Inside Russia’s war camps: Ukrainian POWs detail torture, abuse

·7 min read

An activist-turned-soldier whose fingers were mangled by metal tools. Women photographed naked and forced to hold their hands above their heads or be beaten. Hospitalized prisoners of war mocked, threatened and left to die.

The Hill spoke to a half dozen former prisoners of war and their families this month about what life was like for those captured by Russian forces since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine more than four months ago.

Thousands of Ukrainians have been detained during the war, with many being exchanged for Russian prisoners of war and set free. Among them was Igor Kurayan, a 55-year-old Ukrainian activist who joined the fight against Russia and was captured in April.

He said Russian soldiers discovered that he had been running supplies to Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines since 2014, when Russia took over Crimea, and accused him of financing terrorist organizations and preparing a terrorist attack on Russian soldiers.

During weeks in Russian captivity, Kurayan said soldiers beat and electrocuted him for information, and twisted and cut his fingers using pliers and metal scissors. Other prisoners were beaten so badly they died, he added.

“Every day he would be called out for the torturing and they wanted him to hand over his friends,” said a translator with PR Army, an organization that helped connect the former POWs to The Hill and translate interviews.

“They even offered for him to become mayor of Kherson but he refused all their offers,” he added.

The Russian forces also allegedly took Kurayan’s phone and used his social media accounts to post previous photos he took with Ukrainian forces, but adding captions making it appear that he was advocating for Ukrainian forces to surrender to Russia.

Kurayan’s daughter, Karina, provided screenshots of some of the posts Russian soldiers made on her father’s account to The Hill. Kurayan deleted all the posts as soon as he was exchanged and free from Russian captivity.

While Russian forces kept some captured Ukrainian soldiers in Ukraine, others were transported to Russia.

Anzhelika Todorashko, 32, said her mother, a Ukrainian soldier, and her sister, a civilian, were captured by Russian forces shortly after the invasion began.

Russian soldiers were able to quickly take over her small village near the Russian border, cutting off all supplies to the town and encouraging residents to take a bus to Russia, where they would be sent to a “filtration camp,” according to Todorashko, who spoke English.

She said her mother, 52-year-old Viktoria, was captured in February for her work with the Ukrainian army, then taken to Russia where she said she was electrocuted, photographed naked, given little food and water, and heard screams from other prisoners asking for death.

Todorashko said the Russian soldiers would humiliate prisoners, with her mother telling her that prisoners had to hold their hands above their head for hours a day, and if they dropped their hands they would be beaten. Soldiers also shaved the heads of the women and suffocated others.

“[Russia] had all their people in masks. You will never see their faces,” Todorashko said.

Viktoria was released weeks after being imprisoned and taken to a Ukrainian hospital only for Todorashko’s sister, Valeria, to be captured in March for 10 days as Russians worked to find any evidence she was working for the Ukrainian forces, Todorashko added.

She was released when Russia couldn’t find any evidence of such activities.

The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to questions from The Hill about the abuse and torture described by former Ukrainian prisoners.

Twenty-five-year-old Hlib Stryszko told The Hill he was defending a bomb shelter in Mariupol shielding women and children when he was wounded by Russian forces.

He said he was standing on a third-floor balcony when he saw a Russian tank approaching the building. The tank fired at him, causing him to fall from the third floor with debris collapsing on top of him.

Stryszko was taken to the hospital where he found out he broke his pelvis, was unable to open his eyes and injured his jaw. He said he received treatment for his injuries, but two days later Russian forces took over the hospital and was transferred to another hospital where doctors refused to treat anyone speaking Ukrainian.

Even after speaking Russian, Stryszko said he was hardly treated for the injuries he sustained during the blast.

“He said that he spent about a week in the hospital without receiving the necessary help or treatment,” Natasha Sennett, another translator from the PR Army, said of Stryszko. “Basically, they were kind of sarcastically coming up to him every morning, saying ‘Hey, hang in there soldier, maybe something will come up for you.’”

Along with the limited treatment, Stryszko said music would be blasted at the soldiers and Chechen fighters, notorious for their ruthlessness, would come into the hospital and taunt the injured.

“They will take out their knives and take the knife and start grazing the knife on the wounded soldiers’ bodies,” Sennett said.

Stryszko said he was eventually transported to Russia, where authorities realized he couldn’t be sent to prison due to his condition. He was eventually transported to Russian-controlled Crimea, where he was exchanged and brought to a Ukrainian hospital, where he is still recovering.

Family members, meanwhile, went weeks not knowing whether their loved ones were dead or alive.

“It was hell on earth,” Karina, the daughter of Kurayan, said in an interview, assisted by translator Natsya Popandopulos, another member of the nonprofit PR Army, which works to share the stories of Ukrainians with the world.

Only Karina, who is currently in the United Kingdom, could speak out about her father’s captivity, with family members fearing their own freedom and livelihood if they spoke out.

Todorashko, whose mother and sister were captured, said she was unaware her mother was captured by Russian forces until she was released and able to contact her. She only learned of her sister’s captivity because her younger brother, who was in the village with her sister, was able to hide a phone and message her.

Todorashko’s brother had to hide the device because Russian soldiers would go into homes and take anything they wanted, including phones and laptops, according to Todorashko.

“It was terrifying. It was terrifying,” Todorashko told The Hill of not being in communication with her mom and sister for so long amid the war.

For Ukrainians in Russia-annexed Crimea, the fear and abuse was nothing new.

Volodymyr Balukh, a 51-year-old activist, said he saw his home in Crimea overrun by Russian forces in 2014. He refused to obey orders by the soldiers, continuing to fly his Ukrainian flag and switching from speaking Russian to Ukrainian.

He said he was running food and supplies to the Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines for years as he was arrested multiple times by Russian forces, who eventually planted ammunition and explosives at his house in an attempt to frame him as a terrorist.

Balukh then spent three years in prison from 2016 to 2019, where he says Russian soldiers waterboarded him, stripped him naked, electrocuted him, threatened him with rape and gave him limited food.

“In captivity, there is a struggle for modesty to preserve your honor and dignity every second, 24 hours,” said Popandopulos, one of the translators, relaying Balukh’s words. “The Russian system is built to push everything, every human being from yourself and feel only fear.”

Today, Balukh is still trying to assist Ukraine’s war efforts and has been working to raise money for vehicles needed to defend its territory.

After his time in Russian captivity, he had some advice to share for Ukrainians who find themselves under Russian control.

“Endurance, faith and steadfastness are very important in captivity,” Popandopulos said for Balukh. “It’s important to know, what are you fighting for? What are you living for?”

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