Former Prisoners of War Establish New Public Organisation

In our interview, we have the opportunity to speak with members of the initiative group. Among them is Oleksiy SIVAK, a Kherson resident and former sailor on a merchant passenger fleet prior to the war. The other member, Andriy, chooses not to reveal his last name out of concerns for the safety of his family members residing in Russian-occupied Crimea. Both men were imprisoned due to their pro-Ukrainian stance, experiencing firsthand the harsh realities of Russian occupation. They share their personal stories that inspired the establishment of this new organisation and discuss their commitment to supporting other make survivors. Additionally, they shed light on the organisation’s goals and objectives moving forward.

 – What is the name of your public organisation, and what is its mission?

Andriy: – We have not decided on a final name yet. We are contemplating a provisional suggestion – “Graduates,” and we will confirm our choice as we advance with our activities.

We are starting a public organisation to support Ukrainians affected by Russian aggression, especially those who have endured torture and CRSV. Many face challenges accessing government aid or compensation. Drawing from our own experiences, we understand that numerous individuals facing similar situations are uncertain about where to seek help, and, most importantly, how to do so without furthering trauma or triggering painful memories. Our goal is to provide them with protection and support. Survivors are encouraged to reach out to us, and we will assist them in navigating their next steps with dignity and confidence.

Oleksiy SIVAK: – Why the ‘Graduates’? We have chosen a neutral name to minimize distress for survivors. Our focus will be on bringing together former male prisoners of war, as they currently receive the most support from public organisations. The state’s readiness for this type of assistance remains limited.

Andriy: – The state often struggles to organise effective support due to its lack of experience in aiding such individuals. Nevertheless, we are well-prepared to offer assistance in this regard.

– What challenges do men survivors encounter?

Andriy: – I faced a significant challenge that took nearly a year to resolve. After Kherson was liberated, I sought assistance from the Ministry for the Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine in Kyiv. They run a financial aid programme for individuals who have been unlawfully imprisoned by Russian aggressors. However, I struggled to prove my victim status.

Upon my release, I provided testimony to Ukrainian law enforcement and assisted in identifying the individuals responsible for our torture. The pre-trial investigation concluded by identifying the perpetrators and confirming their violation of my rights. Currently, the trial is ongoing, and the perpetrators may face convictions in absentia due to their non-detention. This is primarily for the proceedings of the International Criminal Court. Initially, the Ukrainian court must establish their guilt before legal action can proceed at the International Criminal Court for reparations.

Despite submitting all necessary documentation, I was rejected twice by the Ministry for Reintegration without explanation. It wasn’t until my third attempt that I was able to prove my survivor status and receive the necessary assistance.

Many other male survivors have encountered similar challenges. Therefore, one of the main goals of our organisation, which is personally significant to me, is to facilitate communication between survivors and the government.

Oleksiy SIVAK: – Survivors face challenges when trying to engage with government officials at the Ministry for Reintegration. The commission handling social payments, where documents are submitted, uses complicated language in its paperwork. Moreover, obtaining the necessary documents at the beginning is a common challenge, involving navigating different institutions, providing explanations, and presenting evidence. This lengthy process often leads people to lose hope of accessing justice and assistance. Some even stop cooperating with the investigation, while others avoid contacting law enforcement agencies altogether.

Were you in Russian captivity?

Andriy: – Yes, I was held captive during the occupation of Kherson, as a civilian. I volunteered to distribute food supplies to people in need across various villages and towns in the region. This activity resulted in my detention by the Russians on two separate occasions.

Oleksiy SIVAK: – I spent a total of 57 days in Russian captivity, initially held in a police station and later transferred to a temporary detention center. These facilities were repurposed as torture chambers during the occupation. I was also helping people. However, my neighbour and I were arrested for a different reason: on 24 August, Ukraine’s Independence Day, we proudly displayed Ukrainian flags, which ultimately led to someone reporting us to the aggressors.

– How many people are in your organisation?

Andriy: – Currently, we are a small group of six men leading this effort. However, each of us knows other people affected by Russian aggression, including survivors of CRSV.  Once they see our ability to provide the necessary support, they are likely to join our cause.

We have also reached out to the NGO ‘December 29,’ primarily composed of individuals who were imprisoned in the so-called DPR between 2014 and 2017. We have even spoken with someone recently released in a prisoner swap. A few of them have expressed interest in collaborating with us.

Will your focus solely be on civilians who have experienced Russian captivity?

Андрій: – At the moment, our focus is solely on civilians. We are not dealing with military-related matters at this point. However, we may consider expanding our support to include servicemen survivors in the future.

What is the reason for exclusively focusing on civilian prisoners of war?

Andriy: – Certainly, former prisoners of war encounter similar challenges, yet the government tends to provide better support for them, offering more avenues for rehabilitation and reintegration into society. However, the situation is more complex for civilians

Oleksiy SIVAK: – We certainly do not intend to create divisions. If a man was initially captured as a civilian but later joined the Armed Forces, he shares our collective experiences as the “graduates.” Therefore, there is no reason we should not offer our assistance to him.

However, if he was captured while serving in the Armed Forces, further factors come into play. His status as a serviceman suggests inherent risks such as capture or even death. For civilians, being held captive represents a blatant violation of their human rights. The Geneva Conventions, which outline the laws of warfare, advocate for their protection, stating that civilians should not be targeted during conflicts.

What regions of Ukraine are you going to operate? Liberated ones?

Andriy: – Our operations will expand throughout Ukraine. Many affected individuals have relocated from temporarily occupied territories to safer areas like Kyiv and the central and western regions. It does not matter to use where they come from; our focus is on helping individuals rather than specific locations.

We won’t distinguish based on the duration of their captivity, whether it lasted a month, several months, or years. Even though the Russian occupation of Bucha and Hostomel was brief, many suffered under their brutal actions.

Oleksiy SIVAK: – Prison guards might not lay a hand on a prisoner for a month, but the severity of their punishment in just one day is unspeakable.

What methods of torture do the Russians employ?

Oleksiy SIVAK: – They have implemented an actual torture system. When they arrested me, there was no proper investigation; their search seemed more like theft than a legitimate search. Confident they could elicit any confession in their basement torture chamber, they employed every tactic to break individuals.

They tortured me with electric shocks and using a TA military field phone called “a tapik” (dynamo machine), targeting sensitive areas like genitals, ears, and the entire body, along with being beaten with fists and batons, and mock executions. Many others endured similar ill-treatment.

Andriy: – Their attempts to break me mentally were unsuccessful. Shaped by prior experiences and working with a psychologist, I turned to be resilient to stress. Despite their vigorous efforts to exert physical pain, they were also unsuccessful due to my long-term physical training and ability to tolerate pain They used every method available – including electric shock, beatings with sticks, pipes, kicks, and punches – without restraint. They forced me onto my knees, held a gun to my head, cocked the trigger, and demanded that I sing the Russian anthem or say “Glory to Ukraine under Russia!”.

The first time, I was held captive for 4 days in a temporary detention facility. The second time, it lasted for 14 days in the local administrative building that was turned into a torture chamber.

In the detention facility, we were interrogated nightly. Usually, by 10:00 pm, the building would be fully lit. Individuals would be taken away for interrogation throughout the night, imposing intense psychological pressure, as we heard the screams of others being tortured and felt their pain.

They used electric shock devices or a dynamo machine for torture, attaching electrodes as they pleased. Luckily, I only had electrodes attached to my hands. The intensity of the electric shocks varied depending on the speed at which they operated the dynamo machine. Usually, they attempted to increase the speed for stronger shocks.

Over four consecutive days, they would subject me to torture without asking any questions. They simply beat, mocked, and attempted to break me both emotionally and physically, I would even say, to destroy me.

Of course, all people are different, each with their own threshold of resilience. Speaking for myself, I was able to stay silent.

The administrative building had five cells, where both men and women were detained together. My cell housed only men, with ages ranging from the youngest, who had just turned 17, to the eldest, who was 33.

I was captured alongside two girls whom I had volunteered with. Throughout the four days, they interrogated us using the same method: first, the girls were interrogated, allowing us to hear their suffering, before it was my turn. This added to the psychological pressure we experienced.

Oleksiy SIVAK: – We also underwent various psychological trials while in captivity. Guards were always nearby, poised to enter our cell at any moment. We were forced to either sing the Russian anthem or shout “Glory to Putler!” Any refusal or misstep resulted in collective punishment for the entire cell.

The torture chambers were located beneath our cells. When someone was interrogated, they kept the windows open so we could hear the screams. This meant that even a single day spent in such conditions would be etched into their memory for a lifetime.

While my first cell was designed for five occupants, it consistently housed at least seven people. There was a constant rotation of people alongside the long-term detainees. New arrivals, transiters, came in daily for a brief period and then disappeared without explanation.

Did the torturers resort to sexual violence against prisoners?

Andriy: – Indeed, amidst the torture, they committed sexual violence in unimaginable forms. Its horrifying consequences were suffered by both women and men.

Oleksiy SIVAK: – As I mentioned earlier, they attached the electrodes to my genitals. While torturing with electric shock, they threatened to sterilize me. They referred to it as a lie detector test.

I overheard women being threatened during interrogations: “We’ll gang rape you!” We heard women screaming during tortures. This was also stressful for us because we didn’t know who the threats were aimed at. It might have been directed at my wife, a friend, or someone close to me.

Why are you establishing an organisation exclusively for men?

Andriy: – Fortunately, our country has not faced widespread torture or CRSV in the past, so there is sometimes uncertainty about how to respond. We have experience dealing with these issues and can assess them accurately. In the future, we may expand our focus to include collaboration with women, rather than exclusively focusing on men.

Oleksiy SIVAK: – I believe men and women respond differently to the same situations and challenges. Apart from differing medical requirements, there are other nuances to consider. For instance, women who have experienced CRSV have usually suffered at the hands of men. Therefore, being around other men in these instances can be uncomfortable for them, potentially hindering their ability to open up. They are more likely to share their experiences with fellow women, particularly those who have encountered similar traumas. Trust me, in these situations, men and women are not that different.

Andriy: – Even during times of peace, women face a higher risk of experiencing sexual violence compared to men. Public organisations and the government are already equipped to address these cases and provide support to female victims. Many of these incidents receive public attention, garnering media coverage and judicial scrutiny. Women often receive sympathy in these circumstances. However, not all survivors are comfortable with publicity; many struggle to overcome this barrier and may refrain from seeking assistance, which can sometimes lead to suicide.

In our society, there is a common stereotype that men should always be tough, self-sufficient, and deal with their problems alone. This often leads men who become victims to feel ashamed and reluctant to talk about what happened to them.

Our goal is to break down this barrier of distrust. We want men survivors of CRSV to know that they can receive confidential support without any publicity. The main thing is for them to learn about us and join our organisation. When we come together, understanding and supporting each other becomes easier. This support becomes more effective because we do not need to create it from scratch. Consistent communication enables us to identify who needs what type of support. This embodies the essence of our organisation.

How do you intend to reach out to potential members of your organisation?

Andriy: – The simplest way is through social media platforms. There is a level of trust in these platforms since they often attract like-minded individuals, professionals from the same field, friends, relatives, and classmates. Many people turn to social media to find answers to their questions.

Therefore, our plan involves creating pages on Facebook and Instagram. In the future, we may also engage in constructive discussions with the media. We do not aim to operate in isolation.

We are open to addressing our concerns on an international scale. It is crucial for the world to be aware of the actions of Russian aggressors and the suffering they inflict on innocent civilians. I emphasize, innocent civilians. This awareness is essential to prevent similar atrocities elsewhere.

Despite everything, I hold onto my belief in the power of goodness and the victory of justice. Yet, I am convinced that achieving this requires ongoing commitment to fighting evil and standing together in support of one another.

Oleksiy SIVAK: – In the early stages, informal networking, commonly known as word of mouth, may prove to be effective. I estimate that around 30 individuals have passed through the same detention cell where I spent less than two months, and I keep in touch with some of them. Additionally, my colleagues maintain contact with their former inmates, creating a substantial network of individuals who could potentially unite into an organisation.

The best way to promote our cause will be through the real outcomes of our efforts. We are ready to support other survivors. For example, I have already received compensation from the Ministry of Reintegration. This is a decent amount. I can guide others on navigating this process, including which offices to visit, what paperwork to prepare, and where to seek additional assistance. This assistance is substantial, and my wife and I are already offering it.

What assistance do survivors require most urgently today?

Andriy: – Every survivor has unique needs. Some may require psychological or medical support, often facing expenses for treatments that are not always covered. For example, dental care can be costly, and many who have suffered abuse from Russian “liberators” during captivity now require such services.

Financial help is very important too. Just like Oleksiy, who talked about his home being searched—a situation I also experienced — the aftermath of such events can be devastating. All my money, valuables, and personal belongings were taken from my home, leaving me with nothing. Starting over now is really tough.

At a recent conference on reparations, someone mentioned that the money offered usually doesn’t fully make up for what we have lost, but it is better than nothing. Receiving financial assistance from the government, donors, or NGOs reassures individuals that they are not forgotten and genuinely cared about. Thus, financial help is not just about money; it also provides emotional reassurance, which is particularly important during challenging times. Losing a phone is one thing, but losing your home is a whole other level of difficulty.

What does your cooperation with the Dr Denis Mukwege Foundation involve?

Andriy: – I first learned about the Dr Denis Mukwege Foundation through a friend who was in captivity with me. Upon being invited to a meeting, I was not only offered assistance but also presented with an opportunity to engage in advocating for the needs of survivors firsthand. I accepted this responsibility.

Before the war, we led ordinary lives, with no involvement in foundations or civil society organisations. We were self-sufficient, earning our livelihoods and supporting our families independently. However, the current circumstances have left us reliant on external aid. The Dr Denis Mukwege Foundation not only assists individual survivors but also educates us on how to help others, emphasizing its significance. This includes effective communication with the government, proper paperwork, and better advocacy work.

Oleksiy SIVAK: – This is both collaboration and mutual support. We share our vision with the Foundation on enhancing assistance to former civilian detainees and effectively reaching out to them. While many civil and international organisations offer assistance based on what they have available, we believe that support should be tailored to individual needs to be truly effective. The Dr Denis Mukwege Foundation shares this perspective, fostering mutual understanding.

 – Currently, the Verkhovna Rada is considering draft laws aimed at establishing mechanisms for reparations to survivors and victims of Russian aggression in Ukraine, including those affected by CRSV. What do you think about them?  

Andriy: – We have concerns about their practical impact. Many provisions are vague, such as the criteria for determining the status of an CRSV survivor. This concept can be emotionally charged for individuals. On one hand, there are concerns about the need to disclose information to law enforcement agencies to obtain this status, potentially leading to public exposure and stigma. On the other hand, survivors may not fully comprehend the benefits of this status. Therefore, we urge careful refinement of these draft laws.

Down the line, obtaining a status of CRSV survivor could open up avenues for receiving reparations.

Andriy: – The outlook is uncertain. Although Russia must pay reparations, it could take decades, akin to Germany, which took 40 years to acknowledge its responsibility for the aftermath of World War II and provide reparations. However, Russia denies its involvement in the war with Ukraine, disregarding international norms.

Discussions revolve around the possibility of obtaining reparations from seized Russian assets. Should this happen, it could offer tangible help, making a noticeable difference to the survivors. The crucial factor lies in establishing an effective mechanism for dispensing this aid—one that is both transparent and confidential, safeguarding the rights and interests of the survivors. This is also a goal of our organisation.

 – Why do Russian occupiers are so brutal towards civilians, particularly resorting to CRSV?  

Andriy: – They are morally low. Being raised under a totalitarian regime in poverty and fear, they resort to violence to exert dominance, particularly over Ukrainians.

While passing through a checkpoint during the Kherson occupation, I came across a young Russian man. He, around 22-23 years old, questioned me about my car, insinuating disbelief that someone young like me could afford such luxury. Despite my explanation of how I earned my car through hard work, he maintained skepticism, saying “ We were told that you live in poverty, even homeless. When we drove into Kherson from Crimea, we were extremely surprised to see asphalt and gas in your villages. It was quite a shock to us.”

My friend has connections in a village in Kherson region, currently under temporary Russian occupation. Russian soldiers started digging a pit under a fence to hide an APC. Despite being cautioned by local residents about the gas pipeline, the soldiers dismissed it, doubting the existence of such infrastructure in a village. They ignored the warnings and continued digging. As a result, the excavator bucket accidentally damaged the gas line, leaving them unsure about what to do next.

Most Russians, predominantly from rural backgrounds, lack exposure to life in other countries, leading them to uncritically accept the propaganda fed to them through media. Even those living in more developed areas like Moscow, who travel the world and are exposed to different lifestyles, still advocate for the destruction of Ukraine, despite having visited Ukraine and being familiar with our peaceful nation and the situation before the war.

Furthermore, some Russians living in developed countries such as Germany, France, and Great Britain advocate for Ukraine’s destruction and foresee Europe’s decline. Interestingly, they show no desire to return to Russia, highlighting a contradiction between their beliefs and behavior. This is a unique aspect of the “Russian world” – their inability to logically evaluate unfolding events.

Oleksiy SIVAK: – This conduct extends beyond their treatment of Ukrainians. Reflect on their actions toward the people of Ichkeria during their conflict. This pattern repeats across history, involving various countries. In Syria, they devastated the two-million ancient city of Aleppo, which has a history spanning millennia.

To some extent, we are lucky to be living in the era of the Internet. It enables people worldwide to become aware of the brutality of the Russians towards the peaceful Ukrainian nation.

Volodymyr DOBROTA,
National Press Club “Ukrainian Perspective”

The material presented herein was prepared as part of the Project “RESILIENT TOGETHER: Improving the system of response to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV)”. The Project is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Ukrainian Women Fund in partnership with the Civil Society Organisation “La Strada-Ukraine” and the Ukrainian Women Lawyers Association “JurFem”, as well as the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine and the Government Commissioner on Gender Equality Policy.