Putin's conscripts can end up at Ukraine's largest POW camp. They can only hope for a trade

© Provided by ABC NEWS Some Russian soldiers captured by Ukraine end up the country’s largest central prisoner of war camp.  (ABC News: Adam Kennedy)

There is a place reserved in Ukraine for Russia’s hapless soldiers.

It’s an eerie half-world between the war’s living and its dead.

Located in the north-western Lviv Oblast region, the ABC has been given a rare — and tightly controlled — look inside Ukraine’s central prisoner of war camp.

To step inside its thick concrete walls fringed with razor-wire is to step back in time to World War II-era scenes of captive fighters rendered powerless by their own surrender.

They may have given up the fight when hopelessly outnumbered, but etched on the faces of Russia’s sons — all prisoners are male — is the indignity of permanent defeat.

Whether willing or unwilling warriors in the first place, few will again take up arms in this war.

About 50 or more prisoners arrive each week, on average, depending on the ferocity of battle on the front line and on the fluctuating fortunes of each nation.

A similar number can leave each week, through an expanding program of prisoner exchanges with the Russians, who return Ukrainians held in their camps across the border.

The harsh reality for most, though, is that there seems to be an unstated pecking order, with very little clarity about who their Russian compatriots will select for a return to home, or why.

Not all wish to talk to visiting media and, under the Geneva Convention, they cannot be forced to, yet several willingly agree to tell their stories.

They tell tales of deception and misinformation, and often in their final days on the battlefield, of abandonment by more senior officers in their units.

As happens in desperate situations, each account could be embellished, and all may be self-serving.

We recount them here in good faith, after testing them through questioning, as much rigour as we can apply on a half-day prison visit.

‘We dream of war at night all the time’

In a salmon-pink painted room of the prison’s infirmary, 21-year-old Nikita from Siberia has time in captivity to contemplate a life on eventual return to his homeland, certain in the knowledge the war has changed it forever.

He was part of the invading forces in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region when he jumped into a trench and landed on a mine laid by his fellow soldiers.

Both legs were blasted off in the instant explosion that followed.

Now in recovery, stealing an occasional glance at what remains of his severed legs, Nikita reflects on his predicament.

“We dream of war at night all the time,” he says of his months in confinement.

“We’ve had enough time to talk about this.”

The ordeal extended beyond his physical impairment.

The National Guardsman recounted how he could not remember his mother’s phone number at first, but was reminded of it when permitted to search the internet by Ukrainian authorities.

She encourages him not to be restless, yet as he uses the Russian version of the phrase ‘standing on your own feet’, Nikita tells of his aspirations for a normal life beyond the war.

“I hope to have prostheses and learn how to walk again,” he says.

“I want to continue to do some sports.

“I will find some activities to develop myself so I can live as a fully-fledged person.”

‘Sent like idiots to slaughter’

Nikita’s roommate in the hospital wing, Vitali, fared only slightly better.

The 21-year-old from the annexed, Russian-controlled Donetsk region had his leg shattered by a grenade one month into the war after a building his unit occupied became encircled by Ukrainian forces in superior numbers.

The fresh-faced fighter doesn’t dwell as much on his broken and braced right leg as he does on the deceptive conduct of the military commission that drew this unsuspecting soldier into the war.

As a full-time university student, Vitali should have been exempt from Vladimir Putin’s mobilisation of 300,000 military conscripts.

Instead, the day before President Putin declared his invasion, Vitali received papers asking him to report to the commission, where he was instructed to pack for training.

At first, he wasn’t too alarmed because friends had been put through basic training a year earlier and returned from it.

“But we were deceived and sent to the Kharkiv region,” Vitali said.

“All of us mobilised [soldiers] have the same story.”

He was handed a Kalashnikov rifle and launched into combat.

“We weren’t trained, just sent. Nobody was trained. [We were] sent like idiots to slaughter,” Vitali said.

Paths of entry into the war, as well as their final surrender vary wildly.

Among the detained are officers, reservists, mobilised conscripts and, although we never met one, almost certainly members of the mercenary Wagner fighting forces who got into it for the money or as a get-out-of-jail card for those who were already serving time for offences committed in Russia.

Over lunch in the dining room, where men gather three times a day, we meet Daniel – another young soldier from Siberia.

Motivated to sign-up by a strong family connection to armed service, the head-shaven 21-year-old was into the third and final year of an initial term of enlistment when sent to the front in Chernihiv on the first day of the war.

Seven months into his internment, Daniel uses the 15 minutes allowed for phone calls each week and paid for by his Ukrainian captors, to keep in touch with family.

“They hope and wait for me,” Daniel relays wistfully, although his relatives apparently hold out little prospects for his return before the war is over, based on the information local Russian officials give them.

“They say [the Ukrainians] won’t let me out of here. They reported to the Ministry of Defence that Ukraine does not let me go.”

High and low value prisoners

Ukrainian authorities under the banner of the country’s Justice Ministry have opened this central camp to limited western media scrutiny in what they regard as an act of transparency.

For “security” reasons some restrictions apply, including information on the precise number of prisoners being held here, publishing the facility’s exact location and details about behaviour management, punishment and compliance.

“We need to show our central camp for prisoners of war accords with the Geneva Convention,” Public Affairs spokesman Petro Yasenko tells us.

Petro’s three-hour tour opened medical wards, a dental lab, dormitories, bathrooms, workshops, the dining room, food pantries, a television room and exercise yards for inspection.

External authorities are also given regular access, according to the Ukrainians.

Apart from supervising the management of POW camps, Petrov works for the Coordination Committee in charge of liaising with Russians for prisoner exchanges.

Lately, the pace of exchange deals has picked up along with the size of the prisoner batches being transferred.

Swaps involving between 10-50 Russians for returning Ukrainians are now commonplace.

Typically, poorer conscripts drafted in Putin’s 300,000-man troop mobilisation drive are relegated by Russian negotiators as low value in the prisoner ‘exchange rate’.

“First of all, they’re willing to exchange some guys who have money or relatives, then officers and pilots are the [next] highest priority,” Petro says.

To overcome this, the Ukrainians are working on a special programme targeted at long-term mobilised forces.

“For example, they could get shelter in Ukraine, or obtain shelter in some European countries, or they can exchange back to Russia if they want,” Petro says.

Depending on the length of the war and the unknown number of POWs it generates, Ukraine’s long-term goal is to try to get all its men and women back from Russian captivity.

The ideal of complete force repatriation is a noble, even if unachievable, ambition mired in the reality of this bitter and bloody conflict.

Even in what are almost certainly comparatively better conditions on the Ukrainian side, the experience and demeanour of Russia’s listless men in this camp in the Lviv region stand as proof of a persistent truth from wars through the ages.

Imprisoned soldiers may all return home at war’s end, but they are never fully the same in body and mind as when they left.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *