Picture by nv.ua
Below is a translation of a piece by nv.ua telling the story of Chaplain Vasyl Vyrozub, a Ukrainian priest who spent 70 days in Russian captivity after being taken prisoner on Snake Island in February 2022.
The translation of the piece was provided by https://twitter.com/Anastasiya1451A
Beatings, intimidation and solitary confinement are only a small part of the suffering that Odesa priest-chaplain Vasyl Vyrozub had to endure. On March 31st, after more than a month in captivity, the Russians sent the Odesa priest-chaplain Vasyl Vyrozub to the solitary confinement cell. He was forced to strip naked and locked up for four days in a cold, small cell without windows, a toilet or a washstand.
“I only understood after a day why I was sitting there,” recalls Vyrozub. — “A major and another man came and said that I have time to think about what I should tell them, information that I know and allegedly hid from everyone. Then, they left. Already on the 2nd day, the beatings began, and on the 3rd, they were electrocuting me.”
After 70 days in captivity and three months after being released, the priest is back home in Odesa. He was reluctant to share his experience in Russian captivity out of fear for those Ukrainians left in Russian captivity. Yet, after the mass murder of Ukrainian prisoners in temporary-occupied Olenivka (Donetsk oblast) he could not remain silent.
The Snake Island mission
Vasyl Vyrozub is the abbot of the Odesa Holy Trinity Church of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and chaplain of Ukrainian military personnel. On the morning of February 25th, on the second day of the Great War, the captain of the Navy called him with a request to go to Snake (Zmiiny) Island to recover the bodies of Ukrainian border guards who were then believed to have been killed by fire from the infamous “Russian warship” – the cruiser Moskva, the Black Sea flagship of the Russian Federation (RF).
The priest agreed to the mission, together with two more Protestant pastors, a doctor and 19 other crew members of the Sapphir rescue ship, he set off for Zmiyny — the place where the Ukrainian border guards sent a Russian cruiser in a known direction a day earlier.
“I won’t say that I wasn’t scared for my life. I was more worried about how to do everything right… How to identify the children [Zmiiny border guards], how to bring them home, how to make sure that the sailors are not afraid.”
On the morning of February 26, they approached Zmiiny and dropped anchor near the island to await the Russian inspection team. It appeared in a few hours: people in military uniforms, balaclavas and with weapons in their hands. First, the Russians put all the members of the mission on their knees and began to nervously inspect the ship. And then – to ask about the purpose of the visit.
“Who are you? Why did you come? Do you even understand where you have come? Are you immortals or idiots?” – asked the occupiers.
“And I thought so and said: Yes, immortals.” – the priest, in his robe and with a cross over his garments, recalls his answer.
The people of Saphir found out from the Russians that in fact the Ukrainian border guards remained alive and were taken prisoner – there was no one to take from Zmiiny. Therefore, the ship could return to Odessa.
But the rescue mission was not let go. Sapphire was pulled closer to the side of the island that was almost undamaged after the Russian shelling. Sailors and chaplains were ordered to photograph the surviving part and send it to their leadership: to pretend that the island was not bombed, and the border guards supposedly “surrendered themselves.” The crew of Saphir sent the report after which the Russians turned off the connection and took them prisoner.
While still on the ship, Vyrozub tried to find out from one of the special forces troops what would happen to them next. He replied that the Ukrainians should either be released or detained to stay in Crimea “until the end of the operation” [this is the term the RF calls the full-scale war it started in Ukraine].
The priest recalls his exchange with the Russian special ops guy:
“Ok, wait a minute, the operation may take 2-3 months, or maybe a year. – I said. To which he begun beating himself on the forehead and, pointing to the cruiser Moskva [which was hit and sunk by the Ukrainian military in April] and said: “[Russian] You, priest, look at this beast! If she shoots, then not only Zmeiny, but also your Ukraine will be gone. 7-8 days – no more.”
At the same time, the Russian military got its hands on the chaplain’s smartphone, which was filled with his photos with the Ukrainian Minister of Defence, generals and pictures from the front. And as a “cherry on the cake” – a picture of Vyrozub with the former leader of the Right Sector organisation, Dmytro Yarosh. Later, all these photos became one of the reasons for the brutal treatment of the priest in captivity.
The next day, all members of the rescue mission were forcibly taken to Crimea, occupied by the RF, on the Russian vessel Shakhtar. The Russian military led two dozen Ukrainian civilians with their hands behind their backs past them, then shoved them into police minibuses and took them to the watchtower of the Russian naval forces in Sevastopol.
It was here that the interrogations of Ukrainians began, the priest recalls. There were 3-4 of them a day – psychological pressure. At that time, the Russians did not yet use torture.
Vyrozub constantly asked the investigators why they were detained and what their status was and refused to sign any documents. “We decide what your status is.” he often heard back.
“They really thought they were going to “liberate,” says the priest. “And during the interrogations, they asked a lot about the Banderovites. They believe in them so much that they asked:
“Do I have information about Bandera’s whereabouts?”
I say: “Do you mean?”.
And they: “What are you, stupid?”
I answered that I know where Bandera is, but the whole world knows where he is. [Bandera was assassinated in 1959 in Munich]”
In the Crimea, they were held for 11 days. One day, they were taken to the Naval Institute, where the border guards from Zmiiny were kept, those whose bodies the rescue mission was looking for. All together, the Russians took to the airfield and took about 200 illegally detained Ukrainians to the Russian city of Shebekino, located 200 km from the Ukrainian border in the Belgorod region.
The filtration camp
On the outskirts of the city, the Russians hastily set up a tent city to receive the prisoners, without even having time to surround it with barbed wire. Ukrainians who were in the warm Crimea a few hours ago found themselves in cold conditions – it was -20°C outside.
“Some of our servicemen were just in a T-shirt, simple pants, they could be in slippers,” recalls Vyrozub. – “And imagine how these children were then put on their knees with their hands behind their heads, butts on their heads. Some lost consciousness.”
The escorts met the Ukrainians with dogs, which they harassed so that they would speed up the movement of the prisoners to the tents. Detainees were searched, all their personal belongings were taken away and a number was given to each person – from that time on, they no longer had names.
After passing such control, the Ukrainians were taken to tents, where they were made to kneel under the supervision of an armed military officer. They stood all night while the Russians counted all the prisoners.
“Everyone was on their knees. I was standing in the undergown. Then they didn’t care.” – says the priest.
The Ukrainians received food only on the third day of their stay in the camp. Here, the Russians continued to interrogate the prisoners, for whom they created a difficult atmosphere with the constant barking of dogs and the “work” of searchlights.
The chaplain recalls that he, along with his Protestant colleagues, tried to support military and civilian prisoners, and gathered them every morning for prayer.
“There was no other way out,” explains Vyrozub. — “I perfectly understood that the system of any camp is to separate. Together with the chaplains, we set a task for the soldiers: to return home alive, healthy and unharmed. This is the task they had to complete. And then we will see.”
Sometimes, the chaplain recalls, the soldiers returned from interrogations depressed. Then Vyrozub had to remind them about the task.
“Did you hear what the task is?” – asked the military priest.
And he answered: “Return home alive and well.”
“Yes, to return home alive and well. You understand?” the chaplain repeated.
Vyrozub himself, on the other hand, could not be afraid: “When I saw courage and bravery in the eyes of some soldiers. What did I, the old chaplain, have to fear?” he explains. – “I was charged with this courage from them, I could not be worse than them. It was mutual support.”
On the last day of the priest’s stay in the filtration camp, a soldier in field uniform with general’s epaulettes entered his tent. He, surrounded by his own security, approached the prisoners and introduced himself as the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs of the RF, General Oleksandr Kravchenko.
The Russian general was interested in whether the prisoners were fed in the camp and whether they were treated well. He also stated that the full-scale war started because the Ukrainians allowed “Banderites to develop” and that the Russian Federation cannot allow NATO to stand on its borders.
“- Are you a right or wrong priest?” – Kravchenko suddenly turned to Vyrozub.
“I am correct for Ukraine, because we have a tomos [decree of the head of a particular Eastern Orthodox Church],” he responded. — “And it makes no sense for Russia to ask, because you don’t even have a tomos.”
“You have nothing to complain about here,” the general continued the conversation in a dignified manner. – “Because there you have bullets whistling, shells falling. And here you are under the protection of the RF.”
After this conversation, Vyrozub, together with the rest of the prisoners, were taken to the pre-trial detention centre in the Russian city of Stary Oskol, located in the north of the Belgorod region.
SIZO [Russian isolation and detention centre]
The prisoners were met by a living corridor of pre-trial detention centre employees – both outside and inside the building. In the room, the escorts began to beat the prisoners with rubber sticks and harass them with dogs.
But when it was the priest’s turn to go through this “corridor”, the escorts froze somewhat. “Military-military-military – and then a priest comes out with a cross and a ponytail,” recalls Vyrozub. — “They were stunned: “Yes, father, come on carefully, get out of here.” They did not know what to do. If the military were still beaten, they didn’t know what to do with me. Everyone wondered what I was doing here. But when they cut my hair and put me in a uniform, they beat me and didn’t ask me if I was a father. They just beat me.”
And they cut Vyrozub’s hair and changed him into a black prison uniform on the day of his reception — March 18th. So, he ended up in cell No. 48 together with two more Protestant chaplains and a doctor, with whom he went on a rescue mission to Zmiiny in February.
At first, interrogations took place 2-3 times a day in the SIZO. Prisoners were beaten during walks simply without any explanation.
“They beat just to hit, to show that they are in change. That’s the only reason,” the priest recalls. – “When they took our chaplain Sasha Chokov for questioning, they hit him under his diaphragm, and then on his head and on his knee. He lost coordination and fell. Then his face was pressed against the net.”
Chokov asked the escort why he was beating him. And he heard in response: “If it was for something, he would have killed him.”
Every morning in Vyrozub’s cell began with prayer. The priests prayed aloud: “for Ukraine, for its will, for honour, for glory, for the people, for the victory of the Ukrainian army over every enemy and adversary, for the return of all prisoners.”
And when the guards heard “for the freedom and independence of our state”, they began to beat the cell wall with batons so that they would be silent and speak Russian.
“They had no right to come in,” explains Vyrozub. – “We were beaten only when taken for questioning or for walks. Because they beat only where there were no cameras – in the room for their staff.”
On the morning of March 31, the priest was sent to the solitary confinement cell naked for the first time during his stay in the pretrial detention centre. They sent him to the so-called “rubber” cell, the walls of which were covered with rubber material.
It was difficult to stay in a cold, small room, Vyrozub recalls. There was no toilet, so all natural needs had to be carried out on the spot.
“And it was so cold that you stood in one place to warm it up. It was impossible to walk because of the cold”, – the priest recalls. — “And you stand in one place, and after 15-20 hours the soles of your feet did not hurt, but felt as if they had been beaten with sticks. And you already hear that your heels hurt, they burn. You get on your knees and already warm yourself like this. And then you get back on your feet. Already on the 2nd or 3rd day, you catch “hallucinations”. After all, you have not slept for three days: because you are just beginning to fall asleep – you fall on the cold ground and wake up. The cold is terrible. And you can’t stand anymore: your knees are also starting to burn, how long do you stand on them? And you cannot sit very well on the buttocks (but you sit on them later). The more your body touched the ground, the faster you froze and began to shake from the cold.”
In the cell, Vyrozub was allowed to drink only 200-300g of tea per day. Food was also offered, but they were not given anything to eat it with. That is why the chaplain was hungry all four days in the cell.
“But how [ to eat ]? – wondered the priest. – You have hands… someone was already sitting there before you and going to the toilet, you understand what you are sitting on… Already on the second day I was coughing up pus. Urine fumes, these acids corroded the lungs.”
During his stay in the cell, the chaplain was taken for questioning. He was given a white sheet to wrap himself in and taken to the “convoy” room.
On the first day of torture, Vyrozub was met by four Russians, three of whom were officers. They started asking him questions, and when not satisfied with the answer, they started beating him. For 20 minutes, the Russians punched the priest in the back of the head. And then, he was again returned naked to the cold punishment cell.
“They said that it could not be that I was standing [in the photos on my smartphone] next to such people [Yarosh], such generals, and I do not work for the SBU. It can’t be that I don’t work with our “office” and therefore I must to have information.” says the priest. — “They did not believe that I did not cooperate with the SBU. They asked, what is the meaning of my position [priest] then?”.
The next day, the Russians continued to abuse the chaplain. Having brought him in a bedsheet to the “convoy room”, they repeated their questions again.
This time Vyrozub was interrogated by two seniors, a lieutenant and a lieutenant colonel. As it turned out later, the latter was the head of the pre-trial detention centre, Oleksiy Hnipov.
The chaplain’s answers did not suit them again. One of the seniors jumped up and with all his might punched the priest in the jaw so that the Ukrainian flew to the wall. And then all four, pressing Vyrozub against the wall, began to stretch and twist him in an unnatural way, and again inflict heavy blows.
The chaplain could not stand the unbearable pain and shouted: “Stop, stop beating me. I remembered the general…”
One of the employees of the pre-trial detention centre began to happily repeat: “I knew, I said that the priest would split.”
The Russians ran to turn on the camera to record his testimony.
“Well, the general is the Deputy Minister of the Interior,” Vyrozub began his story.
“Excellent, excellent, continue,” said the lieutenant colonel.
-“Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation Kravchenko… do you know that name?
– Well, huh?
– Well, he told me that not a single hair will fall from my head, because I am under the protection of the great RF. Guys, I don’t know what to do, and how to appear bald in front of him?!”
After these words, the chaplain felt how one of the majors loosened his grip, and thought “Lord, it worked!”.
Prison staff stopped the recording of the video, the lieutenant colonel told them to stop and left. And his wards only angrily said: “S*ka [B*tch], this priest still threatens us.”
After that, Vyrozub was released from the torture chamber. After some time, he was forced to pass a polygraph, and then, already dressed, he was sent to solitary confinement for another 15 days.
“These 4 days were the most difficult,” the chaplain recalls today. — I thought that was all. I asked the Lord for forgiveness and told him to accept me.”
The Russians continued to hold the Ukrainian priest in pre-trial detention centre for the next month. But without such terrible torture. In April, they released two Protestant pastors and a doctor who were in a cell with Vyrozub. But he was released only on May 5. In the afternoon of that day, escorts came to his cell and told him to pack his things. In one of the offices, they gave a dressing gown, put a cover on the head and wrapped it with scotch tape. In this form, Vyrozub was sent for exchange: first by plane to Simferopol, and then by truck to the place of exchange in the Kherson region.
” I didn’t know where I was being taken until the very end,” the chaplain admits. — I thought they were taking me to the parade of shame on May 9. I thought so because I heard about this parade on their radio.”
But already on May 6, the captured priest ended up in the Kherson region. He got out of the truck together with the Ukrainian soldier, who was wounded and without a leg, so Vyrozub helped him reach the Ukrainian side.
“When I saw the Ukrainian flag – still nothing,” recalls the chaplain with tears in his eyes. — But when our doctor approached and said ” Glory to Ukraine”, I could not answer. My tears were flowing. I shook my head and said: “Of course, yes!”.
Blue and yellow Odesa
Vyrozub admits that he managed to endure the pre-trial detention centre because he believed that if he was kept for a long time, then Kyiv is still stand. And the more they beat him, the harder the Ukrainian defenders hit the Russians.
“I also set myself the task of surviving and returning home alive and well,” he says. I didn’t want to look weak in front of the Russians either. “Prayer really helped”, he notes.
After 70 days of captivity, Vyrozub immediately returned to his native Odessa. In just a few days, he held a service for his parishioners with tears in his eyes. And he also began treatment after Russian torture and continued to do what he had done before — taking care of Ukrainian soldiers.
The chaplain admits that after 70 days of captivity he returned to a completely different city: “I was impressed by the yellow and blue Odesa. Only not on the facade, but inside [in the hearts]. I saw another Odessa. I saw people starting to speak Ukrainian. I have parishioners who spoke Russian all their lives, but now they are starting to speak Ukrainian.”
Vyrozub adds that the war has touched everyone in Ukraine today. And if it did not touch the heart and mind of a person, then he is not a Ukrainian.
“There are no more civilians,” he says. — Because everyone works for defence [of Ukraine]: military personnel are on the front lines, volunteers are collecting aid, journalists are engaged in their work, farmers who are now collecting bread are doing their work. He who cannot do anything – pray. And the one who can’t even pray, just don’t distract us. We must win. Because if we let this horde in here, we will be thrown back into that sovok [“scoop” – demeaning term for USSR] for another 30 years. We must prevail.”