Captain Valentina Strutynska feared the worst when she was taken from her cell after five months in Russian captivity. It was only when her handcuffs and blindfold were removed much later and the shouts of “Glory to Ukraine!” rang out that she realised she was home.
The Ukrainian marine was one of 215 prisoners released in September, the largest exchange since Russian president Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion in February. She and two other Ukrainians who were captured during the desperate fight for the city of Mariupol in the early months of the conflict have told their stories to the Financial Times.
They provide insights into one of the key battles of the war’s early phase — when several thousand fighters and scores of civilians retreated into the giant Azovstal steel works in wretched conditions as it was pounded by Russian forces — and a glimpse into how Moscow treats prisoners of war.
Captain Oleksandr Demchenko, a doctor and another of the released captives, was only there because he had volunteered to fly reinforcements and supplies into Azovstal.
“Mariupol was already surrounded,” he said. “I understood it was probably a one-way ticket and there’d be no turning back.” Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy later said such missions were “almost impossible” and that many did not survive it. Demchenko’s did, and he would spend the next six weeks treating severely wounded troops and civilians.
Major Oleksandr Voronenko, the third of the freed PoWs, was in Mariupol before the invasion as part of Ukraine’s 56th motorised brigade. He said the intensity of the fighting was terrifying, as Russian forces bore down, and the destruction unbelievable.
“It felt like one long day in hell.”
Intense battles in Mariupol
Mariupol, a strategically important port on Ukraine’s south coast, was an early Russian target. Voronenko recalled how the power, gas, and water supplies were quickly severed — a tactic now being used more widely by Putin in an effort to break Ukrainian resistance.
Voronenko, who fought alongside the marines, said the battles were so intense that the sky was sometimes blocked out by the thick black smoke from the artillery and rocket strikes that pulverised the city. Those strikes killed thousands of civilians, according to estimates by local authorities and the UN.
“It was uninterrupted, brutal fighting,” said Voronenko, who was shot in the leg.
Strutynska remembered Russian tanks firing indiscriminately on apartment blocks, making her task of evacuating civilians next to impossible. “It was my first time seeing this level of fighting,” she said. “I tried to organise removal of the dead but I failed because the fighting was so extreme.”
As Moscow stepped up its attacks in the ensuing week, the remaining Ukrainian forces in the city, along with hundreds of civilians, including children, hunkered down at two massive industrial facilities: the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works and the nearby Azovstal.
Strutynska and Voronenko retreated with their units into the fortress-like grounds of the Ilyich works in March, where they found protection inside its deep concrete bunkers. But supplies there and at Azovstal, where thousands of soldiers and civilians also sheltered, were severely limited. That was when Kyiv devised a risky plan to come to their rescue.
Demchenko and another doctor were dispatched on separate military helicopters alongside special forces, an operation he likened to “jumping from a plane without a parachute”.
“They split us up so that if one helicopter was shot down, at least the other would have a chance to make it,” he said.
They faced enemy fire before landing close to Mariupol and transferring to a boat that took them to their destination.
Demchenko immediately set up a makeshift hospital and operating room to treat the wounded, many of whom he found in horrific condition. Sometimes working in almost complete darkness, he performed countless blood transfusions, treated gaping head wounds, tied up abdominal injuries to prevent organs spilling out, set shattered bones and amputated limbs — sometimes with little or no anaesthetic. There were days when he and other medics “did not leave the operating room for more than 30 hours”.
One badly injured man had a tourniquet applied to his leg for more than two weeks — “completely unthinkable”, according to Demchenko. Gangrene had set in by the time the medic found him and amputated the leg above the knee. “Miraculously, he survived,” he added.
“The most terrible thing was the massive air strikes,” the doctor recalled. One blast threw him across the room into a concrete pillar, while another caused three floors of concrete to collapse on to one of the medical wards, killing several patients.
As the Russians pounded them with heavier and heavier weapons, the Ukrainians were eventually forced to surrender — first the marines at Ilyich in April, and then another group of marines and national guardsmen from the Azov regiment a month later. Azov is a former volunteer battalion with far-right members that has since been brought into the official military structure but remains a favourite bogeyman of the Kremlin.
Videos published by Russia’s defence ministry showed Ukrainian troops hobbling out of Azovstal with their hands in the air. They were met by soldiers who patted them down for weapons and checked them for tattoos before ushering them on to the buses that would take them to prison.
Life in prison
Strutynska, Demchenko and Voronenko would be held in several different prisons over the next six months. All three endured periods in the notorious Olenivka prison in the occupied Donetsk region, which Zelenskyy has called a “concentration camp” for Ukrainian PoWs.
Olenivka has been under Russian control since the first invasion of Ukraine in 2014. An explosion in July destroyed a wing where Ukrainians captured at Mariupol were being held, killing 53 people and injuring 75 others. None of the three interviewees were at Olenivka when it was hit.
Kyiv has accused Russia of being behind the attack to conceal its torture of Ukrainian captives, and released recordings to support the claim. Moscow has said, without evidence, that Ukraine used US-provided missiles to destroy the facility.
Russia has repeatedly blocked independent observers’ access to Olenivka. A UN fact-finding mission warned in September that its inability to access the site was a “major impediment to verifying” allegations.
None of the three PoWs wanted to go into detail about the abuses they suffered in captivity. But other Ukrainian troops and human rights groups have documented how Russia and its proxy forces in the occupied territory have brutalised soldiers and civilian captives.
In the early days, the detainees said they were crammed into tiny cells, where they slept without blankets. Food was scarce and they were given buckets of muddy water to drink, which made some of them sick. “Everyone was dehydrated and exhausted,” said Demchenko, who lost 45kg.
Strutynska had to share a cell meant for four with 30 female soldiers. “We slept on top of each other,” she said, adding that they would sing Ukrainian folk songs and pop hits to keep their spirits up.
She said they were actually treated better in Olenivka, which was run by pro-Russia Ukrainians, than later when they were transferred to a prison in Taganrog, Russia.
There, the Ukrainians said they were physically and verbally abused, while also being subjected to Russian propaganda. “It was absolutely continuous propaganda and streams of hatred [toward Ukrainians],” Voronenko said of the programmes they were forced to watch on Russian television.
As colder September weather arrived, they huddled together in their unheated cells and hoped for freedom.
It was September 21 when the PoWs were awoken by Russian guards who blindfolded them and tied their hands painfully behind their backs. Some thought they were being transferred to another prison, or sent back to Mariupol amid rumours that sham “trials” of those captured in the city were being prepared.
To their surprise, they were exchanged for 55 Russians and the pro-Moscow Ukrainian MP Viktor Medvedchuk, a friend of Putin who was arrested this year on treason charges. While the soldiers expressed disappointment at Medvedchuk’s release, they said Ukraine got the better end of the deal.
Their wish now is that comrades still in captivity are freed. They said western countries should do more and called on the International Committee of the Red Cross to live up to its promises to not only facilitate the release of PoWs, but also to access facilities in Russia-occupied territories to check on conditions and treatment.
Zelenskyy has accused the ICRC of not doing enough, particularly at Olenivka. The ICRC said it had asked repeatedly to be allowed into Olenivka but that it “doesn’t have unimpeded and repeated access to all prisoners of war in this international armed conflict”.
“We’ll not stop demanding access,” ICRC said.
All three PoWs said they wished to return to military service after they had recovered and spent time with their families. Voronenko said he hoped to undergo surgery to remove two bullets stuck in his leg since Mariupol.
“I never cried from my wounds,” he said, but coming home was “emotional”. He was recently reunited with his children, who had fled Russia-occupied Kherson.
Demchenko is recuperating and trying to get his weight back up. He hoped that sharing his experience would help other doctors save soldiers.
Strutynska, meanwhile, recently received some uplifting news: her husband Yevhen, who she had not heard from in the seven months since he too was captured in Mariupol, was one of more than 50 Ukrainians included in a separate prisoner exchange.
She shared her joy in an image on Facebook, writing: “My hero. My beloved husband is home.”