Dmytro Raskevich, of 30 years old, is a military engineer of the army of Ukraine. At the beginning of February of this year, Russia had between 130 one thousand and 130 a thousand troops stationed along the Ukrainian border, not only on Russian territory, but in Belarus and Crimea peninsula – Ukrainian soil that had been occupied by Moscow in 2022.
The invasion was imminent, according to British intelligence, but President Vladimir Putin publicly denied the intention to send his troops to the neighboring country. He said it was all just a military exercise.
Raskevich and his companions in arms were sent to the port of Berdiansk, on the Ukrainian coast, to install mines, with the aim of delaying an eventual Russian amphibious invasion. .
The Ukrainian people, like most analysts, believed that Russian military action would be restricted to the east of the country, in the Donbas region. Berdiansk was an unlikely target. But in February, after a hail of missiles over the main Ukrainian cities, Russian troops began the large-scale invasion of the neighboring country.
Russian military left Crimea for Kherson, Melitopol and Berdiansk. From the Russian city of Taganrog, soldiers advanced on Mariupol. Before long, Berdiansk was dominated by the Kremlin and Raskevich’s platoon found itself surrounded. It was no longer possible to reach Zaporizhzhia, the nearest region still under Ukrainian control.
He and his companions were ordered to travel to the nearby village of Primorsk, shed their military uniforms and mingle. to the civilian population. They came into contact with collaborators who would become the Ukrainian resistance. They were then taken to a safe house, where they remained for a week.
After days in the shadows, the impetuous young soldier began to think of a plan to try to secretly return to unoccupied Ukrainian territory. He then returned to the city of Berdiansk.
“I started helping other military colleagues to settle in Berdiansk, but soon the Russian military police started looking for us. We started changing addresses constantly to avoid capture,” Raskevich told this columnist.
Disguised as a local student, the soldier made contact with Ukrainian special forces, who were trying to organize a partisan movement of resistance in the occupied territories.
“I started helping the ‘experts’. I started taking pictures of Ukrainian police officers who switched sides,” he said. Among the tasks of resistance members in occupied areas were sabotaging railway lines, carrying out attacks against Russian authorities and, in Raskevich’s case, locating and identifying the “vatnik”, slang for Ukrainian citizens who changed sides and started to support the invading Russians.
All was well on Raskevich’s new mission, until his colleagues in Primorsk were captured by the Russian secret police. But he didn’t know that. His companions were forced to call and tell Raskevich that they needed to meet him in Berdiansk. He provided his location and made an appointment. In a matter of hours, he was surrounded.
“I don’t know who they were, because they put a mask on my face and I didn’t see anything. Then they took me to a place I didn’t know where it was, then I saw that it was a police station. They tried to find out who the special operations people were who worked with me,” he said.
“They wanted maps of the mines we laid, the fortifications we built and the identities of the civilians who helped us.”
Raskevich tried to maintain his student disguise. “I said I didn’t know anything I was being told and what was happening. There were various types of torture, the main one was the use of electricity,” he said.
“ I was placed in a metal chair. I couldn’t move and they used electricity to torture me and get information. They also used batons to beat me and tried to asphyxiate me using plastic bags. They broke my nose,” he said.
The soldier was placed in a cell with four other people he did not know. One of the prisoners began to say that the Russians cut the sexual organs of anyone who did not provide information. He said he saw people who were said to have been mutilated during the torture. What he didn’t know is that there were Russians undercover as prisoners.
“I was taken to the torture room and my pants were taken off. I thought all was lost. They started putting something on my genitals and I didn’t understand what it was. Then, they started giving shocks”, he reported.
The day after this torture session, Raskevich’s captors presented him with his cell phone, which had been seized. He was relatively calm as he had erased all compromising information. But the Russians accessed a folder from the Telegram app that saved photos and conversations. Raskevich was unaware of the feature.
“They showed pictures of me wearing my military uniform, proving that I was not a student. My cover was blown at that moment.”
The soldier then handed the Russians the names of his team members and information about their missions. “I am very ashamed of this”, he said.
Even having given information to the Russians, the young man was subjected to several other aggressions, including the simulation of execution.
“The moment they broke me was when they said they were going to shoot me and they lined me up. At that moment, I died in my thoughts”, he recalled.
According to him, all the prisoners were blindfolded and it was possible to hear loud bangs similar to gunshots. “I was noticing that there were fewer and fewer people in the queue,” he said.
However, Raskevich realized at one point that he would not be murdered. The pops were fireworks, not gunshots. “That was like a vaccine for me, since then I started to think that I would not die there.”
The soldier was taken to the Russian naval base in Sevastopol, where his treatment began to improve. There, the Russians asked if he wanted to be part of the prisoner exchanges. However, to participate, he had to sign documents without reading them. He later learned that the papers contained statements that he witnessed Ukrainian troops committing war crimes and genocide in Luhansk, a province in eastern Ukraine. All lies.
Raskevich remembers a group of 50 prisoners who were taken away for a supposed prisoner exchange – a fact that injected courage into everyone else. “But then five of them were brought back with multiple fractures. They had been taken to Taganrog, Russia. I don’t know what happened to the others”, he said.
“ There were many reports of people who saw our soldiers being sexually violated. I even spoke to one of them, but then I never saw her again. I hope he’s okay, if that’s possible,” he recalled.
After more than four months in Russian prisons, Raskevich was selected to be exchanged for Russian prisoners.
“I didn’t believe until the last moment that there would be an exchange. First I saw a man crossing a bridge in our uniform. There was a civilian and military. It is impossible to describe the emotion. It’s as if someone shook you as much as possible to get something out of his body.”
The soldier was then taken to a rehabilitation center in Ukrainian territory. “It was the first time in months that I saw someone smiling at me, they weren’t indifferent,” he said.
Days later, he met his wife and family at a reception ceremony. “My soul couldn’t fit in my body with so much happiness”, he said.
Since the beginning of the war, about a thousand Ukrainians have returned to their country in prisoner exchanges.