Russia routinely arrests civilians from Ukraine and exchanges them for Russian prisoners-of-war. This ugly dance has led at least to 20,000 prisoner swaps.
Globally, this practice should be condemned. The Russian government must be investigated for crimes against non-combatants. Nongovernmental organizations, such as the United Nations and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, should be asked to gather evidence and testimony from victims in order to establish a case before the International Criminal Court.
Boris Semenov, from Bucha in Ukraine, was interviewed by me last month at a Kyiv station. He was not an inmate nor an officer. He was a Russian prisoner exchange participant.
Semenov is Ukrainian but is Russian-educated and his first language is Russian. He is 49 years old, but he has survived such hard times. He appears much older.
As I spoke to him, he explained how he had ended up party – or rather, captive – to one of these exchanges. He and his friend went to their village looking for water after the Russians had destroyed their village’s pipes. This was just a few weeks after the Russian invasion.
Four Russian soldiers confronted them as they walked down the village street. The four Russian soldiers pointed their guns at them, and told them to remove their underwear and to lie down on the ground in 20-degree Farenheit weather.
They started calling them Nazis. Semenov tried to convince them that they were not Nazis but a soldier struck Semenov in the face with his gun and knocked out four his teeth.
The Russians then tied his hands behind him and wrapped ducttape around his head to cover his eyes. Semenov and his friend were taken to an interrogation facility where half a dozen Ukrainians were already being detained.
Semenov, still blindfolded, listened to the interrogators work and asked the prisoners questions. “Where is the Ukrainian army?” And “Where are biological weapons?”
Semenov would scream and hear gunshots when they wouldn’t answer the question asked by the interrogators.
He felt the cold tip from a gun against his temple as it was his turn. Desperately, he told his interrogator that he didn’t know anything about the military – he was just a civilian. A soldier shot at Semenow’s ear and another one gave him a hard slap on his temple. Semenow thought that he had been shot for a while.
Boris and his friend, after being held captive for 24 hours, were released and returned to safety. But they never made it home.
They spotted a column of 15 light tanks and armored personnel carriers as they walked. Two Ukrainians approached the Russians and they waved back at them. Once again, they began interrogating Semenov and his friend – this time asking why they were covered with blood.
Semenov quickly explained to them that they had been released by Russian soldiers and were heading home.
The leader of the column was not satisfied. Semenov called someone on his cell and, after the conversation was over, informed his friend and Semenov that they were returning to captivity.
They were again blindfolded and one of them forced him to lie down face down. He kicked him in his ribs, eventually breaking three of them.
Semenov and his friend were then taken to Russia where they were held for two months. They only received one meal per day during the first six weeks. They were suddenly able to eat more and their condition improved. They received plenty of food, and were treated inexplicably more humanely.
After his ordeal had ended eight weeks ago, Semenov was finally able to board a plane for Belarus and eventually landed in Zaporizhia. There, he and other Ukrainians were exchanging for an equal number Russian soldiers.
Boris ended his remarks by saying: “I’ve always been proud that I’m Russian, but now I’m ashamed – I’m learning to speak Ukrainian now.”
TJustice Robert Jackson, speaking at 1945 Nuremberg Trials. “The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.” These words still ring true today as they did then. To bring justice for the innocent victims of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the international community must unite.
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