Inside a camp for Russian prisoners of war during the Ukraine War

Prisoners of war from Russia housed in a facility in western Ukraine

As we arrived at this prisoner of war facility in the western part of the nation, Russian missiles were once more taunting Ukraine from the sky.

These run-down structures house some of the 50 locations around Ukraine where hundreds of captured Russian soldiers, conscripts, and mercenaries are being held.

As we were led into a basement, we could hear the crump of Ukrainian air defenses and see dozens of prisoners seeking refuge from the Russian attack.

Prisoner exchanges have become a common occurrence in this war, and Kyiv needs them to continue. This month, Ukraine reported that it had successfully negotiated the release of 1,762 men and women in prisoner swaps. These operations are extremely delicate and frequently take months to plan.

The Geneva Conventions prohibit parades and public exposure of prisoners of war.

We were free to approach anyone we wanted and get their permission. However, the guards were with us at all times, so it was unlikely that these men were speaking openly.

To further protect their identities, many people covered their faces.

The prisoners are allowed one phone-call every two weeks, according to the guards
The prisoners were allowed one phone call every two weeks, according to the Ukrainian guards.

Based on interviews with prisoners who described instances of torture and mistreatment, a UN human rights report published in November last year documented abuses committed by both sides.

Here, the guards seemed eager to demonstrate that they were giving the prisoners good care.

A fighter revealed that he had been employed by a mercenary organization. He had been taken prisoner near the eastern town of Soledar, which Russian forces had taken last month, and brought to this facility three days earlier.

A few of them continued to stare defiantly. One prisoner who claimed to have been taken prisoner on December 29 in the Luhansk region fixed his gaze on us.

He expressed his hope that he would be exchanged and spared from having to rejoin the army.

I questioned, "What if you have no choice?".

After a brief pause, he said, "I have some ideas. I could give up voluntarily and return. ".

As we emerged from the shelter, we discovered that half of the prisoners were injured.

Some people's hands or feet were bandaged. Others would limp heavily when they moved.

One young man broke down in tears as he explained how a grenade explosion had caused him to lose his leg.

Russian prisoners of war construct outdoor furniture sets
In one of the facility's workshops, Russian soldiers were building garden furniture.

A small assembly line where prisoners of war were assembling outdoor furniture sets emerged as we drew near the pulsing sound of a compression drill.

Once more, they worked with their heads bowed.

We were informed that a local business had a contract with the facility, which allowed the inmates to earn money as well, primarily for buying cigarettes and treats.

The majority of prisoners of war are required to work in jobs like this. Only Russian officers, it seems, had a choice.

The prisoners were led to a makeshift canteen on the top floor for lunch. A Ukrainian flag was flapping in the chilly wind through the window.

With the exception of the sound of eating, they ate quickly and quietly. Table by table, they stood up and yelled in Ukrainian, "Thank you for lunch!" in a stunning display of choreography.

The prisoners eat a lunch of bread, corn soup, and a bowl of barley and meat
Lunch for the prisoners consists of bread, corn soup, and a serving of barley with meat.

Inmates are required to watch Ukrainian-language television, which includes historical documentaries about Ukraine and the southern city of Mariupol, which was virtually destroyed by a long-lasting Russian siege and bombardment.

The previous exchange included some of the Ukrainian soldiers who had defended Mariupol.

One prisoner was questioned about his comprehension of what he was watching.

Or less," he replied. "I think it's instructive. It was unlikely that he would have said anything unfavorable.

It's possible that some of the Russians in the room were unable or unwilling to understand the program they were required to watch.

According to the guards, prisoners are permitted one phone call every two weeks. These phone calls are frequently the first opportunity their Russian families have to learn that their sons have been taken prisoner.

Over the phone, the mother of one of the young men could be heard asking, "Where are you? I've asked half the city about you!".

"Wait, mom. I can only say that I am in captivity. " .

She asked, "With the bloody Ukrainians?" before sobbing uncontrollably.

"That's it, Mum. As the guard watched him, he told her, "Quiet. "The fact that I'm alive and well is what matters most. "  .

The prisoners hoped for a future prisoner swap and another chance to speak with someone after some of their calls went unanswered.

Hanna Chornous and Morgan Gisholt Minard contributed additional reporting.

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