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“They Thought They Would Take Ukraine in Eight Days”: The Story of an Odesa Chaplain Who Survived 70 Days of Captivity

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In late February, Odesa chaplain Vasyl Vyrozub, together with the crew of the tug Sapfir traveled to Snake Island to retrieve the bodies of Ukrainian border guards believed dead. They were detained by the Russians near the island. After this, Vyrozub was held captive for two months, interrogated daily, tortured, and pressured to confess to cooperating with the Ukrainian Security Service.

We had our own formula: the worse we were treated, the more possible our victories on the front lines. Yes, we were hurt, scared, but the torture meant that Kyiv was standing. If they opened the doors and told us to get out, it would mean that the whole country was occupied, that Ukraine had lost. But when we were beaten, the guards insulted us or set dogs on us during our walks in the camp, we understood that the dead and wounded started coming back. And that they had already been kicked in the teeth somewhere.” 

This is what Father Vasyl, rector of the Odesa Holy Trinity Garrison Church, told of his 70 days of captivity, first in the occupied Crimea and then in Russia. 

It all started on February 25, when the chaplain was asked to go to Snake Island, the name had already made headlines around the world. The chaplain was tasked with retrieving thirteen bodies of border guards and possibly two wounded civilians [later it turned out that the border guards were alive and in captivity, but at the time, they were considered dead]. At that time, Vasyl didn’t expect that during the invasion the Russians would massacre thousands of civilians by methodically destroying one Ukrainian town after another. 

Frankly, I thought that Putin would be stopped. That his circle wouldn’t let him do it. Okay, he went crazy, but there are ministers, deputies, and oligarchs. Somebody had to tell him to stop, not to do it, because an attack on Ukraine is complete idiocy. So I thought they would shoot once or twice and stop there, but no,the priest said. 

Two other chaplains, Leonid Bolharov and Oleksandr Chokov, as well as a children’s doctor, Ivan Tarasenko, also agreed to participate in the rescue mission on the tug Sapfir. The priest said that there was not a single soldier in the crew of 19 people. 

In the evening that same day, they left Odesa port for Snake Island.

Already in the morning, the ship dropped anchor near the island. The crew was waiting for the Russians, who were to check on the Sapfir and let the mission take away the bodies. The Russians arrived by boat, from which several military officers in balaclavas and with automatic weapons boarded the Sapfir. They searched the ship and the crew for three hours and, having found nothing, allowed them to get closer to Snake Island (about a kilometer away) and take a few photos. 

I had no fear. I was only worried about completing this mission. So that one dead soldier’s hand wouldn’t end up in a bag with another, we knew we were going to get the bodies and that the island was torn apart. So the main thing was to get the bodies of the children home, to give them to their parents and wives,” explained the chaplain. 

Vasyl believes the Russians deliberately brought the vessel to a side of the island where there was little damage. The crew was then told that the border guards of the island were alive, surrendered, and were allowed to report back to the Ukrainian military.

No further instructions were given to the crew, so everyone waited in their quarters until evening. Then an enemy gunboat docked at the Sapfir, and fighters boarded it in full gear. They allowed the chaplains and the doctor to call their families to warn them that they had been taken prisoner and were being taken to Crimea. 

When he was being taken prisoner, Father Vasyl tried to hide his phone because he had many military contacts there, but the fighters saw this and, took away the gadget at gunpoint. When asked when they would be released, the captives were told that it would be after the completion of the “special operation,” which, according to the Russians, should have been over in 7-8 days. 

“One of them told me, “Priest, look behind you.” I looked behind me, and somewhere far away was Odesa, and not far away was their cruiser, the Moskva. And he said, “Look how powerful it is. If it fires one day, your Ukraine will be gone, not just Snake Island.” So confident were they that they would take Ukraine in eight days and they would be welcomed in the cities. That the scenario will be similar to what happened in Crimea,” added the chaplain. 

It was already on the occupied peninsula that the Ukrainians’ realization that armed Russians were capable of whatever they wanted gave rise to the fear of captivity, Vasyl said.

In Sevastopol, the prisoners were taken to a military prison, where they were kept in cold and damp cells for 11 days. Every day the Russians interrogated them about their mission to the island, the tasks of the crew members, and their attitude toward the Revolution of Dignity. The invaders were also interested in the whereabouts of the crew members during the May 2, 2014 events in Odesa and getting the crew’s confession of cooperation with the SBU. 

There were no beatings in Crimea, Vasyl said; only daily psychological pressure.

On March 12, chaplains and the doctor, along with other prisoners of war, were sent to the town of Shebekino in the Belgorod Region by military plane IL-76. Vasyl recalled that there was a tent camp, which resembled a filtration camp: there was a fence around the perimeter, many floodlights, and escorts with service dogs. The prisoners had to move quickly, with their heads down and their hands behind their backs. After the examination and filling out of questionnaires, each one was given a number and sent to a tent. Vasyl’s number was 27. 

“The atmosphere in that camp was too overwhelming for a sane individual to handle. The barking of dogs and floodlights forced one into a state of extreme hopelessness and despair,added Vasyl. 

The Russians continued their interrogations here, asking about the events in Donbas and Odesa, about the chaplain’s ties to the Right Sector, and… about the whereabouts of Stepan Bandera. Despite the seemingly obvious absurdity, the last question, according to the chaplain, sounded neither like a joke, nor like mockery.

One day Deputy Minister of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs Alexander Kravchenko came to the camp to inspect the prisoners’ everyday life, but mostly noted the importance of destroying the “Banderovites” and preventing the expansion of NATO’s borders. Ironically, it was his visit and the last name Vasyl remembered that later saved the chaplain from prolonged torture. 

On March 18, the chaplains and the doctor were taken to Pretrial Detention Center No. 2 in Stary Oskol, Belgorod Region. Right after entering the territory, the Ukrainians were beaten with rubber truncheons for some reason, Following that, questionnaires were filled out, full-face and profile photographs were taken, and they were shaved and given prison clothes. 

The beatings continued during interrogations. Prisoners’ arms were twisted in painful holds, they were forcibly made to do the splits, and were subjected to electric shocks. Vasyl recalled that when a person fell from the blows, the Russians would pick them up and continue beating them. For refusing to cooperate or for fictitious violations in general, prisoners were thrown into a punishment cell, where they were kept without clothes, food, and toilet facilities. 

All these actions were accompanied by threats, most of them of a sexual nature. In particular, they threatened to show me how they check clergymen for homosexuality in Russia,” said Vasyl.

During one of these interrogations, when the invaders tried to beat a confession of cooperation with the SBU out of the chaplain, the man could not stand the torture and said that he had information for them.

I started to say that I recently talked to the deputy minister, and gave them Kravchenko’s last name. I asked if they knew it, and without waiting for them to answer, I continued talking. I told that this general promised that not a single hair would fall off my head and I was under the protection of the Russian Federation. And now I didn’t know what I would tell him at our next meeting, because now I was bald, despite the general’s promise,” the priest said with a smile.

This answer had an obvious effect on the invaders. They turned off the video camera that recorded all the tortures, asked a few more formal questions, and returned the chaplain to the punishment cell, mumbling something about “this Ukrainian threatening them now”. 

On May 5, Vasyl, the other chaplains, and the doctor were exchanged. Pre-trial detention center staff returned his clothes and forced him to say on camera that he had no complaints against them. Then they put a hat on the man’s head, wrapped it around with duct tape, and took him by plane first to Crimea, and then to one of the villages in the Kherson Region, where the exchange took place. Vasyl said he couldn’t believe he would return home till the very last moment.

Waiting to die is worse than death itself. Because you can never know if you are now being taken to be interrogated, tortured, or killed. Even when they were already taking us to the exchange, we didn’t know exactly where we were going to arrive. Because I thought they were taking me to the so-called “shame parade” in Mariupol, which was supposed to take place on May 9,” Vasyl noted. 

When asked about how he returned to normal life after all he had gone through, the chaplain shrugged and admitted that full rehabilitation is impossible during the war. Although doctors have patched him up physically, it is extremely difficult to recover psychologically during active hostilities.

I know that others stayed there and it is much harder for them. Now my task is to help those who returned from captivity and the families of those whose loved ones are at the frontlines or in captivity as well. Everyone will be rehabilitated after victory.”

Olha Ivlieva

This article was created by Bihus.Info as part of the project “EU Urgent Support for Civil Society” implemented by ISAR Ednannia with the financial support of the European Union. The content of the article is the sole responsibility of Bihus.Info and does not necessarily reflect the position of the European Union.

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