In Ukraine, families scramble for news of their POWs

Dominique Soguel
Kateryna Hryshyna poses for a photo in a park with her son, Tymofii, and daughter, Oleksandra, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Oct. 22, 2022. Ms. Hryshyna’s husband is being held as a prisoner of war by Russia.
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When it comes to casualties on either side of the war in Ukraine, nothing is clear. And it’s the same with prisoners of war. Nobody has an accurate idea of how many POWs each side is holding, though the total is thought to run into the thousands.

Even the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is mandated to uphold the Geneva Conventions, is not allowed to visit prisoners wherever they are held. The group has been able to pass messages from about 2,000 Ukrainian prisoners to their relatives, but many more families have to rely on dribs and drabs of information appearing anonymously on Russian social media messaging apps such as Telegram to find out whether their loved ones are still alive.

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No one knows how many Ukrainian and Russian soldiers are being held as prisoners of war. But a recent U.N. mission found “patterns of torture and ill-treatment” on both sides.

A United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission reported a grim picture in November. It found that both sides were violating the Geneva Conventions on the humanitarian treatment of prisoners, using electric shocks, attack dogs, and other violent measures in what investigators called “patterns of torture and ill-treatment.”

Kateryna Hryshyna, who has heard that her husband is being held in a Russian POW camp, says that however difficult her life is, “I have to keep myself strong for the simple reason that he is going through harder things.”

Kateryna Hryshyna said goodbye to her husband, Sasha, three days before the Russian army invaded Ukraine, as he left to join his unit. “This is probably the last time we see each other,” the beekeeper-turned-soldier told her. He said it with such calm certainty it triggered a torrent of tears.

That sense of foreboding proved well founded. Sasha barely survived the cataclysmic battle for Mariupol in May. “At one point he told me he is going crazy, that he couldn’t take the sight and smell of dead bodies anymore,” recalls Ms. Hryshyna as her son and daughter play in a chilly city park. “The shelling was constant. Dogs were eating bodies.

“Then he just disappeared.”

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

No one knows how many Ukrainian and Russian soldiers are being held as prisoners of war. But a recent U.N. mission found “patterns of torture and ill-treatment” on both sides.

To the best of her knowledge, he is now a prisoner of war held in the Russian-occupied east of the country. He telephoned her once from the infamous Olenivka prison camp, where Ukrainian fighters who surrendered in Mariupol had been taken. His photo was published later on a Russian social media platform.

Piecing together what becomes of prisoners of war is a difficult endeavor, requiring patience and dogged perseverance from Ukrainian officials. The process consumes the days and nights of families whose first priority is to establish that their loved one – initially classed as “missing” by the authorities – is indeed alive and in captivity.

Sharing is central to that process. Prisoners’ relatives associations use closed groups on social networks like Facebook to pass sensitive information gleaned through rare calls from prison, or through the testimony of former detainees who have made it home thanks to one of the many prisoner exchanges that Moscow and Kyiv have arranged since the start of the war. 

Relatives regularly comb through anonymous Russian-language channels on the messenger app Telegram, which post pictures of Ukrainian soldiers recently captured or killed, along with the occasional detainee list. And they turn to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which can sometimes confirm that their loved ones are being held.

Numbers unclear

Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the ICRC has a mandate to visit prisoners of war and check on their conditions. But that is contingent on access. The organization faced many calls to visit Olenivka, where 50 Ukrainian prisoners were killed in July in a mysterious explosion, but could not go because the Russian authorities denied it access to that camp.

Nor does the group have an accurate idea of how many POWs each side is holding, though the total is thought to run into the thousands.

“We keep asking for access to all prisoners of war in all places of detention ... because we see that the suffering that this is imposing on families is just unbearable,” says Achille Després, spokesperson for the ICRC in Kyiv.

Dominique Soguel
Kateryna Hryshyna shows a photo of her husband, who is being held as a prisoner of war by Russia, in happier times, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Oct. 22, 2022.

Last week the organization announced that it had been able to visit more Ukrainian and Russian prisoners of war, without specifying where or how many. Its teams are now providing relatives with updates, short notes of love, and personal news, as well as requests for cigarettes, socks, and sweets.

“We are bringing some temporary relief,” says Mr. Després. “Many homes have empty spaces as a result of people going missing. When we can bring news to families that are worried about their loved ones, that is just as important as making sure that prisoners of war are treated with dignity.”

The ICRC has delivered more than 2,000 letters from Ukrainian prisoners of war to their loved ones and provided information to families on both sides of the conflict over 4,000 times, he says. A tracing department in Geneva fields hundreds of calls daily. He declines to say how many prison visits have been conducted in Ukraine, Russia, or Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory.

“We don’t want to give any number that could be used by either party to compare each other as to how well they’re complying with international humanitarian law, or become some sort of a scorecard of war,” explains Mr. Després.

Both Ukraine and Russia are party to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which lays out the legal standards for humanitarian treatment in wartime. Yet reports of ill-treatment, humiliation, and torture of prisoners of war in this conflict are widespread. In November, the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission gave a grim overview of the situation.

The mission said it had conducted interviews with 159 Ukrainian prisoners of war who had been held by Russia or affiliated armed groups, and 175 Russian prisoners of war. Ukraine allowed investigators to conduct confidential interviews, but Russia did not, so researchers based their findings on interviews with released Ukrainian prisoners.

Their report pointed to “patterns of torture and ill-treatment” of POWs held by Russia and affiliated armed groups. They included beatings, the use of attack dogs, and electric shocks to extract military information or testimony for trial. Violations committed by Ukrainian forces against Russian prisoners of war included punching, stabbing, and electric shocks – practices especially prevalent during the initial stages of detention.

The majority of prisoners on both sides are held in conditions that violate international humanitarian law, according to the U.N. mission. “Prisoners of war must be treated humanely at all times from the moment they are captured,” the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, said last week, at the end of a visit to Ukraine. “This is a clear, unequivocal obligation under international humanitarian law.”

Shattered hopes

Olha Khidchenko fled with her 3-year-old son from Mariupol last March, when Russian forces there were hunting for anyone with a link to the Ukrainian army. She was a soldier on parental leave; her husband, Oleksandr, was fighting.

“I knew they were searching for me,” she recalls in a phone interview. “It was impossible to stay there.”

The last time she spoke to her husband as a free man was in April. Then a terrible silence fell. A list of prisoners of war she saw posted on Telegram suggested he had been transferred to Olenivka. The July 29 blast there – which killed at least 50 prisoners of war – left her, like Ms. Hryshyna, with the burning question: Did he survive?

The answer came only in September, when he was allowed a short phone call. “It was not the voice of a commander anymore, but the voice of a tired and weak man,” she says. “He said he was sure not all of them would survive – not just because of the lack of food and water, but also the lack of hygiene.”

The Geneva office of the ICRC was only able to confirm he was in captivity, says Ms. Khidchenko. “Most of the information I get comes from the Russian Telegram channels,” she says. “I know he was in the Olenivka camp and then he was transferred to Russia.” She learned that from the testimony of a female prisoner released by Russia on Oct. 17.

The hopes that Ms. Khidchenko and Ms. Hryshyna nurse are shattered with each prisoner exchange that fails to bring their husbands home, most recently last Tuesday. “I tell my son that Dad will be home soon, that he loves him – what else can I say at that age?” says Ms. Khidchenko. “My hope is just to see my beloved again. The Ukrainian government probably has a plan, and it is probably moving forward but not as fast as we want.”

“Realizing that you may never see your loved one again has been the hardest thing,” says Ms. Hryshyna. “There have been times I had to go to a psychiatric unit. But I have to keep myself strong for the simple reason that he is going through harder things.”

Oleksandr Naselenko supported reporting for this article.

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