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Why do the occupiers release some prisoners and keep others — the story of a released prisoner from Kherson

How and why did the Russians detain civilian prisoners in Kherson, and what determined whether some were released while others were taken with them as they fled the right bank of the Kherson region?


This episode of the program «Free Our Relatives» narrates the story of a teacher from Kherson who was held captive by the Russians for 201 days.

  • Taras Bukreiev, a Kherson resident and teacher, became a civilian prisoner of the Russian occupiers. He taught history at the Kherson Higher Vocational School of Service and Design and actively participated in the city’s political and public life. During the occupation, he chose to stay in the city to volunteer. In September 2022, Taras was abducted by the occupiers, spending 201 days in captivity before finally returning to Ukraine at the end of 2023.
  • We interviewed Taras Bukreiev to learn about his experiences during the occupation and captivity, as well as how he managed to return to the free territory of Ukraine.

    «At the beginning of the occupation, the Russians allowed us the opportunity to volunteer…»

    Taras Bukreiev: In the initial hours of the full-scale invasion, I ensured my family’s evacuation from the city and remained in Kherson. During battles near the Antonivskyi Bridge, I assisted our comrades with medicines, then organized transport to evacuate wounded soldiers, civilians, and members of the territorial defense. After the city’s occupation, I joined a volunteer initiative formed during those days, known as «Patriot Seals». This not only allowed me to aid the people of Kherson but also provided the freedom to move around the city. Initially, the Russians overlooked volunteer activities to sustain the city, showing limited interest unless political slogans were involved. They would inspect vehicles at checkpoints, examining food and medicine before allowing them to proceed.

    This opportunity to move freely within the city enabled us not only to assist people but also to gather information on the occupiers’ troop locations and identify critical infrastructure facilities they were interested in.

    «Since the end of April, I have been involved in underground work, and they started looking for me…»

    Taras Bukreiev: I served as an active volunteer for two months. From late April, I joined friends from the military and law enforcement in underground activities. I helped hide them, their families, and engaged in various tasks to collect and transmit information in close collaboration with the resistance movement and our Armed Forces.

    This continued until someone took an interest in me. They first approached my parents with questions. My parents were informed that I was not in the city, that I had left for the territory controlled by Ukraine. Thus, the interest in me eventually waned, allowing me to resume my work. I continued to evacuate people from the city, assisting military personnel who remained in Kherson even through the summer. This continued until mid-August when members of my group began to be detained. My friend and I were among the last to be detained on September 4. Subsequently, I spent 7 months in Russian captivity until my release in Chaplynka, where I was forced to stay until December 2023.

    I remained in the Kherson detention center until October 20. The last batch, comprising two prisoner transport vehicle, left Kherson as they were already fleeing the city. Afterward, I stayed in the detention center in Hola Prystan for ten days before being transported to Chaplynka, where I stayed until my release on March 23.

    Taras Bukreev/Photo from open sources

    «We realized in October that the Russians were planning to flee»

    Taras Bukreev: There were several signals. While we didn’t fully comprehend them, at night in our cells, we could hear artillery from both sides drawing closer. We understood that the intensity of the fighting was escalating. Additionally, around October 16, a man was thrown into our cell who shared the latest news. He mentioned that the Dar’yivsky bridge had already been destroyed, our forces were consistently targeting the pontoon crossing near Antonivskyi bridge, indicating something significant was happening.

    The third signal came on the evening of October 17. In the smoking area beneath our windows, a Russian man was smoking and talking on the phone, stating that it was time to «dump the hryvnia».

    On October 19, many people were allowed out in the morning. We woke up to constant movement in the corridor: names were called, cells opened, and people were instructed to «Get out with your belongings.» While we weren’t released, we were taken away on October 20.

    Why did the occupiers release some and take others with them?

    Taras Bukreiev: It all depended on specific conditions. Some individuals had already been «worked out,» so FSB officers, realizing they were about to be rotated, understood that it made no sense to take these people with them. Some who had been in prison for an extended period were released. They were offered cooperation, and as far as I know, those who agreed and were released in Kherson later provided our special services with valuable information.

    There were cases on October 19 where individuals had a choice: either leave by signing documents or go to the left bank.

    Of course, some people were released simply because there wasn’t enough time to open cases on them. They didn’t initiate a case against me either, but cases were already underway against friends in my circle. They wanted to make me either a witness or an accomplice. FSB officers who detained me and my friends stayed until the end of December, hoping to extract something from the case. However, during the rotation in Chaplynka, when new investigators arrived, they filtered out me and a few others involved in our case. Those against whom cases were opened in August were taken further, and these guys are still in captivity.

    As per the latest information, five people from my circle are in the FSB detention center in Rostov.

    «I understood that I could be captured, but it was impossible to prepare for this…»

    Taras Bukreev: Staying in Kherson was a conscious choice. I understood that we might succeed in fighting back. When the city came under occupation, I thought about my parents and students who remained here. These children, mostly from the left bank, couldn’t return to their parents. Moreover, since my college years, I had always been involved in public social activities, having a large circle of people I couldn’t inform about leaving. When I realized I had been noticed and attracted attention, I contacted people from the government-controlled area, seeking advice on security behavior. Initially, we considered that I should try to leave, but upon learning that I was on the lists and likely to be detained at checkpoints, I opted to hide in the city, constantly changing addresses and meeting places with friends.

    When my friends were being detained, I went into hiding, but due to my own negligence, I stopped being vigilant. They tracked me down and detained me.

    I knew it could happen. It’s challenging to prepare for captivity. You understand all the risks, but until it happens, you don’t grasp what can happen to you.

    What happened in captivity?

    Taras Bukreev: Upon entering the cell, the guys informed me that for the first week or two, they would show interest in me, and when they realized they couldn’t extract any more information, they would «give up» on me. Two scenarios would unfold – either they’d release me or fabricate a case. Indeed, this played out as they predicted: they were interested in me for the first two weeks, and then my existence seemed to slip their minds. It wasn’t until October 3 that I was summoned for questioning, although it turned out to be an offer of cooperation. They acknowledged I was a teacher with a Ph.D. in history and even proposed a job, but I never saw those people again. The next interrogation happened at the end of January 2023, where I was asked about my identity and the reasons for my detention. Only two paragraphs of text were available about me, so I explained that I was detained accidentally and coerced to write those paragraphs. They conducted checks for two weeks, called me back for questioning, and started hinting at my potential release, emphasizing the seriousness of the two paragraphs I wrote. Another period of silence followed for two or three weeks, and then they presented the offer of cooperation once again. Upon my release, I had to sign documents affirming my cooperation with the FSB and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, along with recognizing Crimea as part of Russia, among other things. In essence, they create standard propaganda videos featuring your endorsement of Russia and then set you free. Ten people were released in March through this method, and many others followed in May. This is their way of showcasing the success of their efforts and creating the image – capturing you praising Russia.

    «I couldn’t leave Chaplynka right away…»

    Taras Bukreev: Although they released me, it resembled the stories of free settlements under Soviet rule when a person’s Gulag term ended but freedom wasn’t complete. I was released in Chaplynka, but I had no freedom to go anywhere. While not confined to a cell or basement, I wasn’t given any form of documentation. It took two months before I received a certificate stating that I had undergone «filtration measures».

    During my time in Chaplynka, local people, who had also experienced similar situations, provided assistance. I lived in the house of a man who had been through all those basements.

    The possibility of an exchange was considered for me, but the Russians were unsure of the terms. They claimed the man was already free, and they had no grievances against me. Therefore, a certain mechanism was worked out with our special services, which I won’t delve into, as I am not the only one who has gone through this process. However, it involved a brief procedure to acquire their documents for the journey to Russia. Subsequently, there was the trip to the Belgorod region and the transition to the «grey zone». It constituted a series of procedures.

    A system in which one devours the other…

    Taras Bukreev: Generally, leaving the occupied territory is always a risk; you don’t know what awaits you at these checkpoints. But staying in the occupation is also dangerous because each new rotation can bring surprises, and you may attract interest. So, it’s always a dilemma, and a considerable number of released individuals still stay on the left bank because they lack a proper opportunity to leave.

    Why does this happen at all? It is not entirely beneficial for the occupiers to let us go to Ukraine because returnees may share significant information about what they witnessed. Keeping us in basements is also not an ideal option because, since January 2023, they’ve implemented this all-Russian system, involving the Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor’s Office. The system operates in a way that whoever successfully deals with others receives bonuses and stars on their shoulder straps. Since January, the Investigative Committee has been questioning the FSB about the prisoners and the reasons for their imprisonment. The Investigative Committee’s task is to identify violations in the FSB’s work to hold FSB officers accountable. This system essentially devours itself. If there was no evidence against someone, it was often easier to release them and pretend they hadn’t been there. We were released to avoid problems later, although sometimes issues arose when some of us went to Russia and reported all the violations connected to our detention to the prosecutor’s office. So, we were handed a document to sign, stating that we had received all our belongings back and had no complaints, etc. Even if they hadn’t returned anything, you still signed to expedite your release.

    In general, after January 2023, it became more challenging for them to create chaos. They even discussed among themselves that it was nearly impossible to «lose a person» now. There were instances where individuals, despite being tortured, refused to cooperate, and as a result, they were taken to a field and shot. When the Investigative Committee started working and had lists of detainees and their locations, it was no longer as easy to «lose» someone. In spring and summer, there were numerous cases where people were taken for interrogation and never returned.

    How many people who endured torture in captivity have you come across?

    Taras Bukreev: Everyone undergoes torture. Some endure it for a day or two, while others for a week, but everyone experiences it. Saying you’ll divulge everything out of fear to avoid torture won’t work. No one will believe your words. Or sometimes, they torture you simply because they enjoy it.

    «I was in the same cell with the mayor of Kherson, Ihor Kolykhaiev»

    Taras Bukreev: The first time I saw Ihor Kolikhayev was on October 20, 2022, when we were being transported out of Kherson. Thirty-two of us were in the van, and the thirty-third was placed in the so-called «glass cell’, a one-meter by one-meter cell. To be honest, I wouldn’t have recognized him; I just heard from the roll call that it was him. I had a closer encounter with him in Hola Prystan, where we were brought. We were in neighboring cells there, and the first time he mentioned he was not in solitary confinement was when we were placed in the same cell on October 30, when we arrived in Chaplynka. He was taken away from us in late November and transported to an unknown destination.

    Ihor Kolikhayev/Photo from open sources

    Why are the Russians still holding Kolykhaiev captive?

    Taras Bukreev: There are various possibilities. It’s conceivable that the occupiers are seeking a substantial ransom for him. Kolikhayev himself mentioned, during our time in the same cell, that FSB officers told him during interrogation, «No one will exchange you, no matter how much they desire». The same FSB officers asserted that it was a personal directive from Saldo’s collaborator, driven by political competition and Saldo’s resentment over Kolikhayev winning the election. In essence, it was a personal vendetta.

    Kolikhayev was summoned for questioning in Chaplynka, subjected to pressure through his business, and these FSB officers demanded money from him, which he refused. It’s probable that the Russians are unwilling to release him without some form of compensation.

    Another potential reason is that Igor Kolikhayev refused to incriminate himself. They wanted him to admit that he was the organizer of a terrorist network in Kherson, responsible for most of the sabotage under his command. They alluded to the municipal guard he had established, which the Russians considered a terrorist organization.

    «The state does not assist with medical rehabilitation after captivity»

    Taras Bukreev: Upon my return, my first priority was to restore my Ukrainian documents. I am currently in the process of obtaining documentation regarding my prisoner of war status. I’ve started addressing my health and rehabilitation needs and deciding on my place of residence. Unfortunately, the state offers limited assistance. When it comes to medical rehabilitation, civilian prisoners are often overlooked, despite the significant number of them in captivity, including hundreds of thousands. Thousands have passed through the Kherson detention center alone. I know individuals who were captured, received payments from the state, but when they sought medical care, they were reminded of these payments, told to use them for treatment. However, we recognize that many people have suffered much more, and these payments won’t cover all their expenses.

    We would like to remind you that at the fourth meeting of advisers in Davos, the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, Dmytro Lubinets, called on the international community to urgently unite efforts to bring home all Ukrainians illegally taken by the Russian occupiers.

    The Ombudsperson emphasized that the goal is to bring home all Ukrainians taken as prisoners of war and illegally deported by Russia. Therefore, he stated that the international community «must immediately consolidate its efforts in this direction».

    «In Davos, our partners listened to the voices of Ukrainian children whom we have brought home, relatives of civilians abducted and illegally detained by Russia. They were shocked by what they heard», — Lubinets said.

    In times of war, the program «Free our relatives» tells the stories of people, cities, villages, and entire regions that have been captured by Russian invaders. We discuss the war crimes committed by the Kremlin and its troops against the Ukrainian people.

    The program is hosted by Igor Kotelianets and Anastasia Bagalika.

    The coverage of war crimes resulting from Russia’s war against Ukraine is made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the framework of the Human Rights in Action Program implemented by Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union.

    Opinions, conclusions and recommendations presented in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, the United States Government. The contents are the responsibility of the authors.


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