In dead of night, Ukraine’s warring sides swap prisoners

In dead of night, Ukraine’s warring sides swap prisoners

A total of 139 soldiers crossed over, with those struggling on wooden crutches supported by their colleagues, in exchange for 52 rebels.

By (AFP)

Published: Sun 22 Feb 2015, 6:39 PM

Last updated: Thu 25 Jun 2015, 8:46 PM

Ukrainian prisoners of war wait in formation before a prisoner exchange in Russia-backed separatist controlled territory, near Zholobok. -AP

Zholobok - With a sliver of moon barely illuminating the frostbitten east Ukrainian countryside, two patrols converged on foot, in the middle of a road strewn on either side with mines.

The government soldiers had arrived by bus from rebel strongholds at sundown on Saturday, with those brought from Donetsk in civilian clothing while their comrades held in Luhansk sported fatigues.

The troops were pale and exhausted as they walked to the meeting place under the eyes of their captors, the heavily armed pro-Russian separatist Vostok Battalion, whose occasional shouts of “stay on the road, there could be mines” punctuated an otherwise total silence.

After a nearly hour-long trek, their mirror image emerged: Ukrainian troops, fingers on triggers, surrounding rebel prisoners.

There was a brief moment of tension. “We have a problem,” said rebel spokeswoman Daria Morozova. “A Ukrainian prisoner didn’t want to accompany us all the way here,” she said, adding that the prisoner came from a rebel-held region and that he “didn’t fight” when captured.

Ukrainian prisoners of war carry an injured serviceman using his crutches while marching before a prisoner exchange in no man's land, near Zholobok. -AP

No matter. After the approach in near total darkness, the exchange began with a small group of captured Ukrainian troops passing to the other side, then a batch of rebels returning to their own camp, in a pattern calmly repeated in the minutes that followed.

The men passed in single file, avoiding the craters and twisted scraps of metal that littered the road, left behind by bombardment after bombardment in this frontline region.

A total of 139 soldiers crossed over, with those struggling on wooden crutches supported by their colleagues, in exchange for 52 rebels.

Among them were several of Kiev’s troops captured days earlier when the separatists overran Debaltseve, a strategic railway hub that connects Donetsk and Luhansk.

Some 2,500 Ukrainian troops had to flee Debaltseve under heavy rebel fire, in the most egregious breach of a UN-backed ceasefire. More than 179 soldiers were killed in the past month of fighting there, according to one Ukrainian presidential aide.

Posing for photographers, Morozova showed off brown bags full of identity papers she would return to the government troops.

The separatists uttered a “welcome back” to their men, while a woman with the government forces called the roll of their former prisoners.

One pro-Russian rebel, Roman Biarinov, free after three months in detention, made his first act of freedom a phone call to his mother.

“We were just handed over. I’m coming home,” the 24-year-old told her. “Don’t tell Vika!” — a request that the weeping woman keep the news a surprise for his fiancee. The couple are to marry in two weeks.

After hanging up, Biarinov, hands in pockets, said he was tied up and beaten in detention. “They threatened to cut off our fingers. The first week, I was beaten so badly that I couldn’t eat,” he said.

Notwithstanding a break for his wedding, the young man is clear on what comes next: “I am going to fight again,” he said. “We have to defend this land. We are going to win. I don’t know how, but we will win.”

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