Eight torture chambers in 21 months — the geography of captivity

‘…They kept telling us: we are changing you, we are going for an exchange. . . I moved from place to place eight times, thinking I was going on an exchange. Instead, they brought me to a new ‘reception’. . . As soon as we were unloaded from the police wagon, they started beating us’.
07 April 2024UA DE EN ES FR RU

Ілюстрація: Марія Крикуненко / Харківська правозахисна група Иллюстрация: Мария Крикуненко / Харьковская правозащитная группа

Illustration: Mariia Krykunenko / Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

Roman Kryvulia, a military mechanic at a radio center and a former ATO soldier, spent a year and nine months in captivity.

— What I wanted most in captivity was just to eat, — he recalls. — I wanted something sweet... Everything was bland.

He tells his story while we are taking him from the Dnieper hospital, where he ended up after the exchange, home — to the Kharkiv Region. When the full-scale invasion began, Roman was not at work but home in the village of Lyptsi. He simply didn’t have time to get to his unit: the village was under occupation in the first hours of the enemy offensive.

Lyptsi, Cherkaski Tyshky, Strilecha

— I was afraid to get noticed by someone so they wouldn’t find out I was a military man. I wore civilian clothes, — he recalls.

Roman and his family moved to Lyptsi several years earlier. When he was not at work, he spent time with his child. He didn’t manage to make friends and acquaintances among the locals.

He fell into the hands of the invaders by accident: they were looking for another military man who allegedly lived in a neighboring apartment.

— I said: I’m not a military man. — They responded: — Yeah, if not you, then somewhere nearby lives a serviceman named P. — As it turned out later, his mother-in-law lived next door to me. So I had to know them. But I haven’t been to Lyptsi much, I’ve never seen him.

At first, Roman was kept somewhere in a barn in the neighboring village of Cherkaski Tyshky. Then, they moved him to a large basement. He supposed it was a psychiatric hospital in the town of Streleche. Several other people were kept in that torture room with him. One of them lay in handcuffs for three days.

— His hands were already black, not even blue. — There was a girl with him. She was in tears: — I beg you, loosen the handcuffs, please. His hands are giving out! — But they didn’t care.

After several days of torture, Roman was suddenly released, but they took all his documents.

— They took me home. One of them said: “I’ll give you a day to find P. If you don’t find him, we’ll come for you.”... Even if I wanted to run away without documents, I would have been caught at a checkpoint somewhere and would have been shot on the spot. I asked the neighbors. Everyone said they didn’t know such a military man.

In the evening, they came for Roman again.

— The “Tiger”s approched. The Russians came out, fully armed up to the eyeballs. With machine guns in bulletproof vests. They took out a piece of paper: “Is that you?” I looked, and this was my combat ID (Roman served in the ATO — ed.) with my photo. And away we went. Everyone came at me. I tried to fight back. They hit and hit... They took me into my house. They searched everything, took away my wife’s laptop, phones, alcoholic drinks, everything they saw, they took everything. They tied my hands behind the back, blindfolded me, and threw me into the car, and off we went. We stopped. They took me out and said: “Go forward.” I heard machine guns being reloaded and pistols being drawn. They said: “You pray! Pray in the name of war. The Russian Federation has the right to execute without trial!” They read it and recharged. “Have you prayed?” — “Come on, I said, you’re talking too much.” I stood there, waiting. I thought it would fly either into my head or back. However, there was silence. He came up to me, grabbed me by the collar, sped me up, and slammed me into the car. He threw me into the car and said: “What, you bastard, are you so fearless? Aren’t you afraid that we’ll shoot you?” — “Why be afraid? Who will stop you from doing this?”

Hoptivka

— Hoptivka was the worst thing I ever went through. In Hoptivka, if they killed me, they would take me away, throw out the body — and that’s all... In Goptivka, they broke my ribs and tortured me with electric shocks. Everyone had their torture. One had electrodes on his fingers, another on his nose, tongue, and ears. Whatever a sick imagination can come up with. One day, they took me for interrogation, started beating me, then put me against the wall, and one of them started telling me that if I decided to die, he had a syringe with adrenaline. They say it’s not the first time he’s used it, and he knows how it’s done. “I’ll bring you to your senses, and we’ll continue the torture.” They asked about the structure of our troops. But how do I know what troops are in Kharkiv? There may be tons of them there. They asked if I knew any SBU officers or border guards.

After such torture, Roman decided to admit that he was a soldier. He says he hoped there would be at least a chance for an exchange.

“Otherwise, I thought, they’ll torment me to death and won’t believe that I live in Lyptsi and don’t know anyone.” They immediately stopped torturing me. They took me into a cell and didn’t touch me again for about a week.

Later, the occupiers decided to “make” him a major in special services.

— They asked: “How old are you?” I said: “Almost forty.” “Is there any education?” — “Higher”... “So you should already be a major!” — “No, I’m just a mechanic at the receiving radio center...” — “Signalman?” — “Yes...” — “Have you been to Georgia?” — “ No, I only have a foreign visa for Poland...” — “In that case, between us: can I assume that you are a special agent?” — “Yes, you can assume anything!” — “That’s it, I have no more questions!”

Tent city, Bielhorod Region

Subsequently, Roman Kryvulia was taken to a tent city for Ukrainian prisoners in Shebekino. Here, they interrogated but did not torture.

— We were sitting in a tent, we couldn’t look out of it. The food was brought first. And a week later, they began to take us to the dining room: ten people, twenty, one after another, lined up. Don’t raise your head. Hands behind your back. Don’t look anywhere. They also took us from tent to tent for interrogations. The military prosecutor’s office and the FSB came. They didn’t torture me. They held us, examined us, and treated us if necessary.

Roman stayed in the tent city for about 10 days.

Pre-trial detention center in Staryi Oskil

“When I was brought to Staryi Oskil, I understood what a “major and special agent” was. They beat you up mercilessly... One said: “I’ll cut off your fingers, I’ll send phalanxes to your wife, I’ll drive her crazy until she gets all of you!” He beat me for half an hour. “The signalman will arrive in two or three weeks. If you don’t tell him everything he needs, everything will be as I told you!” I expected that signalman for several days, waiting for them to start disassembling me for spare parts. The signalman arrived and asked about nothing: where the unit was and how many people were there. But how do I know how many people there are? I didn’t count them or anything. So they wrote something down, and I signed it. What exactly, I don’t know. He covered it with a piece of paper and said: sign here.

Donske, Tula Region

A few days later, the prisoners were taken away somewhere again. The Ukrainians hoped to go home.

— We drove for several hours by car. I thought: that’s it, let’s go for an exchange. We arrived at the airfield. Someone said: our plane should arrive at three o’clock. I thought, thank God, they will either take us to Turkey or Kyiv. A cargo plane arrived. We flew for an hour. We arrived, and away we went: again, police wagons, special forces. They screamed and cursed. Rush! We went to Donske. As soon as they opened the police wagon, they grabbed you by the collar, threw you out, and started kicking you. Then they asked for my last name and used their boots to push me through the crowd: I ran, and they pushed me with sticks. They pushed me until I reached the exercise yard. “Squat down!” I sat down. And so I squatted from nine in the evening until five in the morning in the cold. After this, my legs don’t hold up at all! Then, they drove me into the room. “On your knees with your face to the wall!” And just like that, I fell to my knees and lay there for another half hour while they prepared the prisoner’s uniform, and the doctors made some notes. They took photographs and stripped us naked. We went to the second floor and put on underwear in 10 sizes too big. They ordered me to put on a uniform. I said: “I can’t fasten it, it doesn’t fit me!” And he said: “You put on your panties and tuck your pants into your panties.” And they started beating me with a stun gun and driving me into the cell with sticks. The camera opened, and I flew into it. I just went through the threshold sideways because the door was chained, and you can only go through sideways. And they were trying to push me into this space with acceleration. Five to ten minutes — a new body flies in. After 5-10 minutes — another new body. And so on until 17 of us were crammed in there.

Donske, Tula’s maximum security colony No. 1, is considered one of the most cruel. Here, Ukrainians suffer from bullying, cold, and hunger. They suffer from tuberculosis.

— When tuberculosis patients were discovered in our cell, they were moved to another cell. They sat there together. And we were tested and given five tablets a day for eight months — for prevention.

Ukrainians were beaten every day. But the worst thing was to end up in a punishment cell.

— Thank God, I’ve never been to a punishment cell. But I sat with those who were there. There is the fear of the Lord. One person could sit in a punishment cell for two or three months. This was to break a person so that they would say something... If there are seventeen people in an ordinary cell, then when they beat us, one, two, or three may be lucky; maybe they will only kick you. And when you are alone in a cell, they beat you every single day.

Roman said he saw a civilian prisoner who had gone crazy due to beatings and hunger. The “Russian diet” drove another cellmate to the point where his legs began to “rot.”

Roman spent 9 months in these conditions. And then he was taken even further from his homeland.

Mordovia

It was a new place, but old rules. Again, there was hope for an exchange, but instead, there was “reception” and beatings that lasted 11 months.

— We were constantly told: “You creatures, murderers, want to go to Europe? To the exit! Here’s Europe for you!” And so it went.

They beat me for everything. Leaning on the bed instead of standing during the day — beatings. Is the caretaker in a bad mood? They will beat you.

— They come in: “So, choose five and go out!” Five people come out. These five are either beaten right in the corridor so they are not on camera or taken out to the exercise yard. And there were shockers and sticks, and “come on, dance, sing a song.”... Our guy sings, and he urges him on with a shocker. He climbs onto the bench because he is about one and a half meters tall, and the prisoner is taller; he then accelerates and hits our guy in the head with his knee. They knocked out two of my ribs on one side. I couldn’t breathe or sleep for a month—nothing.

The electric shock did not stop there either. Three times, Roman was beaten until he lost consciousness.

— I stand in a pushup position. He orders me to do pushups. I do pushups. And he sits on top and starts hitting me everywhere with a shocker: heel, foot, muscles, arms, neck, head, everywhere. The boss stopped him: “That’s it, that’s it, otherwise his heart will stop!”

The poor quality of the water made the prisoners sick. Since they were not allowed to shower in slippers, many became infected with fungal diseases. They were not allowed to brush their teeth.

— I haven’t had the opportunity to brush my teeth for two years. They didn’t let me clean them. They said that “the brushes are on vacation.” Or “the brush is sick.” And so every day. I know our brushes hang outside the door, but no, they are either “on vacation” or “under repair” — just to keep them away.

Rostov Region

At the end of January 2024, Roman was finally taken for exchange. At this time, allegedly, a plane containing Ukrainian prisoners of war fell. The exchange did not take place. The Ukrainians were taken to a colony in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, Rostov region. Here, again, was “reception”.

— They stripped me naked right on the street, even though it was minus ten and snow. You stand naked and throw away your clothes — everything, even your socks, in a pile. You come in... If you have tattoos, then the living place on you will only be where they are not.

However, before the actual exchange, the prisoners were finally adequately fed.

— A half-liter plate full of porridge! I have never seen anything like this in two years! It was full! And it is so delicious that you could even eat it!

For six days before the exchange, the Ukrainians could eat normally. They were finally taken towards the Sumy region bordering Ukraine from the Rostov region.

— This was already the ninth move. I thought we were going to some new zone again. I decided not to even hope for anything. They blindfolded me but addressed me without swearing and called us fellas. We were amazed. We have lost the habit of such communication in two years! For them, we were anything but military personnel, fellas, people.


According to the Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War, it is known for certain that more than eight thousand Ukrainians, both military and civilian, remain in Russian captivity. The whereabouts of these people have been confirmed. But tens of thousands of Ukrainians remain missing in action. According to the latest UN report, Russia systematically violates international humanitarian law in its treatment of prisoners: “Testimonies from victims show the ruthlessness and cruelty of this behavior, which caused victims severe pain and suffering during prolonged detention. All of this was carried out with blatant disregard for human dignity and resulted in long-term physical and mental trauma.”

Let us remind you that the Kharkiv human rights group has created a hotline regarding missing persons. If you are a relative or know about prisoners of war, civilian prisoners, or missing civilians in occupied territory, call 0 800 20 24 02 (free).

We cannot guarantee that we will determine the location of your loved one. However, over the years of our work, our specialists have been able to detect more than 30% of the people reported to us.

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