A bald-headed man buries his face in a Ukraine flag and cell phone

‘I think they did this to break our will’: Freed Ukrainian POW tells his story

Volodymyr Tsema-Bursov is from the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. A few months after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he was captured by Russian forces. He spent the next 20 months in Russian captivity. Now he’s back in Ukraine after being released in the biggest prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion. The World’s Daniel Ofman reports from Lviv.

The World

Ukrainian Volodymyr Tsema-Bursov used to play the tuba in a Ukrainian military band in Mariupol.

But when Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, his life changed overnight. 

Tsema-Bursov became a soldier in the 56th brigade, exchanging his tuba for a rifle. His time on the battlefield was short-lived, however. Soon, he became a prisoner of war in Russia. 

Tsema-Bursov, who was held captive for 20 months, was released a month ago — along with 230 Ukrainian prisoners — as part of the biggest prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine since the war began.

Before 2024, there hadn’t been a single exchange for about six months; overall, there have been some 50 prisoner exchanges in the past two years. Altogether, about 3,000 Ukrainian prisoners have been released, and probably a similar number on the Russian side.

Two men hugging in winter gear

Soon after Russian troops began closing in on Mariupol, Tsema-Bursov and a mix of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians hunkered down at the Illich Iron Works factory. 

“With each day, the artillery came closer and closer. We heard the blasts. It was alarming. The shelling was becoming more frequent,” Tsema-Bursov said. 

They were surrounded. Still, he believed that reinforcements would come. But that never happened.

After more than a month, he and other soldiers there decided to escape Mariupol themselves. They thought they could slip past the Russian checkpoints and get to safety. Instead, they were loaded onto buses and taken to Olenivka, near Donetsk, to a makeshift prison.

“The conditions were terrible. There were no beds,” he said. “Everything was covered in trash and broken glass. It was cold. We didn’t even get drinking water.”

Tsema-Bursov said that they were severely beaten. Their valuables were also confiscated, he said: “There was a box on the table, and these objects just piled up.”

Damaged buildings

Tsema-Bursov was soon transferred to a detention center in Russia’s Smolensk region, about 140 miles west of Moscow where he said they were also treated poorly and practically starved. 

Tsema-Bursov lost about 80 pounds. He said the Russian guards beat him and the other prisoners. Most of the day, they weren’t allowed to sit — they had to stand in their cells for eight hours straight.

“I think they did this to break our will … to scare us, to kill our spirit, and to degrade us. They wanted to turn us into these kind of nameless beings.”

Volodymyr Tsema-Bursov, former prisoner of war, Lviv, Ukraine

“I think they did this to break our will,” Tsema Bursov said. “To scare us, to kill our spirit, and to degrade us. They wanted to turn us into these kind of nameless beings.”

There were times, Tsema-Bursov said, when dark thoughts entered his mind. He feared he would never be freed. He and other prisoners tried to distract each other. 

“We talked about anything, about cars, chocolate candies, anything, just not about prisoner exchanges,” Tsema-Bursov said. “We got used to the thought that it will happen — but when? Who knows? Only God knows.”

And that day did come.

A group of men wrapped around the national flag of Ukraine standing in the cold

One night, they were woken up to the sounds of chaos. Prison guards were yelling and cursing. The prisoners had to collect their belongings quickly. Some were led out of their cells and outside the detention facility.

“I heard this magical sound. You know, the sound that a truck makes when it backs up,” Tsema-Bursov said. “I saw the gate open, and the car pulled in. It was a prisoner transport vehicle. The hazard lights were on. And then, we all got into the truck.”

After a few delays, they were let go in Ukraine.

Right away, footage of the returned POWs began circulating online. One of the freed Ukrainian prisoners said: “We’re home. You didn’t forget us.”

Since he got home to Ukraine, Tsema-Bursov has experienced headaches and debilitating leg pains. He has yet to see his wife and youngest daughter who are in Finland. But he is hopeful about one day picking up his tuba again.

In the meantime, he said he’ll keep sharing his story as much as possible so more people become aware of how prisoners of war are treated in Russia. 

“It’s not just happening somewhere far, it’s here, it’s nearby. It’s happening with the same people, people like you and me, and so I don’t want people to forget this.”

Editor’s note: Volodymyr Solohub contributed to this report.

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