ODESA, Ukraine — Torture, beatings and neglect: Ukrainian servicemen captured during the Russian invasion may be lucky to be back home alive, but their physical and emotional scars could plague them for years .
One such soldier is Mykhaylo, 20, who said he had not completed his military training when attack helicopters swarmed Hostomel airport near the national capital, Kyiv, where he was preparing to be deployed. It was February 25, the day after the Russian invasion.
After an intense battle, he said his battle party had no choice but to surrender and he was taken prisoner. He told NBC News that he and his comrades were held in a few locations around the airport before being moved to a bomb shelter at a fire station. He was detained with soldiers and civilians, 34 people in total, he said. The oldest prisoner was a 70-year-old man, who was taken prisoner after admitting to having military identification, he said.
“Everyone was beaten,” said Mykhaylo who, like many other soldiers, asked that his last name be withheld for security reasons as he planned to join the fight once he was done. recover.
After capture, he said, “food was scarce” and prisoners of war were only given a spoonful of oatmeal and a few tablespoons of water a day. The Russians “explained this by the fact that they also lacked provisions”, he said at the Forest Valley rehabilitation center on the outskirts of Kyiv.
Mykahlo is not alone. On Wednesday, 144 Ukrainian soldiers were freed in the largest prisoner swap since the start of the war. There have been several prisoner exchanges, Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, known by the acronym GUR, said in a statement on Telegram. Although neither side gives exact figures, both sides are believed to have captured thousands of people during the four-month war.
Although they initially lost control of Hostomel airport, a key starting point for a Russian attack on Kyiv, Ukrainian forces were eventually able to retake it and then push the invading troops out of the area around of the capital. But it was too late for Mykahlo, who said he had already been captured.
“The Russians intended to extract information,” said Mykhaylo, who said he spent two months in captivity before being released in the prisoner swap.
“They wanted to know what kind of weapons they had, especially the American Stinger and Javelin missiles,” he said. “But we didn’t have that.”
Days later, Mykhaylo said the prisoners were moved to a “very cold” meat storage fridge before being bussed to neighboring Belarus, a close Russian ally, and then airlifted to Kursk. in Russia. There, he said, they spent five nights in freezing temperatures in a tent before being transferred to a detention center in the city.
“They took our uniforms from us, beat us, put us in cells and started interrogating us,” he said, adding that every morning they were regularly forced to sing the Russian national anthem.
In many ways, however, Mykhaylo said he was lucky compared to some of the other prisoners, civilian and military, who suffered far worse sentences.
He said one of his fellow prisoners told him “they beat him on the kidneys, they beat him in the face, wherever they could for an hour”.
“When he slept, he moaned all night long,” he added. “We wanted to help him somehow, but there was nothing we could do.”
Others who had tattoos with Ukrainian symbols “were beaten very badly”, he said.
Ukrainian sailor Hlib Stryzhko, 25, was among the fighters defending Mariupol, a city whose treatment by Russian forces before its fall sparked disgust and outrage around the world and became a symbol of the Kremlin’s excesses.
Speaking from his bed at Forest Valley Rehabilitation Centre, he said he was defending a building on April 10 when he turned his head and “saw a tank aiming at me”.
“The special thing about tank bombing is that you don’t hear them coming,” he said. “It’s instant.”
Then the “dust blinded my eyes”, he said, adding that it “started falling from the third floor onto the ground and the rubble started falling on top of me and covering me”.
He said he broke his pelvis and jaw and lost sight in his left eye. Although he was rescued by his comrades, with no way out of Mariupol, he said the only way to save his life was to be transferred to Russian detention.
Stryzhko said he was taunted, denied medical treatment and given just enough food to keep him alive in the Russian medical facility.
“My neighborhood neighbors had shrapnel in their bodies. The Russians didn’t even take them out – they were just licking their wounds and their limbs just kept rotting,” he said.
International law protects prisoners of war, with the Geneva Conventions decreeing that they must be treated humanely, protected against acts of violence, as well as intimidation and insults. The detaining power is also required to provide evacuated prisoners of war with sufficient food and water, as well as the necessary clothing and medical care.
The Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on allegations of mistreatment of captured Ukrainian soldiers.
Olena Vysotska, Ukraine’s deputy justice minister, said prisoner exchanges take place once or twice a month.
“We are very interested in such exchanges, because we are very focused on saving the lives of our servicemen. Sometimes the people exchanged are civilians, because the war is taking place in our territory,” she said.
Mykhaylo and Stryzhko were released at the end of April.
After being airlifted to a military airfield in Crimea, 18 days after his transfer to Russia, Stryzhko said he was told he was going to be exchanged before being roughly loaded onto a military truck and taken to a Zaporizhzhia hospital under Ukrainian control.
“The driver of this truck came over, punched my chest and said to us, ‘Relax guys now, you’re in Ukraine,'” he said. “And at that moment I started crying. I was very happy.”