Maximum Security Prisoners The Head of the Snake Island Lighthouse Spent a Month in Russian Captivity
Captivity is a restriction of the freedom of an individual who has taken part in hostilities. However, more than a thousand Ukrainian civilians have been held captive by Russians since the beginning of Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine.
Serhiy Rylskyi, the head of the Snake Island lighthouse, was captured by the invaders and held in extremely difficult and harsh conditions for an entire month. He shared his story with journalists.
Attack on Snake Island
“The first shelling began around 4:00 p.m. on February 24. Then the first planes flew in: they launched missiles or bombs. Closer to the evening, there was another air raid. A bomb hit one of the buildings of the lighthouse. The roof of the building was demolished and everything in the yard was razed to the ground. The building’s windows were blown out and doors were smashed to pieces,” the lighthouse chief, Serhiy Rylskyi, 59, recalls.
According to him, around 6 a.m. he heard on the radio how the Russians were offering the military to surrender.
“The head of the outpost came to us at the lighthouse and reported that warships were standing near the island, offering us to surrender. I turned on the radio and heard them being pointed in the right direction,” the man said.
He contacted his superiors, the Odesa branch of the Derzhhidrohrafiya hydrographic state agency. They suggested that one person should stay at the lighthouse to maintain the equipment.
“By then the Russians were giving a green corridor for civilians. So I, as the chief, made the decision to stay, and I sent my partner away,” said Serhiy.
During the shelling, he and others hid in one of the shelters, but it was rather crowded. Serhiy decided to move to another shelter.
“When I opened the door, I injured my arm. I went to my room to stop the bleeding and to treat and dress the wound. Just a minute after I left my room, there was an airstrike. If I had stayed there, I wouldn’t have survived: the window was blasted inward, it penetrated the whole wall across the hall and the table where I was sitting and treating the wound,” the man recalls.
The island was attacked by the cruiser Moskva and the Vasily Bykov patrol boat, as well as aircraft. According to Rylskyi, there was nowhere to hide on Snake Island. So the men had either to surrender or die.
“When the shelling stopped for a while, I came out of hiding and climbed up the to the lighthouse, that’s 43 meters above sea level,” Serhiy said.
When he came down, he saw that the military had been laid face down on the dock.
“I reported that I was a civilian. They didn’t put me and the shore sailor face down, a port worker who was servicing the pier, but left us standing. We stood there for about an hour and a half. Then they let us go,” the man said.
In the morning, the large military tug Shakhtar came in and the marines and border guards were brought on board. The head of the lighthouse was also told to board. Even though his position didn’t give him the same status as the soldiers.
“This is a civilian profession, I have no rank, nothing. We maintain the lighthouse and the equipment that is there. We provide maritime safety,” notes Rylskyi.
Fake Return to Odesa
On the morning of February 26, the prisoners were taken to Sevastopol.
“There were already a lot of correspondents there, you must have seen. We were “solemnly” given food and water for the first time, on camera. The rations we were fed for two days. We were put on a bus saying “Sevastopol-Odesa”. But they just took us to the other side of the bay from the marine terminal,” said Serhiy.
According to Serhiy, the prisoners were transported to the Lazarevski Barracks historical building in Sevastopol, where they were quartered for two weeks. The conditions in the barracks were harsh. As the man noted, they were old premises. Most of the time they were kept in the room behind partitions, they were only taken out for a few minutes for a walk. They were not given food and drink right away, first, they had to go through the rations they were issued at the marine terminal.
“There was a sink in the room where we were, at least we could wash up. Well, you know, under the sink, with cold water,” Serhiy said.
They were permitted a shower only once in two weeks.
They were shown Russian news all day long, that Kyiv had been seized, that Ukraine had surrendered, and that everyone had forgotten about them and buried them.
Two weeks later, the prisoners were airlifted from Sevastopol to the Kursk Region, and then to Belgorod.
“For more than 3 hours we flew on an IL-76 transport plane, there were already about 100 of us because we were also joined by the crew of the rescue tug Sapfir. We arrived in Kursk at about 11 p.m.,” said Rylskyi.
From Kursk, they were housed in tents at a distribution camp in the Belgorod Region, Shebekinsky District.
“It was very cold at the time, probably -20°C. Their hospitality was very harsh, they put us all on our knees in the snow, so we stood there for half an hour. One by one they let us stand up, and wrote down our names. We were given numbers and told to memorize them. Then we were distributed in tents, 20 people per tent. It was already about 4 a.m. We were given neither water nor food. Instead, we were given wet firewood for heating stoves,” the man said.
Maximum Security Prison
A day and a half later they were taken to the town of Stary Oskol to a maximum-security prison. At that time, the civilians, 17 members of the Saphir crew, Serhiy, and a Coast Guard sailor from the island, were separated from the military. They were fingerprinted, photographed, and given prison uniforms.
“They took everything we had: the phone, watch, laptop, medicines, even our bank cards, everything,” Rylskyi said.
He misses his ring most of all, which the Russians also took away.
“For 38 years, I wore a wedding ring, never taking it off,” said Serhiy and sadly rubs his ring finger on his right hand. “My daughter later gave me a phone, and my son-in-law bought me a watch, but only a trace remains of the wedding ring.”
Then the prisoners were distributed among the cells.
“The next day we, along with the crew of the Sapphire tugboat, were transferred to a cell in the basement. We spent about two weeks there,” Rylskyi said.
The conditions, he said, were terrible: what they were given to eat could hardly be called food. Once they were given dirt to wash themselves off, and they were not given any soap.
“They gave us blunt razors, but they never gave us soap. So we shaved without soap, using blunt razors as best we could. No showers or anything,” he said.
They were held like real criminals with increased security: when they were taken out of their cells they were put against the wall, their hands always handcuffed, and they were taken out for a walk for a few minutes.
“You can’t sit on beds in the cell, only on chairs. There were eight of us. There was a bench for four in the cell. We took turns sitting there. The guards checked every three minutes to make sure no one sat on the bed,” Serhiy recalled.
But there was a radio installed on the door which broadcast Russian news.
“There’s so much misinformation out there, it’s horrifying. We tried reading between the lines to understand what was really going on,” the man recalled.
Every day, the prisoners were interrogated, at all sites they were held at: “They asked various things: where you lived, where you worked, who you were, and whether you had a family.”
“I have problems with my spine, my left foot doesn’t work, plus I have blood pressure spikes. This made my situation even worse. The Russians took away my medicine. When I complained about my health, they prescribed me some medicine of their own, but it didn’t work for me, my feet were swollen,” Serhiy said.
At the same time, in all places where prisoners of war were held, they were subjected to medical examinations: “In Sevastopol, in Kursk, and in prison, they did fluorography, took blood samples, conducted all kinds of psychological tests,” said Serhiy.
“Two weeks later we were given civilian clothes, we changed, and we were transferred to a pre-trial detention center in Kursk. The cell we were transferred to was small, and there were 20 of us, the Sapfir crew, me, and the sailor, it was very crowded. At that moment, we hadn’t been given food or water for two days and we barely managed to make them give us some water,” Serhiy said.
The worst thing was that they were not told where they were being taken, what they were being taken for, and each time, their hands were either cuffed or tied with a plastic cord.
“In the morning, sort of Sonderkommandos arrived, and they basically dragged us into a truck,” said Serhiy.
They brought them to the airfield and flew them to Simferopol shortly after. Then, they were assigned to two Urals and taken away, as usual, to an unknown destination.
“After a while, they took us out of the cars, made us lie on the ground, tied our hands behind our necks, and then threw us back into the car like meat, and threw some things on top of us. And we drove like that for two or three hours,” the man said.
When the car stopped and the prisoners were taken out and freed from the restraints, they saw that they had been brought for an exchange.
“We were not far from Zaporizhia, there was a bus was waiting for us. We were immediately taken away and fed. We left for Odesa. My coworkers were already waiting for me there, and they took me home,” Serhiy recalls.
Serhiy’s family – his wife, daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren – were waiting for him at home. All this time, they have been very worried beyond words, because they didn’t know what happened to Serhiy.
“I was freed on March 24, and the last time I called my wife on the phone was February 24, when it all started on the island. When I was in captivity, I asked to be allowed to contact my family, but they refused,” said Rylskyi.
This material was developed by Bihus.Info as part of the program “Supporting Ukraine’s Regional Media in Times of War” with the financial support of the European Union and the Foreign Ministry of the Kingdom of Norway. The content of the article/video is the sole responsibility of Bihus.Info and does not reflect the views of the European Union, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
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