Seriously wounded and captured by the Russians in Mariupol, Ukrainian soldier Glib Stryjko endured weeks of suffering, threats and insults at their hands. Until that saving prisoner exchange that allowed his mother to find him.
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“One of his guards felt sorry for him,” Lessia Kostenko, the 25-year-old soldier’s mother, told AFP.
Glib Stryjko was captured in April in Mariupol, a strategic port in southeastern Ukraine that witnessed some of the fiercest fighting of the war. Wounded and in poor condition, he was transported to Russia from pro-Russian separatist areas before suddenly being put on a plane to the annexed peninsula of Crimea, from where he returned home.
“After we got on the bus that was waiting for us, the driver said, ‘Guys, you can take a breather. You are home now.’ I started crying,” Glib said from his hospital bed in Zaporizhia, a city in southeastern Ukraine.
More than 350 soldiers from Kyiv have so far been released in exchanges, which are usually on a one-to-one basis of equal rank, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk told AFP, which is responsible for the negotiations.
The release of Glib started on social media. A comrade spots him on a Telegram channel where pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine are posting pictures of captured enemy soldiers.
He then calls Lessia, relieved to know her son is alive. “That’s where we started looking,” she told the AFP news agency.
On April 10, Glib Stryjko was stationed at a steel mill in Mariupol, which was converted into an entrenched camp. He was wounded by tank fire and then taken to a hospital by his comrades, where he was captured.
Wounded in the pelvis, jaw and eye, he said he was then taken with other prisoners to Novoazovsk, a city under Separatist control near the Russian border.
“We were in the hospital, but we weren’t treated seriously,” he says. He stayed there for nearly a week before being transferred to a facility in Donetsk, the separatist stronghold.
There he finally has access to a phone to warn his family, who are asking the Ukrainian government for help.
“His relatives contacted me and asked for my help – his mother, his brother, his friends. They were all looking for me,” explains Ms. Verechchuk, who then takes her case to the Russian authorities.
After a period of denying they have him in their care, they finally admit to having him and agree to exchange him, she says.
To speak about his relationships with his jailers, Glib conjures up their indifference, but also a certain form of cruelty.
The doctors were usually doing their duty, the soldier said, but there was also a nurse who berated him in Russian and left his meals by his bed, knowing full well that he was unable to support himself.
“Then she came back and said, ‘Are you done? and took away the food,” he recalls.
At the hospital, Glib was constantly watched and sometimes threatened, with one guard even going so far as to drag a knife across his skin and threaten him, “I’d like to cut off your ear or cut you open like the Ukrainians cut open their prisoners.”
After a week in Donetsk he is transferred again. This time off to jail.
Painful episodes ensue for the injured man: he is carried in a blanket, lying on the floor of a bus, and finally found too ill to leave the hospital. Then he is said to have been driven to the Russian border again by bus, then by ambulance.
He is told that he is leaving for Taganrog, a Russian city on the shore of the Sea of Azov. But the ambulance transporting him heads for an airport, and a few hours later he flies away with other wounded and prisoners, his hands tied and his eyes covered with tape.
On April 28, he landed in Crimea, a peninsula annexed by Moscow in 2014, and was told he was to be exchanged.
The Russians then take him with three other seriously injured people to an undisclosed location, from where the two camps stare at each other a kilometer away.
“When we drove that kilometer I was so scared because who knows what could happen…” the soldier recalls.
His mother suspected something was in the pipes but didn’t know the details. Until Mrs. Verechchuk calls her to tell her the good news.
“I dropped my phone and started crying again,” she says.