KHARKIV, Ukraine — A group of Sri Lankans detained by Russian forces at an agricultural factory in eastern Ukraine said on Saturday they were beaten and abused for months before escaping on foot as the Russians retreated from the area of Kharkiv this month.
Telling reporters of their ordeal in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, one of seven Sri Lankans said he was shot in the foot; another had his toenail pulled out and was hit in the head with the butt of a rifle.
Ukrainian officials called their treatment torture.
“Every day we cleaned the toilets and bathrooms,” said Dilukshan Robertclive, one of the former captives, in English. “Some days the Russians came and beat our people, our Sri Lankan people.”
Four of the seven were medical students in the city of Kupiansk and three worked there when Russian forces crossed the border in late February and occupied large swaths of eastern and southern Ukraine.
The group said they were captured at the first checkpoint in Kupiansk and then taken to Vovchansk, near the border with Russia, where they were held in the factory with around 20 Ukrainians.
“They took our passports, other documents, our phones, our clothes and locked us in a room,” said Sharujan Gianeswaran, speaking in Tamil to an Associated Press reporter by phone. “There were also Ukrainians with us, and they were interrogated and sent back in 10 days, 15 days or a month. With us they never spoke, because they did not understand our language.
Police said the factory housed a Russian “torture center” – one of 18 in the Kharkiv region.
“They were tied up and blindfolded. After that, they were captured and then taken to the city of Vovchansk,” said Serhiy Bolvinov, head of the national police investigation department in Kharkiv.
Six of the group said they were held in a large room upstairs. The seventh, the only woman, was being held alone in a dark cell, her companions said. The woman wept silently and did not speak as the group told her story on Saturday.
A man said he was shot in the foot by the Russian kidnappers. Another had a fingernail pulled out after soldiers hit him repeatedly with the butt of a rifle. The men showed their injuries to reporters.
“Most of the time we couldn’t understand what they were telling us and we were beaten for it,” Gianeswaran said.
The Sri Lankans realized that the battle lines only shifted when Russian soldiers ordered them to help load trucks with food and weapons.
As the last trucks pulled away, the group unsuccessfully demanded their passports and papers, knowing that moving without them would be impossible in a country full of checkpoints.
Russian troops captured several towns and villages in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine early in the war. Ukrainian troops retook the area in a swift counter-offensive earlier this month.
When the Sri Lankans realized the Russians were gone, on September 10, the group left the factory and started marching towards the city of Kharkiv, having no clear idea of how to get to the regional capital which was remained in Ukrainian hands.
“We walked this road for two days and we were exhausted and hungry. We had no food or money to buy food,” Gianeswaran said.
They slept on the side of the road and walked to a river. But with so many bridges in the area destroyed by one side or the other in months of fighting, they could find no way to cross.
Eventually someone noticed their plight, gave them shelter, and called the security forces.
Police said the group was arrested in the Chuhuiv area, about 70 kilometers (40 miles) from their starting point. They are in Kharkiv now, with no idea what the future holds. Robertclive said they were psychologically damaged from their months in captivity.
But the men smiled when asked how they felt when they realized the worst of their ordeal was over.
“They (the Ukrainians) gave us food and clothes,” Gianeswaran said. “We thought we were going to die but we got saved and were well cared for.”
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine