Russian prisoners of war await exchange

Lined up one behind the other, heads bowed, these prisoners of war, dressed in blue jackets, pants and work boots, walk in a row towards a dining hall for the meal.

That day, on the plate of these former Russian soldiers: pea soup, kacha (buckwheat porridge typical of the region), beet salad, all accompanied by bread. Suddenly, they stand up to shout in unison and in Ukrainian: “Thank you for the meal!” »

Agence France-Presse (AFP) was able to visit a camp for Russian prisoners of war, opened last year in western Ukraine.

kyiv strives to present its treatment of Russian prisoners of war as humane, in contrast to that of Moscow. Ukrainian authorities and Western human rights groups have accused Russia of mistreating its detainees.

Petro Yatsenko, spokesperson for the Ukrainian administration responsible for prisoners of war, assures that his country’s soldiers held in Russia live “in much worse conditions” and are “tortured”.

He refuses to communicate the number of prisoners on the site, but AFP journalists saw a 96-bed dormitory, and a canteen employee said he distributed the meal in three courses, in a room with 120 seats.

Trades at a standstill

This center is the last stop before freedom for soldiers about to be exchanged.

Since the invasion, 2,598 Ukrainian prisoners have returned to Ukraine during 48 exchanges between Moscow and kyiv, according to Ukrainian authorities.

But the last one, in August, concerned few prisoners. Petro Yatsenko claims, without wanting to give details, that Russia has interrupted the negotiations.

The wait can therefore be long: one of the prisoners claims to have been there for more than a year.

The Russians “don’t want to get them back,” he says.

Several prisoners also asked journalists if they knew of future exchanges.

In the establishment, which only accommodates men, each bed is marked with a photo, a name and a date of birth. In the dormitory, the oldest is 58 years old, the youngest 19.

According to Petro Yatsenko, fifteen inmates are Muslim and the prison has a prayer room and an Orthodox chapel.

In the infirmary, the inmates, dressed in striped pajamas, are recovering from serious injuries. One of the soldiers has difficulty speaking: he has been disfigured by shrapnel. “I can’t eat,” he said.

Sitting with hunched shoulders, this 46-year-old man claims to come from the Russian city of Bryansk, near the border with Ukraine, and to have fought for barely two weeks. He says he has been in the camp for almost four months.

Dostoyevsky and Coca

During the visit, rooms with televisions and coolers are shown to journalists. Inmates have the right to make calls — but they are listened to.

A small store sells candy, cigarettes and Coca-Cola.

On the library shelves, prisoners can find books in Russian, including those by bestselling author Dan Brown and famous writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

All have soap, toothpaste and razor. Ukraine spends around 250 euros per prisoner every month. “We do not provide them with evening suits,” explains Mr. Yatsenko to summarize the conditions of detention.

Some have suicidal thoughts and receive appropriate psychological support, he assures.

He believes that they have “no reason to flee”. They are “afraid of the outside” in Ukraine, and simply want to return home to Russia, he said.

Journalists present were encouraged to speak to a pre-selected group of detainees who had, according to Mr. Yatsenko, agreed to be interviewed.

One of them said he came from Chukotka, a region in the far northeast of Russia, where he was a fisherman and reindeer herder before joining the army. According to his account, he fought for two months in eastern Ukraine before being captured in July.

On the front, life expectancy “is not long,” he says. “It’s measured in hours. »

” Do not forget “

During the week, the routine is the same for him and his fellow inmates. Wake up at 6 a.m., lunch at 6:50 a.m., workshops and other activities from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (photo 4), lights out at 10:00 p.m.

In the camp’s sports hall, the portrait of former footballer Andrei Shevchenko sits proudly, as does that of Stephan Bandera, an ultranationalist leader and controversial figure whose organization collaborated with Nazi Germany — something the Kremlin never misses to recall to discredit Kiev.

On boards are written the words of the Ukrainian anthem, played every morning. And every day, soldiers must observe a minute of silence for Ukrainian servicemen who died in combat.

The prisoners “did not come to us as tourists,” says Petro Yatsenko. “They must know where they have set foot and not forget it. »

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