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A missing Ukrainian woman's family wants to know if she was forcibly taken to Russia

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

There are increasing reports of the Russian army forcibly deporting Ukrainian civilians and holding them captive and incommunicado inside Russia. NPR's Anya Kamenetz spoke with five individuals who say it happened to them. They're speaking to the media in part because they want to help a young woman who is still missing. And a warning - the next several minutes include descriptions of violence.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Viktoria Andrusha, 25, was teaching middle-school math in Brovary, a suburb of Kyiv. Bombs started falling there almost as soon as the war began. So she came to stay with her parents in the village of Novyi Bykiv, thinking it would be safer. But no. On February 27, the Russian soldiers got to their village. A few weeks later, they came to their home. Based on some pictures and messages on her phone, they accused Andrusha of informing the Ukrainian army about the movements of Russian soldiers, and they took her away.

KATERINA ANDRUSHA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: "She just came up to me, kissed me, and she asked for warm socks," says her mother, Katerina Andrusha, with tears in her eyes. And then she asked the soldiers' permission to say goodbye to her father. They came back later and took Katerina, too. They kept her in the basement of a house nearby, blindfolded for three days.

ANDRUSHA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: "The Russians didn't let me go. They just ran away," says Katerina, because on March 31, the Ukrainian army reclaimed the village of Novyi Bykiv. Viktoria was still missing. But as the citizens of the town picked up the pieces of their lives, her family started to hear from people who had seen her in captivity. And what they heard scared them.

NPR spoke to five people arrested in the area at different times by Russian soldiers. They were all transported by armored personnel carrier and/or helicopter across the Russian border and held in the same two facilities. The first was a tent camp in Gukovo, Russia. The second was a jail in Kursk, 250 miles from the Ukrainian border. Viktoria Andrusha was seen in both places. And those who didn't see her heard rumors about the brave teacher from Brovary.

MISHA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: "You feel like you're half alive and half dead," says Misha (ph), a 28-year-old taxi driver and video blogger. He says the Russians took him on March 7 after he had actively been aiding the Ukrainian army, including by transporting a Russian prisoner of war in his taxi. Misha was held for 35 days. He didn't want his last name used because he fears retaliation.

MISHA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: Misha spent the first two days in a pit lined with cardboard in freezing weather. Then he was taken to the tents. At the time, there were about 150 to 200 people there, he estimated. All five of our interviewees said the tents were surrounded by barbed wire, guarded by German shepherds and snipers. You could leave only by holding hands with the people on either side of you and moving at a run. They were given only a few minutes at a time to eat or use the bathroom. The guards would hit them for moving too slowly. But all five people said Gukovo was nowhere near as bad as Kursk.

MISHA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: "On the first day there," Misha says, "the soldiers beat us for six hours using boxing gloves." "They wanted to show us who was boss," he said.

MISHA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: They used stun guns to deliver electric shocks to his legs and back.

MISHA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: Once a week, someone would visit the prisoners, introducing himself as a civilian Russian prosecutor. This is the person who in the Russian legal system would be tasked with overseeing the welfare of prisoners.

SERGIY: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: Sergiy (ph), another former captive in Kursk, says when they beat him heavily on the first day, their jailers warned them to lie and tell the prosecutor that everything was fine, that they were being treated well. Sergiy is 27 and works in Ukraine's Ministry of Infrastructure. He and Misha don't know each other. He, too, asked not to use his last name because he fears retaliation. Sergiy says he was arrested outside Kyiv in late February for having a navigation device in his car. Russian soldiers stabbed his hands. He suffered severe frostbite in his feet after being held captive outdoors. When he got to the tent camp, he saw a Russian doctor, who amputated parts of his feet.

SERGIY: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: He says, in Kursk, his surgery wounds got infected, and he lost a lot of blood.

SERGIY: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: Sergiy didn't see Viktoria himself. But he heard rumors about the civilian woman prisoner, the math teacher who insisted on speaking Ukrainian and being patriotic.

MISHA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: The people NPR talked to were all eventually exchanged for Russian soldiers. "Prisoners were being swapped frequently," says Misha. And before they left, there was what he called a goodbye ceremony.

MISHA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: "The jailers formed two lines in either side of a corridor," he said. They put sacks on the ground to make it slippery. They forced the prisoners who were being released to run down the corridor singing the Russian national anthem. As they did, they hit them again with the stun guns.

MISHA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: Misha thinks he recognizes the guy he was swapped with on April 10. It was a skinny, dark-haired Russian soldier - the same one, maybe, that he drove to a checkpoint in his taxi not long before he was first arrested.

ANDRUSHA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: Meanwhile, Viktoria Andrusha's mother is waiting and hoping. Her family is contacting everyone they can think of, trying to arrange an exchange that will get her released.

ANDRUSHA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: "And we're not the only ones waiting for her," her big sister Irina (ph) says. All of her students' families are sending us messages saying, how is Viktoria? Where is Viktoria?

Anya Kamenetz, NPR News, Novyi Bykiv.

(SOUNDBITE Of MARTIN PHIPPS AND HANS ZIMMER'S "THE BELVEDERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anya Kamenetz
Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.