This story is part of a series of essays and articles written by Ukrainian artists who decided to stay in Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022. This series is produced in collaboration with the Folkowisko Association/Rozstaje.art, thanks to co-funding by the governments of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia through a grant from the International Visegrad Fund. The mission of the fund is to advance ideas for sustainable regional cooperation in Central Europe.
He had incredibly blue eyes. His facial features were pleasant, if slightly distorted by pain. He had light scruff on his face. He was lying on a hospital bed, covered with a woolen blanket up to his neck. His hands were under his head. He agreed to let us photograph him by nodding his head; he didn't want to speak. Snap! At that very moment, Khrystia, my wife, snapped a shot.
If I saw this picture without context, I might even feel compassion. But not here and not now. He is a Russian soldier who came to Ukraine to kill me. Okay, maybe, not me specifically, but he could have been in Bucha, Izium, or Mariupol, among the soldiers who shot civilians in the back of their heads. When we saw him, the man was definitely not dangerous: he was a prisoner of war (POW).
We visited him in an infirmary camp for POWs not far from the western Ukrainian border. Shortly after the photo, a doctor asked visitors to leave the room. The Geneva Convention, which I've already learned by heart, provides free medical care for prisoners of war.
The Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, Article 15 says that: “The Power detaining prisoners of war shall be bound to provide free of charge for their maintenance and for the medical attention required by their state of health.”
A year ago, this camp was a regular penal colony for Ukrainian prisoners, but its purpose was quickly changed to make it a temporary accommodation for thousands of Russian citizens. The facility grounds come equipped with a barbed-wire fence, watchtowers, and several grey unimpressive buildings inside.
I was there as a representative of the Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War. This is a Ukrainian interagency structure that deals with prisoner exchange and aid to their families. We brought journalists to the camp, mostly foreigners, to show the conditions in which Ukraine is holding Russian citizens. A deputy head of the camp, Roman, led the group around the territory like a tour guide.
“Over there,” he pointed with her hand, “you can see a building with barracks where the prisoners live. And right ahead is our church.”
Article 34 says: “Prisoners of war shall enjoy complete latitude in the exercise of their religious duties, including attendance at the service of their faith…”
Near the church was a small pile of sand. As this was still technically a penal colony, prisoners in blue uniforms loaded the sand onto wheelbarrows and took it somewhere else in the camp.
We followed the path further. There were portraits of Ukrainian hetmans of the Cossack era on a wall.
“This is for the prisoners to learn Ukrainian history a little bit,” Roman smiled. “For them to learn that Ukrainians and Russians are not one people.”
A gate was opened, and we found ourselves on a sports pitch. There were horizontal bars and parallel bars for exercise, plus volleyball and football fields with benches around.
No one was playing football as it was the last day of winter and still chilly: one year and four days had passed since the beginning of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
Roman led us further to show us the barracks where prisoners sleep. The rooms were spacious, with two rows of neatly made beds. They were perfectly clean and had a pleasant smell. There were no bars on the windows.
Immediately, I recollected stories of Ukrainians who came back from Russian captivity. One of them, Mykhailo, said, for example: “There was nothing at all — no TV set, no newspaper or radio set, let alone phones. We did not even know when it was a day and when it was a night. And we didn't know the time because watches were prohibited.”
These were testimonies of those released: the prisoners were kept mostly in windowless basements and not allowed to go outside.
It is impossible to verify these conditions as Russia does not allow either the Red Cross or journalists to enter the places where Ukrainian POWs are being held. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s POW camps for Russian prisoners are always open to watchdog groups. International Committee of the Red Cross representatives and various groups of journalists visit it nearly every week.
The camp staff lined the prisoners up outside and led them into a building group by group.
There, those figures turned into a human chain that stretched from the first to the third floor, approximately a hundred captured Russian soldiers. They stopped on command, stood facing a wall with their hands in lock behind their backs, and the journalists passed them upstairs.
The staircase was so narrow that we were almost touching the prisoners.
The canteen is big and spacious to accommodate everyone. After mealtime, the captives shout in Ukrainian in chorus: “Thank you for the lunch!” This practice might be why one of the UN monitoring mission reports mentioned the “humiliation” of prisoners in the camp.
I was curious to taste what they were fed. I took a typical portion: a watery pea soup, vegetable salad, pasta with a small piece of meat, and a lot of bread. The bread is tasty: the prisoners bake it themselves. They cook as well. There is plenty of food, and sometimes it is even tasty.
Reports indicate that Ukrainian prisoners are coming back 30, 40, or even 50 kilograms thinner than before their captivity in Russian camps.
After lunch, prisoners can call their families. Together with several camerapersons and a guard, we entered a small room with phones. One guy, a Muscovite, was calling home from captivity for the first time. The man was very young, perhaps about 22, and had English-language tattoos on his arms and neck.
Most likely, he is “partially mobilized” — in Ukraine and Russia, this is what we call those who were mobilized under the mass recruitment to the Russian army in the fall of 2022. The phone rang, then a female voice calmly and casually answered “Hello?” and the prisoner said: “Hello mum!” He asked how she was doing, she answered that the prisoner’s dad had COVID, but everything was fine. How was he doing? “I'm in captivity,” the guy said and started to cry.
I can’t feel sorry for him. After all, his family knows that he is alive and has the opportunity to talk to him, at least, sometimes. Ukrainian POWs do not have this opportunity.
Article 13: “Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated.”
My wife, Khrystia, was continuing to photograph the camp. Each time, she asked the imprisoned Russians politely in Russian for permission and pressed the button only after they agreed.
This photo shoot was a part of her project on fear. Here, in the camp, she deliberately faced it head-on. She was standing in front of her first Russian soldier — a strongly built man in a blue uniform — and I saw that she was apprehensive, but she pulled herself together and took the first photo on her old Polaroid.
We were most concerned in a workshop where POWs were making outdoor furniture.
Many were holding little knives, soldering irons, and other objects which could be used as weapons. There were only two seemingly unarmed guards for ten POWs.
“Believe me,” the deputy head of the camp reassured us. “You shouldn't worry. They are waiting only to be exchanged and don't want to complicate life for themselves.”
“And don't you want to hurt them?” Khrystia asked Roman, deputy head of the camp.
“Probably I want to,” the official smiled. “But there are rules. We are a civilized country.”
The first unwritten rule among Ukraine’s Coordination Headquarters staff is not to ask a released POW about their captivity. Ukrainians who come back from captivity in Russia are largely keeping silent. They often carry similar stories about being tortured. For example, there are reports about a practice where Russian guards stand in two rows and force a group of Ukrainian prisoners to walk between them while they beat them with whatever they wanted. Olexandr, who was liberated from captivity, told an even more terrifying story: “They showed me freshly severed heads of our guys put on a rebar. One of the Russians said: ‘This is Edik, and this is Valera. They wanted everything to be according to the Geneva Conventions. Do you also want to follow the conventions? There is a place for a third one.'”
In the Ukrainian camp, it was already nightfall by the time we left. The Russian prisoners were watching Ukrainian TV.
It was my last day of work in the Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War. A week later, on March 7, the next prisoner exchange took place. During this exchange, 130 Ukrainians came back from the Russian captivity, while 90 Russians went home. I have a hope that one day, all the Russian citizens will finally leave Ukraine. And all the Ukrainians will come home.
The text uses materials from the Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War Telegram channel. Most names were changed for security reasons.