Maksym Butkevych made a name for himself in Ukraine as a journalist and human rights activist, advocated for refugees and internally displaced persons and was a board member of the Ukrainian section of Amnesty International.
In late June, he was captured by Russian forces while fighting for Ukraine, and that hard-earned reputation became a potentially dangerous liability.
Russian propaganda began boasting about the imprisonment of Mr. Butkevych almost immediately after he was taken hostage in an ambush by his train during the battle for the eastern city of Sieverodonetsk. His family and friends initially chose to remain quiet, hoping the silence would speed up the process of getting him home.
But since pro-Kremlin media have wildly denounced Butkevych – both as a “British spy” (he once worked for the BBC) and as a “Ukrainian nationalist”, both as a “fascist” and a “radical propagandist” – his colleagues and loved ones fear for his life and have decided to speak out about him to set the record straight.
The man they know is the opposite of what is shown on Russian television.
“He didn’t accept either the extreme right or the extreme left views,” said his mother Yevheniia Butkevych. “He took shape as a person who is utterly alien to extreme positions, which are typically aggressive.”
In fact, Ms Butkevych said her son was a pacifist who, after Russian proxies invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014, claimed he could best use his talents as an activist. But that all changed on February 24, when Russian missiles slammed into his hometown of Kyiv and cities and towns across the country.
On the same day, Mr. Butkevych, 45, reported to a military recruitment center.
“He said, ‘I’m going to give up my human rights work for a while because now, first of all, it’s necessary to protect the country, because everything I’ve worked on all these years and everything we’ve all worked on, the rules of our lives and of our society are now in danger,’” Ms Butkevych said of what her son, her only child, had told her.
He was drafted on March 4 and became a platoon commander in Kyiv before being sent in mid-June to try to reinforce the army as it fought to defend Sievierodonetsk.
On June 24, Ms Butkevych said a volunteer called to tell her that a video of her son in captivity was circulating on the internet. His platoon had lost contact with their commanders. As two men searched for water, they were captured and then lured the rest of the group into a Russian trap.
“There has never been a worse time in my life,” said Ms Butkevych, 70.
Her son is one of an estimated 7,200 Ukrainian prisoners of war in the custody of Russia and its proxies in eastern Ukraine. It’s a number that clouds the prospect of a quick swap.
“The situation is very complicated because we have fewer prisoners of war than Russia,” said Tetiana Pechonchyk, co-founder alongside Mr Butkevych of the non-profit human rights organization Zmina. “Russia is also capturing civilians and holding them hostage, and we need to exchange those people too. It is a direct violation of international human rights law.”
Mr Butkevych’s public profile can help keep him alive, but it can also leave him vulnerable to abuse. In an interview with the New York Times, prominent Ukrainian medic Yulia Paievska described torture and relentless beatings during her three months in Russian detention. She was also dragged in front of television cameras and used as a prop to portray Ukrainians as “Nazis,” one of the Kremlin’s justifications for the invasion.
She said that as harsh as her treatment was, she feared “much worse” was ahead for male prisoners.
Mr Butkevych last spoke to The Times in May, on the day the Kiev Opera reopened; he had come out of his barracks to attend the premiere.
“It’s kind of a promise that we’ll prevail. Life will go on, not death,” he said. “It is important not to forget that we are fighting for this.”
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting.
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