Rebel leader, said to be behind the downing of MH17, ends rare interview after exploding into a rage and shouting: 'Don't think I won't shoot you.'
WITH a walrus moustache, a fiery temper and a reputation for brutality, Igor Bezler is the most feared of all the rebel leaders in eastern Ukraine. Nicknamed Bes, or “the Demon”, he is regarded as something of a loose cannon, even by other rebels who speak about him in hushed tones.
If the Ukrainian security services, the SBU, are to be believed, the Demon and a group of his men were responsible for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.
According to the recording of a phone call allegedly made two minutes before the disaster, the Demon was told: “A bird is flying towards you.” He asked whether it was small or big, and was told that it was hard to see, as it was flying above the clouds.
In another recording, apparently made 20 minutes later, the Demon reported to his interlocutor, supposedly a Russian official, that a plane had been shot down. Bezler said the recording was real, but referred to a different incident: as well as allegedly bringing down MH17, the rebels have shot down 10 Ukrainian aircraft.
The Demon hardly ever gives interviews, but a Russian journalist and I managed to secure one, so we set off to visit his headquarters in Gorlovka, a 40-minute drive along deserted roads from the regional capital of Donetsk.
Previously a normal east Ukrainian town, with decaying Soviet-era industrial plants and a political elite that skimmed off the financial flows that might have helped lift it from its decrepit state, Gorlovka has become the Demon’s fiefdom in the three months since the uprising started.
At the entrance to the town was a checkpoint with barricades of sandbags and armoured personnel carriers. It was manned by rebels armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
The man on the post, who introduced himself as Gorynych – a three-headed dragon of Russian folklore – did not want to let us pass, but we explained we had an interview with the Demon himself. Phone calls were made, and we were allowed to enter the town.
Arriving at the government building that the Demon’s fighters had seized at the start of the uprising, we were led through several barricades and brought to the first floor, where there was a waiting area for those who sought an audience with the Demon.
Periodically, fighters came dashing up the stairs with news for the boss. Before they entered his office, they had to leave their handphones and weapons on a table. While we waited, a group of fighters made us tea in plastic cups with a lilac-coloured kettle, and we talked about life in the warzone.
The rumble of shelling was audible. It had been getting closer every day, said the fighters, as the Ukrainian army continued retaking towns, not without civilian loss of life. Some of the fighters were locals; others had come from Russia and attended a training camp in Rostov, across the border, before being sent to the Demon.
The door to the Demon’s office opened and the man himself emerged, cigarette in hand, wearing a telnyashka – the stripy Russian naval vest – underneath military fatigues. In an instant, the fighters were on their feet, saluting. One meekly explained that two journalists were waiting to see him.
“I’m busy. We will talk later. For now, show them the prisoners,” he snapped, striding down the stairs surrounded by heavily armed men.
The Demon was born in Crimea as Igor Bezler and lived for a long time in Russia before moving to Gorlovka, where he worked for a time as the director of the local funeral parlour. The SBU claims he is a Russian military intelligence agent who coordinates his actions directly with Moscow.
He is one of a number of key commanders of the rebel movement who Kiev claims are Russian agents, including the mysterious figure of Igor Girkin, nicknamed Strelkov or “the Shooter”, the commander-in-chief of the Donetsk resistance.
Strelkov himself has admitted he was a Russian agent until last year, and that he took part in the Russian takeover of Crimea.
It is possible that men like Bezler and Strelkov are not directly carrying out Moscow’s orders but are proxy agents with handlers two, three or four steps removed from the Kremlin or other official Russian structures; players who can be directed from Moscow but who are also liable to go rogue at any time.
Bezler, Strelkov and many of the other commanders in the patchwork of rebel groups in eastern Ukraine have all taken hostages.
At the headquarters in Gorlovka, we were led down to the ground floor and into two small rooms filled with mattresses.
In one of the rooms I met Vasyl Budik, a local journalist arrested for supposed links to Pravy Sektor, a Ukrainian far-right group.
He had been a prisoner for nearly three months, and was subjected to a mock execution on video to pressure Kiev into agreeing an exchange of prisoners.
There was also a 64-year-old Swede, who did not say what he was doing when captured (though he said he was not involved in combat), and a number of Ukrainian soldiers.
As we talked, guards came for Budik and took him up to the main courtyard.
A van had arrived, carrying the body of a rebel fighter who had died in combat.
The Demon and the other fighters crowded round to pay their respects. Budik was also emotional.
“I knew him well, since he was eight years old,” he said. “My wife and I would bring in homeless kids or orphans and try to give them a decent upbringing. I taught him boxing, tried to give him a grounding in life. I helped him out a lot. He was a good lad.”
I remarked what an extraordinary testament it was to the mindless, fratricidal nature of the conflict that he was mourning the death of one of his captors.
Budik chuckled. “You think that’s weird. They’ve got a high-ranking SBU official as a prisoner here, and one of his in-laws is guarding him,” he said.
The Demon materialised outside the rooms holding the hostages and told us he was ready to talk, but as we turned to walk to his office, he became agitated over the question of why he keeps hostages. He looked at us with furious eyes.
“The reason they are here is because they are Ukrainian army soldiers,” he said. “Those who are fighting with the Ukrainian army, we keep as prisoners. Those who are fighting with volunteer battalions, we question them and then shoot them on the spot. Why should we show any pity to them?”
His voice grew louder as he grew more angry. “You should see what they have done to my people. They chop off their heads. They are fascists! So why should we stand on ceremony with them? Questioning, an execution, that’s it. I will hang [them] from lampposts!”
By this point he was shouting at the top of his voice, and suddenly noticed that the Russian journalist I was with had her Dictaphone on, and that I was making notes. He grabbed the Dictaphone from her hands and ordered one of the fighters to throw it at the wall. Pulling my notebook from my hands, he began to rip out the pages frantically.
He barked commands at his subordinates: “Burn their notebooks! Seize their electronics! Search everything for compromising material and then destroy it! If you find anything, execute them as spies!”
Working in eastern Ukraine has been difficult for all journalists, and anger and threats are commonplace. This was the first time, however, that I felt a very real sense of danger. “Don’t think for one minute I will hesitate to have you shot,” he yelled at the pair of us.
We were taken into a room where our bags were rummaged through by underlings, the gravity of the situation underlined by just how scared the rebel fighters themselves appeared to be.
Twenty minutes later, the Demon appeared at the door again, smoking a cigarette. He had calmed down, somewhat. “Give them back their things. Drive them to the checkpoint, kick them out and never let them in,” he barked. We left hastily, and I never did get to ask the Demon about his alleged role in shooting down MH17.
I may never get another chance. We visited the Demon on Sunday. Three days after our visit, Gorlovka was ruthlessly shelled with Grad rockets. The Grad can launch up to 40 rockets in a matter of seconds, and is a spectacularly imprecise weapon designed to inflict maximum casualties. The missiles hailed down on central Gorlovka without warning, with plumes of smoke rising from buildings across the town.
The Demon was not there when the attack came; the Ukrainians say he has fled, his fighters say he left Gorlovka on a mission. But the missiles missed the headquarters anyway, coming down in various residential areas.
As the conflict enters what looks like an endgame, both sides are more resolute than ever. When the bodies began to fall from the sky on July 17, the downing of MH17 seemed like an event so outlandish, so gruesome, that some thought it might just act to jolt the players in the region’s conflict to their senses.
A collateral massacre whose victims had no stake in the conflict on the ground, it was surely enough to end a war that has appeared largely manufactured, but has nevertheless cost hundreds of civilian lives.
Instead, the fighting has intensified. The pro-Russian rebels have continued to down Ukrainian planes and Kiev claims Russia is still funnelling weapons and fighters across the border. Ukrainian forces, meanwhile, have intensified their attacks on the rebels and appear to have used indiscriminate missile systems against civilian areas.
Around 13 people died in Gorlovka on Sunday. The headquarters of the Ukrainian anti-terrorist operation denied it had used Grad missiles on Gorlovka, instead blaming the rebels, saying they had carried out the attack to “discredit the Ukrainian army”.
Ukrainian forces have repeatedly denied using Grads against residential areas, and it is true that both sides have the missile launchers in their arsenals. However, Human Rights Watch found that on the outskirts of Donetsk there was compelling evidence that shelling had come from Ukrainian positions.
The rebels have a healthy supply of weaponry and, if Kiev is believed, are still receiving shipments from Russia. But they are no match for the sheer size of the Ukrainian army and the various volunteer regiments fighting on Kiev’s side.
Deep down, they all expect to die here. The question is how much more civilian blood will be spilled before that happens. — ©Guardian News & Media 2014