Espreso. Global

Constant beatings, 16-hour standing orders, starvation: Ukrainian soldier tells about Russian captivity

9 March, 2024 Saturday

Surviving captivity: stories of freed Ukrainians. Yuriy Hrynash, a soldier from the 24th Brigade named after King Danylo, spent 648 days in Russian prisons before returning home on January 3rd

Espreso journalist talked to the soldier.

He was constantly beaten, starved, and mocked. This is how Yuriy Hrynash, a soldier of the 24th Detached Mechanized Brigade named after King Danylo, describes his captivity. He spent 648 days in Russian dungeons. On January 3, 2024, he returned home.

He stood in line at the military enlistment office for several days to join the army

The man went to the front lines after the start of the full-scale Russian invasion. He volunteered, saying he went to defend the country.

Putin not only brainwashed people in Russia but now also wants to seize our state, as if it's their land. This is not normal, not right," notes Yuriy Hrynash.

He had to stand in line at the military enlistment office for several days, sometimes for hours, to join the army. Eventually, he was accepted into the 24th Brigade. There, he underwent basic specialized training and embarked on his first combat missions.

"I thought somewhere towards Kyiv. I wanted to get there somewhere. Because on the third day of the war, they were already driving around Kyiv. I thought to myself, 'Wow, I need to help,” Yuriy Hrynash recounted.

But the soldier was sent to the east. First to Bakhmut, then to Pokrovsk in Donetsk region. And then to Popasna in the Luhansk region. They stayed there for more than a week. According to Yuriy, there were no close battles in the city center. The Russians were shooting from Grad rockets, mortars, and dropping bombs. The actual fighting was already on the outskirts.

"We were in the third position, and two positions in front of us disappeared. We were surrounded," Yuriy Hrynash recalls. - It lasted for several hours. They threw grenades, exchanged fire. We were in the basement, in a locked room, and could only move around the basement. Then we retreated to the last dead-end room and had two options: surrender or death. By the way, they offered us to surrender several times, we refused, and told them to go away. Then we surrendered because there was no way out. A few guys were the first to leave, then we heard shots. I thought they were shot. But no, one of them came back and said, "Surrender, guys, you won't be shot, everything will be fine. So we surrendered."

A man got shot in the leg just because he was an artilleryman

So the story of captivity began. As Yuriy recounts, initially there were no Russian military, only locals fighting for the Russian army. But they were still relatively humane compared to the occupying forces.

"At first, they made us kneel, tied our hands with ties, and lectured us: why are you Westerners meddling here, we are locals, we don't want your support, we don't want to be part of Ukraine. Then they took us to the basement. Stripped us, checked for tattoos. Asked who served where and whether we participated in the ATO. They were also interested in our specialties. One man got shot in the leg just because he was an artilleryman," recalls the soldier about the first day of captivity.

 "I was hit several times. And then they transported me to the detention center. There they took off our uniforms, even our boots from some. Then for a month, we walked barefoot in just socks. One guy with us had a hand injury. A bullet hit him, breaking his arm in several places. He was bleeding, looking pale. We wrapped his arm as best as we could. We hoped they might provide medical assistance. But they refused and said: "if you survive, you survive, if not - 'tough luck'."

After that, the soldiers were taken further. There were already Russian military personnel and representatives of their police in blue uniforms. It was the Luhansk pretrial detention center where Yuriy Hrynash spent a month. According to him, prisoners there were beaten, some even tortured. They were shocked with stun guns, had bags put over their heads, and were suffocated. They even attempted to shoot one.

"I was lucky. There were three investigators there. I ended up with one of the more decent ones. They would take several of us from the cell for the whole day. Some guys ended up with two lieutenants; they would say if you guys come in and see a Ukrainian flag on the floor, it means you're out of luck. I was beaten a few times and forced to appear in two videos. And that was it," Yuriy Hrynash recounted.

In the Russian prison, the beatings were severe, especially targeting the legs and kidneys

After the Luhansk pretrial detention center, Yuriy Hrynyash was transferred to a prison in Russia.

On the same day, at 10 p.m. after the lockdown, ten people were taken from the cell.

"At first, they threw us into a ZIL truck like some kind of cattle. There were 44 people. We all sat in a row. Meaning you sit, legs to the side, and there's another person in front of you, you hug them and they tie you together with a strap. And so everyone, so that no one could escape," Yuriy Hrynyash continues about captivity. "Some guys were suffocating when the vehicle braked. Because you're sitting and all the weight is pressing down. Some people's hearts were racing. They didn't even let us go to the toilet. Someone, it seems, even went to the toilet there."

The men traveled for a very long time. In the early morning, they were brought to the airport. They couldn't see anything around them because their heads were covered with a hat and wrapped with tape. After the plane, they were transferred to vans and taken to a prison in Russia. Here's Yuriy Hrynash's account of his first day in a Russian prison:

"From the vans, they threw us out onto the asphalt one by one. Immediately they asked for name, surname, position, and so on, and on we went. We entered a room with bars, without doors. I could hear all the guys nearby, I could touch someone, but I couldn't see anyone, and I couldn't find my own either. Then I hear that several people are being taken somewhere. They told us to stand; if you sit down, it's over. We stood, I didn't know how long we stood there; I lost my sense of time and space. I was there for over 12 hours for sure. I was falling asleep standing up. I fell to my knees and dozed off. Luckily, no one noticed. I realized people were being taken somewhere else. That's when they took me and two other guys. They didn't take off our hats, we couldn't see anything. They made us kneel against the wall. They started asking me if I knew about World War II. I told them. Then they asked about Stepan Bandera. I said I didn't know who that was. And he said, 'you'll find out soon.' They turned me around, took off my hat. It was dark for over a day, and I couldn't see anything. And it was so tight that I had a scar. I saw three men in blue uniforms in front of me, and they immediately started hitting me in the stomach, in the head."

“They asked me who I was and where I studied. I told them everything. I kept walking. I come to the wall, there are three more Russians there - one holding a taser, the other a baton, the third something like a bat. They said, "Take off your clothes.  You have three seconds or you're dead. I had nothing to take off, so I took off my clothes and made it. They said well done, but you're still fucked. They told me to put my hands on the wall and started beating me with these objects. They hit my kidneys and legs the most. They beat me very hard. There was a kind of a circle. I undressed, then had a haircut, a bath, and came back to the same room, but on the other side of the wall. There were tables with investigators. Near the investigator, they started beating me again with a taser. And then they gave me a set of prison uniforms and took me to a cell. When I entered the cell, I was all blue from behind. The other guys were also all blue. I was relatively lucky. Some of the guys had their organs torn off, one had his head smashed off. One had his foot broken. Many fell down and lost consciousness."

We stood for 16 hours and sang the Russian anthem several times a day

The cells were different. From two to 14 prisoners. Yuriy was kept in a six-person cell. On the first day of his stay, he was not given anything to eat. On the next day, they gave him a little soup for lunch, and a spoonful of potatoes with bread for dinner.

"They starved us," Yuriy continues. "Overall, we got about 5 spoonfuls of porridge and a piece of bread. The porridge was nothing special: neither sweet nor salty, and the tea was the same. That was for one meal. For lunch, we had a first course and a second course: soup and porridge. The soup was so thin, I remember in December, there was barely any food in it. The treatment was very poor. They made us stand constantly. The first few days we were still allowed to sit, but then they let us know that sitting wasn't allowed, we had to stand. They wanted us to stand for 16 hours. In the first year, everything was fine, my legs didn't swell. But after a year, they started swelling, and they still swell now. We stood, forced to sing the Russian anthem 5 times. Sometimes, we sang it 20 times. That's how the day started. You'd be asleep, hear the Russian anthem, and urgently have to stand in line by the door and sing the anthem. After that, immediately 15 minutes of exercise. Then cleaning and breakfast. And then - we stood."

"They made us constantly learn their propaganda. About General Zhukov, about the Second World War, poems, over 30 poems. The titles were so poor - 'Russia' or 'Russia, Russia, Russia' or 'Beloved Russia.' And then they quizzed us every morning. There was a morning check. They opened every cell, took everyone out. Outside the cell, we could only move bent over, hands behind our backs. And one of them checked the cell, while the others interrogated. Sometimes, they just beat us. It rarely happened to me. Once every few months. They used a shocker on the genitals. Thirty people got tuberculosis. Because of the poor conditions. It was very damp and cold there. There was no treatment."

During his captivity, Yuriy was allowed to write two letters to his family. The first one was when they arrived at the prison. The Russians provided an example of how to write it, and the prisoners had to copy the letter exactly so it could be sent. Then, after a week, they were allowed to write in their own words. Since then, there was no contact with his family for over 600 days.

I immediately asked for a phone and a cigarette

For a year and a half, Yuriy Hrynash believed that he would be exchanged and convinced the guys who sat with him of this. But then he stopped believing. He thought he would sit there until he was 30. But on January 3rd, the door to the cell opened and Yuriy's name was called. He thought he was being moved to another cell again, but it was actually an exchange. When they took him out of the cell, they hit him a few more times as a farewell, put him in a van, and took him somewhere.

At that moment, Yuriy didn't know or believe that it could be an exchange. Moreover, sitting next to him was a guy who had already been through eight facilities. Then they were taken to the airport. But even then, Yuriy wasn't sure it was an exchange. He became convinced when they boarded buses in Belgorod. That's when he realized he was going home.

"I was very happy, but it was hard to believe I was home," shares the soldier. "I immediately asked for a phone, called my parents, and then asked for a cigarette. My mom and grandma were overjoyed. And when they saw me, they burst into tears."

Today, Yuriy Hrynash continues his rehabilitation after captivity. He has already returned home. The abuse in Russian prisons has left its mark: he has problems with his legs and his posture has been affected. He is now four centimeters shorter.

"You know, before captivity, I used to think that there are no bad nations, only bad people. Now I can't hold onto that belief. They are abnormal people. They derived pleasure from beating us, mocking us, laughing at us, and interrogating us with all this nonsense. I don't understand why they do this," Yuriy Hrynash concluded.

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