Shot by way of the jaw and tongue by a sniper’s bullet final yr within the final days of the grinding siege on the Azovstal metal plant in Ukraine, Senior Sgt. Maksym Kushnir couldn’t eat or discuss, and will barely breathe.
However when he hobbled out of a bunker final Could with a whole lot of different wounded Ukrainian troopers in a give up negotiated with Russian forces, there was no medical assist or any signal of the Pink Cross employees they’d been promised.
As a substitute, Sergeant Kushnir, 9 years a soldier and a poet since childhood, stated he was taken on a two-day bus journey into Russian-controlled territory and left on a mattress to die, along with his jaw shattered and gangrene spreading throughout his tongue.
“I believed it was the tip,” he stated. “For the primary three to 4 days, they didn’t do something. They anticipated me to die by myself.”
That Sergeant Kushnir survived and returned residence to inform the story is likely one of the success tales of the warfare. At the same time as the 2 sides are locked in full-scale battle, Ukrainian and Russian officers have been exchanging a whole lot of prisoners of warfare virtually weekly.
But the prisoner exchanges have additionally revealed a grim actuality. Ukrainian troopers have come residence with tales of appalling struggling in Russian captivity — executions and deaths, beatings and electrical shocks, an absence of well being care and near-starvation rations.
Ukraine permits the Worldwide Committee of the Pink Cross entry to the Russian prisoners of warfare it’s holding, a sign that it’s assembly its obligations below worldwide conventions of warfare. Russia doesn’t. It restricts exterior monitoring and has confirmed the identities of solely a few of these it’s holding.
Ukrainian officers and former prisoners say Ukrainian captives have been in a visibly worse state than the Russian prisoners at exchanges.
“We have been skinny like this,” Sergeant Kushnir stated, holding up his little finger. “In comparison with us, they seemed nicely. We have been skinny and bearded. They have been shaved and washed.”
“It’s a basic abusive relationship,” stated Oleksandra Romantsova of the Heart for Civil Liberties, a Ukrainian group that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize final yr, summing up the remedy of Ukrainian prisoners.
It’s unclear what number of Ukrainian troopers are prisoners of warfare or lacking in motion. Russia has offered solely partial lists of these it’s holding, and Ukraine doesn’t launch any numbers. However human rights organizations say there are no less than 8,000 to 10,000 prisoners, and Ukrainian officers didn’t dispute these figures.
And extra Ukrainians have been taken within the combating in and across the metropolis of Bakhmut in latest months, in line with individuals working to convey prisoners residence. There are believed to be far fewer Russians held by Ukraine.
Some Ukrainian troopers have additionally been positioned on trial in Russia on doubtful prices, and have obtained prolonged sentences within the Russian penal system, stated Oleksandr Pavlichenko of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union.
5 hundred medical personnel and a whole lot of feminine troopers and wounded are among the many prisoners of warfare, stated Andriy Kryvtsov, the chairman of Army Medics of Ukraine. He stated 61 army medics remained in captivity and referred to as for his or her launch.
Dr. Yurik Mkrtchyan, 32, an anesthetist, was amongst greater than 2,000 taken prisoner after battles at the Ilyich metal plant in Mariupol in April final yr, a lot of them wounded troopers he was caring for.
He stated the Russians offered medical help solely when he begged them and transferred the wounded to a hospital solely once they have been near demise.
Dr. Mkrtchyan, who was launched after a prisoner change in November, stated he remained anxious concerning the situations of the wounded, together with amputees.
“They have been simply the boys who protected our hospital,” he stated. “Most of them are nonetheless in captivity, and I see no excuse or rationalization for that as a result of they’re already disabled, they can not struggle, there is no such thing as a cause to maintain them in jail.”
Former prisoners and human rights teams say Ukrainian captives, together with the wounded and pregnant feminine troopers, have been subjected to relentless beatings.
Dr. Mkrtchyan described how new arrivals needed to run a gantlet of jail guards who beat them with sticks, a hazing ritual often known as a “reception.” He recalled operating, head down, by way of the torrent of blows, and seeing a fellow prisoner on the bottom. The soldier, a wounded prisoner with critical burns named Casper, was killed by the beating, he stated.
Maksym Kolesnikov, 45, was amongst greater than 70 Ukrainian troopers and 4 civilians who have been captured within the days simply after the Russian invasion in February 2022, when Russian troops overran his base close to the city of Hostomel, north of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.
The lads have been taken for interrogation to a filtration camp in a disused manufacturing unit, the place their commander was crushed inside earshot of the entire unit. The Russian community of filtration camps, the place army and civilian Ukrainians are screened and interrogated, have been extensively criticized for violations of human rights.
After a couple of days, Mr. Kolesnikov and his fellow detainees have been moved to a Russian jail within the Bryansk area, close to the Ukraine border.
The “reception” beating lasted 5 hours. “I used to be kneed within the face,” he stated. The beatings continued every day for a month. The guards used rubber truncheons, plastic piping, picket rulers and knotted items of rope, or simply kicked prisoners, he stated.
Prisoners nicknamed one group of guards “the electricians” as a result of they tormented prisoners with electrical shocks.
The captives have been dangerously malnourished, Mr. Kryvtsov stated.
“It was a superb day whenever you discovered a potato in your soup,” stated Mr. Kolesnikov, who added that he misplaced about 75 kilos in captivity.
He stated he suffers from a compressed backbone from malnutrition, and hip and knee accidents from the extended beatings.
Oleh Mudrak, 35, the commander of the First Azov Battalion, was unrecognizable and painfully skinny when he returned from 4 months in captivity after being taken prisoner on the Azovstal plant in Mariupol, stated his nephew Danylo Mudrak.
He regained the burden and underwent surgical procedure on his shoulder, however 5 months after his launch, he died of a coronary heart assault, Danylo Mudrak stated.
Members of the Azov battalions, lengthy painted as neo-Nazis by Russia as a part of its justification for the warfare, got here in for particularly harsh remedy, in line with Maj. Dmytro Andriushchenko, who was a deputy commander of the Second Azov Battalion when he was taken prisoner at Azovstal. “Azov was like a pink rag for them,” he stated.
Main Andriushchenko was in a penal colony at Olenivka in July when an explosion ripped by way of a barracks, killing no less than 50 Azov members. Like a number of former inmates of Olenivka who have been interviewed, he accused Russia of orchestrating the explosion.
The jail guards closed the gates to the barracks, stopping survivors from escaping, Main Andriushchenko stated.
Dr. Mkrtchyan, who was in the identical penal colony, stated he and different Ukrainian medics urged the guards to allow them to assist the wounded, however they weren’t allowed to strategy them till an hour after the explosion.
Russia has blocked calls for an independent investigation into the explosion and blames it on a Ukrainian strike.
For a few of the wounded from Azovstal, visits by Russian tv crews might have been a lifeline. The publicity created stress on the Russian authorities to look after the prisoners, who have been already weak from their time below siege in Azovstal with little meals and water, Sergeant Kushnir stated.
Together with his damaged jaw and gangrenous tongue, Sergeant Kushnir couldn’t lie down and sat along with his head in his arms for a number of days with out painkillers or antibiotics.
Ultimately, he was moved to a different hospital the place docs amputated his tongue and wired his jaw closed.
He dreamed of consuming. He wrote some verse:
“Have mercy on me, destiny. I’m alive.
Don’t punish me mercilessly.”
The bodily ache was not as onerous to bear because the uncertainty of being a captive, he stated.
“Once you don’t know what to organize for, what the subsequent day will convey,” he stated, “particularly after seeing what the Russians have been doing to our males, and being in fixed expectation of demise, it’s not a cool feeling in any respect.”
On the finish of June, Sergeant Kushnir and different wounded males from Azovstal have been loaded onto buses and pushed to the entrance line to be exchanged.
Again in Ukraine, he has been by way of a number of operations and spent months studying to speak once more by exercising the scar tissue behind his throat.
His surgeon, Dr. Vasyl Rybak, 44, the pinnacle of the division of rehabilitation and reconstructive surgical procedure at a hospital in Odesa, took bone from his hip to reconstruct his jaw, however when that didn’t work, he inserted a titanium jaw, created at a 3-D printing lab within the metropolis of Dnipro.
Subsequent, Dr. Rybak plans to be taught from pioneers in India create a brand new tongue for his affected person from muscle tissue in his chest.
“He’s a hero,” he stated of Sergeant Kushnir, throughout a break after surgical procedure. “All of them are.”
Oleksandr Chubko and Dyma Shapoval contributed reporting.