The plight of a captured Ukrainian soldier, a window into the prisoner exchange

Seriously wounded and captured by the Russians in Mariupol, Ukrainian soldier Gleb Strejko experienced weeks of suffering, threats and insults at their hands. Even the prisoner exchange that allowed his mother to find him was saved.

“One of his guards took pity on him,” the 25-year-old soldier’s mother, Lesia Kostenko, told AFP, opening a rare window into the reality of the prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia.

Glib Stryjko was captured in April in Mariupol, a strategic port in southeastern Ukraine that saw some of the fiercest battles of the war. Wounded and in poor condition, he was flown from pro-Russian separatist regions to Russia before being abruptly flown to the annexed Crimea, where he returned to his homeland.

After getting on the bus waiting for us, Gleb said from his hospital bed in Zaporizhia, a city in southeastern Ukraine, he said, ‘You guys can take a break. You are at home now. I started crying.”

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshuk told AFP that so far more than 350 Kyiv soldiers have been released in exchanges, which are usually on a one-to-one basis of the same rank.

Gleb’s release began on social media. One of the comrades sees him on the Telegram channel, where pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine publish photos of captured enemy soldiers.

Then he called Lesia, relieved to know that her son was alive. “This is where we started the search,” she told AFP.

– From hospital to hospital –

On April 10, Gleb Strychko was deployed to the Mariupol steel plant converted into a fortified camp, was hit by tank fire, and then his comrades took him to the hospital, where he was captured.

He said that he was wounded in the pelvis, jaw and eye, and then transferred with other prisoners to Novoazovsk, a city under the control of separatists and located near the Russian border.

“We were in the hospital but we didn’t get any serious treatment,” he says. He stayed there for about a week before being transferred to an institution in Donetsk, a stronghold of the separatists.

There, he ends up getting a phone to warn his family, who are seeking help from the Ukrainian government.

“His relatives called me and asked for my help – his mother, brother and friends. They were all looking for me,” explains Ms. Verichuk, who is discussing her case with the Russian authorities.

After denying he was in their custody for a while, the latter finally admitted his detention and agreed to replace him, she said.

Speaking about his relationship with the jailers, Gleb evokes their indifference, but also a certain kind of cruelty.

Usually the doctors do their duty, said the soldier, but there was also a nurse who cursed him in Russian and left his meals at his bedside, knowing full well that he could not feed himself.

“Then you come back and say ‘Are you done?'” he remembers. “And you take the food away.”

– Knife to the skin –

In the hospital, Gleb was constantly watched and sometimes threatened, one of the guards even went so far as to pull a knife through his skin and threatened him: “I would love to cut off your ear, or cut you like the Ukrainians cut their prisoners.”

A week later in Donetsk, he was transferred again. From to prison this time.

Painful fits will follow for the sufferer: he is carried in a blanket, lying on the floor of the bus, and eventually is condemned to too bad a condition to leave the hospital. Then they were said to be taken again, by bus and then by ambulance, to the Russian border.

He was told that he was going to Taganrog, a Russian city on the shores of the Sea of ​​Azov. But an ambulance was taking him to an airport, and a few hours later, he flew away with other wounded and captives, their hands tied and their eyes covered with duct tape.

On April 28, he arrived in Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014, and learned that he would be exchanged.

Then the Russians took him and three others who were seriously wounded to an undisclosed location, where the two camps stared at each other a kilometer away.

“When we traveled this kilometer, I was very afraid because who knows what could happen…” recalls the soldier.

Her mother suspected there was something in the tubes, but she doesn’t know the details. Until Mrs. Vereshock calls her to tell her the good news.

“I dropped my phone and started crying again,” she says.

gm / bob / tbm / emd

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