On March 8, three Ukrainian military helicopters were shot down as they returned from a combat mission inside Russian-occupied territory. The only two pilots to survive were badly injured and taken prisoner by Russian forces.
In a lengthy interview with CNN, the two pilots alleged that they were subjected to more than a month of abuse and threats while in Russian custody, before being part of a prisoner exchange.
Russia’s Ministry of Defense has not responded to CNN’s requests for comment.
Oleksii Chyzh, 29, and his friend and comrade-in-arms Ivan Pepeliashko, 33, had flown missions every day since the Russian invasion began in February, despite the immense danger from Russian missiles and anti-aircraft batteries.
On March 8, an assignment took them north, near the city of Chernihiv. All four helicopters in the squadron completed the mission. But as they were returning to their base near Kyiv, Chyzh noticed new enemy positions beneath them.
It was too late. Three of the helicopters were hit by enemy fire and crashed; Chyzh and Pepeliashko were the only survivors.
“I remember waking up freezing and in pain,” Chyzh told CNN, speaking at the hospital in the capital where both men are recovering from their injuries.
“I saw the wreckage of the helicopter and smelled burning fuel,” Pepeliashko said. “My leg was twisted to the other side.”
Both pilots had broken legs, and Pepeliashko suffered spinal fractures from the impact of the crash.
He tried to crawl forward but dipped in and out of consciousness. Then he saw several Russian soldiers appear.
“I pleaded with them to shoot me. I was sure that they had come to kill us. ”
That day, Chyzh and Pepeliashko became the first Ukrainian helicopter pilots to be captured by the Russians, according to the Ukrainian military. Their accounts of captivity are harrowing, and the mistreatment they allege would have been in violation of international conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war.
The two pilots say they were loaded into an armored personnel carrier and taken to a field hospital, then transferred to a hospital in the Russian city of Rylsk, just across the border.
During the first days of their captivity, Chyzh says he was forced to read a statement on camera that he was doing well, receiving treatment and was against the war. The statement was subsequently uploaded on YouTube.
“I was warned that if I didn’t read the statement, they wouldn’t treat me (and that) my legs would start to fester and would be amputated.”
Chyzh says he was also told that unless he complied, his co-pilot would receive no medical treatment and would likely be dead by the morning.
For almost two weeks, both pilots were unable to move, confined to bed by their injuries.
They say they were interrogated every day about Ukrainian military positions, how many Russians they had killed, the location of biological laboratories and where “Nazis” were hiding.
Under the Geneva Conventions, interrogation is legal but “subject to the prohibition of torture and coercion… as well as the requirement of humane treatment.”
At one point Chyzh said he was pressured to adopt Russian citizenship.
“They asked me: Why do you want to go back to Ukraine? Look how big and powerful Russia is. There are lots of opportunities here, ”Chyzh told CNN, while noting the irony of hearing that in a hospital room where a dirty sheet of paper covered a broken window.
But Pepeliashko says he was also moved by the compassion of some of the medical staff, who provided them with new clothes.
“Even among bad people there’s always someone who has a slightly kinder heart,” he said.
After surgery they were taken to a prisoner of war camp; they don’t know where.
“We were placed in a tent for wounded prisoners. We were only given a small cup of water each day. The worst thing for me was that I couldn’t even wash my hands. Only on the eighth day did they give me a pack of wet wipes to clean myself, ”Chyzh says.
The pilots recalled hearing screams of pain from other tents. The tents were freezing, they said, and they kept a fire going by burning books.
After three weeks they were moved again – to a prison in the Russian city of Kursk. Here there was no separation of wounded and healthy prisoners. All were beaten, Chyzh alleges.
“They asked: ‘How many of us have you shot down, you bastards?’ There were about 30 people in the room. There I was forced to stand without crutches, and was forced to undress and dress myself, ”according to Chyzh.
Pepeliashko recalls lying on the floor and trying to make eye contact with a middle-aged woman who was among the guards.
“I was hoping that by looking into my eyes, it would awaken her maternal instinct and she would tell everyone to stop the beatings. But that didn’t happen. There was an emptiness in her eyes. They wanted to prove to us that we are nothing. They wanted us to stop respecting ourselves. ”
Pepeliashko says it was his deepest moment of despair. “I thought: God, don’t you hear me at all?”
They even tore off the cross he wore around his neck, he said. “’Why do you need a cross? There is no God here, ‘they said. ”
Their time in the prison was colored by a constant deluge of Russian propaganda and efforts to brainwash the prisoners, both pilots said. Throughout the day a radio in their cell blasted out propaganda and lectures about Stepan Bandera – a Ukrainian nationalist who collaborated with Nazi Germany and was assassinated by the KGB after World War II, and whose followers fought both the Nazis and the Soviets.
Female Ukrainian prisoners in an adjacent cell were forced to sing the Russian anthem and old Soviet songs, the two pilots said.
CNN has asked the Russian Defense Ministry for comment on the allegations made by the two pilots but received no response.
Chyzh and Pepeliashko say they killed the ordeal by imagining they were in a different place, keeping a sense of humor and dreaming of what they would do in the future, as they clung to the hope that they would be exchanged at some point.
“We shared recipes in great detail, lectured each other on a lot of different topics. I remember Oleksii talked about visiting Paris. I closed my eyes and imagined myself there. Then I promised to myself that if I killed captivity I would definitely go to Paris. It distracted from the pain, ”Pepeliashko said.
In mid-April, the two were told they would be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war. They did not believe it until they finally arrived in Kyiv, on April 14.
While in captivity they had been told that Kyiv had been “liberated” by Russia. They had no idea that the battle for Kyiv never really happened – and that the Russians had eventually left the region to refocus their efforts on eastern Ukraine.
Rehabilitation will be a long journey for both of them. Chyzh still struggles to walk with crutches. He told CNN that for him the hospital was now home. “This is everything I have. I don’t have anything else. ”
Obviously they are happy to be alive and see their families again, but the war still weighs heavily on their minds. They worry about their victims still flying dangerous missions.
It’s not time for the trip to Paris yet – both pilots say they want to return to the fight.
“We didn’t go through this hell to give up,” Pepeliashko said. “Our whole life is the road to the sky. And we will do everything to return to the cockpit helicopter. ”