oDR: Investigation

Ukrainian prisoners of war reveal torture and humiliation in Russian jails

Two men who were taken captive, deported and imprisoned have told openDemocracy of their ordeal

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Kateryna Semchuk
13 July 2022, 12.00am

Danylo Melnyk with his prosthetics at a Kyiv hospital

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Diana Poladova

Two Ukrainian prisoners of war who were released from Russian jails in April have told openDemocracy about the terrible conditions they faced – including systematic torture and other violations of their human rights.

Little is known about the conditions in which Russia is holding Ukrainians. More than 7,000 Ukrainian military personnel and 1,500 civilians are currently in captivity there, Ukrainian officials say.

According to former captives and Ukrainian authorities, detainees are usually held in prisons close to Russia’s border with Ukraine: in the Kursk, Rostov and Bryansk regions.

The Russian authorities deny that they have forcefully deported and imprisoned Ukrainian civilians.

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Ukraine’s military intelligence and civilian security services control prisoner exchanges with Russia, and rarely share information with the media to prevent this sensitive process from being disrupted.

Detainees’ relatives receive scant information, and face an agonising wait to find out if their loved ones are among those who have been handed back to Ukraine in such exchanges.

Sasha Cherniak – a civilian on his way home

On 24 February, the day of the Russian invasion, Sasha Cherniak had to deliver cash from a sale to his workplace in Havronshchyna – a village west of Kyiv – so his colleagues could get paid.

The 39-year-old has been a driver for a cargo equipment sales company for six years. He lives in Dmytrivka, 20km away. Both villages were occupied in the days following the invasion.

With no buses running, Cherniak and his colleagues spent four days in the office as the Russian army advanced towards Kyiv. The group lived mainly off boxes of apples they found in the basement and drank vodka from a local shop.

On the morning of 28 February, Cherniak decided to walk home. His route took him past a golf club – where Russian troops had installed themselves.

“When I approached the gate, they fired two warning shots at my feet,” he told openDemocracy. “Then one [soldier] jumped out and grabbed me by the scruff of the neck. Another started hitting me in the ribs, and another on the back of my head, with the butt of a gun. They shouted at me, tied up my hands and legs, pulled my hat over my eyes and wrapped it with duct tape so that I couldn’t see.”

He was then interrogated and beaten.

Sasha Cherniak

Sasha Cherniak standing outside his place of work

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Kateryna Semchuk

“They stroked me with the barrel of the gun on the neck, hands and legs, saying: ‘We will blow your knees and elbows out.’

“They thought I was a ‘spotter’ [a person responsible for directing artillery and mortar fire on to a target] because, an hour before I’d left work, we’d seen a helicopter shot down, like in a movie. They didn’t listen when I said that I was a civilian, that I was going home.”

Cherniak and other captives from the Makariv district were taken to an unknown destination in a helicopter. At this military base, he was blindfolded, but managed to speak to other detainees, from Hostomel and Kyiv.

Civil prosecutors interrogated the captives, in a tent, three or four times a day. Cherniak said he was only untied during these sessions. The rest of the time, he had to beg to be taken to the toilet while being held at gunpoint.

Cherniak was repeatedly asked the same questions about being a spotter, while someone pressed the barrel of a rifle into his neck and fired shots with the safety catch still on.

“‘Are you a bandera? [Ukrainian nationalist whose name is currently used as a slur by Russians] If you’re a Nazi, you’ll be dead.’ Klotz, klotz, klotz. [Cherniak’s description of the sound of an empty shot]. ‘If you lie, we will remove the safety.’ Klotz.

‘Welcome torture’ in Kursk

A couple of weeks later, on 14 March, Cherniak was sent to a pre-trial detention centre in Kursk, near Russia’s border with Ukraine. He and other Ukrainian captives were subjected to “welcome torture”, he says, probably to make them understand what awaited them.

After being sent to the shower and having their heads shaved, the captives were sent one by one, still naked, to a cell where two men were waiting. The room was painted green and had a small window with bars.

One man had a boxing glove, the other held a taser. Cherniak was tasered in the neck and then several times in the back. He was ordered to repeat a hard-to-pronounce phrase in Russian (“Hero-city, holder of the Order of Lenin, ever-giving blowjobs Kursk Central”) within ten seconds to avoid being punched. As he did, he was constantly tasered.

When the taser’s battery ran out, the man put in a new one. Fellow captives later told Cherniak that the same man had used two batteries on them.

Cherniak was held in a cell with 22 beds. The other prisoners came from Kyiv and nearby towns; their ages ranged from 18 to 72. Later, border guards and a farmer were brought in.

Every day, the interrogators picked names from a list and took the men to the green room to torture them. He says the violence was constant and that Ukrainian captives were beaten at the slightest opportunity.

The guards seemed to enjoy humiliating the Ukrainians by making them sing Russian songs

The guards seemed to enjoy humiliating the Ukrainians by making them sing Russian songs. At 6am, they had to get up, bend down very low and sing the Russian national anthem while facing the floor. After breakfast, they were forced to sing songs dedicated to Vladimir Putin in the same position.

“They liked us to sing,” Cherniak recalled. “If someone didn’t bend at 90 degrees, he’d be kicked in the chest.”

Cherniak spent one month and four days in the Kursk prison. Then, one morning, the guards gave him some bread and told him to pack his things.

He was flown with other captives to Sevastopol in Crimea, and then to the Zaporizhzhia region of southern Ukraine. On 18 April, he was freed as part of a prisoner exchange, alongside 15 other civilians and 60 soldiers.

Danylo Melnyk – a badly injured soldier

When injured chief platoon sergeant Danylo Melnyk was captured on 10 March, Russian soldiers believed he was unlikely to survive the night.

Melnyk, a member of the 14th Separate Mechanised Brigade, had been badly hurt two days previously in a battle in Dmytrivka – the village Cherniak lives in. He lay in a freezing cold pantry for two days.

Although he’d lost a lot of blood, the 19-year-old made it through the night – with a little help from a Russian field medic who gave him antibiotic shots and fed him from a spoon.

They threatened to stuff a machine gun up my butt. They repeated the TV propaganda about Nazis and that we kill kids

Despite being seriously wounded, he was interrogated. “They thought I was a NATO representative because my military uniform resembled a NATO one, and we were armed with NLAWs and Javelins [weapons supplied to Ukraine by the West],” he said.

“They threatened to stuff a machine gun up my butt. They repeated the TV propaganda about Nazis and that we kill kids. When I swore at them, they fired gunshots near me, which could have killed me.”

Melnyk was then transported to Belarus, where he was held in the basement of an unidentified facility, before being taken to Rylsk hospital in Russia.

Melnyk received better treatment in the Russian healthcare system than Cherniak did in prison. He remembers a surgeon from the Rylsk hospital who amputated his left hand and the frozen fingers on his right hand, and elderly orderlies who brought him homemade jam.

“The surgeon would visit the ward in the morning and say: ‘Good morning, Nazis and banderas.’ He brought us sausages and gave me a cross. His nurses ratted on him to the FSB [the Russian security service, successor to the KGB], but he still helped captives. A very, very nice man.”

On 18 March, Melnyk was moved to Kursk – where he nearly ended up in the pre-trial detention centre where Sasha Cherniak was being held. But Kursk medics refused to transfer him, as he needed medical care. Instead, he was sent to a civilian hospital in Kursk.

Waiting in a car in front of the Kursk prison, Melnyk recalls hearing how Ukrainian captives were beaten “the minute a person entered the gates”.

“I thought it was the end for me. Thank god they didn’t take me,” Melnyk recalled.

One day, Melynk says, he and others in the Kursk hospital were casually asked if they wanted to go back to Ukraine. He returned home as part of a prisoner exchange on 21 April.

‘Outside of Russian law’

It is notoriously hard for lawyers to get access to Ukrainian captives in Russia.

Russian lawyer Irina Biriukova specialises in the protection of detainees mistreated by Russian law enforcement agencies. In late April, she tried to visit a Ukrainian civilian – Viktoria Andrusha, a 25-year-old maths teacher from the Chernihiv region – who she believed was being held in the Kursk pre-trial prison.

Biriukova visited the prison to find out the reasons for Andrusha’s detention and details of the court order (mandatory for anyone in pre-trial detention in Russia).

After a prison officer failed to find Andrusha in the prisoners’ database, Biuriukova was sent to the prison warden’s office – a sign, she said, that access to the teacher would be difficult.

The prison warden examined her documents and then started asking questions. “I got the impression that he was trying to see what I knew, ” Biuriukova said.

Finally, the warden told the lawyer that “no such person [was] among suspects and defendants” at the centre. This suggested that Andrusha might be detained – but without any formal status.

Biriukova says Ukrainians in Russian captivity are, in effect, “outside of Russian law” and that neither lawyers nor public organisations are allowed to visit them. Several Russian lawyers have attempted to visit Ukrainian captives in Russia, she says, but without success.

The search for missing relatives

Both Melnyk and Cherniak were regarded as missing while in Russian captivity. Melnyk’s sister and brother were actively looking for him, but his unit, the 14th Brigade, refused to provide any information and stopped responding to their phone calls.

Many Ukrainians find themselves in a similar situation. Once they have exhausted all official options, they turn to groups on Facebook and Telegram.

“These groups have become indispensable,” says Andriy, who asked us not to publish his surname. Andriy’s Facebook group, dedicated to the search for missing persons, has 37,000 users. People post photos of their missing relatives; others post screenshots from Russian propaganda videos of Ukrainian captives to help identify them.

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Since returning from Russia, following frostbite, Melnyk has had both his legs amputated below the knee. When we met, he was still in a Kyiv hospital, learning how to walk with prosthetics. His spirits are high and he plans to become a military psychologist.

As for Cherniak, memories of his captivity are still fresh and his hands still bear visible scars from being bound. It’s nice to see that after being stripped of all dignity for more than a month, he is back home and at his old job. On the surface, he is fine, although what he went through cannot be erased.

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