Maimed Russian prisoner yearns for return from Ukraine

·4-min read

Slumped against his metal bed frame in a detention centre in Ukraine's capital Kyiv, Sergeant Nikolai Matveev relives the ambush that made him one of the conflict's first prisoners of war.

The Russian soldier rests awkwardly on what remains of his left leg as he recounts how he was wounded -- the shock of shell fire, the searing pain, the hours crawling through frozen woodland desperate for help.

The 36-year-old spoke after the Ukrainian authorities granted AFP's request for unconditional access to Russian prisoners. However it was impossible to verify if he was speaking freely or under duress.

Matveev was maimed by a shell as his unit came under attack in northern Ukraine on February 24, in the opening hours of an invasion that has sparked nearly six months of bloodshed and accusations of abuses of POWs on both sides.

His leg was shattered "in the first 10 to 15 seconds of the fight. All the other soldiers in the vehicle piled out as soon as the fighting calmed down. They tied my leg with a tourniquet," Matveev told AFP.

"After a while, I crawled out. Down by the wheels of the car, I prepared to fight, while the rest of the column moved onward."

In immense pain, Matveev lost consciousness on the edge of a forest, waking hours later to find himself alone, the vehicle gone and his unit carrying on the fight in the distance.

"When it got dark, artillery began to fire at the forest." The next day he "crawled through the forest, through fields. Then I reached a power plant," he said.

"At first I thought that some column -- our unit -- would pass by, but there was no one. I knocked on the door, the guards dragged me inside, gave me water to drink, and called their superiors."

- 'Everyone wants to go home' -

Taken for questioning by the police and then to hospital, the lower part of his leg was amputated before he was transferred to custody in Kyiv.

Matveev bears the unwelcome distinction of being one of the very first Russians captured in the invasion, with his release seeming a more distant prospect with every passing day.

He has been eligible for repatriation to his home in Siberia for months as part of prisoner swaps arranged between the warring neighbours. But he has yet to get his turn.

"The joy will be incredible -- on our faces and in our souls -- when we are exchanged," he told AFP.

"Everyone wants to go home," the soldier added, looking restless but resigned, the left leg of his trousers rolled up to reveal a stump just below the knee.

Matveev has been in the prison since March 10, sharing a large cell designed for 16 inmates with just four comrades.

Steel-framed bunks with wafer-thin mattresses line a wall opposite a bench and table with an old-fashioned television showing Ukrainian TV.

Apart from some blue tiles, almost everything has the pale washed-out hue of dishwater.

"Given that we didn't exactly come here for a (tourist) visit, it's what you'd expect. They feed us, water us, do not offend us," said Matveev.

- 'I still hope' -

Earlier this month Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted "appalling reports of torture and ill-treatment" of POWs by both sides. Both have also used prisoners for propaganda purposes.

Ukraine has not revealed the number of Russian troops it is holding, but authorities say they have processed "thousands" since the invasion began.

Kyiv and Moscow have exchanged prisoners several times, each side handing over 144 captives in the latest and largest swap last month.

Russia is investigating the torture of Russian soldiers released as part of that deal, saying some told investigators about "the violence they had suffered".

Soldiers complained of being treated without anaesthesia, and of being beaten and tortured with electricity, according to Russia's Investigative Committee, which has slammed Kyiv's "humiliation" of prisoners as "inhumane".

Kyiv has also repeatedly accused Moscow of war crimes and violations of the Geneva Conventions.

Many of the Ukrainian facilities like the Kyiv jail holding Matveev were not designed for POWs.

Deputy justice minister Olena Vysotska told AFP the Ukrainian authorities go to great lengths to keep Russian captives separate from the rest of the prison population, for their own safety.

Ukraine said it has converted a penal colony in a secret location far from the frontlines into a POW camp offering more outdoor recreation time than the hour-long walk permitted in the Kyiv prison.

Vysotska said Russia has been asking for the return of its officers and special forces first, which is bad news for Matveev and his low-ranking cellmates.

"The exchanges are taking place. But for some reason I haven't been included," Matveev said, the disappointment clear in his voice.

"From this cell alone, 17 people have already been exchanged," he added.

"I still hope that one day I will get to be part of a swap."

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