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THE Sun has gained exclusive access to a prisoner of war camp in Ukraine and heard Russian soldiers’ incredible stories first-hand.
Captured troops claimed they were thrown into battle by “jackals” without proper training when President Vladimir Putin launched his illegal invasion in February.
We interviewed two prisoners in Dnipro, selected by prison staff, and visited the cells where they sleep eight men to a room.
Both men had been visited by members of the International Committee of the Red Cross to check that they are being treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.
Our supervised interviews were limited to 90 minutes. The men we met showed no signs of injuries and said camp conditions were good.
The Sun has changed their names and kept their unit details secret to protect them from Kremlin reprisals.
PRIVATE VADIM, 26, CAPTURED IN KHARKIV
VADIM was in a Grad rocket launcher when his convoy was hit by an ambush in Kharkiv on the third day of the war.
He said: “I was thrown out by an explosion and I saw a truck in front of me exploding. I thought everyone was dead. There was no way they could survive.
“The lorry behind me was hit and on fire. It was carrying ammunition and I knew it would start exploding so I had to get away.”
He crawled to a tree on the side of the road and passed out.
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When he came round Ukrainian shells were landing all around him.
He managed to bandage a wound on the top of his left thigh where it had been sliced open by shrapnel.
Vadim later staggered into an abandoned gatehouse, where he stayed for ten days, eating biscuits and sweets left by the guards that used to patrol it and drinking from a tap that still had running water.
When his leg was strong enough he tried to flee and staggered three miles through a wood on the edge of the city until he reached a bombed-out apartment block.
One of the flats had a fridge full of food so he stayed. But after three days he saw a Ukrainian patrol and decided to hand himself in.
He said: “I went downstairs and I walked very slowly with my hands up. I was thinking, ‘If there is a sniper then it’s over’.
“I heard a shout to stop and I knelt down on the floor, very slowly. They ordered me to lie down and asked me questions about who I was and where I had come from.
“Then they called another unit and I was taken away. First to one place, then to here.”
Vadim joined the army six years ago for the money. He earned around £650 a month.
He was training as a mechanic and planned to get his HGV licence so he could become a long-distance lorry driver after leaving the forces.
Vadim said: “Now I’ve got two options. Either I am in jail here or I will be in jail in Russia because of what I have said about the Russian army.
“A lot of people think it is the second army in the world, but we have nothing. We have no training, we have no equipment and it is a crime to say that in Russia.”
I went downstairs and I walked very slowly with my hands up. I was thinking, ‘If there is a sniper then it’s over’.
He said one of the commanders he served with in the war was the best he had ever had. But the rest he cursed as “jackals”. Vadim said: “They don’t care about their men. They treat us like dogs.”
By the time Vadim’s rocket battery was ambushed on February 26 it had already fired almost 1,000 rockets in three devastating attacks.
He said he and his comrades knew something big was happening because a few days before the invasion they were ordered to hand in their phones and ID documents.
Vadim said: “At first we didn’t realise where we were or where we were going, but on the second day we knew. We crossed into Ukrainian territory and we knew, because we saw the border fence destroyed.
“We were ordered to fan out the vehicles and given co-ordinates to fire. We didn’t know what we were firing at, but now I have been told that we were hitting a village with civilians.”
His captors have also told him about the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers, including hundreds of accounts of murders, torture and child rape.
Vadim said: “I have thought about war crimes a lot. I believe it. Because I know how things go in my country. And because they let anyone join the army.”
CORPORAL IVAN, 22, CAPTURED IN KHARKIV
WHEN Corporal Ivan called his mum to tell her he had been captured, he said she could not speak because “she was crying so much”.
Tears streamed down his face as he described the moment PoW camp guards asked him to call home.
Ukraine has let PoWs call home to get the message through about what is happening in the war.
Ivan insisted the guards gave him no special message to deliver.
All they wanted was for her to know that her son had been captured and was still alive.
Ivan was part of a rocket artillery battery ambushed on the edge of Kharkiv. His truck-mounted Grad rocket launcher took a direct hit and exploded — but he managed to escape with two comrades.
They hid in a house until nightfall then fled on foot through a forest until they saw another Grad rocket launcher, which they thought was a Russian unit.
Ivan walked up to the rocket team, with both hands in the air.
But by the time he realised it was actually a Ukrainian unit all he could do was surrender.
He said: “They ordered me to lie down, they stripped all my clothes and searched me. Then the next day I was taken away.
“My biggest fear was I was going to die. When I was surrendering I was afraid I would be shot.”
Hours before the ambush he had been struck dumb by fear when gunmen opened fire on his convoy.
They ordered me to lie down, they stripped all my clothes and searched me. Then the next day I was taken away.
Ivan said: “We jumped out and lay in holes. I thought I was going to die. I wasn’t thinking about anything, I just thought I would die. I felt sick and I couldn’t move.”
Up to that point his two-year army career had been mostly spent driving a snow plough to clear the roads around Murmansk.
His ambitions stretched only as far as moving in with his girlfriend and saving his £730-a-month salary to buy a car. Ivan said: “I wanted to get my driving licence and buy a Toyota Camry. I never thought I would go to war. Most of the time we are just clearing the snow or servicing the Grad machines.”
At first he signed on for two years. But when the time came round to leave, his girlfriend was in medical school.
So Ivan agreed to stay in the army for another three years and then move in together.
A few months after he extended his service, Russia invaded Ukraine.
Asked about Russian atrocities, including torture, rape and murder, Ivan said: “I am shocked. They are just idiots.”
Now he says his best hope is being part of a prisoner swap.
He said: “I just want to see my mum and my girlfriend again.”
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