Many Ukrainian prisoners of war show signs of trauma and sexual violence

The Ukrainian marine infantryman endured nine months of physical and psychological torture as a Russian prisoner of war, but was given only three months of rest and rehabilitation before being sent back to his unit.

The infantryman, who asked to be identified only by his call sign, Smiley, willingly returned to duty. But it was only when he underwent intense combat training in the following weeks that the depth and extent of his wounds, both psychological and physical, began to emerge.

“I started having flashbacks and nightmares,” he said. “I only slept two hours and woke up with my sleeping bag soaking wet.” He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and referred for psychological treatment, and he is still receiving treatment.

Ukraine is just beginning to understand the lasting effects of the trauma its POWs experienced during Russian captivity, but it has not treated them adequately and returned them to duty too soon, say former prisoners, officials and psychologists who have familiarity with individual cases.

Nearly 3,000 Ukrainian prisoners of war have been released by Russia as part of prisoner exchanges since the invasion began in 2022. More than 10,000 people remain in Russian custody, some of whom have endured two years of conditions that an expert on United Nations described it as horrible.

The Ukrainian government's rehabilitation program, which usually involves two months in a sanatorium and a month at home, is inadequate, critics say, and the traumas suffered by Ukrainian prisoners grow with the length and severity of the abuse they are subjected to. the war drags on.

Russia's torture of prisoners of war has been well documented by the United Nations, with former detainees speaking of incessant beatings, electric shocks, rape, sexual violence and mock executions, with one expert describing it as political systematic, approved by the state. . Many inmates also reported persistent symptoms such as fainting and fainting resulting from repeated blows to the head severe enough to cause concussions.

Ukraine's Prosecutor General, Andriy Kostin, said in September that “about 90 percent of Ukrainian prisoners of war were subjected to torture, rape, threats of sexual violence or other forms of ill-treatment.”

The Russian military did not respond to requests for comment on allegations of mistreatment of Ukrainian prisoners of war.

Most of the released prisoners returned to active duty after about three months of rest and rehabilitation, as the Ukrainian army, short of front-line troops, granted relatively few medical exemptions to former prisoners of war.

A law passed this month will allow former prisoners of war to choose whether to return to duty or be discharged from the military, recognizing that many have been subjected to severe mental and physical torture and require prolonged rehabilitation. Ukrainian officials acknowledged there had been problems providing sufficient care to former prisoners, but said they had now developed special centers for them using international best practices.

Ukrainian prosecutors have identified 3,000 former military and civilian prisoners who can serve as witnesses for a case they are building for Ukrainian courts to charge Russian individuals and officials with prisoner mistreatment. Prosecutors encouraged two of the former prisoners to speak to The New York Times.

One of them was Smiley, 22, who was captured early in the war when the Russian navy captured Ukrainian positions on Snake Island in the Black Sea. He spoke out a year after his release, saying he hoped it would shed light on conditions of Russian prisons would have helped not only his rehabilitation but also the thousands of prisoners of war still in captivity.

“My sister convinced me to give my first interview,” he said. “'You have to say it,' she said. Maybe if we talk, she will help the treatment of our boys.”

A second Ukrainian soldier made available by the prosecutor's office gave a long interview but refused to provide his name or contact details due to the stigma surrounding the abuse he suffered.

The serviceman, 36, said he was taken prisoner along with several thousand soldiers and marines after a long siege at the Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol in May 2022. He spent nine months in Russian captivity before being released in an exchange of prisoners early last year.

He spent most of his time in three detention facilities in the Russian cities of Taganrog, Kamensk-Shakhtinsky and Kursk. He returned severely underweight and suffering from a spinal injury and, like many others, fainting, dizziness and ringing in the ears due to frequent blows on the head.

“I'm no longer fainting,” the soldier said, “but I have back problems, a concussion and continuous compression of the area around the heart.” Despite his wounds, he was ordered to return to light duty as a guard after only two months' rest in a sanatorium.

“I don't know if I could run a mile,” he said.

Prisoners were subjected daily to brutal beatings on the legs, back and fingers, and mental and physical torture during interrogations, in addition to hunger, cold and lack of medical care, he said. Three men died in custody during her captivity, including one who died in the communal cell they shared, she said.

Some of the Russian units that monitored or interrogated prisoners were worse than others, the two former prisoners said, but beatings and torture during roll call occurred every morning in most detention facilities. The interrogations lasted 40 minutes and often consisted of electric shocks, blows to the head and sexual abuse, real or threatened.

“They start with maximum violence,” the soldier said. “They say, 'You're lying, you're not telling us everything.' They put a knife to your ear or offer to cut off your finger.”

Others beat them on the back of the head so regularly that they lost consciousness, he said.

“If one gets tired, another takes his place,” he recalled. “When you fall they make you get up. It can last 30 to 40 minutes. In the end they say: 'Why didn't you tell us everything right away?'”

Smiley said much of the violence was sexual in nature. One prison unit repeatedly hit prisoners all over the body, including the genitals, with batons that delivered electric shocks, she said. On another occasion, he said, a cellmate was repeatedly kicked in the genitals during roll call, where prisoners stood in a row with their legs spread, facing a wall in a corridor. Smiley suffered permanent injuries from an untreated fractured pelvis from a baton blow and was unable to bend or lie down without assistance for two weeks.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has very limited access to prisoners of war held in Russia, was not allowed to visit him during his nine months of captivity, he added.

The second soldier said he was forced to undress and place his genitals on a stool while his interrogators hit them with a ruler and placed a knife on him, threatening to castrate him.

Interrogators subjected him to a mock execution, firing a barrage of gunshots next to him while he was blindfolded. They threatened him with rape, the soldier said, making him choose what to use: the handle of a mop or the leg of a chair. “Do you want to do it yourself or do you want us to help you?” they mocked him.

He said he had never actually been penetrated, but that others had been raped. “After that you won't be able to walk normally,” he said. “You suffer for weeks. Other kids had the same treatment.”

“I think they were ordered to break us psychologically and physically so that we don't want anything else in life,” he said, adding that there have been suicides in Taganrog prison.

“You could hear the screaming all day,” the soldier said. “Impossible screams”. Sometimes, during a break, prisoners could hear the voices of children playing outside, he said.

The ordeal for the former prisoners is by no means over once they return home.

“The hardest thing is having too many people around,” the soldier said. “Everyone is walking peacefully in the park and you're still afraid that someone is listening to you, or that you might get pushed or say the wrong thing.”

Major Valeria Subotina, a military press officer and former journalist who was also a prisoner in Azovstal and who spent a year in women's prisons in Russia, recently opened a meeting space in Kiev called YOUkraine, for former prisoners.

“There are a lot of triggers and people don't realize they still need treatment,” he said.

She returned to duty three months after her release last April but I found it difficult to sit in an office. “I can't stand anyone approaching me from behind or standing behind me,” she said.

Government psychologists were not of much use, he said. “They often don't know how to help us,” she said, and civilians often ask careless questions.

As a result, many former prisoners find it easier to return to the front lines than to rejoin civilian life, he said, and only other survivors truly understand what they are going through.

“We don't want to feel pity,” he said, “because we are proud to have survived and to have overcome this.”

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