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90 days in a Russian prison: the story of terror and hope of a Ukrainian teenager

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On his first day in a Russian prison, the 16-year-old said he heard the cries of agony from other Ukrainians. Sitting in a 6ft by 6ft cell with a broken toilet, Vlad Buryak wondered if he would be next.

Buryak, the son of a senior Ukrainian government official, was abducted by Russian soldiers as he tried to flee his hometown of Melitopol in early April. His case has become one of thousands: the growing but untrackable number of Ukrainian civilians abducted or forcibly disappeared.

But his story is different from most. Vlad came home.

His unlikely exit offers a ray of hope during a dark time. As the war enters its 20th week, fierce fighting continues along the front lines in eastern Ukraine. Russian rocket attacks are killing more civilians every day, Ukrainian officials say, and allegations of atrocities have piled up. Many of the thousands of missing persons never reappear, posing a particular challenge for war crimes investigators.

Vlad’s case opens a rare window into the experience of the legion of Ukrainians still being held in Russian-occupied territory, in facilities inaccessible to international rights monitors or independent journalists. In an interview with The Washington Post shortly after his safe return, the teenager recounted the 90 Day Saga for the first time in an English-language publication.

According to Vlad and his father, Oleg Buryak, Russian troops took Vlad to a prison in Vasylivka, a town in the occupied part of Zaporizhzia province. in the southeast of the country. For the first few days they kept him in solitary confinement, he said.

Sitting in his prison cell, Vlad could not understand what was happening. “Why am I here, and when am I going home?” he was thinking.

But the initial shock quickly turned to sheer terror.

Less than a week after arriving at the prison, Vlad said a man in his twenties had been moved to the same cell. He heard the young man being beaten and electrocuted, the torture sometimes lasting up to three hours at a time, he said.

Soon the man said he couldn’t take it anymore. He would rather “leave this earth than continue to be tortured,” he told Vlad. He had one last wish: that Vlad tell his story.

Vlad said the man then reached for the lid of a tin can and cut his wrists.

The teen sat down beside him, holding his hand as he slowly walked away. But before he breathed his last, Vlad said, a guard came and called a doctor, who took him away.

Vlad never knew if the man, who said he had a wife and child, survived.

The Post was unable to independently verify Vlad’s account. But Ukrainian human rights groups that track enforced disappearances said Vlad’s testimony is consistent with that of other victims who have been released, and they said torture was a ‘common practice’. . The United Nations has also reported numerous cases of Russian soldiers torturing civilian and military prisoners.

And US officials this week accused Russian forces of forcibly detaining or disappearing thousands of Ukrainian civilians, and said many of them were being tortured.

Russia has repeatedly denied any allegations of torture or other war crimes.

After this horrible episode, Vlad, alone in his cell, felt isolated again.

To pass the time, he filled his days with menial chores, cooking his own food, reading, and sleeping. He said he was also forced to clean up the room where other prisoners were tortured, where he often found blood-soaked medical supplies, an endeavor he carried out with a pragmatic, almost militaristic spirit.

“I had no emotion,” he said. “I bottled them all. I acted like nothing had happened. I didn’t show any aggression, so they won’t do the same to me.

No matter what horror he witnessed – in addition to beatings and electric shocks, the prisoners had needles shoved under their fingernails – Vlad remained detached.

“I understood that at that moment I was also running away,” he added.

But inside: “I was extremely scared. I was shocked. As if everything in me had burned.

Some moments were too shocking to process. One day, for example, he said he entered the torture chamber and found a man hanging from the ceiling, his hands tied with cables. A Russian soldier sat down next to the badly beaten prisoner and, seemingly unfazed, took notes.

At home, Vlad’s father was engaged in a frantic, detective-like pursuit of his son. As head of the Zaporizhzhia regional military administration, Oleg Buryak relied on his government connections, desperate to set up a prisoner exchange. Nothing was working.

After nearly seven weeks in the Russian prison, Vlad was transferred to a facility with better conditions, where he could bathe regularly and call his father.

Not knowing if he would ever see him again, Vlad kept repeating two sentences, like a mantra.

There are no situations that cannot be resolved.

On July 4, Buryak received a call from a Russian negotiator, who told him he was ready to release Vlad. There are some details of the delicate exchange that Buryak said he could not divulge; some he said he still doesn’t understand. Vlad would be part of a three-person prisoner exchange, he said, and he would be returned to Ukrainian territory in a civilian evacuation caravan.

Two days later, Vlad called his father.

“Dad, they say I’m coming to see you tomorrow.”

The last hours have been agonizing for father and son.

Buryak greeted Vlad on the side of a road, near the zero line, where Ukrainian and occupied territories converge. Wearing a camouflage body armor and blue jeans, Buryak waved at a van. Vlad walked out the side door and the two kissed. To finish.

Buryak rested his forehead on his son’s shoulder as he held him. His police escort had to remind him that they were in a war zone: “Oleg, let’s go,” they said. “Let’s go let’s go.”

“When Vlad was kidnapped, I felt like a piece of my heart had been ripped out of me,” Buryak said. “And when I hugged him, I felt like that piece was coming back.”

But the country is still at war. The trauma of Vlad’s confinement will linger long after his release. The sounds of torture, the fear of being taken back, and the smell of the blood-soaked cleaning rag kept him awake and nervous. He said he felt at least five years older.

In an interview less than a week after his return, Vlad adopted the same stoic and determined manner as his father. He said he now spends his days volunteering for the war effort, distributing humanitarian aid and sharing his story. Jaw clenched, he says he wants to keep reliving what he saw, even the worst moments.

“I don’t want to forget any of this,” he said, “so I can tell others and make sure people know.”

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Post expires at 12:24pm on Friday July 22nd, 2022

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