I need.  I used to be just like you.  What can we do with you?”  She sends me to a 12-step rehab center in Poltava.  I say, “Another center?  To pray and cross myself?”  She says, “No, Oksana.  This is a 12-step program.  Sociologists and psychologists will work with you there.  You can live there for about a month.  And then we’ll think of somewhere for you to go.”

So I’m living in that center, in that program.  Sometimes I work, sometimes I don’t.  They feed me.  I understood that I needed to figure out where to go next.  Tamila arranged for me to be taken in by a monastery in Melitopol.  They had a 12-step program community there. And this is a men’s monastery—women aren’t allowed to live there.  I arrived, there were three women in the community, then two left and I was by myself.  According to the rules, I wasn’t allowed to live there.  I’m not a nun.  I’m never going to be a nun.  They were tolerating me.  I understand, again, that there’s nothing to be done: I have no documents, nothing.  They say, “Decide everything yourself.”  But how?  It’s not a hospital.  I have HIV.  I have to see a doctor.  Again.  Tamila says, “Wait it out, Oksana, what are you trying to do?…Can’t you stand it?”  I say, “No, I can’t stand it.”

…I have no documents, no residency registration.  Lavra (Hospital) is in Kiev.  There’s the all-Ukrainian Institute.  And I’m all-Ukrainian.  There are Kiev homeless people, there are Melitopol homeless people.  And I’m a Ukrainian homeless person…I’m nobody.  I have nothing besides a document saying I’ve been released.  And I can’t get any other [documents].  I ask for money.  I think, I’ll go to Kiev and get into the Lavra.  On my own.  And in Kiev, I think, I’ll start going to the ministries, yelling at them, saying something—I’ll think of something.

Tamila calls me. “I dealt with it.  [I’ll send you to Chernovtsy.]”  I say, “I’m not going there.  Тhey said they can’t do anything for me…Thanks.  I’m alive.  But nothing is being resolved.  Thank you for helping me start out.”  She says, “But what will you do in Kiev?”  I say, “I’m going out onto Maidan [central square of Kiev] or somewhere else where the authorities are.  And I’ll pour gasoline on myself and set myself on fire.  I’ll say that the government forced me to it.”  “Honey, don’t do that.  They’ll put you in the insane asylum.”  I say, “So first I’ll go to the insane asylum, I’ll get a document saying the government forced me to it.”  “Wait till the morning.  You wanted to go to the Lavra.”  In the morning she called and said, “Go to Kiev.  I’ll meet you.”  She’s probably thinking, “Where did I find this woman?”  But Tamila is great.

So I’m lying in the Lavra…Three or four months have already passed.  I’m not dying anymore.  Some sick people just lie in the hallway.  But I’m already ashamed.  I understand that I have to go somewhere.   And I have nowhere to go.  The director of the Lavra clinic, Svetlana Antonyak, says, “What can we do?  You’ll have to live here.”  But how?  Every week people die.  I’m in a hospital room.  I feel fine, it’s impossible for me to live there.  Though they helped me a lot—they helped me get invalid status without a passport, though I couldn’t get [pension] payments without a passport.

I was introduced to Sasha Lyubanov, director of “Steps.” …We talked for two hours.  He sent his social workers to see me.  They say they can get my documents, but where will I live?…

Then I’m accepted into a center for families and youth that’s only for Kiev residents up to 35 and for people with children.  I’m not from Kiev and I have no children, but Lyubanov arranged it.  I don’t know how.  I was allowed to stay there for three months.  I started working on getting my documents, with Sasha’s help.

Then Sasha tells me, “I have a childhood friend, Igor.  He has an aunt Olya.  If you want, you can live with her, you just have to cook and then you can sleep there…She has no one besides Igor, and he’s really busy with work.  You can live there and he’ll even pay you…”

I got my passport and other documents.  Soon I’ll get my pension.  I’ll be able to get false teeth, thank God.  So now I have no problem with where to live.  I have no problem paying for the apartment.  Aunt Olya buys food.  All I have to do is cook.  I go to the pharmacy and to the store, that’s all.  Not bad work.  I’ve got lots of free time.

…I know a lot of people.  They write to me from prison camps, lots of people call me, always saying the same thing.  I said [to people at the Lavra clinic], “Let’s help the guys.  Guys aren’t like girls…Usually it’s every girl for herself.  But with guys, you can send a package to one guy and ask him to give the contents to others.  They have no money.  And at the Lavra they have things to send, people donate things, but it’s hard to find money for a package.  It’s better for them to send a single package than to send eight separate small ones.  So I help them…

Recently we came up with the idea of sending medicine, too.  People in prison camps really need medicine…I found the address of pharmaceutical factories here in Kiev.  I called them up, got to know them.  With the Lavra, I sent letters to ten factories.  The Lavra partnered with me and Igor and asked one of the factories to help by giving us medicines that had almost expired.  Because in women’s and men’s prison camps you could give all those out in a month.  And they’d just be wasted in a pharmacy, they wouldn’t get sold…

We sent these letters to the factories.  Again, the priests [at the Lavra] helped us.  They wanted [to send letters] separately from us.  I said we should send them together.  They asked why, and I said, “Honestly?  There’s no reason for you to send letters together with us.  Everyone knows you—the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra.  But there’s a reason for us to do it that way.  Because you know how people look at us.  Who are we?  Former prisoners.  Outcasts.  And if you’re our partners, they’ll look at us differently.  You know me.  The guys we work with are the same.  People who come just for a place to stay don’t last long.  The ones who remain are the people who have decided to change completely.”  They said, “OK, write, we’ll be together.”  This was hugely important for us…

Tamila and Yulia give me things.  I store big things here, because I’m close to the train station.  I tell [the women prisoners], “Girls, if someone’s being released and has nothing to wear, let me know in advance.  I’ll come there, or we can talk on the phone.  Get a cellphone from someone, call me and

I’ll tell you how to get here.  And I’ll help with clothes.”  We’re just starting.  We need money, not just for clothes.  Lots of people have nowhere to live.

Everything’s much harder for women—it’s much harder to get things done.  That’s because men are better able to stand up for themselves, to fight for themselves.  They’re united.  And with women—it’s everyone for herself.  Why do we have only men in our organization?  There aren’t many women …because women are more selfish.

Tamila told me: “Let’s think of something we can do for women.  After all, you went through all that yourself.”  And then she said, “Damn, women are rotten.”  I say, “Tamila, it’s true for 90%.  But the other 10%?  Am I rotten?”  She said, “That’s just you.”  I say, “And you, aren’t you OK as well?  Even if it’s just you and me.”  I still hadn’t persuaded her.  So I say, “It will be really hard to make a fool out of me.”  If we think of [a project] for women and some woman comes just to sit around, get documents, аnd then goes with her new documents to start shooting up and stealing again.  I’ve been through all that.  I don’t need to look long.  I can see right away if someone’s lying or not.  Faking or not faking…it’s really hard to trick me.

Lots of people tell me, “There aren’t many people like you!”  I don’t know, maybe there’s no way out of the position I’m in.  And with these crutches.  But I don’t think so.  Because when I was still in prison camp I decided, that’s it.  I have to think of something.  I have to change something…

It’s over with drugs.  Now my old friends invite me to use.  I see them and I think, “Damn.  I was like that for 15 years.”  You shoot up once and you think you can move mountains.  It’s not interesting for me to talk to them anymore.  I can’t hang out with them, because I was like them for half of my life…Something has to shift in your mind.  But for something to change…if Tamila hadn’t appeared in my life, if I hadn’t ended up in the circumstances I did, who knows what would have happened to me?

Conditions in prison

When I was in prison in Kharkov, I remember that a visitor came, I think it was an American.  He had been in American prisons, and he came to our barrack.  He comes in, talks to the administration.  He still hadn’t seen the barrack…like in a zoo…he didn’t even come in…

And in Chernigov, when the commission came to see us, they weren’t even allowed inside.  They’re taken around the grounds and to the house for mothers and children, because it’s nice there.  But they aren’t taken to the barracks, because the conditions there are too terrible.  Not “euro,” but “tundra.”  The conditions are better than they were ten years ago, of course.  Ten years ago it was absolutely terrible.  Human rights get somewhat more respect now.  But in comparison with other prisons…

In Ternopol (in prison) the conditions were a bit worse.  I had fistula, bone decay.  I had to walk to the infirmary to get medicine twice a day.  They wouldn’t give me the pills to take back with me.  And how could I walk?  I was lying there with a temperature of 40 degrees.  They wouldn’t let me stay in the infirmary because there was no space…My bone was decaying, the pain was horrible.  They wouldn’t let me take peroxide with me.  Insanity.  The Ternopol prosecutor comes for an inspection.  And my fistula has opened…it’s starting to ooze blood.  They let me go the local clinic…girls pushed me there in a wheelchair.  And this prosecutor comes.  I say to him, “Wait a minute.  Can I talk to you?”  The prison camp official said, “What do you want to talk about?”  I say, “I want to talk to the prosecutor.”  I was just lucky that they’d let me out.  And the official said, “She violates the rules.  She has thirteen violations.”  I say, “Thirteen?  Not even one!  You’re afraid to let me talk to the prosecutor?”  The prosecutor tells me to speak.  And I say, “I’m not going to say anything in front of them.  Let’s go over there.”  What do you think?  Two minutes and they’d let me have the medicine and the peroxide I needed to take with me or have someone in the prison bring it to me.  They let me do everything…

Not long ago a girl wrote to me from Chernigov [prison].  She has HIV.  Her son was born healthy.  Another girl wrote to me on her behalf.  There was a problem.  No money.  They need 500 hryvnia worth of medicine.  And for her 500 hryvnia was an impossible sum.  [We asked the Lavra] and they bought it.

She writes that the prison camp administration said, “Ask whoever you want.  We have no money to treat your child.”  …I don’t believe it.  I believe that there was no money for me when I was in prison.  I was in the section for invalids.  Half the prison was.  But this is a little kid.  And I think that they have money for children.  I don’t believe that the administration doesn’t have 500 hryvnia to buy this kid medicine.  I tell Oleg [Galaktionov, head of an NGO to help prisoners] that the priests bought the medicine, and he says, “Oksana, give me the letter you sent.”  “Why?” I ask.  “I’ll show it to the department.  They say that everything’s great.”  It wasn’t for her.  She wasn’t asking for something to eat.  She was asking for medicine for her seven month-old baby.

A child can live in prison camp with its mother until it’s three years old… If there’s only half a year or a couple of months [in the mother’s sentence] the child can stay with her till the end.  If there are still two or three years left, they send the child to the children’s home near the prison camp.

The children don’t spend all their time with their mothers.  Their mothers just come to see them sometimes.  Those that aren’t HIV-positive breast-feed—they’re let out to breastfeed for an hour or two.  The mothers live in a separate section.  There are about 20 children in the house…It’s separate, for children.  It’s OK there.  There are toys…the mothers come and spend some time with them.  Feed them, walk around with them…they have nannies there.

Women in prison work.  When I was there I didn’t work—I was an invalid.  And now girls write to me…“they have everyone putting bay leaves in packets.”  Bay leaves, that’s horrible work…dust in your lungs.  There’s a quarantine in the prison.  Everyone has a fever.  And everyone’s being made to work, even invalids…

When I left [prison] everyone said to me: “Oh, you’re leaving, what will we do?”  I say, “You have to fight for yourselves.  If you’re silent, they’ll take advantage of you.”  We’re no one to them.  Now it’s possible to fight for yourself.  I know, because I was in all the hospitals.  Now you can write letters.  You can complain.  You can make demands.  They won’t put you in jail for writing a complaint like they would in 1999.  Write!  Write!  Get your rights.  And if you sit in silence you won’t get anything, girls.

They’re afraid.  Women are often released early…and everyone counts on that.  Almost no one is released, but everyone hopes for it.  Women want to go home more badly than men do.  And because they’re afraid to report if the administration does something wrong, because they’re afraid then they won’t be released early…

In a way, women are stronger…men are weaker.  But again, I’m judging based on myself.  In general, I have such a will to live.  I was in the institute of traumatology.  A professor came…we talked for forty minutes.  He said, “I don’t believe it.  How is it possible?  Walk!”  I walked.  He looks at the x-rays.  “There’s no joint.  How can she walk?”

…So many people die and that’s it.  But I survived.  Now I talk about all this…


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