“My spirit is not broken”: one Ukrainian soldier’s harrowing account of surviving in captivity

Peace to Ukraine, War in the Donbas

Last week, the largest prisoner exchange between Ukraine and the Russian-led occupying forces in Donbas was held. In that swap, 74 people who had been held in Donetsk and Luhansk regions not under government control crossed the de-facto border onto land held by the Ukrainian military. This is the harrowing story of one of those 74 — Mykola Herasymenko — who was kept in captivity for almost three years.

Three years in separatist captivity in eastern Ukraine have taken a toll on Mykola Herasymenko’s health. He has constant headaches, and the chronic pain in his back makes walking a struggle. Doctors are in the process of doing more tests, he tells us:

“My head and back ache. They’ve broken me. But my spirit is unbroken.”

Mykola Herasymenko and 6 other soldiers of the Kryvbas Battalion were captured in a village not far from Debaltseve on February 9, 2015:

“We were kept in a cellar, so we could never tell if it was day or night. We slept on pallets covered in rugs. How’s that for ‘humane treatment’?”

Later, the Ukrainian soldiers found out they were kept in makeshift jail cells by the Russian paramilitary called the Don Cossacks. Two months later, as a result of separatist infighting, an armed group of men took all of the hostages under their control. They were transported to the basement of a building formerly used by the Security Service of Ukraine in the Donbas region.

“The archives were gone, but the shelves remained, 6 rows of them, all the way up to the ceiling. And those shelves were our ‘beds’. Also, we were let outdoors and made to work as janitors,” said the soldier.

6 months later they moved Mykola to the Makiivka prison colony. In that time, he had no way to contact his family. Mykola found out about the prisoner exchange only 2 days before it happened. He described the surreal moment a group of Russian-backed separatists opened the cell door and listed the names of those who would be released. At least 6 men in his cell were left behind:

“I hope they will be released soon. I asked the President to expedite the process. Serhiy Hlondar, Oleksandr Korenkov, Bohdan Pantiushenko, Roman Sovkov and two civilians Roman Tverdyi and Oleksandr Poliakov. These are the names of those still held in the Makiivka colony.”

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