Kyiv, Ukraine (CNN). On March 8, three Ukrainian military drones were shot down returning from a combat mission located in Russian-occupied territory. Russian forces imprisoned the pilots, who were both severely injured.
CNN conducted a lengthy interview with the pilots. They stated that they were subjected for over a month to threats and abuse while in Russian custody.
CNN’s request for comment from Russia’s Ministry of Defense was not met.
Oleksii Chozh, aged 29, and Ivan Pepeliashko – his friend and comrade in arms – had flown every mission since the Russian invasion started in February.
On March 8, the assignment took them north, close to Chernihiv. The mission was completed successfully by all four helicopters belonging to the squadron. Chez, however, noticed new enemy positions while they were returning to Kyiv.
It was too late. It was too late. Three helicopters were destroyed by enemy fire.
Both pilots suffered broken legs. Pepeliashko suffered spine fractures as a result of the impact.
He tried to move forward but fell asleep. Then, he noticed several Russian soldiers.
“I begged the men to shoot me. “I was certain that the men had come to kill me.”
First Ukrainian helicopter pilots were taken, prisoner
According to the Ukrainian military’s account, the Russians made Chyzh and Pepeliashko the first Ukrainian helicopter pilots. Their accounts of captivity were horrendous and would have violated international conventions concerning the treatment of prisoners.
Two pilots claimed they were loaded in an armored personnel transport and taken to a medical facility. From there, they were transferred to Rylsk hospital just across the border.
Two weeks ago, both pilots couldn’t move and were kept in bed due to injuries for almost two whole weeks.
They stated that they were regularly interrogated about the Ukrainian military position, the Russians they had killed, and the locations of biological laboratories.
Interrogation as per the Geneva Conventions is legal. However, it is subject to the prohibitions of torture and coercion and the requirement of humane care.”
Chyzh claimed at one time that he was under pressure to adopt Russian citizenship.
“They asked me, why would you want to return to Ukraine? Look at how powerful Russia really is. There are many opportunities,” Chyzh shared with CNN. He also noted the irony of hearing it in a room with broken windows where a dirty piece of paper was covering them.
Pepeliashko explains that he was also touched by the compassion displayed by some medical personnel, who gave them new clothes.
“Even among people who are bad, there’s always someone who is slightly more kind,” he stated.
Both pilots reported that the constant Russian propaganda flood and attempts to brainwash prisoners colored their time in prison. Propaganda and lectures about Stepan Bandera surrounded them. Bandera was a Ukrainian nationalist who worked with Nazi Germany. After World War II, the KGB assassinated him. Bandera’s followers later fought the Soviets as well.
Two pilots reported that female Ukrainian prisoners in a nearby cell were forced by their guards to sing the Russian Anthem and old Soviet tunes.
CNN reached out for comment from the Russian Defense Ministry regarding the allegations made about the pilots, but no reply.
A prisoner exchange
Chyzh was told by Pepeliashko that they overcame the trauma by visualizing themselves in a different setting, keeping a sense of humor, and dreaming up what the future would hold.
“We shared delicious recipes, and we lectured on many different subjects.” Oleksii was talking about Paris. I closed all my eyes and pictured myself there. Then, I promised myself that if it were possible for me to escape captivity, I would undoubtedly go to Paris. It distracted from the pain,” Pepeliashko remarked.
They were both told in mid-April they would be sent to Russia as prisoners of war. They didn’t believe the news until they finally arrived in Kyiv on April 14.
While they were in captivity, they were told Kyiv had been “liberated.” They didn’t realize that the battle over Kyiv was never actually fought. The Russians eventually left the region to concentrate their efforts in eastern Ukraine.
Both of them are on a long road to recovery. Chyzh can’t walk without crutches. CNN spoke to him that the hospital was now his home. “This has everything I need. “I don’t own anything else.”
They are content to be alive again and to see loved ones, but the war continues to weigh heavily on their minds. They worry about their fallen comrades.
There is still time for Paris, but both pilots are keen to get back in the fight.
Pepeliashko claimed, “We did this not to give up.” “Our whole existence is the road to heaven. And we will do all that is necessary to get back into the helicopter cockpit.