A Russian prisoner of war camp during the Ukraine War

a facility in western Ukraine housing Russian prisoners of war

As we arrived at this prisoner of war camp in the western part of Ukraine, Russian missiles were once more mocking Ukraine from the sky.

One of 50 locations across Ukraine where captured Russian soldiers, conscripts, and mercenaries are being held is in these dingy buildings.

We were led into a basement where we saw dozens of prisoners seeking refuge from the Russian attack and heard the crump of Ukrainian air defenses in the distance.

It is essential for Kyiv that prisoner exchanges continue because they have become a common occurrence in this war. In prisoner swaps, Ukraine reported this month that 1,762 men and women had so far been freed. These operations require months to plan and are extremely sensitive.

According to the Geneva Conventions, prisoners of war cannot be displayed in public or paraded.

We could go up to anyone we wanted and ask their permission. The guards, however, were always with us, so it was unlikely that these men were speaking openly.

For added identity protection, many people covered their faces.

The prisoners are allowed one phone-call every two weeks, according to the guards
According to the Ukrainian guards, each prisoner was allowed one phone call every two weeks.

According to interviews with prisoners who described instances of torture and other forms of ill treatment, a UN human rights report published last November documented abuses committed by both sides.

The guards here seemed eager to demonstrate that they were treating the prisoners humanely.

One combatant claimed to have been employed by a mercenary organization. Three days prior, he had been brought to this facility after being taken prisoner close to the eastern town of Soledar, which Russian forces had taken last month.

Unconvincedly, a few people continued to stare. One of the prisoners looked at us and told us he had been taken on December 29 in the Luhansk region.

He said, "I hope I'll be exchanged and I won't have to go back into the army.".

What if there's no other option?" I questioned.

I have some ideas, he said after pausing briefly. By voluntarily giving up, I could return. ".

Upon exiting the shelter, it was discovered that half of the prisoners had been injured.

Others had their hands or feet bandaged. Some people would limp when they moved.

As he explained how he had lost his leg in a grenade explosion, one young man started to cry.

Russian prisoners of war construct outdoor furniture sets
Russian soldiers were building garden furniture in one of the facility's workshops.

A small assembly line where prisoners of war were assembling outdoor furniture sets became visible as we got closer to the compression drill's pulsing sound.

Once more, they bowed their heads as they worked.

We were told that the facility had a contract with a local business, which allowed the inmates to earn some money as well, primarily for buying cigarettes and candy.

Most prisoners of war are required to work in positions like this. Officals from Russia reportedly had a choice.

The prisoners were led to a temporary canteen on the top floor during lunchtime. A Ukrainian flag was seen flapping through the window in the chilly wind.

Except for the sound of eating, they dined quickly and in silence. They then stood as a group and yelled in Ukrainian, "Thank you for lunch!" table by table, in a stunning display of choreography.

The prisoners eat a lunch of bread, corn soup, and a bowl of barley and meat
Bread, corn soup, and a serving of barley and meat are served for lunch to the prisoners.

Detainees in this facility are required to watch Ukrainian-language television, which includes documentaries on Ukrainian history and the southern city of Mariupol, which was virtually destroyed by a lengthy Russian siege and bombardment.

During the most recent exchange, some of the Ukrainian soldiers who had defended Mariupol took part.

We checked with one prisoner to see if he understood what he was seeing.

More or less, he responded. "I consider it instructive. He wasn't likely to have said something unfavorable.

Some of the Russians in the room may not have wanted to watch the program they were required to watch because they could not understand it.

According to the guards, each two weeks, prisoners are permitted one phone call. These phone calls are frequently their family members' first opportunity to learn that their sons have been taken prisoner.

One young man's mother could be heard over the phone saying, "Where are you? I've asked half the city about you!".

Mom, hold on. I can't say more because I'm held captive. " .

Before sobbing inconsolably, she asked, "With the bloody Ukrainians?".

"That's it, Mum. As the guard watched him, he commanded her to be silent. "My continued life and good health are what matter most. "  .

Some of the calls made by the prisoners went unanswered, leaving them to wait in hope for a subsequent prisoner exchange and another opportunity to speak with someone.

Morgan Gisholt Minard and Hanna Chornous contributed more reporting.

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