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Up to 10,000 Ukrainian POWs Feared Held by Russia; Families Await Return Amid Strong Evidence of Torture

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Sofia Cherapanova holds items that she wants to give to her cousin Artem upon his return, in Kyiv on Sept. 10.

KYIV — Sunday marked 19 months since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, and many Ukrainian soldiers are still being held as prisoners of war by Russia. The families of the POWs are anxiously awaiting their return.

Sofia Cherapanova, 31, is originally from the eastern Ukrainian region of Luhansk and now lives in Kyiv. She grew up with her cousin Artem, 25, like they were siblings.

In 2015, Artem left his hometown of Luhansk to study at a university in Kharkiv. He then joined the Ukrainian military in 2018, partly inspired by Cherapanova’s husband, who is also a member of the military, and started working as a driver in a reconnaissance unit.

When the Russian invasion began in February last year, Artem’s unit was posted near the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. As Russian soldiers forced their way into Ukrainian territory, the unit was holed up at the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works in the city. After fierce fighting, Mariupol was taken over by the Russians in May.

Shortly after the occupation, Cherapanova received a phone call from an unknown number in late May. The caller was Artem.

“I was captured by the Russian military and I’m in a detention facility in Olenivka” in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk, he told her. “I took a shower for the first time in three months. Can you send me some new underwear and socks?”

Cherapanova promised to send them and told him: “I can’t wait to see you. I’m waiting for you [to come back].”

However, she lost contact with him after that.

Every time her phone rang, Cherapanova thought, “It might be Artem,” and her body trembled, she said. When she found the caller was not Artem, she was despondent.

“It was agony. I couldn’t breathe,” she said.

Overwhelmed by her fears, she joined “Women of Steel,” a support group formed by the families of POWs and others.

In January this year, Cherapanova was contacted by a Ukrainian soldier who had returned from Russian territory. The soldier said he had seen Artem. Six months later, the Red Cross confirmed in July that Artem was in a detention camp in Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia.

As a staff member of the support group, Cherapanova has seen Ukrainian soldiers return from detention emaciated and without some tooth because of torture by Russians. She has been heartbroken by the thought that Artem might be going through such horrors.

Cherapanova said she wants to hug him tight when he returns and cook “the most delicious food in the world,” including his favorite food of apple pie, for him. She has bought summer and winter clothes for him, and irons them every so often.

“I’ve also bought a birthday present for him. All I have to do now is to wait,” she said.

According to the BBC, more than 2,500 Ukrainian soldiers have been repatriated in exchange for prisoners. A human rights group has reported that up to 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers are still being detained.

A report released in March by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said more than 90% of Ukrainian POWs freed by Russia were tortured or otherwise ill-treated.

Alice Jill Edwards, a U.N. special rapporteur who has interviewed former Ukrainian POWs, said it was highly likely Russia has engaged in torture, something that is prohibited at all times as a human rights violation.