Lying on his bed in a Kiev detention center, Russian Sergeant Nikolai Matveyev recalls the ambush that turned him into one of the first prisoners of war during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
As he explains how he spent hours injured, dragging himself through icy forests, Nikolai awkwardly leans on his partially amputated left leg.
The 36-year-old tells his story after Ukrainian authorities granted AFP unconditional access to Russian soldiers captured in a Kiev prison.
Matveyev was on a highway in the Chernihiv region of northern Ukraine when his unit was attacked shortly after the start of the Russian offensive on February 24. His leg was injured by a mortar blast.
“I was wounded in the leg in the first 10 or 15 seconds of combat. When [the situation] calmed down, all the other soldiers in the vehicle ran out and put a tourniquet on me,” he says.
“Then I started to drag myself out. On the ground, near the wheels of the vehicle, I prepared to fight, while the rest of the unit advanced”, he continues.
But the man ended up passing out because of the intense pain. When he woke up hours later, he was alone. His vehicle was gone and his unit was still fighting away from him.
“As night fell, the artillery began to fire. On the 25th of February, I crawled through the forest and across the fields. I arrived at a power plant,” he reports.
First, he waited for his unit to pass by to collect him, but no one came. “I knocked on the door, the guards pulled me inside and gave me water before speaking to their superiors,” he continues.
‘Come back home’
Nikolai was taken to the police for questioning and then to the hospital, where he had his lower leg amputated, before being taken a further 130 kilometers south to the capital Kiev.
Currently, as the war enters its sixth month, the prospect of being released is still far from being realized.
Nikolai was also not part of the prisoner exchanges between Ukraine and Russia. The last took place in June, when 144 prisoners from each side were repatriated.
“It would be an incredible joy to be part of an exchange,” says the Siberian native. “Everyone wants to go home,” he adds.
Nikolai has been in Kiev since March 10, and shares his cell with four other Russian prisoners. A paper attached to the door indicates that they are “prisoners of war”.
The cell has bunk beds with steel frames and very thin mattresses, aligned with the walls. There is also a bench and a metal and wood table.
“[The Ukrainians] give us food, drink and don’t offend us,” Matveyev says. AFP, however, could not verify whether he was expressing himself freely or under duress.
Thanks to an old television that broadcasts Ukrainian channels, “we started to understand Ukrainian,” adds Dorjo Dooulmayev, 21, originally from Russia’s far east.
The young man was captured on June 6 in the Kherson region in the south of the country and is also waiting to be exchanged.
‘Torture and ill-treatment’
Ukraine does not disclose the exact number of Russian prisoners on its territory, but says there are “thousands” of cases.
There are many facilities like the prison where Matveyev is, but they were not originally designed for prisoners of war.
Ukraine’s deputy justice minister, Olena Vyssotska, assured AFP that the authorities are doing their best to separate Russian prisoners from the rest of the prison population, for security reasons.
However, some soldiers complained of receiving medical treatment without anesthesia and of being tortured with electric shocks, according to a Russian investigative committee set up by Moscow to shed light on its prisoners’ allegations.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, lamented this July the “appalling reports” of “torture and ill-treatment” of prisoners of war by both sides.
Although Russia first demands the return of its officers and special forces personnel, according to Vyssotska, Nikolai still hopes that “one day” he could “be part of an exchange” of prisoners.
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