Ukraine leak: This teacher was tortured by the Russians and held for six months before being returned to his home town in Ukraine in a prisoner exchange.



Hostomel, Ukraine
CNN

The letter contained just three words: mother, alive, healthy. But Olena Yuzva had no doubt that it was her son, Dima. The 23-year-old biotech graduate was taken by Russian forces from their backyard along with Olena and her husband, Oleh, in the Hostomel district of Kiev, on March 20.

Doctor Olena was released the next day. Dima and Oleh, a former police colonel, were taken to a Russian infiltration camp. Oleh was returned to Ukraine in a prisoner exchange on April 18, but Dima has been gone for seven months.

“The last time my husband saw my son alive was at a filtration center on March 23,” she said. “I am asking Russia to release my civilian son who is under civilian occupation. I am willing to go to the ends of the earth to get him. I am ready to take my son and all the other prisoners.’

According to human rights groups, hundreds of Ukrainian civilians have been illegally imprisoned in Russia. Lucky ones are used as barter in prisoner exchanges. On Monday, 108 women, including 12 civilians, were released from captivity in Russia as part of one such exchange.

Some of these Ukrainian women have alleged abuse by their captors, including torture by electric shocks and burns. Ukrainian state news agency Ukrinform interviewed one of them, identifying her only as Hanna O. He is 26 years old, Ukrinform says, and served in the 36th Marine Brigade.

Hanna O. was at the Azovskal steel plant in Mariupol, but left when the Russians started shelling. He said he spent just over six months in captivity. “We were treated like animals,” he told Ukrinform.

“The girls were beaten, the girls were tortured with electric currents, with hammers, that’s the lightest thing. They have hung up.

“Those who had tattoos … cut off our hands, cut off the tattoos, burned us with boiling water because you’re there, because you’re with the Marines, because you speak Ukrainian,” he said.

International law is clear that civilians must be treated as protected persons and cannot be held as prisoners of war. Forcibly transferring Ukrainian civilians to another country is a war crime.

According to a Human Rights Watch report in July, “International humanitarian law also prohibits the taking of hostages. Arresting civilians for use in future prisoner exchanges would be a war crime.

Katerina Andryusha is one of the lucky mothers. His daughter, Victoria, was taken from her home in Stari Bykov on March 25 after Russian forces found text messages on her phone about Russian movements in the area. According to Victoria, he was kept overnight in the basement of a local house and then left for Russia the next day.

Olena Yuzvak shows her son Dima's letter, which was sent from Russia and delivered by the International Committee of the Red Cross.  Written there, just three words,

A CNN crew met Katerina a week after Victoria was taken. She was standing outside her house, dazed and fighting back tears, as her math teacher showed her pictures of her daughter.

“Hopefully he’ll make contact, with someone, somewhere,” he said.

Victoria says she was accused of spying by Russian troops and beaten during her first interrogation at a Russian infiltration camp.

“They gave me electric shocks. They used sticks and hands and legs. This was really physical abuse. They beat me. Psychologically, I prepared myself for this possibility. And this can happen at any time,” he said. “There was a panic of uncertainty and the Russians telling us we can do whatever we want with you.”

From the infiltration camp, Victoria was transferred to Kursk prison, where she languished for six months. For Katerina, on the other hand, to Ukraine. the agony was worse, not knowing what condition her daughter was in and when she could get home. She lobbied every organization she could to try to raise awareness of Victoria’s plight.

Then, last month, Victoria was released along with another civilian woman as part of a prisoner swap. The video released by the Ukrainian government shows him sobbing in disbelief when he reached Ukrainian territory.

“It’s over. Don’t cry. You’re home,” the other woman released with her consolation.

Now sitting together on the couch, happily reunited, mother and daughter hold hands and often hug during our conversation. When Victoria mentions the abuse she suffered, Katerina tears.

“Don’t you dare cry,” Victoria says, fighting back tears, “It’s okay, it’s okay, I’m here now.”

But for so many others, the nightmare continues.