Special report: Testimonies of freed Ukrainians reveal horrors of war and captivity

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Capt. Oleksandr Demchenko, an anesthetist, in a makeshift basement hospital during the Azovstal siege in Mariupol. (Supplied)
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Lyudmila Huseynova waived her right to anonymity as a survivor of sexual violence in order to draw attention to the alleged crimes committed by rebels in Donbas prior to the invasion. (AN photo: Mykhaylo Palinchak)
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Some of the Ukrainian soldiers who were released in a prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine on Sept. 21, 2022. (Ukrainian Security service Press Office via AP)
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Updated 24 March 2023

Special report: Testimonies of freed Ukrainians reveal horrors of war and captivity

  • Capt. Oleksandr Demchenko, taken captive in May 2022 in Mariupol, recounted his experience of 127 days of incarceration
  • Lyudmila Huseynova, a former safety engineer in Donetsk, waived her right to anonymity as a survivor of sexual violence

KYIV: When the last group of Ukrainian soldiers holed up in the Azovstal steelworks surrendered to Russian forces in May 2022, it marked the end of a ferocious three-month siege of the defenders’ last stronghold in Mariupol.

Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers and international volunteers were transferred to a prison colony in Russian-controlled territory, where officials insisted that they would be treated in line with international norms for prisoners of war.

Among them was Capt. Oleksandr Demchenko, an anesthetist who had been working in a makeshift basement hospital during the closing weeks of the siege. He was taken captive on May 18 during a mission to bring supplies and reinforcements to Azovstal.

“I say I have three lives,” Demchenko told Arab News in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, recalling the events — the heavy shelling and falling captive to the Russian forces — almost a year after the fall of Mariupol. “One before my capture, one during, and now the one after.”

Demchenko was among around 300 POWs (including 10 foreigners) released in a prisoner swap brokered by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Turkiye on Sept. 21 last year. Now slowly recovering from his ordeal, Demchenko has shared his story with Arab News.



Mariupol became a symbol of some of the worst violence of the war to date. Moscow recognized the coastal city’s strategic importance as a stepping stone in building a land bridge from Russia to Crimea, annexed by Moscow in 2014.

The Azovstal steelworks, covering an area of about 4 square miles, including a warren of underground tunnels, became a final holdout where thousands of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers perished in some of the most brutal urban warfare of the past century.

From his underground field hospital, Demchenko operated on wounded soldiers until the Russian onslaught finally overran Ukrainian positions. “They were throwing everything they had at us,” he said.

By that point, the Ukrainian defenders were running low on food, ammunition and medicine. “If I had half a cup of water, I’d call it a good day,” said Demchenko, recalling the privation of those final days in Azovstal.

Following their capture, the POWs were taken to Olenivka, an abandoned prison only recently reopened by the pro-Russian separatist Donetsk People’s Republic. There, rooms made to house 150 people were crammed with 800 prisoners.


Chronicle of a Ukrainian woman’s journey from administration to military training

According to Demchenko, meals consisted of rotten bread and water drawn from the river. He lost 45 kilograms during his 127 days of incarceration in Olenivka, where prisoners were watched and interrogated by a rotating contingent of guards.

Demchenko said he spent his first month and a half in the prison asleep out of sheer exhaustion from the last stand at Azovstal.

“I kept my mind going, I kept making plans for the future,” he said. “My mental state was fine, but I was starting to worry that my body wouldn’t survive for long.”

Several former inmates of Olenivka, officially known as Correctional Colony No. 120, have detailed allegations of beatings, torture, forced labor, and the denial of food and medical care.

Prisoners of war (five British citizens, one Moroccan, one Swede, one Croat, and two Americans) are seen in the tarmac after arriving, following successful mediation efforts by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, from Russia to King Khalid International Airport, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, September 21, 2022. (SPA)

On July 29, the prison became notorious when more than 50 Ukrainian POWs were reportedly killed in a blast that both Russia and Ukraine accuse the other of carrying out, with many of the inmates burning to death.

Russia claimed Ukraine had fired US-supplied HIMARS rockets at the prison to deliberately kill its own POWs. Ukraine denied Russia’s claims, accusing Moscow of carrying out the killings to cover up its maltreatment of prisoners.

An independent inquiry is yet to take place.

In September, rumors began circulating among inmates that they would soon be transferred. When the day finally came for the prisoners to move, Demchenko’s body had been so ravaged by malnutrition that he had been reduced to skin and bone.

Following a flight, the prisoners were transferred to a train bound for Belarus. It was during this train journey that Demchenko realized he was being freed when a man walked into the carriage and told them in Ukrainian: “Guys, it’ll be over soon.”

Upon his release, Demchenko said he immediately called his family. Instead of saying hello he greeted them with the wartime salutation: “‘Slava Ukraini’ — ‘Glory to Ukraine.’

“They asked: ‘Who is this?’” said Demchenko. “I laughed and told them: ‘Have you forgotten me so soon?’”

Since the Sept. 21 prisoner swap, exchanges have become a common feature of the war, which has dragged on for more than a year now. Some 1,863 women and men have been released since Russia launched what it called a “special military operation” on Feb. 24, 2022.

Thousands, however, remain imprisoned in conditions said to be at odds with international humanitarian law, including the Third Geneva Convention on the treatment of POWs adopted in August 1949.

According to the convention, POWs must at all times be humanely treated. Any unlawful act or omission by the detaining power causing death or seriously endangering the health of a POW in its custody is prohibited, and, if it occurs, is regarded as a serious breach of the convention.


• On Sept. 21, 2022, Russia and Ukraine carried out a prisoner swap involving almost 300 people, including 10 foreigners and the commanders who led a Ukrainian defense of Mariupol.

• The swap, which involved help from Saudi Arabia and Turkiye, resulted in the release of 215 Ukrainians, most of whom were captured after the fall of Mariupol.

• The freed Ukrainians included Lt. Col. Denys Prokopenko, commander of the Azov battalion; his deputy, Svyatoslav Palamar; and Serhiy Volynsky, the commander of the 36th Marine Brigade.

The convention also obliges all parties to an international armed conflict to grant the International Committee of the Red Cross access to all prisoners of war and the right to visit them wherever they are held. Russia and Ukraine are both parties to the treaty.

Senior Russian officials and diplomats have repeatedly rejected accusations of criminal violence against civilians in Ukraine, denied use of torture or other forms of maltreatment of POWs, and countered with their own allegations of war crimes. 

“The special military operation takes place in accordance with the fundamental provisions of the UN Charter, which gives states the right for legitimate self-defense in the event of a threat of use of force, which we have exercised,” Sergei Kozlov, the Russian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, wrote in an Arab News oped in February. 

“As you can see, Russia follows the true spirit of international law, not some kind of ‘rules-based order,’ arbitrarily introduced by the West and its henchmen.”

While thousands of soldiers on both sides have been taken captive since February 2022, detentions and alleged maltreatment in captivity was not reserved for military personnel alone. For many Ukrainian civilians in the east of the country, the ordeal began as far back as 2014.

Lyudmila Huseynova once worked as a safety engineer at a poultry farm in Novoazovsk in Donetsk. When Russian-backed separatists seized her town in 2014, she did not conceal her opposition.

Furthermore, Huseynova became heavily involved in helping to resettle families displaced by the fighting and took care of children in local orphanages.

“I saw the state of the children. They were starving,” Huseynova told Arab News at an apartment building in Kyiv, where she has since resettled.

“At the time there was no allocation of funds in the budget to help them as the budget was strained. I couldn’t fathom leaving them behind, so I stayed.”

Huseynova’s world was turned upside down in October 2019 when one evening, while her husband was away in Kharkiv, there came a knock on the door and a group of men barged into her home.

“I kept thinking why they were muddying the house I had just cleaned with their dirty boots,” said Huseynova.

With her hands bound and a bag placed over her head, she was put in the back of a car and driven to another location for interrogation.

“I thought it was absurd,” she said, recalling her abduction. “I have always been vocal, on and offline, for years now. They used my public Facebook posts, the Ukrainian flag in my home, my books, and accused me of being a ‘nationalist.’”

Huseynova was taken to Izolyatsia, a former art center, transformed in 2014 into a now notorious prison synonymous with allegations of torture and inhumane treatment. “The moment you enter Izolyatsia, you are oppressed as a human and as a woman,” she said.

Although she was almost 60 years old at the time, Huseynova was made to undress in front of her interrogators. “They kept the handcuffs on me, on one hand. The bag was still over my head. I was sexually abused,” she told Arab News.

“They were laughing, and from the sound of their laughter I can tell they were rather young.”

Lyudmila Huseynova, who says she was kidnapped, interrogated and sexually assaulted by Russian troops. (AN photo/Mykhaylo Palinchak)

Huseynova, whose father is Muslim, was willing to waive her right to anonymity as a survivor of sexual violence in order to draw attention to the alleged crimes committed by Russian-backed rebels in Donbas prior to the invasion.

“Women are respected in Islam,” she said. “The way we were treated by our captors goes against every Muslim law on the treatment of women.”

After this ordeal was over, Huseynova was taken to a cell, which she shared with another woman. It contained a bunk bed, a toilet, windows painted black to block out the sunlight, and a lamp that was on 24/7. There was a surveillance camera in every cell.

Huseynova said prisoners were made to stand every day from the early morning until sundown and were subjected to routine humiliation. On one occasion, Huseynova said she was forced to eat wheat containing mouse excrement, much to the joy of her captors.

Later Huseynova was transferred to SIZO prison in Lutsk, where she said she was deprived of sleep. “There were lots of addicts,” she said. “The TV was on at all hours of the day.”

It was while incarcerated in SIZO that Huseynova learned of the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022. “I lost all hope of ever being released,” she said.

Capt. Oleksandr Demchenko. (AN photo/Mykhaylo Palinchak)

However, in October that year Huseynova was suddenly released. Rounded up with a group of other detainees, with tape placed over their eyes, she was transported by car, first to a basement cell, and then to a military airport.

“The car drove around for 7 hours almost aimlessly. When they put us in the basement, they told us we would be executed. We were given no food, no water, just one scoop of wheat.”

However, rather than killing the prisoners, their captors loaded the women onto a plane, cramming them into their seats. Huseynova said the women were told menacingly “don’t be afraid, but this will hurt a little.”

The plane then landed in Crimea, where Huseynova could see a man standing with a white flag waiting to greet them.

Months after her release and resettlement in Kyiv, Huseynova said she cannot forget the women still imprisoned and has been searching for ways to help them. “They feel forgotten,” she said. “They must know they are not so.”

Like Huseynova, Demchenko is still suffering from several health complications brought on by his captivity. He has, however, regained the weight he lost and is looking much healthier.

“Life goes on,” he said, reflecting on the past year of war, imprisonment and freedom. “I never regretted being part of the mission. Speaking as a doctor, Russia is a cancer that must be removed without anesthesia.

“The captors knew what they were doing and, even worse, they enjoyed what they were doing. I will continue my service. I will not stop until we win.”

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has accused both Russia and Ukraine of torturing prisoners of war during the conflict. The International Criminal Court is investigating war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine going back as far as 2013. Its chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, believes there is a reasonable basis to believe war crimes have been carried out and, in December 2022, said “Ukraine is a crime scene.”

At least ten Niger soldiers killed in militant attack

Updated 9 sec ago

At least ten Niger soldiers killed in militant attack

  • Islamist militants have stepped up their attacks amid the power struggles in some countries in the Sahel region, with Niger as the latest to be hit by a coup

NIAMEY: At least ten Niger soldiers were killed in an attack by militants in the country’s southwest on Thursday morning, three security sources told Reuters.

The attack took place about 190 km (118 miles) from the capital Niamey in Kandadji, near the tri-border zone of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger that has been the epicenter of Islamist insurgencies in the Sahel region in the last few years.
The sources including a senior military officer, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media, did not say which group was responsible. Local affiliates of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State are active in the region and wage frequent attacks on soldiers and civilians.
Two security sources said the army responded to the attack with ground troops as well as helicopters, one of which was hit but was able to return to its base.
Niger is run by a military junta that seized power in a coup in July, partly out of discontent at the worsening security situation. Neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso have each had two coups in the last three years.
However, security analysts say attacks had been falling in Niger under ousted President Mohamed Bazoum, who had tried to engage with Islamists and the rural communities where they are rooted.
At least 17 soldiers were killed in another attack in southwestern Niger in mid-August.
France said on Sunday it would withdraw its 1,500 troops from Niger before the end of the year, after weeks of pressure from the junta and popular demonstrations against the former colonial ruler, which had forces there to fight the insurgents.
On Thursday, several hundred pro-junta supporters gathered again in front of the French military base in the capital Niamey to demand that the troops leave.

Germany, Israel sign ‘historic’ missile shield deal

Updated 28 September 2023

Germany, Israel sign ‘historic’ missile shield deal

  • Worth around $3.5 billion (€3.3 billion), the sale is the biggest ever deal for Israel’s military industry

BERLIN: Germany on Thursday signed a deal to acquire the Israeli-made Arrow 3 hypersonic missile system that will become a key part of Europe’s defense against air attack.

The signing of the deal was a “historic day” for both countries, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said at a press conference alongside his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant.

Worth around $3.5 billion (€3.3 billion), the sale is the biggest ever deal for Israel’s military industry.

The Arrow 3 system would make “German air defense ready for the future,” Pistorius said.

Germany has led a push to bolster NATO’s air defenses in Europe, urging allies to buy deterrence systems together.

“We can see with the daily Russian attacks on Ukraine how important anti-air defense is,” Pistorius said.

“Only 80 years since the end of the Second World War yet Israel and Germany join hands today in building a safer future,” he said.

The long-range Arrow 3 system, designed to shoot down missiles above the Earth’s atmosphere, is powerful enough to offer protective cover for neighboring EU states.

The system was developed and produced by Israel and the US and the sale had to be approved by Washington before it could be finalized.

The system was first deployed at an Israeli air force base in 2017 and has been used to protect Israel against attacks from Iran and Syria.

Arrow 3 is a “mobile system” that can be deployed depending on the threats faced, according to manufacturer Israel Aerospace Industries.

The money for the deal comes from a landmark €100-billion fund unveiled by Chancellor Olaf Scholz to bolster the country’s defenses in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

More than a dozen European countries have so far signed up to Germany’s common air defense project, the European Sky Shield Initiative.

The Sky Shield project would involve joint procurement for short-, medium- and long-range systems, including the German-made Iris-T, the American Patriot system and Arrow 3.

Some of Germany’s neighbors have however so far declined to sign up to the pact, including France and Poland.

Officials in Paris have argued instead for an air defense system using European equipment.

Berlin has said it expects the Arrow 3 system to be delivered in the final quarter of 2025.

Three killed in twin Dutch shootings

Updated 28 September 2023

Three killed in twin Dutch shootings

  • Dutch police said they were still investigating the motive for the twin attacks by the 32-year-old man
  • The man first burst into a house in the Dutch port city and opened fire, killing a 39-year-old woman and seriously injuring her 14-year-old daughter

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands: A gunman dressed in combat gear and wearing a bulletproof vest went on a shooting rampage at a house and a hospital in Rotterdam Thursday, killing a 14-year-old girl, her mother and a teacher.
Dutch police said they were still investigating the motive for the twin attacks by the 32-year-old man, who also set fire to the hospital and the house.
The man first burst into a house in the Dutch port city and opened fire, killing a 39-year-old woman and seriously injuring her 14-year-old daughter, police chief Fred Westerbeke told reporters. The girl later died of her injuries.
He then moved to a classroom at the Erasmus MC university hospital, shooting dead a 46-year-old teacher before starting another fire in the facility, sparking panic.
Elite police stormed the hospital, as panicked medical staff in white coats flooded out of the building pushing patients in wheelchairs and on stretchers.
He was taken into custody shortly afterwards and chief public prosecutor Hugo Hillenaar told reporters the suspect was cooperating with police following his arrest.
“We cannot say anything about the motive of this terrible act at this time. The probe is still ongoing,” said Hillenaar.
The suspect was thought to have possessed only one firearm and there is no indication he had accomplices, authorities said.
Police said the suspect, a student at the hospital, was already known to the authorities over a conviction for animal cruelty.
An investigation is underway as to whether he was a student of the teacher shot dead. Authorities believe that the woman and her daughter were close neighbors of the suspect, leading Westerbeke to suggest they were “targeted attacks.”
He had earlier been described as tall, with black hair, wearing “combat-style” clothes and carrying a backpack.
“I am angry and sad,” said Rotterdam mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb, who spoke of a “black day” for his city.
“We have been shocked by a horrific incident... the emotion in the city is running high,” the mayor told reporters.
Witnesses described the chaotic scenes around the hospital, as helicopters buzzed overhead, and police snipers took up positions on the hospital roof.
“First there was a shooting on the fourth floor. Four or five shots were fired. Then a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the education center,” said a medical student quoted by RTL Nieuws, who did not give his name.
“There was a lot of panic and screaming... I didn’t hear any shots, just the panic and that’s what I started to act on,” public broadcaster NOS cited another eyewitness as saying.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte spoke of his “great dismay” at the shootings.
“My thoughts go out to the victims of the violence, their loved ones and all those who have been hugely scared,” he added in a statement on X, formerly Twitter.
King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima said their hearts went out to those suffering “intense grief.”
“It’s unbelievable,” said Rotterdam GP Matthijs van der Poel, cited on the Algemeen Dagblad website.
“Everyone is totally shocked by the events and is watching the news with horror. I’m afraid such things cannot be prevented,” he said.
Rotterdam is often the scene of shootings, usually attributed to score settling by rival drug gangs.
In 2019, three people were shot dead on a tram in Utrecht, sparking a huge manhunt.
And in 2011, the country was left shocked when 24-year-old Tristan van der Vlis killed six people and wounded 10 others in a rampage at a packed shopping mall.

Canada PM says he is sure Blinken will raise murder case with India

Updated 28 September 2023

Canada PM says he is sure Blinken will raise murder case with India

  • Blinken is due to meet Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on Thursday
  • New Delhi has told Canada it was open to looking into any “specific” information on the killing

OTTAWA: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Thursday he was sure US Secretary of State Antony Blinken would raise the murder of a Sikh separatist leader with his Indian counterpart when the two meet later in the day.

Trudeau made his remarks to reporters in Quebec, 10 days after he announced Canada suspected Indian government agents were linked to the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, which took place in the province of British Columbia in June.

Blinken is due to meet Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on Thursday. Asked directly whether Blinken would bring up the case, Trudeau replied: “The Americans will certainly discuss this matter with the Indian government.”

India has dismissed Canada’s allegations as absurd. Jaishankar though said on Tuesday that New Delhi has told Canada it was open to looking into any “specific” or “relevant” information it provides on the killing.

Serbia opens ‘smart’ police station using UAE expertise

Updated 28 September 2023

Serbia opens ‘smart’ police station using UAE expertise

  • High-tech facility will offer 24/7 security and community services

LONDON: Serbia has opened its first “smart” police station, drawing on the technological expertise of the UAE, Emirates News Agency reported on Thursday.

The initiative was inspired by the success of Dubai Police’s smart police stations, which offer 24/7 security and community services without human intervention.

The new high-tech police facility is part of the UAE and Serbia’s collaboration and exchanging of expertise in security, policing and crime prevention.

Bratislav Gasic, Serbia’s interior minister, praised the UAE for its support in establishing the police station, highlighting it as a testament to the growing ties between the two countries.

Lt. Gen. Abdullah Khalifa Al-Marri, commander-in-chief of Dubai Police, said the venture is part of the UAE’s strategic efforts to strengthen its international partnerships in line with the vision of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum.

“Our shared objective is to transform Serbian police stations, combining Emirati innovation and Serbian security expertise. These smart police stations will provide various services in multiple languages 24/7 without human intervention, mirroring the SPS in Dubai,” he said.