Ukrainian "cyborg" recounts war and captivity horrors

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Media captionSergeant Major Anatoly Svyryd with his wife Oksana, reunited after a battle "worse than how we imagine hell"

Sergeant Major Anatoly Svyryd survived one of the Ukrainian army's most bitter defeats of the war. After he surrendered he was paraded through the streets of the rebel-held Donetsk.

Then his wife was detained trying to negotiate his release. They have both now been freed, and they are back together with their nine-year-old son in Kiev.

They were known as the "cyborgs": a group of Ukrainian soldiers who held out in the mangled metal ruins of Donetsk airport until the bitter end.

"The terrifying part wasn't the fighting. It was hearing the moans of your dying comrade, and not being able to help him," recounts Sgt Maj Svyryd.

The carcass-like remains of the airport terminal tell of the ferocity of the fighting.

Image caption Anatoly Svyryd was captured as pro-Russian rebels took Donetsk airport

The destruction meant that when pro-Russian forces finally took the ground in January, their victory had become more symbolic than strategic.

'Not a game'

Anatoly was convinced he would die in the final battle which lasted all day and all night.

Image caption Oksana Svyryd was initially detained by separatists when she began searching for her husband

He remembers a big explosion the next day, and the airport terminal then "ceased to exist".

Even this broad, chunky man, with a shaven head and impossibly big biceps covered in tattoos, has tears in his eyes as he describes the horrifying reality of comrades being crushed and badly wounded.

"It's not a game. We fought until the last man."

After Anatoly and the other Ukrainian soldiers who were still alive had surrendered, pro-Russian fighters paraded them through the streets of Donetsk.

"People were running up to us, and screaming and hitting us, and throwing stones and eggs.

"They were kicking us, spitting at us, swearing at us."

His captors claimed they were marching him through parts of the city that had been bombed by the Ukrainian army.

Anatoly believes it's hard to know which side had bombed these areas, but he says that "on some level, you sympathise".

"People have become hostages of the situation.

"But it wasn't pleasant. And it was painful, because I could hardly walk, as I had lots of shrapnel in my leg. And because of my ribs I could hardly breathe."

The images of Anatoly, and the other prisoners limping through the streets of Donetsk were broadcast on local television channels.

Watching, hundreds of miles away in Kiev, was his wife Oksana.

Torture claims

Meanwhile, Anatoly says he was held with other prisoners in the basement of a building, which had no windows or heating.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Donetsk airport - once one of the best in Ukraine - is now just a pile of mangled metal

"We couldn't tell whether it was day or night. They fed us twice a day. And you were led to the toilet four times a day," he recalls.

Anatoly says there was constant psychological pressure, like name-calling, but he says he was not physically abused, and he describes the conditions as "not that bad".

Thinking there was a possibility that her husband could be released, Oksana travelled to Donetsk.

However, when she arrived in the city, she was also detained.

Oksana was held in captivity for two weeks, and says she was beaten "as hard as the men".

She also claims an army communications device was used to electrocute her.

"The pain is invisible. You're in so much shock, you don't realise that in your head they could kill you.

"They wanted us to admit that we were spies," she says.


The BBC was unable to speak to an independent expert who could verify Oksana's claim that she was tortured.

Image caption Dariya Morozova claims "no-one touched" Oksana Svyryd

However, we did talk to a Ukrainian man who was held with her, who also claims he was abused.

And the Ukrainian organisation that helped negotiate Oksana's release said she had marks on her body when she was freed.

The head of the Human Rights Council for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, Dariya Morozova, said Oksana was only held for 24 hours.

"Nothing she said is true," she told the BBC.

'When Oksana arrived in our territory, she hadn't cleared it with anyone. She was detained because she was registered somewhere else.

"There might have been some verbal abuse, but no-one touched her."

And Ms Morozova claimed that rebel prisoners have been tortured by Ukraine's army.

When Anatoly learnt about his wife's detention, he was still being held by the rebels, and he says his legs "nearly gave way".

"When she travelled [to Donetsk] it was a big risk, not only for each of us, but for our son Mark who was left at home.

"Only a brave person could do such a thing."

Oksana was released after 12 days in captivity.

Two weeks after that, her husband Anatoly was freed in a prisoner exchange between the Ukranian army and pro-Russian forces.

Anatoly is still recovering in hospital, with a badly-damaged hand and shrapnel wounds.

Despite losing friends in the battle for Donetsk airport and being held as a prisoner, he feels no animosity towards the men he was fighting.

"They're our own flesh and blood. But with ideas of their own and different conclusions.

"So I don't feel hatred towards them."

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