20 months in russian captivity. A stunning story of a military band musician

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20 months in captivity, loss of 40 kilograms of weight, Pushkin’s poems and Zhukov’s biography. Mariupol native Volodymyr Tsema-Bursov, a serviceman of the 56th Separate Motorized Infantry Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and a professional musician talked about russian captivity in an interview with 5.ua.

While Volodymyr is rehabilitating, gaining weight, and getting used to a relatively peaceful life, he talked to Anna Miroshnychenko from his hospital bed.


– How much do you weigh now?

I added 20 kilograms, somewhere around 80.

– How much did you lose in captivity?

I lost 40 kg in captivity, I got there with a weight of 96 kilograms, and I was released when I was 55.

– How do you feel now?

    Now I feel relatively normal, but I still have problems with digestion, I have constant headaches, constant nausea, and a hangover.

    – You are in the hospital now. Do you even want to tell about what you have experienced? How do you feel about it?

    Of course, I would like to tell everyone what I experienced. Why is it important? So that people don’t think that these are some fabricated stories or fiction. I am outraged by the behavior of the aggressor country, the disregard for international order and rules – both the conduct of military operations and the detention of prisoners of war, something that I have firsthand experience.

    – I heard your story, I know what horrors you experienced in captivity. It is very important that you tell us about the beginning of a full-scale invasion. You live in Mariupol and you are a musician in the 56th brigade.

    Unfortunately, lived, now I have no way back to Mariupol, although in all my thoughts about freedom, when I was in prison, for some reason, I imagined myself on the streets of Mariupol, I imagined myself in the apartment where my family lived. Unfortunately, now this territory is temporarily occupied, the apartment in which we lived burned to the ground, there were only four walls and four window openings left. Unfortunately, I won’t go back there, and as for what I had to go through, yes, as you know, we were surrounded at the Illich Steel and Iron Works factory, we held the defense there until we simply had to leave and surrender. We were going for a breakthrough, but the result was that we could not break through.

    – What is your education?

    Higher music education


    – Let’s talk about the captivity that you had to go through. From the first day, you were perceived as a military man, as part of “Azov,” very often it happened that they saw “Azov” fighters in everyone, a “Nazi” and so on… How did your story in captivity begin?

    We were initially in the same location with a group from Azov. In the prison in Sukhodilsk, I was once taken to a punishment cell [Kartser] for interrogation. It involved beating, and those who conducted the interrogation told me: “You are Azov’s instructor.” I said: No, I am not an Azov instructor. Your information is false, I am a musician by profession. They say – how can you prove it? And one of them says – well, you’re a musician, you say… And if we bring you a guitar, you’ll play something. Well, I’ll play something, I know how to play a little. I can’t prove in any way that I’m not Azov’s instructor, just as I can’t prove that I’m a musician.

    They come for me, take me out of the punishment cell, take me to the administrative building, and this escort asks someone: “Where?” They took me to the assembly hall of the prison, on the stage there was a drum kit, there was a bass guitar on a stand, and there also was an electric guitar hanging in the corner. And this one, who accompanied me, a second glance was enough for him, he looked at me and said, Let’s go out. Apparently, he realized, from my reaction when I saw the musical instruments, he apparently realized that I was really a musician, that is, I wasn’t embarrassed, I wasn’t at a loss, I didn’t start stuttering, my eyes didn’t start running around.

    I thought, well, if I have to play now, I’ll play, what else can I do? And in the end, after this short “examination,” the investigator calmly interrogated me and asked questions. In my case, this was the toughest of the interrogations, because all other interrogations took place without beatings, but from time to time we still “received” it. This was our usual routine.


    – Why were you beaten, Volodymyr?

    In addition to the fact that we were standing all day, we were given various kinds of literature, about the re-education about the Second World War, that is, either the Great Patriotic War [as they call it in russia – UT], or the biography of commander Zhukov, or the history of the Napoleonic battle of Borodino, poems of a patriotic nature, where every second word was “russia,” “russia is the dearest word in the world to me.”

    Over time, poems by classics appeared – Pushkin, Lermontov… then russian literature appeared, also classical. Why were we beaten? Every morning in the prison there was such a procedure as a “morning check”, when the entire cell came out into the corridor, and “stood” in a certain way, namely with their legs spread wide and their heads lowered so that their ears were approximately at the level of their knees and their hands behind their backs.

    And in this position… the pre-trial detention center staff listened to our achievements in literature, in history, and asked us questions. Naturally, among the people there was a person who was worried, who did not have time to learn everything properly, some lines flew out of his head, and if the poem did not work out, and the poem was usually surveyed like this: one verse is read by the first person, they stop him, the second person had to continue, after the second the third, and so on, so on… If they saw that the people from our cell were saying it right, they could simply say “We’re taking them back to the cell.”

    But if, God forbid, someone stopped short or someone said that “I didn’t learn or I forgot,” then the beatings began; these, unfortunately, concerned not only the person who forgot or did not learn, it affected everyone.


    – Tell me, these people who treated you like this, do they really love the russian Federation? Do they really believe that Ukrainians are Fascists and Nazis? Why is there such blind faith in their tsar, in putin?

    There were people who did not touch upon this topic at all but were so imbued with blind faith in the chosenness of the russian people that it seemed that they were not in the right mind. There were those who considered themselves a superior race, despite the fact that they constantly told us that we were Ukrofashists, Banderites, and so on, although they considered themselves bearers of some kind of light, goodness, and so on. Recently I remembered such a conversation in the exercise yard: when we walked around this yard with our heads down, and an observer walked above us and said, “Well, hohly [a derogatory ethnic slur for Ukrainians popular russia – UT], what kind of equipment does your Ukrainian army have?” Someone answers him something, and he says, “Oh, ZILs and URALs, all the equipment is Soviet, russian, of course, what can you come up with? Even you fight with russian equipment.” I can say about such a person that he is not on friendly terms with his head or he is uninformed. We had an employee, who worked for a day or two, and every time he was on duty, he walked along the corridor and shouted, “Well, does the russian land feed you?”


    – And how were you fed?

    The food in the prison is delicious, but as for the quantity, it is for the cat. Because every time I took a portion in my hands, in 9 out of 10 cases, I looked there and thought – this is a portion for a cat or some dog, for Spitz maybe, those shaggy little ones. Very small portions. We had breakfast until 7 a.m. and when I ate in the morning, I knew that at 11 a.m. I would feel hungry, my stomach would be empty, and it was possible to check the clock using my stomach, because at 11 a.m. we started the so-called physio, and just as my stomach was starting to talk to me that it was already empty we were told that it was time for physio, and for another 2 hours I was hungry, we jumped, did push-ups, squats until dinner. The feeling of hunger began to be accompanied by nausea and a semi-fainting state, I stood and thought that I was about to fall, that I would just collapse. I was on the verge of losing consciousness. I didn’t tell anyone about this so as not to raise this issue and not look like a whiner and so on, so I stood and hoped. We stood all the time, we did not sit, initially, we stood for 16 hours, we sat down only for meals. But when the legs and knees of all those held behind bars began to swell, then they began to give us extra time to rest. But nevertheless, we were on our feet 8-10 hours a day.

    The days passed like this – we were waiting for breakfast, then for lunch, then for dinner. Lights out. They destroyed us both morally and physically. I was amazed how you can take a person and just beat him. But then, when they figured out who was who, they selected for themselves certain categories of prisoners of war that interested them more, namely certain military specialties. But since I am a musician, interest in me gradually disappeared, just like in the drivers of some equipment, in, let’s say, not exactly combat units from among the military.


    – What did you think about the most while you were in captivity for these 20 months?

    I find it difficult to answer what I was thinking about. I thought about everything, including bad thoughts, including – where is my family? But I tried to drive these thoughts away. I was sure that everything was fine with them, but this confidence was not supported by anything; I did not receive a single letter that would say either that everything was bad or that everything was good. Until that day, until I received a letter from my wife, she wrote some details, I don’t even remember, the main thing for me was to hear that everyone was alive and everything was fine with them. And so, in general, as my body stood there, I myself was anywhere else. I was thinking, remembered our past life, remembered my work, the countries I visited. We talked, the guys told stories from their lives, I told some of my own. What was I thinking? I’m ashamed to admit, but many thoughts ended with what to eat. And this is what our conversations looked like, they started about anything, about cars, about building a garage, and still it all ended with food, no matter where you start, all the conversations ended with food. I’m ashamed to admit, but this occupied my thoughts.


    – What was the day like when you found out that you were returning to Ukraine?

    It was not day, but it was night and the night was very stormy. It started with a roar, a scream, a stomp along the corridor, a clanging sound, swearing, and we understood, we were experienced prisoners by that time, and we understood that this was a “transmigration of souls,” as I called it. And that night, when we heard a rumble and scream along the corridor and the first thing we did, at the same time we all woke up and, without saying a word, ran to the toilet. Why? Because we have already had a sad experience when we moved, regardless of whether it was a plane, a truck or a bus, if you wanted to go to the toilet, then at the very best you ran into a polite refusal.

    We quickly put on our prison uniform, they placed us in different corners of the corridor and threw us the clothes we arrived in. Quickly, quickly! What are you doing around there? They allowed us to put our clothes on, lined us up, took us out and I saw the so-called gateway open, a sliding gate, and a convict wagon, a KAMAZ truck, and a vehicle for transporting prisoners entered the territory. A paddy wagon drives in, another paddy wagon turns around and I hear these enchanting sounds when the vehicle reverses and the noise of the sliding gate. We heard this sound many times, which means either someone is being taken away or someone is being brought in. And this sound that evening was very pleasant to my ears.

    – And when you were in Ukraine – did you cry?

    I didn’t cry. Apparently, some kind of psychological braking system worked for me, and I went through it all without emotions, I turned into a vegetable. I had no positive or negative emotions. I felt like a fly that was woken up in the middle of winter, I was confused. But I attribute everything to the fact that my brain slowed down on purpose so that there wouldn’t be too much emotion and an emotional explosion. I was mentally in prison, that is, I was so used to it there, I often caught myself thinking that for me this term would never end. And we, to some extent, also envied the convicts, who knew exactly when they were getting out, we didn’t know that day, it could be tomorrow, in a week, in six months. And this uncertainty was very depressing. When I ended up in Ukraine, I’m ashamed to admit, I very calmly, without emotion, moved to another bus, sat down, and just sat there while everyone walked around, smoked, and took pictures. I was just sitting in the bus.

    – It’s a pity that your wife did not meet you. Maybe then you would have had a little different emotions.

    This is certainly true, but, you know, I might not be very upset that she didn’t meet me, I wouldn’t want to appear before her in the form in which I was then. I was a walking skeleton. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to put things in order in my mouth, my teeth were not without loss, she would have to look at this and be content with that, but I’ve gained a little weight, I’ve gained weight, now I’m not ashamed, my face became round again, not as before when my cheekbones stuck out and my nose was sharp like Pinocchio’s.


    – Actually, I remember those photos, and I think you are different now. Maybe that’s what the camera is saying, I really wish people would write words of support for you, how beautiful you look after going through this. Now, Volodymyr, you have one more unknown. You are currently in rehab, do I understand correctly what’s next?

    I need more time. Let’s just say that I feel weak in my body: if I walk a distance, I feel that my legs will swell again, just as they were swollen in prison, just as they swell now. And I have a lot of fatigue. If you take me before this prison, in which I spent 20 months, then I could perform a lot more operations and do various movements without getting tired at all. Now it happens if I walk a block or around a building, I feel like I need to sit down. Moreover, we stood for 20 months and had physical activity – we did squats, push-ups, and jumped. It would seem that I should have a reserve of strength in my muscles, but I don’t.

    – By the way, you haven’t thought of going abroad? There are a lot of guys who have experienced a story like yours, they went abroad, and got treatment there, did you think about it?

    I’m only for it, I know that my wife was offered similar things where she is now, abroad, she was offered rehabilitation for me as a serviceman, they are also aware of the matter, she is also a refugee. They are aware of our entire history, and the family tragedy, and they offered it to her.

    – I would very much like it for you so that you could leave at least for a short time and get treatment. But where do you want to live? There is no way to return to Mariupol for now.

    There is no way back to Mariupol for me. We are in zero gravity, everything depends on how my further service will take place. Is it possible at all, in what capacity, and in what part of Ukraine? If the state helps us with housing, I don’t know where we would like to have housing, since we now have uncertainty with our location, now we are in limbo. Ideally, of course, I long for my Mariupol. I admit, to my shame, I am one of the people who have said all my life that Mariupol is the worst city there can be, because of the environment is so spoiled by two factories, very dirty, very square, 9-story buildings, angular, industrial.


    – What are your feelings now?

    Today, when I reminisce, tears flow. I understand that for me Mariupol was the most beautiful and dearest. Unfortunately, it was razed to the ground and motley houses were built. Sometimes you come across bloggers who are so positive and say – it was so gray, so grey, but now he has become so motley, so rainbow-colored, cheerful. Of course, it was necessary to raze it to the ground and kill 30,000 civilians there, expel half the city as refugees, and build these boxes, and paint them in colorful colors. There are not enough houses there, 9-story buildings, I’m looking again now, indeed, there were 9-story buildings, but they are not there now. They were either folded like houses of cards by rockets, or they were destroyed by fires.

    Naturally, no one puts out the fire in that situation; we didn’t even have a mobile phone connection or the Internet. I saw the city from the height of the Ilyich plant, it was all in smoke, and a plane was flying, throwing bombs. They claimed that they were fighting the Ukrofashists, namely the Azov battalion, who were at Azovstal, but the bombs were dropped on the private sector, on 9-story buildings. I can’t grasp it. Then, in return, they built these boxes, decorated them, and moved people into them. Naturally, they interview loyal people and they say, “Thank you ‘grandfather putin’ for our happy childhood.” I would like to meet my friends who welcomed russia, and were very loyal, I want to talk with them about this, whether their opinion changed when they saw where the plane came from, where the shells came from, and where the mines came from. What is also curious is that very often during interrogations in russian prison, investigators were very sincerely surprised when they heard that they were told that the planes arrived from the direction of Taganrog and flew in the direction of Taganrog, and Ukrainian aviation did not reach Taganrog because there were russian airdefense systems there, that is, Ukrainian aviation was not on the move to Mariupol and we did not see a single Ukrainian aircraft, although we really hoped that it would appear and stopped the chaos that was happening in the sky.


    – Tell me, Volodya, do you want to make music again? I never asked whether you play or sing?

    I have played all my life on the bass guitar, having started at music school on the button accordion, being dissatisfied for years, quitting, graduating from music school and playing a wind instrument, and then graduating from the institute as a theorist. But life has turned out in such a way that I have been playing bass guitar all my life. I worked in an orchestra in my beloved Mariupol, worked for several months in a philharmonic hall, worked in a cruise company, in a band, and in the army I became a tuba player because I was a little familiar with this instrument. And today, here, in this medical institution where I am, the political officer organized a small concert. The musicians have a concert format called “kvartirnik,” [apartment performance] but this one could be called a “coridonik” [corridor performance]. A teacher from their cultural institute came and her two students planned one song, then a second, and a third. It ended with people joining in on this action, I was one of the first, and then both the medical staff and the patients joined in, there were dances, songs, choral performances, and guitar playing, and people started dancing.

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