Three weeks since his release, Volodymyr Khropun still looks visibly shaken by the trauma he’s endured. A Red Cross volunteer, he was captured by Russian forces, and deported to Russia.
On 18 March, Volodymyr was driving a school bus to the village of Kozarovychi, about 40km (25 miles) north-west of Kyiv, to evacuate a few civilians who were stuck there amid the fighting. When he tried to convince Russian soldiers to let him pass their checkpoint, they detained him.
For the first few days he was kept in the basement of a factory of a village nearby, along with other civilians, 40 people in a 28 sq m (300 sq ft) room.
“We were beaten with rifles, punched, and kicked. They blindfolded me and tied my hands with duct tape. They used Tasers and kept asking for information about the military,” Volodymyr said.
“One of the soldiers was very young, almost a child. He used Tasers on people’s necks, faces, knees. It’s like he was having fun.”
After being held for nearly a week in Ukraine, they were transported to Belarus.
“They thought we couldn’t see, but I saw the villages we were passing, Ivankiv, Chernobyl and then I saw us crossing the border,” he said.
In Belarus, they were given an identity document. It says it is issued by the military of the Russian Federation and describes Volodymyr’s place of birth as the “Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic”. It is how Ukraine was known prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, before it became an independent country. It is a sign of Russia’s ambitions in the region.
From Belarus, Volodymyr says, they were taken to a prison in Russia.
“The torture continued. They humiliated us, made us kneel and forced us into uncomfortable positions. If we looked into their eyes, we were beaten. If we did something slowly we were beaten. They treated us like animals,” he said.
One evening Volodymyr counted 72 other people in detention with him. But he could hear there were more.
“We tried to support each other. Some days we couldn’t believe this was all happening. It felt like we had been transported to the 16th Century from the 21st Century,” he said.
The women told Volodymyr they had also been beaten. They didn’t understand where they were being taken to, but frequently heard the soldiers use the word “exchange.”
From Crimea they were taken by road to a point 32 km (20 miles) outside Zaporizhzhia, and allowed to walk across a bridge to Ukrainian-controlled territory. The exchange of military prisoners of war from both sides took place before Ukrainian civilians were allowed to walk over. It was 9 April. It had taken them two days to make the journey.
Volodymyr struggles to describe how he felt, but he wants the world to hear his story.
“The fact that Ukrainian civilians are being held there [in Russia] is a 100% true.”
In the prison, Volodymyr heard that people from the Chernobyl nuclear site were being held in a room next door.
It is unclear who exactly the men in the prison were, but 169 Ukrainian National Guard responsible for securing Chernobyl are missing. They were first held in detention in the basement of the nuclear site for weeks when it was occupied by Russian troops.