Kyiv, Ukraine – In Might, 26-year-old Ukrainian navy nurse Viktoria Obidina was compelled to half along with her four-year-old daughter.
“I used to be glad she wasn’t close to me,” she advised Al Jazeera, describing how she trusted a complete stranger to take Alisa away on a bus.
Mom and daughter had been in a filtration camp for Ukrainian prisoners of conflict captured within the southern metropolis of Mariupol, and Obidina was about to be whisked away to a Russian detention centre.
“They may have tortured me close to her or might have tortured her to make me do issues,” she defined matter-of-factly.
“They” had been the Russian servicemen and pro-Russian separatists who interrogated her and roughly 1,000 Ukrainians who emerged from Azovstal, an enormous metal plant that was the final Ukrainian holdout in besieged Mariupol.
Azovstal withstood nearly three months of fixed assaults, and its defenders left their underground bunkers solely after a direct order from Kyiv.
The separatists threatened to condemn some servicemen to demise and stored them in focus camp-like situations for months, simply as they do with hundreds of different Ukrainian prisoners of conflict.
A few of the POWs are ladies. And a few have been subjected to hunger, torture and sexual humiliation, Ukrainian officers and former POWs say.
“These individuals maintain nothing sacred,” mentioned Inga Chikinda, a Lithuania-born marine who was amongst 108 servicewomen and civilians launched on October 17 in a POW swap.
“There have been occasions once we had been ravenous,” Chikinda advised Al Jazeera. “We weren’t handled like people.”
She misplaced 8kg (17.6 kilos) in one of many Russian jails.
Their captors stored them away from non-Russian information shops and any contact with their family members and Ukrainian officers.
“We had been in an data vacuum,” Tetiana Vasylchenko, a bookkeeper-turned-paramedic who was captured in Mariupol in early March, mentioned at a Kyiv press convention on Wednesday.
“They liked saying, ‘Ukraine doesn’t need you. No person needs to swap you,’” she mentioned.
However the ladies discovered methods to maintain their spirits up.
One time, 27 ladies packed in a tiny cell designed for six individuals whispered the Ukrainian anthem, Vasylchenko mentioned.
“This was unbelievable,” she mentioned. “All doubts disappeared. The women’ eyes lit up.”
The ladies had been routinely denied fundamental healthcare.
Liudmila Guseinova, who began serving to rural orphans dwelling close to the separatist-held areas in Donetsk in 2014, was captured in 2019.
“For 3 years, I couldn’t get an ophthalmologist to see me, to easily get a pair of glasses,” she mentioned. Separatist leaders charged her with espionage, treason and extremism.
After three years and 13 days in captivity, she has misplaced 70 % of her eyesight, she mentioned.
Like different POWs, Guseinova might solely watch Russian tv channels however picked up on Moscow’s battlefield losses from the altering tone of stories studies and speak reveals.
“The angrier [TV anchors Olga] Skabeyeva, [Vladimir] Solovyev and different Russian propagandists obtained, the higher we understood that Ukraine was profitable,” she mentioned.
One of many locations the place Guseinova was held was Isolyatsia, a focus camp in Donetsk the place hundreds of individuals have allegedly been tortured since 2014.
Survivors say they had been overwhelmed, waterboarded, shocked and raped with electrical rods. They report having their enamel and nails eliminated, being buried alive for hours and going through mock video games of Russian roulette and executions.
Torture “goes on for hours. You lose the sense of time, and probably the most horrible factor is which you could’t cease it,” Ihor Kozlovsky, a theologian who spent a number of months in Isolyatsia, advised Al Jazeera in 2021.
A navy official who organises navy swaps mentioned the newly launched POWs seem damaged and depressed.
“When individuals got here out of the bus, there was a scent of concern, despair,” Colonel Volodymyr Petukhov advised Al Jazeera.
“They stroll in another way, they communicate in another way, they appear in another way,” he mentioned.
Kyiv considers the discharge of every POW a precedence – even when they must be swapped for high-profile figures suspected of spying for Moscow.
Professional-Kremlin Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, who was charged with excessive treason, was amongst 55 individuals Ukraine swapped for 215 Azovstal defenders and different servicemen in late September.
“Ukraine remembers everybody,” mentioned Petro Yatsenko, an writer who helped negotiate the prisoner swap. “Ukraine will get everybody again.”
Again in March, the Mariupol house constructing that nurse Obidina and her daughter, Alisa, lived in was being shelled when a Ukrainian serviceman calmly waited for them to pack up and go to a bunker below the Azovstal metal plant.
The serviceman was later killed by a Russian sniper, she mentioned.
Alisa spent nearly two months within the bunker with different civilians, horrified by the fixed bombardment by Russian planes, cruise missiles and artillery.
She helped her mom hand out painkillers to wounded troopers, learn books and performed with different kids – however stored asking her mom about demise.
“’Is that this our final day?’” she as soon as requested.
Alisa pulled on the heartstrings of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians after she was seen within the metal plant in a a shaky video filmed with a cell phone digicam.
As she leafed by a e-book, the kid mentioned she needed to go dwelling and say hi there to her grandmother Svitlana.
However the video led to Obidina’s arrest and imprisonment.
After they got here out of Azovstal’s underground hell, a Russian soldier recognised the kid.
“I used to be advised Alisa could be despatched to an orphanage and I might be arrested,” Obidina mentioned.
Fortunately, a girl on the filtration camp within the southeastern city of Mangush advised Obidina she might take Alisa to Ukrainian-controlled territory.
Obidina agreed straight away.
Alisa’s bus spent days stranded in no man’s land within the southern area of Zaporizhia.
Then Alisa reunited along with her grandmother, and each fled to Poland, the place the kid attends kindergarten and is studying Polish.
Her mom spent 165 days in focus camps within the separatist-held components of Donetsk.
One was the sprawling Olenivka jail, the place 60 Ukrainian servicemen had been killed on July 29.
Moscow accused Ukraine of hitting their barracks with a US-supplied cruise missile, however media studies urged the blast was attributable to the Russians and separatists.
Throughout her captivity, Obidina was allowed to name Alisa as soon as, on the morning after her fifth birthday.
In alternate, her Russian captors coerced her into memorising anti-Ukrainian statements and saying them on digicam for a Kremlin-controlled tv community.
“I used to be compelled to say what they needed to listen to,” Obidina mentioned.
Weeks later, she was swapped and returned to Ukraine. She by no means obtained again the paperwork, jewels, telephone or cash she handed over throughout her arrest.
She’s going to reunite with Alisa after a number of weeks of psychological rehabilitation within the jap metropolis of Dnipro.
“I’m solely a month away from her,” she mentioned with a radiant smile.