‘They used us as human shields’: A Ukrainian villager’s 10 days in Russian captivity

Prisoner taken into battle and witnesses looting but lives to tell the tale

Serhiy Pohorelov's time in Russian captivity began and ended just metres from his home in Kopyliv, a short drive from the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and towns that are now bywords for the horrors of occupation: Bucha, Irpin and Borodyanka.

Russia's military rolled into the village a few days after launching its all-out of invasion Ukraine on February 24th, and a week later three soldiers spotted Pohorelov on the street a few steps from the house where his family spent long hours in the cellar hiding from shelling. They detained him and took him to their base in a nearby farm building.

The soldiers suspected Pohorelov of helping Ukrainian artillery target Russian positions, and they confiscated his phone and promised to “find out who you’ve been in contact with, what you’ve sent and what you’ve deleted”.

“My hands and feet were tied and my eyes covered and they beat me with the butts of their rifles. After the commander had seen me they took me away and it all went quiet, really quiet, and it seemed like they were deciding whether to shoot me,” he recalls.


“They said things like ‘It’s all over for you,’ ‘It’s time to say goodbye,’ ‘We’re just waiting for the order, but I guess the order never came. That night they put me in the basement, and somehow I slept well and thought they might let me go home.”

Communities all over Ukraine had begun forming territorial defence units as the threat of all-out war with Russia loomed, and Kopyliv was no exception. The village received no weapons for the volunteers, however, so Pohorelov and others were limited to noting and sharing information on the location and movements of Russian troops.

Unlike some people in Kopyliv, which was home to about 1,200 people before the war, Pohorelov says he did not send this information to the Ukrainian military. Whether this saved him, or the Russians thought they could make use of an expendable local, or they were simply less murderous than their comrades elsewhere, may never be known.

“The next day, they didn’t really seem to know what to do with me,” he recalls.

“They took me to a nearby house and made me sit in a sunduk [wooden chest] in the garden. ‘If you’re an artillery spotter then the shells that you aimed here will kill you first,’ they said.”

“Apparently they didn’t really want to kill me themselves. They’d talk about what they’d do if the commander gave the order, and most said ‘No, I don’t want to carry that sin around with me’. But then one would say, ‘Ah, who cares, I’ll shoot him.’”


The house where he was kept served as a Russian field hospital, and some medical kit is still strewn around the premises. The chest where Pohorelov had to spend much of his time still stands in the garden, near a wooden gazebo where the soldiers would let him eat meals and a small bunker that the Russians dug out and flanked with sandbags.

He says these soldiers gave him the same food as they ate, and told him, “Don’t worry Seryoga, it will be all right,” using a familiar Russian version of his name.

“This first group treated me more-or-less all right. They were young and definitely didn’t want the war. Some of them were medics of some sort. One of them, who was guarding me with an automatic rifle, told me he’d never fired it and wanted to get back quickly to his wife and kids with all the bullets still in the magazine,” he recalls.

“But others were more bloodthirsty and threatened to shoot and kill me and so on. They were a mix.”

Russia claims to have invaded Ukraine – killing thousands of people and displacing more than 10 million – to “denazify” the pro-western democracy and protect its Russian speakers, and Pohorelov says his captors had been “zombified” by Kremlin propaganda.

“They said they were here looking for ‘natsiki’. I asked if they meant Ukrainian nationalists or Nazis, but they just kept talking about ‘natsiki’,” he recalls of a unit that he says were from Buryatia in Siberia, 6,500km from Kyiv.

“It seemed interesting to them to talk to me, as if they’d never seen a Ukrainian before. They were surprised that I could speak Russian, so I explained to them that I’d studied it and needed it for my work as a sales manager in Kyiv.

“They said, ‘Seriously Seryoga, we thought no one was taught Russian here.’ They saw I wasn’t a ‘natsik’, but after a chat they’d say ‘Ah whatever, we know you’re really a natsik anyway.’”

Dark room

Sometimes he talks almost lightheartedly about his ordeal, with humour that perhaps endeared him to his captors and helped save his life. But he also acknowledges that “the sense of hopelessness was horrible”.

The feeling deepened when the unit at the field hospital was transferred and he was handed over to soldiers based in the farm building, where he was kept with two other men, Yura and Denys, in a tiny, dark room that was soon dripping with condensation.

“This second group was rougher, battle-hardened. We were hungry and cold in that room, and they only gave us one portion of porridge between three and very little water.

“The scariest thing was when they used us as human shields, cannon fodder, in a raid on one of our [Ukrainian] positions,” Pohorelov explains.

Kopyliv sits beside the main motorway linking Kyiv with western Ukraine, which was fiercely contested during the first month of the war, and 8km from an important junction and bridge that were guarded by Ukrainian troops.

Pohorelov says the Russians put their three prisoners in an armoured vehicle and drove to the junction, “where the commander said Russian planes were supposed to have bombed the area the night before. But the bridge was still there and there was no damage”.

“The Russians only had five or six guys but they decided to attack the Ukrainian position anyway. The commander took Yura somewhere and a soldier indicated to us to hide by a wall. Then they started firing at [the Ukrainian] position about 300m across the motorway. Ordinary civilian cars were still driving past – that was awful,” he says.

“After five or 10 minutes our [Ukrainian] guys fought them off and the Russians started to run back in the direction of the village. It was maybe the one moment I could have tried to escape ... and I also thought maybe our troops would surround us. There was a bit of hope. But common sense told me that I could easily get shot. Bullets were ricocheting off the ground – duff-duff-duff.”

After a kilometre of chaotic retreat beside the motorway towards Kopyliv, the Russians came across a showroom and service centre of Swedish truck maker Scania.

“They started to loot it, turning things over, searching for keys to a truck,” says Pohorelov.

“I didn’t know why they wanted one, because the armoured vehicle we’d come in was waiting in the forest to make a retreat. But then they got an orange truck started, pulled away so clumsily that they bashed it, and then began loading up whatever they could find, heaters and stuff.”

Håkan Jyde, managing director of Scania Ukraine, said a new orange truck taken by the Russians was later “the target of intense shooting and was found at a petrol station about one kilometre from our station.”

“Several laptops and other equipment was [also] stolen,” he told The Irish Times.

The commander wasn’t satisfied with the truck and other booty from Scania’s office, however.

“You know, it was nice weather that day. A bit of light snow and then sunshine ... And there’s this stray dog running about in the sun outside the service centre,” Pohorelov says.

“And the commander goes: ‘You see that? She’s bouncing around because she trusts me. Let’s take her with us. And if anything happens to her, I’ll kill you.’ So they took the dog too.”


On another occasion, Pohorelov says the Russians made the three prisoners walk down a forest road near Kopyliv to check if it was mined; but the invaders’ bid for Kyiv was grinding to a halt, and they would soon be driven away from the unconquered capital.

“On the night of March 13th their positions were hit, and by the next morning they were packed up and ready to leave. That was another worrying moment, because they were really angry. They had lots of wounded and at least one of them had been killed,” he recalls.

“One of the older Buryats said they’d got an order to pull out. He said he’d move the iron thing that was jamming the door shut and that later we could kick it open. Then there was what sounded like more explosions and shooting and then it went quiet. After about 10 minutes we shoved open the door. In the room next to us were four other prisoners with bruises under their eyes, who hadn’t eaten or been to the toilet for two days.”

The farm building where they had been held was only 200m from Pohorelov’s house – something else that he thinks may have made it harder for the soldiers to kill him – even though one of them, in what he believes was an attempt to demoralise him, had told him that the village was now deserted and his home empty.

“I thought my sister and her family may well have left, but not my mum. And when I got home, she was still there, sheltering in the cellar.”

It would be another fortnight before Russian troops withdrew fully from the area, leaving behind mass graves in places like Bucha and Irpin, just 35km from Kopyliv.

“The neighbours said they prayed for me. I’m not a great churchgoer but I did pray when I was there,” Pohorelov says of his 10 days in Russian captivity.

“And only later did I realise how lucky I was to be alive.”