Ukraine volunteers detained by Russia recall horrors: 'It was like a nightmare come to life'

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Two Ukraine volunteers who say they spent three weeks in Russian captivity are now opening up about their harrowing experience, describing the beatings and conditions they allegedly suffered as like a “nightmare come to life”. 

Volodymyr Khropun and Yulia Ivannikova-Katsemon were working for the Red Cross and helping people flee villages along the front lines in northern Ukraine when they were captured by the Russian military in March, according to Reuters. On April 9 – after spending time in Belarus and in detention centers in Russia – they were freed as part of a prisoner swap. 

“It was like a nightmare come to life,” Khropun told Reuters, recalling how he and Ivannikova-Katsemon were held with around 40 others in an unheated room at a factory in Dymer, north of Kyiv, sharing a plastic pot for a toilet. 

Red Cross volunteer Volodymyr Khropun clasps his hands together to show how his hands were bound while being held by Russian troops inside a factory during Russia's invasion in the village of Dymer, in the Kyiv region of Ukraine.

Red Cross volunteer Volodymyr Khropun clasps his hands together to show how his hands were bound while being held by Russian troops inside a factory during Russia’s invasion in the village of Dymer, in the Kyiv region of Ukraine.
(REUTERS/Alessandra Prentice)

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“They arrested me, closed my eyes — as in, they pulled a hat over my eyes, bound it on with scotch tape — and then wrapped my hands in tape, like a terrorist,” he added. 

After about a week of surviving on one to two meals a day – sometimes consisting only of army crackers – the pair said they and about a dozen others were brought by military truck to Belarus where they underwent interrogations, Reuters reports. 

“The first stage was being stripped naked, photographed, the noting of scars, I have a few. Then the pouring of water [on me] and a beating,” Ivannikova-Katsemon told Reuters. 

Dirty mattresses are seen on a cement floor of a factory room where Russian troops held Red Cross volunteers Volodymyr Khropun and Yulia Ivannikova-Katsemon together with dozens of other locals in the village of Dymer, Ukraine.

Dirty mattresses are seen on a cement floor of a factory room where Russian troops held Red Cross volunteers Volodymyr Khropun and Yulia Ivannikova-Katsemon together with dozens of other locals in the village of Dymer, Ukraine.
(REUTERS/Alessandra Prentice)

The volunteers say they each received documents with their identification and details that accused them of being “a person who has shown opposition to the special military operation.”  

At one point after being further transferred to a detention center in Russia, Ivannikova-Katsemon claims she was told she would be sent to work at a logging camp in Siberia.  

Khropun said that during the interrogations in all three countries he was forced to kneel for long periods of time or was attacked on his knees and ribs. Other captives, he told Reuters, had their hair, beards and mustaches partially shaved off as an act of humiliation. 

Families wait to board a train at Kramatorsk central station as they flee the eastern city of Kramatorsk, in the Donbas region, in early April.

Families wait to board a train at Kramatorsk central station as they flee the eastern city of Kramatorsk, in the Donbas region, in early April.
(Photo by FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images)

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The pair were finally freed after learning they were picked to be exchanged in a prisoner swap. 

“There was always hope with God that I would return,” Ivannikova-Katsemon told Reuters. “The hard thing was not being able to tell family and friends that I was alive and in captivity.” 

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