Ukraine: The young teacher who disappeared in a Russian prison

Viktoria Andrusha is now back home and recovering from her ordeal. ©Viktoria Andrusha

On 25 March 2022, Viktoria Andrusha was abducted by the advancing Russian army from her small village in northern Ukraine. It took tireless efforts for her relatives to find out from unofficial sources that the 25-year-old school teacher was being held in Russia. Ukrainian and international human rights organisations made considerable efforts on her behalf. On 29 September, Viktoria was released and returned to her family. We recently caught up with her.

How did it start?

After Russia invaded Ukraine, I took refuge in the village of Stary Bykiv, Chernihiv region, where my parents live. Our village was occupied on 27 February, three days into the invasion. The Russian military quickly detained six or seven residents and shot them a week later. They were simple civilians, some of whom had been arrested in the street, others from the basements of their homes, where they were hiding from the shelling.

One of those killed was a colleague of my father's. Another villager had her son and son-in-law killed. When she asked the Russians to return the bodies, she was told to leave. Otherwise, she would be killed too. The bodies were found near an abandoned house, some with broken ribs and knife wounds.

The Russians detained and beat many men from our village, including my uncle. One guy, detained with me, said that the Russians hit him with a machine gun and a hammer and threatened to pour hot iron on him.

One soldier said that the command permitted them to shoot suspicious civilians. But anyone could have seemed suspicious to them.

What happened to you?

On 25 March, Russian troops came to search our house. Their commander insulted us. The soldiers put my father on his knees and yelled at him. They found my cell phone and saw I was sending information about the Russian military to an acquaintance from the Ukrainian security service. They let me say goodbye to my parents and took me to the basement of a private house. There were two other civilians there. The next day, they took us, hands tied and blindfolded, to Novy Bykiv, a neighbouring village, where other civilians were detained and beaten.

They accused me of being a spy. I told them that I had the right to have a lawyer. They answered that I didn't have any rights.

On 7 April, I was transferred again, together with a man. I could hear him scream as they beat him. We were taken by helicopter to Russia and told that if we didn’t cooperate, we’d be killed and our bodies left at the border so that the Ukrainian army would be blamed. They threatened me with removing my fingernails and pouring insulation foam down my throat. Some men wore armbands with “Military Police” written on them.

First, I was taken to a tent camp near Glushkovo village, then to detention centre No 1 in Kursk (90 km from the Ukrainian border). The abuse was everywhere. I saw Ukrainian male detainees being forced to walk with their bodies bent at a 90-degree angle. If they couldn’t do that, the guards would beat them. I could hear people screaming in pain during interrogations carried out by special forces and the sound of heads being banged against walls or tables. Detainees would be taken into the corridor, forced to their knees facing the wall and beaten with rubber truncheons and stun guns.

When they brought me in for interrogation, they didn't ask anything but started beating me on my head. I cried and asked why they were doing this to me; they said they wanted me to cooperate. Then they took me to the corridor and beat me with a truncheon. I fell. One of the commandos put his foot on my back and said: ‘Get up or tell your heart to stop functioning’. I was also beaten with a stun gun on my legs, arms, shoulder blades, and other parts of my body. Then they forced me to sing the Russian anthem and kiss the Russian flag.

Once, I was taken to a cell and forced to undress completely in front of the men. After ordering me to dress, they placed a fire extinguisher hose into my mouth, threatening to turn it on. Then they put me into a metal cage, said they’d burn me alive, and threw some burning paper into the cage. When they finally let me out, I was so shocked that I nearly passed out.

What were detention conditions like?

We were about 150 Ukrainian prisoners of war and civilian detainees in that place. We were not allowed to sit or lie in the cells except at night. If we felt unwell and asked for treatment, we’d be told they could “treat” us with a stun gun.

We’d have to wake up at 6 am and sing the Russian national anthem. But we had mattresses, bed linen, and drinking water. The food was not good, but at least we had enough to eat. We could take a shower once a week.

The men were often beaten during regular control procedures. After they complained to the civilian prosecutor and the detention centre employees were reprimanded, the men got beaten again. So, they stopped complaining.

It got worse towards the end of September when a special force from Bashkiria (near the Ural mountains) came to the pre-trial detention centre. They beat the men very brutally and started beating the women as well. After we complained, they stopped beating the women.

One of the women told me she was so desperate to have no news from her five-year-old daughter and elderly father that she had tried to commit suicide twice.

How were you released, and why?

In early May, I was told that my spying had not harmed the Russian Federation and that I’d be released during the next exchange of prisoners. But it was only on 29 September that I was taken back to Ukraine with another two women.

I can’t tell for sure why I was released, but I think the efforts of families who, like mine, make so many requests to Russia and hire lawyers to look for their disappeared relatives contributed to some of us being sent home.

How are you now?

I'm trying to restart a normal life, not dwell on what happened. I wanted to return to work, but my doctors haven’t allowed me yet. I still have severe back pain. But I'm undergoing therapy, and psychologically, I do feel better.

Jointly with its Ukrainian partners, the OMCT provides legal and advocacy support for 34 enforced disappearances by Russian troops in Ukraine. As of 1st November 2022, seven of these people were released, two were found dead, and the whereabouts of the remaining 25 are still unknown. Although the factors influencing the release of victims remain unclear, the OMCT encourages victims' relatives and human rights organisations to take all possible steps to find them so they can return to Ukrainian-controlled territory.