Fresh allegations of atrocities by occupying troops have emerged as a Ukrainian man described three days and nights of torture, mock executions and the disappearance of fellow prisoners during his captivity by Russian forces in the town of Borodyanka.
Petro Titenko, 45, told the Guardian of his three nights of hell at the hands of Russian and Chechen soldiers after he was picked up for breaking curfew, during which he was beaten, forced to kneel in what he was told was his grave and had bullets shot at his head and feet.
Titenko, his wife, Yulia, and his 21-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter had been forced to move from central Borodyanka to Druzhnya, on the town’s outskirts, on 26 February after a shell blew away the roof of their home. But their hell was yet to truly begin, they said.
In Druzhnya, the couple hunkered down day and night in their cellar, aware, they said, that any civilians outside were being killed. But on the evening of 18 March Titenko decided to try to slip out after curfew to check on his brother less than three miles away.
Halfway there, at about 6.30pm, three Russian soldiers armed with machine guns emerged from the woods and accused him of giving Russian locations away to the Ukrainian army. He was searched, his hands were tied behind his back and a sack was roughly put over his head.
Titenko said he was taken into the woods and tied with rope to the back of a tank which the soldiers turned on so that he breathed in the fumes from the shoulder-height exhaust pipe.
After 30 minutes the engine was turned off and he was left there. Unable to move, Titenko stood all night in the freezing cold, thinking only the worst.
In the morning, he said, he heard the Russians bring a second prisoner, who was babbling information to the soldiers in an apparent effort to save his own life. “He was saying a rocket flew from there, an artillery installation was installed there,” Titenko said. “They told him it was valuable information and that they would release him.”
It was a false and mocking promise. The two prisoners were loaded on top of the tank and driven for an hour, Titenko said, struggling to contain his emotion as he recalled the conversation he heard between two of his captors.
“Did you bring prisoners again?,” said one. “So?,” responded the second, to which he first answered: “I’m tired of burying them in the ground.”
Titenko said he was forced to lie on the mud where he stayed for what he estimates was four hours. Then he was lifted to his feet and kicked down the side of what he realised was a pit.
“You do not want to add anything to your words?” asked the soldier, whose accent he recognised as Chechen.
Titenko asked to be allowed to pray as he heard the rack being pulled on the soldier’s machine gun, ready to fire. “At that point I was sure I would be killed and buried. And my wife and my children will never know where I died. At that moment I asked God: let me get through this.”
Titenko was left to lay there in what he had believed was his grave for a further three hours with the second prisoner before being taken to be fed a small bowl of porridge. He was then pushed into the back of a truck and the sack was again forced over his head.
His arms, now pained by the ties, were loosened from their binds. There was talk of the men being released. The soldiers said they could take the sacks off their heads after a period of 10 minutes.
They did so and discovered they were by a cottage and that it was nearly 6pm on their second day of captivity. Titenko’s fellow prisoner decided to flee through the woods. Titenko stayed in the house but after an hour and a half more Russian soldiers burst in.
Again he was tied up and the sack put back over his head. “I was interrogated all night,” he said. “They wanted to know if I was a spy for the Ukrainian army. They took all my documents, passport, car documents, driver’s licence.”
Titenko was driven, still blinded, to a place where he said there were evidently other prisoners. “Some were shouting there, some were crying,” he recalled. Tied up, he and the other prisoners were beaten with flexes. “I was beaten for 15-20 minutes,” he said. “Then a machine gun was fired over my head, shot at my feet. All this time I prayed to God to save my life.”
The humiliation and intimidation continued, he said. He was stripped to his underwear. “We are looking for Ukrainian tattoos on your body,” a soldier said. “If we find them, we will cut them together with the skin.”
“You are Bandera, you are Nazis,” they shouted. The prisoners were then forced to their knees, where they were left to contemplate the worst for an hour. It was a concrete floor and after a while they were allowed to lie down due to the agony in their knees.
They were searched. Something suspicious was found in one man’s pockets. “He was taken out and I never saw him again,” said Titenko. By now it was evident, even through the sack on his head, that the babbling prisoner he had been with earlier in his ordeal had been recaptured.
“That man kept saying a lot of different nonsense,”Titenko said. “The Russians took him out and I never saw him again either.”
The evening came. The prisoners were taken to a canteen where they were given porridge before the men, again with their heads covered, were put in some showers to sleep on the tiles. “There was so little space. It was impossible to lie there so we all stood there all night,” he said.
The next morning the prisoners, cold, hungry and terrified of what more was to come, were loaded into a truck, taken away and dropped off. They were freed.
They were near the village of Ozera, about 20 miles from Titenko’s home. He began to walk but he did not have any documents and he knew the Russian checkpoints were coming.
At the first, the Russian soldiers asked who he was. He replied that he had been in captivity and had no documents. He was allowed to pass, and then it was the same story for miles until he reached a fourth checkpoint where a column of military equipment was passing by.
“A Russian soldier told me that I had to get on my knees and lower my head. Not to see Russian military equipment. If I didn’t, I would get shot in the head,” he said.
He would kneel down and lower his head about 25 times on the journey. When he arrived home, the family decided they had to leave, and they braved a mined road to get away to the west.