KYIV, Ukraine — On the night he was freed in a prisoner exchange, a Ukrainian soldier snapped a photo of his right hand.
The bruising was only the most visible evidence of the beatings he endured during his three weeks as a prisoner of war in Russia.
“All of my body looked like this,” he said.
At the family farm where he was recovering, the 45-year-old army volunteer accused Russia of torturing Ukrainian war prisoners.
Dressed in an olive Armed Forces of Ukraine T-shirt, he told Global News he endured physical, sexual and mental abuse following his capture north of Kyiv.
“They used electricity,” he explained in his first interview since he was part of a group of Ukrainian defence force members swapped for Russian prisoners.
“They beat some until they were not able to live,” he said, “and not with a goal to receive some kind of information, but for pleasure.”
Ukrainian soldiers released in prisoner exchanges are beginning to speak out about the torture they say they suffered at the hands of their Russian captors.
Beatings, electrocutions, threats and withholding medical attention are among the allegations former prisoners have levelled against the Russian forces that invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
A Ukrainian medic captured during Russia’s siege of Mariupol described the conditions of her detention as “similar to a concentration camp.”
No medical care was provided, and prisoners were not allowed to contact their families, Yulia Payevska wrote on Facebook following her release last week.
She apologized for not posting a selfie because she had lost so much weight and said she was under the care of doctors.
Olha Reshetylova, the co-founder of the Media Initiative for Human Rights, accused Russia of sweeping up Ukrainians to use as bargaining chips.
“A lot of Ukrainian prisoners of war are in very, very bad conditions,” she said. “Many of them are wounded. Many of them were tortured.”
“And we have to try and help them, and what is also very important is we don’t know about many of them.”
It has proven challenging to confirm who is being held or even how many Ukrainians are in custody, she said. Russia does not provide lists of its wartime prisoners.
“We just have a list of missing people, and we don’t know, are they in Russian captivity? Are they dead already? And Russia doesn’t give us any information about them.”
The prisoner exchange process is also so opaque that it’s not clear which Ukrainian and Russian officials are responsible or what procedures they are following, Reshetylova said.
Ukrainian authorities said they were committed to freeing their prisoners. “We will keep working to liberate everyone,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said Friday following Payevska’s release.
Russia violating Geneva Conventions
Russia has imprisoned Ukrainian activists, local government authorities and journalists but most are captured troops and civil defence volunteers like the former POW who spoke to Global News.
In an interview, he said he feared members of his unit still imprisoned could face retribution if his identity was known, but said he had promised them he would speak up about the conditions of their detention.
A resident of Bucha, he said he was working for a government agency when Russian forces crossed the border four months ago to begin their disastrous invasion of Ukraine.
He enlisted that same day, although he had not been in the army since the mid-1990s when he turned 18 and served two years of compulsory military duty.
Four weeks into the war, his patrol became surrounded in a wooded area north of Kyiv. A hand grenade exploded, and fragments hit the backs of his legs.
Holed up in an industrial building, the Ukrainian volunteers held out for 12 hours, but they were outgunned, and with 11 wounded, they decided to surrender.
The Russian soldiers loaded them onto prisoner transport vehicles and drove them north across the border to Belarus, where they underwent an initial round of questioning.
After two days, they were flown to Kursk, a Russian city about 500 kilometres south of Moscow, where they were taken to a detention centre, forced to kneel and kicked, he said.
The Russians filmed the beatings with their phones, laughed and called them Nazis, he said. They accused them of eating Russian children, killing Russians and banning the Russian language.
“They’re looking for Nazis here, but we are just people who love our land,” he said. “In reality, half of my friends are Russian-speaking, and I myself speak Russian very fluently,” he said, responding to what he called the “nonsense” spouted by his captors.
Under the Geneva Conventions, prisoners of war must be treated humanely and protected from violence, torture, and reprisals. They must also receive medical attention.
But the Russians refused to treat the wounded, forcing the Ukrainians to fashion bandages out of toilet paper and bed sheets, the former prisoner said.
The beatings were so severe that his leg wounds re-opened and became infected, he said.
“International law is not working there, and no one is following the Geneva Conventions.”
During dozens of interrogations, he said, the prisoners were questioned about their backgrounds while the Russians abused them with electricity and dogs.
Their genitals were also struck, he said, and they were also forced to sing Russia’s national anthem.
Through it all, they were told Ukraine did not exist as a nation and that it was, and would always be, part of the Russian empire.
“They didn’t speak to us like we were humans,” he said.
Ukraine is also holding Russian war prisoners, but far fewer. About 600 Russians are in Ukrainian custody, about a 10th of the number Moscow says it is holding.
Many of them have appeared on the YouTube channel of Volodymyr Zolkin. A Kyiv journalist and blogger before the war, he responded to President Vladimir Putin’s invasion by turning his camera on Russian POWs.
He also began contacting their mothers to tell them their sons were alive and had been captured, a process he said had pressured Moscow to conduct prisoner swaps.
“It’s how it works,” he said.
“We don’t know how they are treating our soldiers in Russia. We saw only video,” Zolkin added. “I’ve seen videos of torture, and we also can see on the videos that they are forcing them to say things.”
The Russians are also holding citizens of other countries, notably two Britons sentenced to death and two Americans captured while fighting with the Ukrainian forces.
The Kremlin has said the Geneva Conventions did not apply to them since they were “soldiers of fortune.”
Once the Russians had investigated his professional background, the Ukrainian prisoner who spoke to Global News said they tried to put him to work in an occupied city, but he refused.
He was then handcuffed, blindfolded and flown to another location in Russia where he lived in a cell with 170 others and was again beaten, this time by Chechens.
His legs were so badly infected that he developed a fever, he said.
In early April, he said, the Chechens brought him into a room, held him at gunpoint and told him that either his nose or ear would be cut off and that he should choose.
Rather than playing along, he said his last words. They beat him and called him a pig, and while he appealed to them, explaining the common features of their religions, he got nowhere, he said.
He thought the Chechens were preparing to execute him, and he began to cry. Instead, he was handcuffed, blindfolded and taken to Zaporizhzhia.
He and the other prisoners were let out on the road and told to walk single file, while the Russian prisoners walked in the other direction on the opposite side of the road.
The Ukrainian military was waiting with buses that took them to a first aid station a few kilometres away, where his leg was treated, along with head and neck injuries caused by torture.
Two months later, he said he had undergone surgery and rehabilitation. He still struggles, mentally and physically, he said. He can’t sit for long because of the beatings he took.
Rather than return to his wife and children, he said he would rejoin the army and do everything in his power to secure the release of the soldiers captured with him who remain in Russia.
“I’m waiting for my boys to come back alive,” he said.
“This is everything.”