On Monday night, a group of five journalists were traveling in a rental car through the center of Slavyansk, the town in eastern Ukraine that has been taken over by pro-Russian militants, when they came to the final checkpoint on their trip back to their hotel. At the wheel was Simon Ostrovsky, an American reporter with VICE News, who had already driven with his passengers through three checkpoints on the way into town, each one manned by separatist fighters who peered into the car at the journalists’ faces. But it was only at the final one, near the militant-controlled police station in the center of Slavyansk, that the gunmen recognized Ostrovsky.
They had a wanted poster with his photograph on it, accusing him of “distorting” the truth in his coverage of the conflict in Ukraine and “spreading the lies of the Kiev junta,” a reference to Ukraine’s central government. With guns drawn, the militants then pulled all five journalists out of the car, including this TIME correspondent, lined them up outside the police station and read out the text of the wanted poster by the light of their headlamps. It demanded Ostrovsky’s capture for the series of video reports that he and his colleague, the photojournalist Frederick Paxton, had produced since early March – “Russian Roulette: The Invasion of Ukraine.”
The militants, overjoyed at their catch, then led Ostrovsky away at gunpoint and drove him to their security headquarters in the center of Slavyansk. Paxton, this correspondent and the two other journalists were also detained at gunpoint but released after a brief interrogation. The militants accused some of their detainees of being Western spies and agents of the Kiev authorities.
It would be almost three days before Ostrovsky’s colleagues would learn of his release on Thursday evening. Throughout his time in captivity, the separatist leader of the town where he was captured, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, batted away questions about his prisoner’s fate with a stream of inconsistent claims. At various points, he suggested that Ostrovsky was detained for his journalism, or for having an expired press accreditation, or for working as a spy. On at least two occasions the militant leader said publicly that Ostrovsky was being held as a prisoner of war in order to trade for other separatists who have been arrested by the Ukrainian government. During a bizarre press conference on Tuesday, Ponomaryov, a soap manufacturer who claimed the title of “people’s mayor” after seizing power last week, insisted that Ostrovsky was simply working on an “exclusive” story from inside the separatist’s security building and was not being held against his will. But dozens of requests to speak with Ostrovsky or see him were refused. His normally busy Twitter feed fell silent.
On Tuesday, VICE News confirmed that Ostrovsky was in danger. “We are aware of Simon Ostrovsky’s situation and are working to ensure the safety and security of our friend and colleague,” the statement said. Nearly two days of intensive efforts would pass before VICE News would release another statement about him, on Thursday, saying that the outlet was “delighted to confirm that our colleague and friend Simon Ostrovsky has been safely released and is in good health.”
On Twitter, some of Ostrovsky’s followers in Ukraine were quick to point out on Thursday that the militants in Slavyansk are still holding numerous prisoners, including Ukrainian journalists, highlighting the continuing danger posed by the separatist fighters who have taken over large chunks of the country’s eastern regions. “Ukraine is about to be kidnapped,” one remarked. On Thursday morning, the government forces of Ukraine mounted their first assault on a separatist checkpoint on the road leading to Slavyansk, turning it into a pile of burning tires and leaving between two and five separatists dead. Russia, which has threatened to intervene to protect the separatists, responded with a new set of military exercises at its border with Ukraine. So the fears of Ukraine’s imminent “kidnapping” may not be overblown. But whatever happens, Ostrovsky will now be able to get back to doing what he does best – reporting.