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Confession

“Dying isn’t as bad as being a Russian POW”: Freed Ukrainian soldiers speak out about their time in Russian captivity

Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine has returned more than three thousand people from Russian captivity as part of multiple exchanges. These are mostly soldiers, but not exclusively: despite its signature on the Geneva Convention, Russia also captures civilians. People are abducted and held in detention centers, and they return home morally and physically crippled. Ukrainians who were exchanged for Russian soldiers told The Insider how they were beaten with wooden boards while being “processed.” They were also forced to learn the Russian anthem, sing Russian patriotic songs, beaten for speaking Ukrainian, and starved.

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Content
  • Oleksandr: “In the Kursk detention center, they beat us with boards, stripped us naked, and then rode us, as if on horseback”

  • Oleksandr: “I put my hand under my head, they said I fell asleep — they pulled me out and beat me up”

  • Viktor: “My greatest fear is that I won’t be able to kill myself with a grenade, because dying isn’t as bad as being a Russian POW”

  • Yulia: “They beat me, put me on the table and, putting a watering can in my mouth, poured water”

  • How Russia violates international law

“I know they were kept in decent conditions,” Vladimir Putin claimed at a meeting with his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on February 21, 2024. Putin and Shoigu were discussing Russian “clean-up” operations around Krynky, a village in Kherson Oblast where Ukrainian forces have established a modest bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River. Putin “advised” Shoigu to force the Ukrainians to surrender, noting that the Russian side treats prisoners of war (POWs) “in strict compliance with international legal documents and international conventions.” The village of Krynky, however, was not taken back by Russian forces, and the reported “cleaning up” of the Ukrainian bridgehead turned out to be another Russian fabrication — akin to its claims about the “dignified” treatment of Ukrainian POWs.

According to the OSCE human rights monitoring mission, Ukrainian POWs are constantly subjected to torture and ill-treatment, and inhumane conditions have been confirmed in 32 out of 48 places of detention, both in Russia and in the occupied territories of Ukraine. Moreover, the victims of this illegal treatment are not only military personnel, but also civilians: Russia, in flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention, does not distinguish between Ukrainian combatants (persons directly participating in hostilities as part of the armed forces) and civilians (non-combatants “detained” by the Russian side in the occupied territories) — it takes both prisoner.

Oleksandr: “In the Kursk detention center, they beat us with boards, stripped us naked, and then rode us, as if on horseback”

Oleksandr, a civilian, was taken captive in the village of Mykulychi in the Kyiv Region on March 2, 2022, less than a week after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion. He remained in captivity for one month and 13 days.

The Russians entered the village at six in the morning and immediately started shooting — they hit the school and damaged part of the houses. They came in with a rush, so that we were afraid of them — there were eight vehicles [armored personnel carriers, known as “BMPs” — The Insider] there at once. When they came, we were sitting in the basement.

A few hours later I crawled out to heat up some water and came across two Russians in my yard with automatic rifles. The first thing they asked was if I had any cigarettes. I only had home-grown tobacco, which they refused to take. Then an officer came up and said: “Hello, Maidanovets!” [a reference to the Maidan revolution of 2014, which led Ukraine’s then-president Viktor Yanukovich to flee Kyiv for Russia — The Insider], and immediately hit me on the knee with the butt of his rifle. He took my phone, and there was a correspondence with my friends who sent pictures from Bucha. He saw them and immediately said: “This is our man.”

They twisted me up and took me to the crossroads. There was already a young guy lying there — Seryozha [Serhii] Kondratenko, who was later captured together with me. They threw us both on a BMP and took us towards Borodianka. On the highway, they saw checkpoints and got scared. They asked Seryozha: “How did you get here? Did you see the [Ukrainian territorial defense]?” He answered, “Yes,” and we went back to Mikulichi, where they tied us to the tracks of a BMP and left us lying there like that.

Khokhol

The word stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

A destroyed school in the village of Mykulychi in the Kyiv Region
A destroyed school in the village of Mykulychi in the Kyiv Region
Photo: Newscast

For the next two days they kept moving us from place to place and kept interrogating us: “Where are the Nazis? Where are the Banderites?” [“Banderites” is a term used by Russians to describe Ukrainian nationalists; the term derives from the surname of Stepan Bandera (1909-1959), a leader of the Soviet-era Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists — The Insider]. They simulated executing us by firing squad. At night they took us off the BMP and tied us up again. They threw four more prisoners in with us — fighters of the Territorial Defense Forces. They beat them badly, and one of them was stabbed in the buttock with a bayonet knife. He was lying in a pool of his own blood, which was getting bigger and bigger. They took away his sneakers — they argued with each other as if they had never seen sneakers in their lives. I had a sheepskin coat on. It saved us because it was very cold. I managed to untie myself and covered the bleeding guy's legs with it.

Then we were handed over to another group of soldiers. Among them was a lieutenant colonel from Belarus. He asked me who Bandera was. I told him. And he said to me: “Then why are they scaring us with him?” [The implication being that the Russian propaganda narrative about the importance of Bandera’s influence had been exaggerated — The Insider]

He allowed us to go to the toilet — the first time we were allowed to relieve ourselves in captivity — and to bandage a bleeding Territorial Defense fighter. I was hoping that this lieutenant colonel would let me go, because after our conversation about Bandera he said: “I won't give them this tractor driver.”

But they put sacks on our heads, threw us into a truck and took us away again — they gave us to soldiers in black uniforms that looked like special forces. They brought us to spend the night in some kind of canteen-like room. That’s where they stacked “their” goods — other people’s belongings looted from Ukrainian homes.

On March 4, we were moved to the “refrigerators of Hostomel” — an industrial building with refrigerated chambers for meat, where we sat for four days. All this time other guys were being brought in and taken away. One of them had a calendar bearing the symbols of the Azov Battalion. He was executed on the spot. They also shot another guy because there weren’t enough seats in the car.

On March 8, we were dragged out into the street with our hands tightly tied behind our backs with plastic cables. The pain was so unbearable that everyone started howling. They held us for about 20 minutes, and then they bandaged us normally and took us to Belarus, to Homel, to some pre-trial detention center.

There were 65 people there — we were transported by IL-76 [cargo plane] to the Kursk Region. At first we were placed in a tent city. It was negative 10-15 degrees (14°F to 5°F) outside, and many people had no shoes — they took away everyone's sneakers, and the guys sat in the snow on their knees for many hours while we were processed and searched.

Each tent had 14 twin beds in a circle, with a potbelly stove in the center. There was barbed wire around the camp, a sentry in a balaclava with a machine gun and a German shepherd — just like in World War II movies.

They didn't give me anything to drink, so I collected snow and melted it in the fireplace. The food we got was so hot that it was hard to hold in one's hands. They wouldn't let me go to the toilet, and they made me wash outside when it was -15°C (5°F) — the water froze immediately. They filmed it to show on [Olga] Skabeyeva's program [Skabeyeva, the host of 60 Minutes on the Rossiya-1 television channel, is a prominent Kremlin propagandist — The Insider] and other propagandists' stories that they supposedly provided us with good conditions.

The first group of people was taken out of the camp on March 13, and then we were taken out on March 14. We were taken to Kursk Pre-trial Detention Center-1. Those who transported us said that now it would be easier for us —- there were toilets and water in the pre-trial detention center. But that's where the hell started.

When we were brought in, the “reception” began. It was beatings and abuse for six hours. We were stripped naked, beaten with boards and tasers. Then the Russians got drunk, got on top of us, and rode us, saying that they were “riding pigs.”

Khokhol

The word stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

The Russians got drunk, got on top of us and rode around saying they were “riding pigs”

Eight interrogations a day. But the hardest thing is to stand on the tiles during the interrogations. While they “work” one person, all the others have to kneel down — hands behind their backs, head down. When you stand like that for two or three hours, your legs fail. One of the men in our cell tore his tendons that way. I was afraid that no one would exchange him because of the injury, but they did.

During the interrogation, they kept asking the same questions: “where are the Nazis, where are the military units, where are the Banderites?” One day I couldn't stand it and asked: “And how do you tell Nazis and Banderites apart?” One of the guards jumped on me: “Look at you, old man, look who’s being clever!”

They kept saying that Ukraine had surrendered and [President Volodymyr] Zelensky was sitting in a cellar in Poland, and that Biden wouldn't let him sign a peace agreement. I realized that this was nonsense, but others, those who had been in jail since the first day of the invasion, believed it.

In each cell there was a duty officer who had to report when one of the escorts entered — and only in Russian: “Cell so-and-so. No incidents have occurred during your absence. There are X number of people in the cell, the duty officer is so-and-so, I was born in this year.”

I had guys in my cell who did not know Russian, from Ternopil. I tried to teach them, but they still made mistakes. I remember one of them pronounced everything [in Russian] clearly, but at the end he says “89-go roku” in Ukrainian [instead of “89-go goda,” lit. “born in 1989” in Russian — translator’s note], and the guard immediately struck him on his back with a hammer.

Khokhol

The word stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

My cellmate, who didn't know Russian, said the year of his birth in Ukrainian, and the guard immediately struck him on his back with a hammer

All day long we were forced to sing the Russian anthem, [along with Soviet-era military songs] “Katyusha,” “Den’ Pobedy” [“Victory Day”]. Early in the morning they get you up, look through the peephole. You have to jump up at once, and immediately sing the anthem, and then — [Oleg] Gazmanov, “Uncle Vova [Putin], we are with you,” “Katyusha,” and all these stupid songs. You had to stand still, and it was repeated every 15-20 minutes. If you sang badly, they came at night and made you recite it by heart, keeping you awake until morning.

There was also a morning “check” with a German Shepherd. We were taken out into the corridor, hands placed palms up. Then they practically made us do splits and beat us on our hands and legs, and the dog bit our buttocks. The Nazis did the same things in their concentration camps.

Sitting or lying down during the day was forbidden. If they saw someone sitting down, they came at night to abuse them. When being led down the corridor, one had to keep one's head down to the knees — that’s the only way you could move around. One guy from Chernihiv had the skin torn off his index finger with pliers, along with the nail. He was in [Ukraine’s] Territorial Defense, and they broke it that way. Then he showed us the skin that had been torn off. They attached it back onto him with duct tape.

We were given one loaf of bread a day and some soup for five people. Sometimes we got stinking fish. The main thing was that there was water and a toilet. They took away all our belongings. They even argued about who would take my piss-stained sheepskin coat, which I slept on the ground in. They pounced on it.

Khokhol

The word stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

They took away my piss-stained coat, which I slept on the ground in; they were still arguing about who would get it

I got into the fourth exchange. But before that they played a performance. On April 12, they brought us to the airfield in Kursk, and then told us that there would be no exchange because of the civilians from the “DPR” and “LPR,” who were brought to the exchange together with us. They were taken prisoner because they did not want to fight, and for disobedience they were threatened: “We will exchange you, but the [Ukrainian army] will shoot you in the knees.” They were so intimidated that they fell on the floor and shouted, “Don't exchange us!”

In the end, they brought us back to the detention center and “processed” us exactly like the first time. They also put these “LPR” people on their knees and started beating them. They walked on them in military boots, assaulted them with stun guns and wooden boards. And then they said: “We did what you wanted, we didn't exchange you and we’re going to take you home. So you have to go to the military enlistment center, take up and help the valiant Russian troops to fuck the khokhols, do you understand?” “That's right.” I then asked these guys, “So, how do you like the ‘Russian world’?”

I was exchanged on April 14, 2022, and on the 13th the Moskva cruiser was sunk, and those who came back later told me that when it happened, the guards became completely furious and beat everyone to a pulp. Their hands were broken. They got hit so hard their eyebrows stuck to the rebar they were beating them with.

I thought I'd never get home. I don't know how I got so lucky. There were a lot of young lads left there when I [was exchanged], and I often think, “Maybe it would have been better if I stayed there and they were let go.”

Oleksandr: “I put my hand under my head, they said I fell asleep — they pulled me out and beat me up”

Oleksandr, a serviceman in Ukraine’s National Guard, took part in the defense of Mariupol and was taken captive together with the rest of the Azovstal defenders. He was held in captivity for 20 months and was exchanged on January 31, 2024.

Before the full-scale war, I had already served in the National Guard of Ukraine under contract. When the Russians invaded, we were in the sector near Mariupol and were ordered to defend the city. At first we battled near Mariupol — the settlements of Stary Krym, Kremenivka. We rolled back deeper and deeper into the city, and after a month and a half of fighting we found ourselves at the Azovstal plant.

I was wounded at the end of March [2022] and got to the hospital, back when it had antibiotics and painkillers in stock. Later it got much worse. I could hardly walk at that time — I was wounded in the leg, head, and back, but other guys, my fellow soldiers, were still able to dig food out from under the rubble, so we managed to get supplies. And logistics were still in place — the transportation of food and everything else. And when we left Azovstal, it was impossible to enter the hospital without covering one's nose: you could recognize the “Zheleziaka” bunker by its smell alone, and the pictures there were horrifying.

Khokhol

The word stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

It was impossible to enter the hospital without covering your nose, and the pictures there were horrifying

By the time I surrendered I could move around a little. We took stretchers with the seriously wounded and went out with them. We pushed the wounded into ambulances and loaded ourselves into buses, and we were taken to Olenivka.

Khokhol

The word stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

A bus transporting the wounded Ukrainian defenders of the Azovstal plant
A bus transporting the wounded Ukrainian defenders of the Azovstal plant
Photo: REUTERS/Aleksandr Ermochenko

It was bad in Olenivka. Water was brought to us only after two or three days. The wounded guys received help from our own medics, who used the medicines and dressing materials that they were able to take with them from the leftovers in Azovstal. There were no antibiotics. Several of the guys had open wounds — there was nothing to stitch them up with, people were rotting alive.

There was little space: we slept on the floor, in the corridors — in all the rooms, wherever we could. Food was also bad: we were fed in small portions so that we would not die.

Khokhol

The word stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

Inside a building at the Olenivka corrective colony where an explosion killed more than 50 Ukrainian POWs, August 10, 2022
Inside a building at the Olenivka corrective colony where an explosion killed more than 50 Ukrainian POWs, August 10, 2022
Photo: REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

In June, they began transporting us. Some were taken to the occupied Luhansk Region, some were taken to Donetsk, some to Russia. I was first transported to Horlivka. They took me in for interrogation: they wanted to find out who had committed war crimes in Mariupol — the ones they [the Russians] themselves had committed. Criminal cases were opened, but those who faced these cases were exchanged anyway. So it turned out to be just a formality.

After Horlivka, I was transported to a [penal] colony in Russia — just before the exchange. On January 23, we were taken away. We assumed we were being taken to be exchanged, but of course we weren’t certain — they could’ve been moving us to another prison. We traveled for quite a long time, to the Rostov Region, as I understand, but it was difficult to get a sense of direction, as we were blindfolded. We were then put on board an airplane, then we landed, and then we were told: “You will not get home. The Ukrainians disrupted the exchange — they shot down the plane that flew out in front of you.” After that, we were taken to a pre-trial detention center in Taganrog.

When we arrived, they “processed” us. This involved beating us on the head, on the back of the head, on the back, on the chest. They called us all kinds of names and kicked us. They did everything they could think of. Then they locked us in cells, seven or eight people in each. Twice a day they threw us out into the corridor for so-called “inspection.” They beat us and forced us to carry out various commands: “Stand up for morning stretching,” “for inspection,” and all sorts of stuff like that.

Of course, the food was bad. There was balanda [prison soup], onion soup — unsalted, and sometimes some potatoes mixed with herring.

The slightest reason could lead to a torrent of abuse. Once I got a beating for falling asleep at the table. They dragged me out and beat me up. I just sat down and leaned on my head with my hand. They thought I'd fallen asleep.

We lived like that for a week, and then they took us to the exchange. Of course, nobody told us about it: they just came and told us to pack our things. Then they blindfolded us, tied up our hands, loaded us into police vans and brought us to the airfield. There they boarded an airplane and took us, as we later realized, to the Belgorod Region. Police vans again. In general, when you are loaded into a police van, that's a bad sign, because that can mean a new prison, and then a new one after that — more “processing” and “receptions.” Only when we were transferred over to the buses and ordered to untie our eyes and hands — that’s when we realized that we were finally being taken to the exchange.

When the Ukrainian representative came in and said: “Khloptsy, vitayu udoma!” [“Boys, welcome home!” in Ukrainian — translator’s note], we were jubilant.

Viktor: “My greatest fear is that I won’t be able to kill myself with a grenade, because dying isn’t as bad as being a Russian POW”

Viktor, a soldier who took part in the siege of Mariupol, was taken captive together with the rest of the Azovstal defenders. He was held captive for 13 months and was exchanged on June 11, 2023.

At the time of the full-scale invasion, many regions of Ukraine weren’t prepared, and so when I came to the [social services center] in Berdiansk, they couldn’t register me. They said that there were a lot of people there, and they told me to come back tomorrow. The next day, the staff of the military enlistment office and law enforcement agencies left the city without informing people about the possible occupation.

I realized that it wasn’t safe to stay at home, nor was it safe to hide in a shelter, because if I was captured by the Russians, they would realize from my documents that I was a soldier, which would mean either execution or captivity. I went towards Zaporizhzhia, I knew there was a military [enlistment office] there. That’s where I learned that Berdiansk was occupied.

I wasn’t registered at the [enlistment office] — there were no senior officers. There were 60-70 people with me at that time. We self-organized, found transport, and returned to Berdiansk. We started to engage in guerrilla warfare.

I saw how the Russians behaved in Berdiansk. They took away cars from grandmothers and grandfathers, took away bread. There was a place in the city where they gave out food, so they came up and pushed everyone away, taking everything for themselves. Once they killed a man just because he called himself a patriot. They asked him something and he replied, “Yes, I love Ukraine,” and he was shot dead right in the street. We could only watch and wait for the Ukrainian forces, but then we realized that we had to leave. And it's a miracle that at that point I managed to fool the inspectors and pass all the checkpoints.

Khokhol

The word stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

A local in Berdiansk said: “I love Ukraine” — and he was shot dead right in the street

When they didn’t enrol me in Zaporizhzhia, I wanted to just take a car and go to the guys at the line of defense. I realized that I had more experience than those who came to serve for the first time. When Mariupol was already encircled, our department gave an order to fly helicopters over the enemy air defenses — directly to Mariupol. And I decided to take part in this aerial breakthrough.

We loaded the helicopters with the necessary medicines and weapons and flew out. There were three of us — volunteers who had agreed to fly there and stay.

The already empty helicopters had to be loaded with the seriously wounded, who had no legs or arms and could die at any moment. There was no light and no equipment to help them in Mariupol. At first it worked, but then the helicopters were shot down. They shot at our helicopter, but we managed to land, unload, and take the guys out. I stayed behind and the helicopter took off and was shot down. None of the boys came home.

Khokhol

The word stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

Mariupol, April 14, 2022
Mariupol, April 14, 2022
Photo: REUTERS/Pavel Klimov

When I arrived, the boys were asking what news there was from the “mainland.” It was then that they realized they were going to die. No one thought about being taken prisoner — everyone understood what Russia was and what captivity could be like.

We had no food. The ration consisted of a pinch of porridge — no salt. There was no drinking water. We boiled water that had been standing somewhere for a long time. It was still possible to find something in abandoned houses in the city. I had a position in a burnt house. We had no artillery, no tanks, no ammunition. I saw the Russians just shooting everything they saw, so that people had no chance to stay in these houses. And I saw civilians being killed. And we were getting more and more wounded.

Khokhol

The word stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

A Russian BTR armored personnel carrier in the streets of Mariupol, April 11, 2022
A Russian BTR armored personnel carrier in the streets of Mariupol, April 11, 2022
Photo: REUTERS/Chingis Kondarov

An aerial bomb had punctured part of the ceiling in the bunker where the wounded were lying. The guys couldn't walk. Most of them had worms crawling all over them. There was no water. We had to look for it under the rubble. We would bring it to them. They would lie there and watch and realize that this was the end. There was no medicine. Even bandages were running out. Then they told us we would have to go out as prisoners. They promised that it would be for three or four months and that we would be in the Donetsk region. We would have mobile phones; we would be able to tell our relatives that we were alive. There would be hot meals and nobody would beat us. Of course, it all turned out to be a lie.

Khokhol

The word stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

We were promised that it would be for three or four months, that there would be hot meals and that no one would beat us. It all turned out to be a lie

We were thrown around the prisons, and the worst part was getting there. Three months go by, you think you’re going to Ukraine, and suddenly you’re met by thirty people, you come out and there are dogs, sticks, stun guns, and you’re beaten for four hours. You’re morally, psychologically destroyed. Some people were beaten to death.

It was more or less normal when we arrived in Olenivka. We were searched, stripped, they took some of our things, and they put us into barracks — small two-story post-Soviet buildings designed for 100-200 people. There were more than 700 of us. People slept in the bathrooms, in the entryways — one on top of the other. There was neither food nor water. Then they started to feed us a little, but with boiling water. We burned our whole mouths because we were very hungry — the food was incredibly hot, and they only gave us a minute and forty seconds to eat.

At first they only beat us when they took us away for interrogation. But when they began to [transport us to different prisons], they beat everyone all the time. It could be that three people were beaten today, ten tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow you were beaten alone.

When we woke up, they would play the Russian national anthem — we were supposed to stand in formation outside, but there was no specific order. We did not know when we would be fed, when we would be taken for interrogation. But it was tolerable, because we could talk to each other a little bit.

I know guys who were in other prisons: there they got up at 5:40 in the morning, sang the anthem and stood like that until 10pm. They had a camera pointed at them — if you tried to sit down, they would beat you up. And you could only sit down for 5-10 minutes, during which you were given something to eat. The rest of the time you had to stand.

After Olenivka I was sent to Horlivka. I was lucky here, too, because it was a place of detention in Donetsk Region, but many people were transported to Russia. We were scattered all over the place. Our POWs are held in many prisons, and everywhere we are treated much worse than the [Russian] convicts that were there already — rapists, murderers. For example, [soldiers from] Azov are often sent to [disciplinary cells], because they are abused the most.

In Horlivka, when we were first brought in, the “processing” started. They beat us for four hours — with hands, sticks, pipes — and we were attacked by dogs. We were beaten less on the head, but all over the body, and they made us sing the [Russian] national anthem.

I was in a barrack similar to the one in Olenivka, with the only difference that there were beds. It was cold in the barracks, full of unhygienic conditions, showers once a week. You were given washing soap, one bar, which is divided between three people for a month. It was impossible to wash anything. Many people had lice, scabies.

Only the food in Horlivka was a little better than in Olenivka. But it was like this: we ran in, heads down, hands behind our backs, and while we were running in they beat us. After we ate, we were supposed to say: “Thank you very much,” hand over the dishes, and run out again. While we run out, one after the other, they stand near the exit and hit us with a stick — whoever they could. You had to keep your head down. If you raised your head, you’d be beaten one by one. They’d take you away and three or four people would beat you at the same time.

In Horlivka, unlike Olenivka, there was a clear schedule. You got up at five in the morning. Then you had to quickly make your bed and run outside for “exercises” to Russian songs. Warming up your arms and neck, squats. You had to do it all. If you didn't, you'd get corporal punishment.

Then a roll-call, after which you are driven back into the barracks, and you have forty minutes of personal time before meals. For the meal, you have to form a square and walk along singing a song. We were given a list of songs to learn. You have a day or half a day to learn them. If you don't, you get beaten. We were tested randomly: they could come up suddenly and ask: “Third verse, fourth phrase” — if you didn't answer, they’d beat you.

In no case should you speak Ukrainian. There was one man who answered some questions in Ukrainian — he was taken away. He was gone for two or three hours, then he came back. He could barely walk. We didn’t ask anything, because we understood what had happened.

After we ate, there was another roll-call, then another check, and after that there was forced labor of various kinds — not every day, but occasionally. We were made to carry garbage, dig, carry bricks, things like that. Then lunch. After a few months of captivity they started to give out some books — five for three hundred people.

No one was treated particularly well. The man next to me died because of a wound in his heel. He was yellow or blue at times, puking or passing out. He would forget his date of birth, his name. He died before our eyes over the course of three months. For some time they took him to the infirmary. They stuffed his heel in some kind of rag and made him walk like that. Somehow he just passed out. We were running around him, asking for help. They picked out a medic from among us — a man who at least understood [basic medicine], but it was clear that he couldn’t do anything. The man lasted like that for a couple of days, and then he just didn't wake up. After that he lay with us for two more days. They wouldn't take him away. We would step over him, and they would laugh.

Sometimes they beat people to death. That mostly happened in the disciplinary isolation cell. We didn’t have any contact with those prisoners, but we heard their screams. Five people were beaten to death during the time we were there.

Khokhol

The word stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

Sometimes they beat people to death. That mostly happened in the disciplinary isolation cell. We didn’t have any contact with those prisoners, but we heard their screams

For the first six months I hoped for an exchange. When the number got closer to a year, I thought, “Maybe two, three more years.” I was already setting myself up for that, I didn't want to change prisons. Azov fighters changed seven or eight penal colonies, and that meant being “processed” or “received” every time. But I was lucky: I was exchanged in the 13th month. I didn’t know that it was an exchange — we had bags on our heads and they beat us on the way. We were flying all over the place, like garbage in a van.

A lot of people contemplate suicide, of course, but there's nowhere to do it and nothing to do it with. There were guys who were broken after six months; they didn't communicate with anyone, closed themselves off, sat in corners, afraid of everything, twitching. There were guys who couldn’t take it anymore and agreed to Russian citizenship, but they’re still in prison — nothing’s changed.

I’m a soldier. I’ll soon leave on rotation, and it may well happen that I may find myself in captivity again. My greatest fear is that I won’t be able to kill myself with a grenade, because dying isn’t as bad as being a Russian POW.

Khokhol

The word stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

Dying isn’t as bad as being a Russian POW

Yulia: “They beat me, put me on the table and, putting a watering can in my mouth, poured water”

Yulia, a civilian, was taken prisoner in Chistyakove (Donetsk Region, formerly known as Torez until 2016) before the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion. She spent 1 year and 8 months in captivity and was exchanged on October 17, 2022.

My husband died in 2014. When the war in Donbas started, he took us from Torez to Mariupol, but after his death I couldn't handle two children, work, and rent alone, and I had to go back to Torez, which was under Russian occupation. In 2019, I got married for the second time, and two years later, so-called “DPR” state security officers came to our house and accused me and my husband of espionage. With bags on our heads, handcuffed, we were taken to Donetsk. There, they beat us mercilessly, and then took us to “Isolation.” We stayed there for a little over a month.

During the whole time I was there, some people came to me three or four times a day and forced me to sign documents saying that I had cooperated with the SBU [Ukraine’s State Security Service]. I said that I didn’t do it and I wasn’t going to sign anything, but it was useless. They didn't care whether you were a woman or a man — after I refused, they immediately started beating me.

The last straw that broke me was the pressure through the children. When we were taken away, [the children] stayed with a friend, and one day [“DPR” security officers] came to me and told me that if I didn’t sign [a paper saying I was a spy], the children would be sent to the Amvrosievsky orphanage. They showed me documents confirming that my kids had already been registered there. I started crying. I asked: “Give the children to my friend,” and they replied: “Write up a confession of your guilt, and then we’ll allow your friend to take custody of the children.” So I forcibly signed a paper saying that I was a Ukrainian spy so that the children wouldn’t end up in an orphanage.

Khokhol

The word stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

One day they told me that if I didn’t sign a paper saying I was a spy, my children would be sent to an orphanage

What they did there was impossible to endure. I wasn't electrocuted, but a lot of people were. But they beat me, pinned me to a table and put a watering can in my mouth and poured in water.

The regime there is strict. During the day you can’t sit, nor lie down. When you wake up, you pick up stinking mattresses and then you're on your feet all day. Besides, you have to know the “DPR” anthem. And my head was not thinking straight. I couldn't learn it, because I couldn't think of anything. They went around threatening people, scaring the others, and the girls in the cell began to help me learn it.

They allowed me to walk around for up to 5-7 minutes with a bag on my head. There was a so-called “exercise yard” about five by six meters (16 by 20 feet) where you could walk back and forth. There was a metal grill on top.

Every cell was recorded, and they watched us all the time. If we didn't violate the order established by them, they didn't touch us. It was mostly investigators from the “DPR” that beat us when they visited. On the first day when we were brought in, the same investigative department instructed the guards to beat us — me and my husband — because we refused to say anything and didn’t understand what was going on. I was beaten badly, and I can still hear my husband's screams. It was all pretty standard — they put your back against the wall and beat you, and you have no right to defend yourself, because then the blows will be stronger.

At the same time, you always have a bag on your head — you can't take it off without permission. When I was beaten for the first time and taken to the cell, only the girls who were already there took it off. When I first tried to do it myself, they hit me hard and told me I couldn't do that. And when they opened the cell, I had to immediately take the bag and put it on. I endured all that until I was transferred to the detention center in Donetsk. I was there for a year and seven months before I was exchanged.

Khokhol

The word stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

When they opened the cell, I had to immediately take a bag and put it on myself

There was no such abuse in Donetsk. Everyone was transferred from one cell to another from time to time. There were six people in the first cell, eight in the second, six in the third, and fourteen in the last. It was the political cell, as we called it, because it was used to herd in all the “spies” and “terrorists.” It was filled up after the start of the full-scale war. This cell was in the corner of the prison. We thought that they put us there because they had no mercy for us. If there was an incoming attack, it would be better for us to die than for the convicts.

The food was disgusting. There were days when you could eat it, and there were days when you couldn't. Those who had been taken before the full-scale war were allowed parcels from outside, and those who they arrested after February 24 [the date of Russia’s invasion] had no such opportunity.

You could wash once a month in the common bathhouse. You were led through a guard post, where the wardens — both men and women — stood watching over you. Changing rooms were on one side, showers on the other, and you were naked, everyone [was] looking at you. There was nothing to cover yourself with, no towels.

I still can't believe that I actually went through all that. To them, knocking a man's teeth out means nothing. Stripping a woman naked and poking at her means nothing. I know women who have had electric shocks to their genitals. How can these people go home and hug their loved ones after doing things like that?

How Russia violates international law

Data on the number of Ukrainians in captivity vary widely. According to the most recent available report of the Ministry for the Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, over 4,000 Ukrainians are being held by Russia. Of these, more than 3,000 are military and close to 1,000 are civilians. However, on February 25, 2024, Dmytro Lubinets, the Verkhovna Rada’s Commissioner for Human Rights, claimed that 28,000 Ukrainian civilians were being held by Russia as POWs.

The Third Geneva Convention stipulates the establishment of reference bureaus cataloging enemy soldiers taken prisoner, thus allowing for relatives to submit official requests for information about their loved ones. Not only does Russia refuse to create such a system, it also violates the right of prisoners to communicate with their relatives. Even the Red Cross is often kept in the dark about the identity, quantity, and conditions of Ukrainian POWs.

In December 2023, the UN General Assembly for the first time used the concept of “civilian hostages” to refer to Ukrainians “detained” by Russia. The language appeared in a resolution titled “Situation of human rights in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine, including the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.” The term “civilian hostages” is appropriate, as the Russian authorities, who call their full-scale war a “special military operation,” often do not provide “detained” Ukrainians the rights they are entitled to under the Geneva Conventions. As lawyer Nikolai Polozov, founder of the humanitarian initiative “Poshuk. Polon” (lit. “Search. Captivity” in Ukrainian) told The Insider:

“It is very difficult to find both military and civilian [POWs] because the Russian side keeps Ukrainian prisoners of war separately from other prisoners: they have separate enclosures, separate convoys to escort them to investigations or courts. We have been searching for civilians for a year and a half, and all through incredible efforts, because the Russian authorities are doing everything not to disclose their names, their whereabouts, their legal status — [they share] nothing. They do not allow representatives of the Red Cross Committee, just as they didn’t allow a commission to investigate the terrorist attack in Olenivka.”

It is this concealment of information that allows the Russian side to treat Ukrainian prisoners as it pleases. The official position of the Kremlin denies the war, and the “gray zone” in which the prisoners find themselves obliterates legal boundaries, practically placing the POWs “behind the law.”

Khokhol

The word stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

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