Many Ukrainian prisoners show signs of trauma and sexual violence

A Ukrainian Marine infantryman endured nine months of physical and mental torture as a Russian prisoner of war, but was given just three months of rest and rehabilitation before being ordered back to his unit.

The infantryman, who asked to be identified only by his call sign “Smiley,” was happy to return to duty. But it wasn’t until weeks later, when he underwent intensive combat training, that the depth and scope of his mental and physical injuries began to surface.

“I started having flashbacks and nightmares,” he said. “I only slept for two hours, and when I woke up in the morning, my sleeping bag was soaked.” He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, received psychological care, and is currently undergoing treatment.

Ukraine, which is only beginning to understand the lasting effects of the trauma prisoners experienced while in Russian captivity, failed to properly treat prisoners and return them to duty too soon, say former prisoners of war and officials familiar with individual incidents. researchers and psychologists say.

Some 3,000 Ukrainian prisoners have been released by Russia in prisoner swaps since the 2022 invasion began. More than 10,000 people are also detained in Russia, some of whom have endured two years of conditions described by UN experts as horrific.

Critics say the Ukrainian government’s rehabilitation program, which typically takes two months in a sanatorium and one month at home, is insufficient, and the length and intensity of abuse Ukrainian prisoners are subjected to It is said that trauma is increasing. The war drags on.

Torture of Russian prisoners of war has been well documented by the United Nations, with former POWs describing relentless beatings, electric shocks, rape, sexual violence and mock executions, which some experts say is systematic and state-sponsored. He even said that it was a policy he approved of. . Many detainees also report prolonged fainting and syncope-like symptoms from repeated blows to the head severe enough to cause concussions.

“About 90 percent of Ukrainian prisoners of war are subjected to torture, rape, threats of sexual violence, and other ill-treatment,” Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin said in September.

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

Because the Ukrainian military lacks front-line troops and relatively few medical exemptions for former prisoners of war, most released prisoners return to active duty after about three months of rest and rehabilitation.

Legislation passed this month recognizes that many former prisoners of war have been subjected to severe mental and physical torture and require long-term rehabilitation, and gives former POWs the option of returning to the military or being discharged. I will admit it. Ukrainian authorities admitted there were problems providing adequate care for ex-prisoners, but said they had developed a special center for ex-prisoners using international best practices. .

Ukrainian prosecutors have identified 3,000 former military and civilian prisoners of war who could serve as witnesses in a case being prepared in Ukrainian courts to indict Russian individuals and officials on charges of prisoner abuse. Prosecutors encouraged two of the former prisoners to speak to the New York Times.

One of them was 22-year-old Smiley, who was captured early in the war when the Russian navy captured a Ukrainian military position on Snake Island in the Black Sea. Speaking a year after his release, he hopes shining a light on conditions in Russian prisons will not only rehabilitate himself but also help the thousands of prisoners still held in captivity. said.

“My sister convinced me to do the first interview,” he said. “‘You have to tell,’ she said. Maybe if we could talk, it might help our people heal.”

A second Ukrainian soldier provided by prosecutors agreed to a lengthy interview, but declined to give his name or call sign, citing stigma over the abuse he suffered.

The 36-year-old military man said he was captured along with thousands of soldiers and marines after a long siege of the Azovstal steel works in Mariupol in May 2022. He spent nine months as a Russian prisoner of war, before being released early in a prisoner exchange. 2023.

He spent most of his time in three detention facilities in the Russian towns of Taganrog, Kamensk Shakhtinsky, and Kursk. He returned extremely underweight, damaged his spine and, like many others, suffered from fainting, dizziness and ringing in his ears from frequent blows to his head.

“I’m not fainting anymore,” the soldier said. “But he has problems with his back and a concussion, and there’s constant pressure around his heart.”Despite his injuries, he remained on light duty as a security guard after only two months in a sanitarium. was ordered to return.

“I don’t know if I can run a kilometer,” he said.

He said the prisoners were subjected to daily brutal beatings on their legs, backs and fingers, mental and physical torture during interrogations, as well as hunger, cold and lack of medical care. He said three men died in custody, including one in a communal room.

Two former prisoners said some of the Russian units that guarded and interrogated prisoners were worse than others, but in most detention facilities there was a consistent presence at roll call each morning. There were reports of assault and torture. The interrogation lasted for 40 minutes and often involved electric shocks, blows to the head, and real or threatened sexual abuse.

“They start with maximum violence,” the soldier said. “They say, ‘You’re lying, you’re not telling everything.’ They put a knife in your ear or offer to cut off one of your fingers.”

He was punched in the back of the head so regularly that he sometimes lost consciousness.

“When one gets tired, the other one takes over,” he recalled. “If you fall down, they get you back up again. It can last 30 to 40 minutes. At the end they say, ‘Why didn’t you tell me everything right away?'”

Smiley said much of the violence was sexual in nature. At one prison, troops reportedly used batons that delivered electric shocks to repeatedly hit inmates all over their bodies, including their genitals. On another occasion, a cellmate was repeatedly kicked in the genitals during roll call, when prisoners were lined up against the hallway wall with their legs spread apart. The baton blow fractured Smiley’s pelvis, leaving him with untreated permanent damage and unable to bend or lie down without help for two weeks.

The International Committee of the Red Cross added that it had very limited access to prisoners held in Russia and was not allowed to visit them during their nine months of imprisonment.

A second soldier said he was forced to strip his genitals and place them on a chair after his interrogators hit him with a ruler, placed a knife on his genitals, and threatened to castrate him.

The interrogators subjected him to a mock execution, firing a volley of gunfire next to him while he was blindfolded. The soldiers said they threatened to rape her and made her choose between using a mop handle or a chair leg. “Do you want to do it yourself or do you want us to help you?” they teased him.

He said the others had been raped, although he was never actually penetrated. “You won’t be able to walk normally after that,” he said. “You suffer for weeks. Other players received similar treatment.”

“I think they gave us orders that crushed us mentally and physically so that we didn’t want anything more in life,” he said, adding that he was sent to Taganrog Prison. He added that there were also suicides.

“The screams could be heard all day long,” the soldier said. “An impossible scream.” During lulls, prisoners could sometimes hear children playing outside, he said.

The ordeal for former prisoners never ends when they return home.

“The most difficult thing is that there are too many people around,” the soldier said. “Everyone is walking peacefully in the park, but there’s still this fear that someone is listening, that they’re going to be shoved, that they’re going to say the wrong thing.”

Major Valeria Subotina, a former journalist and military spokesperson who was also a POW in Azovstal and spent a year in a Russian women’s prison, recently opened YOUkraine, a gathering space for former POWs in Kyiv.

“There are many triggers, but people still don’t realize they need care,” she said.

She returned to military service three months after her release in April 2023, but found it difficult to sit in her office. “I can’t stand someone coming up from behind or standing behind me,” she said.

Government psychologists weren’t much help, she says. “They often don’t know how to help us,” she said, adding that civilians often ask careless questions.

As a result, many ex-prisoners find it easier to return to the front lines than reintegrate into civilian life, and only fellow survivors can truly understand what they are going through, she said. said.

“We don’t want to pity them, because we’re proud that we survived and got through this,” she said.

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