It is unclear how many prisoners of war there are on the Ukrainian and Russian sides. Last Wednesday, however, the two countries exchanged 144 soldiers as part of a prisoner exchange. Two young Ukrainians now report the torment they had to endure.
Glib Strishko is defending a building in the embattled Ukrainian city of Mariupol on April 10 when he turns and sees a tank aimed at him from the third floor. “The peculiarity of tank shells is that you don’t hear them coming. It’s sudden,” the 25-year-old Ukrainian told NBC News.
The next thing he remembers, he’s buried under rubble with a broken jaw and pelvis. His comrades save him, but with Mariupol sealed off by Russian troops, there is no escape. To save his life, he turns himself in to the Russian soldiers. He is taken to a Separatist-controlled hospital.
“We weren’t treated seriously. My roommates had shrapnel in their bodies. The Russians didn’t even pull them out – they just re-bandaged the wounds and the limbs continued to rot,” says Strischko. In addition to the physical pain, the injured prisoners also had to endure mental pressure.
A Russian soldier would have drilled them into forgetting everything Ukrainian. “You will only get help if you ask in Russian,” the marine told CNN. Likewise, a nurse in a hospital in Donetsk, to which Strishko was later transferred, would have played her mind games with him. She would have known perfectly well that he could not eat without help and always left the food next to his bed. “Then the nurse came back and said, ‘So you’re done?’ and took the food away,” the 25-year-old recalls in an interview with “GLB News”.
In addition, Russian news was read to the bedridden prisoners in the morning, at noon and in the evening. “It put a lot of pressure on the mind, it was a distortion of reality,” says the Ukrainian soldier.
The Ukrainian prisoners also felt the anger of the nurses. “My son was killed because of you,” a nurse is said to have accused him. “I tried to be understanding, but they accused us of things we didn’t do,” said Strischko.
Meanwhile, a security guard almost acted out his revenge fantasies on him. He would have stroked Strischko’s skin with a knife, but without cutting him. “I would like to cut off your ear or cut you like you Ukrainians do to our prisoners,” the guard threatened. However, nothing happened to the 25-year-old – after all, he was supposed to be exchanged for a Russian soldier. After three weeks as a prisoner of war, the marines were finally flown to the Crimea and taken from there to a hospital in Zaporizhia, which is under Ukrainian control.
Michailo is among the former prisoners of war who were exchanged. He hadn’t even completed his military training when Russian troops attacked Hostomel airport near Kyiv on February 25. Nevertheless, the 20-year-old Ukrainian and his unit have no choice: they have to defend the strategically important airport on the outskirts of the capital. After intense fighting, they finally surrender and are captured by Russian troops.
In the days that followed, the soldiers were held at various locations near the airport. There is little food, reports Michailo in an interview with “NBC News”. For security reasons, he does not want to give his last name. They would only have been given a spoonful of oatmeal and a few tablespoons of water per day. The Russian soldiers explained that they too were in short supply of food.
Finally, the prisoners were moved to a “very cold” cold meat room. They then went via further stations to Kursk in Russia, where they had to sleep in tents for five nights in temperatures around freezing before they were transferred to a detention center. There they should have sung the Russian national anthem every day.
“They took away our uniforms, beat us, put us in cells and started interrogating us,” says Michailo. The Russian soldiers wanted to know what kind of weapons the Ukrainian military had. They asked in particular about US Stinger and Javelin missiles. “But we didn’t have that,” said the 20-year-old.
Some prisoners were said to have been subjected to particularly severe violence – especially those who had tattooed Ukrainian symbols. A fellow Ukrainian prisoner said that he had been beaten in the kidneys and face several times for an hour. “When he slept, he moaned all night,” says Michailo. “We wanted to help him somehow, but we couldn’t do anything.” At the end of April, the 20-year-old was finally exchanged for a Russian soldier.
Both his and Gilb Strischko’s statements cannot be independently verified.
More on the topic: “We were deceived”: Russian prisoners of war in Ukraine