Nine months in Russian captivity. Oleksii Anulia told how he was starving, eating worms and a live mouse
On December 31st, 2022, 140 Ukrainian soldiers, including 30-year-old Oleksii Anulia, a kickboxer from Chernihiv, returned from Russian captivity. Oleksii spoke about the torture, beatings, torture with a stun gun, and starvation. Here is his story.
Read this article in Ukrainian
Two weeks before the exchange, I recalled the American New Year’s song “Jingle Bells”. I hummed it to myself. The FSB kept telling me that I was the only one in the detention center who would not be exchanged. They showed me some lists where the names were highlighted in different colors, The only one in black was mine.
After another torture, I returned to my cell. I had already had my sheet rolled, on which I planned to hang myself. As soon as I threw it on the bunk bars, the silhouette of my late grandmother appeared in front of me. She had died shortly before the war. She walked over, washed the sink, and said: “Where are you going? You haven’t bought your children any gifts for the New Year yet.” I have two children: daughter is nine and son is five. The guards saw on surveillance cameras that I was allegedly talking to someone, opened the cell and beat me again with all their might.
There were 192 Ukrainian prisoners in the Donske detention center where we were held (Donske town is in Tula region, prison № 1). On December 28th, several other men and I were told to pack our personal belongings. It looked like we were being transferred to another place. I could barely walk; I could not feel one of my legs. They took me to a room, forced me to strip naked and beat me again. One of them jumped on me and said: “Are you going to fight for our father? You know, for Lukashenko?” I was silent.
They gave me somebody’s clothes with dried excrement on the underpants. The dark blue pants with red stripes, similar to those worn by the police, were shot at the knees. There were tendons hanging down, traces of vomit and blood. For the first time, my hands were tied in front instead of behind. I could already lift the tape that covered my eyes and saw where we were. Then we were driven to a plane in a vehicle for transporting prisoners. Only ten of us were on board. Two of them were from Slavutych and one from Chernihiv. They brought us back to Kursk, to the same jail where I had been before. I said goodbye to my life once again.
The jailer who had beaten me eight months before recognized me. How many prisoners had passed through him, and he remembered me! He was surprised that I was still alive. All of us were locked in a cell for a day.
On December 31st, at five in the morning, we were gathered again. They called nine names out of 10. One of us, just a step away from the exchange, was returned to Tula. And we were taken in two buses. They said they were going to shoot us. They didn’t beat us, but they physically exhausted us so much that I was ready to be shot. They brought us to a swimming pool in Kursk region.
The exchange took place on the territory of Russia, near the border with Sumy region. We were taken to a certain point. Russian Special Forces ran out of the bus. The doors were made opened. I heard someone was re-entering the bus and speaking Ukrainian: “Guys, should heroes sit like this?” I was in a stupor for another five minutes. I hadn’t heard Ukrainian for nine months. That man helped us get up and move to our bus. He gave us each a pack of cigarettes. I didn’t smoke and have never smoked before. Nevertheless, on the day of the exchange, I took a drag on a cigarette for the first time. We arrived at our prison camp at 11.30 pm on January 1st.
First, I called my wife Nataliia in Chernihiv. I learned her number by heart on February 23. I knew all the numbers, but not hers.
Before that, at about 23.30, she had already received a call from the SBU and was informed that I supposed to be coming home. She did not believe it, because she had already received seven calls since April from different services, and they informed that I would be home soon. Even though it was not allowed, I managed to made arrangements, and Nataliia and my mother came to my camp the next day.
March 9th, 2022
The invasion caught Oleksii and his family in Chernihiv.
I met my father (57-year-old Yurii Anulia — Ed.) on February 25th at the Army Carries Office. He said he was going to fight too. We were appointed to different brigades. However, we were both sent to Lukashivka, 19 kilometers from Chernihiv.
On March 9th, in the morning, my brother and I returned from night duty. We decided to rest in an empty house on the outskirts of Lukashivka. Suddenly we heard the sound of tanks. I turned my head and saw something like a white laser. In addition, I heard two explosions one after another. The Russians were entering the village and firing from a tank at the houses.
In that battle, there were 140 of us against five thousand Russians, 35 tanks and armored cover vehicles (two for each tank). 250 Russians were killed, 31 vehicles were damaged. There was nothing to shoot at them with, we were given only one NLAW (Swedish-British anti-tank system).
On the next arrival, I was concussed and injured by shrapnel. Later, forty-nine fragments were found in my face, eight in my jaw, and four in my arm. One tooth was knocked out and blood was dripping from my head.
I crawled out of that house, took off my armoured personnel carriers and helmet to breathe easier, and hid in a ditch, where I stayed for the next 12 hours. I buried myself in the garbage, hid in the reeds. At that time, the Russians were passing by and searching for me. They found my armoured personnel carriers covered in blood but were still none the wiser where I was.
From Lukashivka I walked 18 kilometers to the neighboring village of Sloboda. One of my children's Godfather's mother lived there, so I wanted to get there so she could hide me. The first person I met was a Belarusian grandmother, who gave me a bag of boiled eggs and another one with candies. I left her. The next one whom I met was a local woman, about 35-40 years old. She came up to meet me and said: “Soldier, soldier, what is it? What is it?” I showed her to keep her voice down, and she asked again: “Are you ours? Aren’t you for us?” As far as I understood, she sometime after that told the Russians which way I was running. She is known to be in jail now, but I want to go there myself to make sure.
I walked a little further down the street. Suddenly, four Buryats with assault rifles came towards me. They were one and a half meters tall, but broad-shouldered. They clicked the slides of their guns. The muzzles were being pointed at me. I realized that I could not escape. They searched me and took my valuables — German boots, a belt with the inscription “Pentagon”, a knife, a Japanese watch “Casio”, which cost about a thousand euros. They wanted to rob me, not take me prisoner. However, their commander approached them. Before that, they had been clearing the village and had reported that there was no one left there. I pretended to be a fool and a local and I was looking for food. I might have gotten away with it, if the commander hadn’t told me to take the cloak off my head. I took it off, and my head was smashed. I was also in a uniform, although it was dirty and torn.
The biggest problem for the Buryats was to unlock my touchscreen phone. No matter how many times I showed them the password — the square root √ — they could not remember. The phone also was set to respond to unlock my thumbprint. The Buryats saw that and said they would cut off my thumb so that they could unlock the screen themselves. They didn’t believe me, it wouldn’t work with a cut-off finger. Even when they tied my hands behind my back, they kept bringing the phone to my finger to unlock it.
A general in a lamb fur hat
The Buryats tied me up and took me to the headquarters, somewhere in Ivanivka, for an interrogation by a lieutenant general. The place looked like a farm or barracks, stank of sprat, dirty socks, diesel, and cigarettes.
The general was dressed in a uniform with shoulder straps, wearing a blue lamb fur hat. His mustache was twisted. I looked at him and felt so funny for some reason. I thought they didn’t wear such hats anymore. I was scared, because I was captured, but I could barely stop laughing.
After I named my parents and myself, in about 15 minutes this general came up to me with a new laptop. He showed me a photo of my father in his youth, in uniform. He read out his entire biography. Where he lived, where, in which unit he saw service, in which sanatoriums he had been treated, where he had gone on business trips.
Even our family did not know most of that. Because it was a secret part of his service.
From there, I was taken to the Ripkyn district closer to the Belarusian border. There was a torture chamber in an abandoned building. Next to it was a KAMAZ truck, where some corpses — Russians and Ukrainians — were being burned all week long.
There, one of the Russians asked the colonel to look after me as he recognized me as a famous kickboxer. He told them: “Khokhol would come in handy again”. Then continued addressing me: “I will take care of your life”. He took me to the doctor, put some foam under my back because it was very cold, and loosened the tape on my hands. He brought food not only to me, but also to everyone who was with me. There were six of us in the cell. I could hardly eat then, I had no wish.
That guy promised to find me on Vkontakte and add me as a friend so that I would remember him. But since this Russian network has been banned in Ukraine, I don’t enter there and I’m not going to. Although I am still very curious who he was.
The most aggressive person in the torture chamber was a Caucasian who used to rape the prisoners. He raped one man from Chernihiv because he allegedly looked like him.
In general, many of them considered it normal to satisfy their sexual needs in that way. There also was a 20-year-old guy in captivity with me, who had been raped at a checkpoint by six Russian soldiers in turn, and his parents were in the car with him, forced to watch.
The Caucasian wanted to rape me too. I was told to take off my clothes completely. They tied my hands behind my back and hung me by my arms to the ceiling. I barely touched the floor with my toes, (Oleksiy puts his hands behind his back and raises them up to demonstrate.
His face is contorted in pain.) — I can’t raise them higher than that, it still hurts. I was hanging like that for six days. I was miraculously saved because our artillery started working nearby. They took me down and let me get dressed.
After another round of abuse, the guy who was helping me once ran up to me and said that he had arranged for me to be taken to Russia.
He said that it would be harder there, but there were more chances to survive. He told me to be patient for five days. I didn’t believe him, because every day new people were brought to the torture chamber, and I could hear the sounds of abuse and shots.
However, in the morning, that Russian gave me thermal pants and other clothes, and in three UAZ trucks, the others and I were taken to Russia, to a tent camp near Kursk. I stayed there for 12 days and met another Chernihiv soldier from Lukashivka. Later I was told that he had gone crazy. He could not stand the torture. I was also beaten from time to time.
Then they took me to Kursk detention center № 1, where I spent 40 days.
On March 30, I was interrogated by some FSB officers. They showed me a map of Chernihiv on my iPhone. All military facilities and critical infrastructure of the city were marked in it. Even the places of humanitarian aid distribution centers and bomb shelters were indicated as well as where, in what quantity and what military equipment was in the city. Not just circles were drawn, but everything was properly labelled.
In Kursk, they collected a file for each prisoner: DNA, blood, nails, hair. They made 3D sound detection of my face. They used ultraviolet light to illuminate the powder gases under the nails. They asked to log in to my social networks. They looked through everything, read the correspondence. If I failed to remember the passwords, they used to beat me with all their might.
It was important for them to track who had participated in the Maidan or other protests on Khreshchatyk, against the Moscow Patriarchate, for the Tomos; who had attended rallies for Poroshenko and Zelenskyy. They also asked if I had relatives in Russia. Some CCTV cameras recorded everything, and many videos were in their archives.
They entered this data into a computer. If they found someone from the Maidan, they killed them. They believed that those people had overthrown their Russian system and it was all paid for by Americans.
I thought I had already gone through hell, but it turned out that it was still waiting for me. On May 5th, I and other prisoners were sent by plane to Tula, and from there to Donske detention center.
I lost 40 kilograms
The flight lasted four hours. We arrived early in the morning and got to the cell only the next day in the evening. The reception was harsh. They used to beat me with sticks, truncheons, and stun guns. They did not let anyone in. Even then, I could not walk on my foot, it was rotting.
It started — at 7.00 they beat you, at 8.00 — they beat you during the inspection; at 10.00 — they beat you before the walk. Every time we walked through the detention center — they beat you; in front of the exercise yard — they beat you; when you went in — they beat you even more. When you came out — you were searching thoroughly and beat you from all sides with sticks. If you went further — they beat you again. And it was not even lunchtime yet. They could beat you for 15 minutes or an hour and a half. My head, arms, legs, anus were bleeding. My ribs and fingers were broken. They hit my bad leg on purpose. On my right hand, they cut the tendons on my thumb with a rusty knife. They told me: “You were shooting at our military with this finger, killing our soldiers”.
Once I was beaten by seven people. They forced me to stand on all fours. One of them hit me in the face with his palm, the other hit me on the knees with a stick, the third one hit me on the fingers with an iron. I was “lucky” that I could no longer feel my thumb. It was the one they were hitting. The other ones bit me on the head, back, arms, and buttocks. Not only men but also women used to bit us. They beat us as hard as the men. There was no compassion neither for me nor for the younger guys, conscripts of 18-19 years old. They scratched the letter Z with a nail on their cheeks to distinguish them from contract soldiers.
Once, during another interrogation, I was told to get down on my all fours (when you’re facedown).
The door was not closed, and I could hear others being tortured somewhere nearby. A Russian said, “Has your mother ever beaten you?” I answered: “No, never. She always used to talk to me.” “My mother used to beat me”, said the Russian. He took a cutting board and hit me on the buttocks. Then he took two big long stun guns. He held them close to my body until they were empty. My heart started to hurt. A shocker was used during almost every torture.
My body didn’t fail completely because I was an athlete. I tried to do push-ups at least five times. I did not have enough strength for more. Every day I stretched my tendons to recover from injuries.
My weight had always been about 102 kilograms, but in captivity I lost 40 kilograms. Moreover, I shrunk by six centimeters and my height became 186 cm. Until then, I had been completely healthy, checked up every six months. I used to run 15 kilometres every day and do 35 pull-ups. I was a CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) kickboxing champion, master of sports. I had worked as a bodyguard: protecting princes in Libya and prosecutors in Kyiv. Now it is difficult to walk a kilometre for me, there is not a single healthy organ. During my rehabilitation in Latvia, I managed to do several pull-ups, but it was extremely difficult.
During all nine months of captivity, I saw only one woman, 23-year-old Victoria, a Ukrainian language teacher. She was badly broken psychologically. In general, in my opinion, in the places where I was, most of the prisoners were civilians. There was a man from Chernihiv with me, he lives in a private house in Stara Podusivka. He went out intohis yard because his dog was barking. He saw four men of sabotage and reconnaissance unit sitting in his yard. They captured him as a prisoner.
Beatings for every move
I spent 108 days in the punishment cell. I did not get lost in dates and days. I made notches on the wall near the sink in the form of a calendar.
I was in the special regime cells. In each cell of the detention center we were allowed to sit down only to eat and only for ten minutes. We were allowed to go to the toilet once a day, for a minute. We stood for 18 hours a day. We had to keep our hands behind our backs and our heads down. Fingers had to be kept open and not moved. The guards made sure no one closed their eyes. If you moved, the door opened, they came in, dragged you out into the corridor and beat you with their boots or truncheons. There were CCTV cameras, they had been watching for us. They used to beat us for any move.
They did not rest at night either. Everyone — wounded, with swollen legs — was lifted and forced to squat down 500-1000 times. There were several such events. I tried to move while cleaning the cell. Three times a day they gave me ten minutes to clean the cell out. I was mad clean the sink and the toilet, which was yellow, to a shine. The bunks and the door were black, now they became grey. The guards called my cell “Eurolux apartment”. Not taking into account that the sewage system was leaking, both urine and feces were in my cell.
The window was blocked with tin, there was no daylight. There was only one light bulb on. It was very cold. On May 9th, it was still snowing in those regions) In summer, it was raining almost all the time. The mosquitoes were huge.
In the cell, for some reason I used to remember my childhood. When I was four or five years old and playing with cars or with my dad.
The punishment cell
The punishment cell was a solitary confinement cell: a basement damp room with mold. It was called a punishment room to break a person morally. According to Russian law, a person could stay there for five to seven days. I spent 108. One of the Ukrainian officers before me spent 136 days there.
All prisoners throughout the detention center had to scream loudly in their cells. If the warden knocked on your door with a stick once, you had to say hello to the “boss man”. Two — to report how many prisoners were in the cell. Three — to sit down 500 times. Four — to shout “Pika-pikachu-u-u-u”. The “u” sound should be held until he got bored. Five blows with a stick on the door — you had to shout: “Zelenskyy is a fag, Biden is a fag. Stoltenberg is a fag, Putin is our president.” Six — “Whoever does not jump is a Muscovite, and whoever jumps is a fag” and to jump at the same time. Seven — “Russia is a generous soul”. There was also an eighth, but I didn’t remember. They had introduced it two days before I left.
I still can’t understand how other people, the same “people”, could abuse people like that. There was no sympathy or pity in their eyes. There was only a desire to put me down and kill me. Those hoodlums went to Tula specifically to abuse Ukrainians. They are worse than animals. When they saw a wounded or exhausted person they desired to finish him off even more, hitting him in the wounded area.
Once an interrogator ate a banana during interrogation. He threw the peel away. I picked it up and swallowed it, I was so hungry. I told him how I was being held. He was shocked (or pretended to be). Word for word, I asked him to tell my family where I was. He did so. It was the second time he did so and helped my friends bring me home. The first time, the Russian who had helped me managed to tell my wife, using a fake profile on the Internet, that I was in captivity.
Several times they gave me food from a service dog’s bowl. For breakfast, they gave me two spoons of chopped cereal. Water in which they boiled buckwheat or rice. There was not even a grain. A piece of bread. For lunch, they served a kind of soup with cabbage, and for dinner, again, chaff mixed with water. In Kursk, they also gave me boiled fish intestines with heads. I ate everything. Once I got a piece of boiled onion. I had been chewing it for a long time, stretching it out. It tasted so good to me.
Once I brought an earthworm from the street. I wrapped it in a rag, put it in the cistern and forgot about it for a week. When I took it out there was already a whole brood of them. That’s how I got my first protein for a long time. I ate them all. Any chocolate hasn't tasted more delicious for me since my rescue than those earthworms.
In the punishment cell, I hunted for a little mouse and a fat rat. To eat them. The warders realised that and poisoned both. Then I started catching a little mouse, and it took me almost four months. My hearing became sharper, so I managed to hear where it was running. My eyesight was falling because they were constantly hitting me on the head. Moreover, there was a dark room with a purple light constantly flashing. I even felt sorry for a crumb of bread to feed the mouse.
Once I caught it and hit it on a nail. I didn’t have time to kill it, I just tore off a piece of skin. The warders saw that there was a movement in my cell, which was forbidden. They came up and opened the door of my cell. To prevent the mouse from escaping, I put it in my mouth. I pressed it down with all my teeth so that it couldn’t run down my oesophagus. It’s gnawing at my palate, biting my tongue through. The tail was like a propeller in my mouth. It’s scratching with its claws. When they came in, I had to make a report. But I didn’t, because I wouldn’t let my meal to escape thus as I hadn’t been eating for some days. They did not give me any food.
They took me out and started hitting my right kidney. They beat me hard. The blue-green hematoma did not go away for a long time. They were beating me, and I was holding the mouse tightly in my teeth. My mouth was bleeding. They thought they had beaten off my kidney: “Get up, it will be better for you”. In fact, it was because the mouse had bitten my mouth. That’s why the torture was not long.
I crawled into the cell through the feces on the floor because the pipe was leaking. I barely had the strength to stand up, but my heart was full of joy. I did not feel any pain. In my subconscious, I realized that I was eating meat. And it would help me to stay alive until the morning. My mouth tasted blood and liver as if you were licking lead. Wool stuck between my teeth. I spit out only mouse teeth. I had been chewing the tail for a long time, like chewing gum.
They hit me where it hurt
There was no medical care as such. On the contrary. if you complained that your arm or leg hurt, you were taken to a doctor for the sake of appearance. He would examine you superficially. And then when you returned to the cell, they would beat you even harder, exactly on the places that hurt.
We had lice. They beat us for that because they considered us untidy. In fact, lice lived there constantly in the blankets and it was impossible to remove them from there in those conditions.
There was a Russian nurse in the detention center, about 45-50 years old. She hated Ukrainians as a nation, she was always saying that.
On Thursdays, we were taken to the bathhouse. They gave us a minute to wash. The bathhouse was another place of torture for us. The Russians used to get drunk on that day and make us get down on all fours, and then they tеased us with a stun gun on our wet bodies. They hit us on the spine with wooden mallets. They broke three vertebrae in my spine. They also beat us with rubber sticks.
My father was burned alive
My father was an experienced soldier and he did not believe that there would be a war. He joked about it. He died in Lukashivka. His comrades-in-arms said that he led 40 people out of the encirclement. He came back to me and managed to blow up several enemy tanks with a grenade launcher.
That day, he and four other Ukrainian soldiers were captured by the Russians. There are witnesses who saw them being tortured and burned alive in a local church. Their burnt remains were then dumped on the side of the road between the neighboring villages of Anysiv and Baklanova Muraviika.
The father had been searched for more than a year, and his body was identified using DNA. He was initially buried in Nizhyn. After the de-occupation of Lukashivka, there were no bridges to Chernihiv, so the burnt bodies were taken there. They were reburied in late May 2023 at the Yatsevo cemetery in Chernihiv.
Rehabilitation period lasted for 10 months. I was treated in 16 hospitals in Ukraine for six months. I spent four months abroad, a month in Israel, and 99 days in Latvia. I returned home only in early November. I was away from home for 19 months.
All our services seem to be free of charge, such as MRI or CT scans, for example. However, you have to wait for two or three months in line. Moreover, I need it now. I have to do it now. It’s an established order of things. Doctors also need to be thanked. The other day I calculated — I spent 28 thousand euros (over one million and one hundred thousand hryvnias) on this, including travel expenses. Most of this amount, about 15 thousand euros, was raised by Chernihivites Andriy Kuzhelnyi and Artem Rakitin, my sports friends. A classmate announced a fund-raising campaign on the Internet. The rest of enquired money was my own savings. Moreover, this is not the end. Several surgeries on my jaw and arm are ahead.
My brother, three years younger, serves now at the front. My mother was left alone. In captivity, there was only one thing that made me happy — I left behind my daughter and son. Nowadays, many people say that it is not the right time to have children. I want to say that it is the continuation of the family.
Nine men from our detention center were going to be exchanged. Only later, by chance, I found out that I was the last one to be added. A colleague of mine from my previous job was in charge of bringing me home. He was also a bodyguard. He had been searching all possible connections in Ukraine and abroad to get me out. All my thanks are due to him who had kept me surviving and being on my native land.
On November 18th, I had baptised his daughter and we became relatives.