In early April, an unremarkable civilian car drove slowly toward a Russian checkpoint in the occupied town of Vasylivka, Zaporizhzhia Oblast.
It had passed dozens of checkpoints on its way from the occupied city of Melitopol to the Ukrainian-controlled regional capital Zaporizhzhia. None of its passengers expected what was about to happen.
As a Russian soldier approached the car, he spotted a teenage boy checking something on his phone.
“What are you doing, filming me?” the soldier yelled.
He took the boy’s phone and pulled him out of the car.
“Should I shoot you right now or smash your phone?” he shouted, pointing his gun at the boy.
The furious soldier dragged the boy to the backyard of a nearby cafe where Russian troops were based, leaving those in the car speechless and terrified.
After an hour of checking his identity, Russian soldiers realized the detainee was a “jackpot” for them. The boy they captured was Vladyslav Buryak, the son of one of the region’s highest-ranking Ukrainian officials – Oleh Buryak, the head of the Zaporizhzhia District State Administration. Until 2020, Buryak was a member of the Russia-friendly Opposition Bloc political party.
The following 90 days in Russian captivity would become nothing but unimaginable horror for the 16-year-old Vladyslav Buryak.
Locked in a tiny dilapidated prison cell in Vasylivka’s pre-trial detention center, the boy heard the harrowing screams of Ukrainian prisoners of war being tortured by Russian soldiers. He watched as some of them died after enduring hours of torture and was forced to clean the “torture room” awash with their blood.
“Every minute there was a very severe challenge because every minute could have been my last,” the boy told the Kyiv Independent during an interview alongside his father.
He is not the only Ukrainian minor who has spent a long time in Russian captivity since Russia’s war began on Feb. 24: According to Zaporizhzhia Oblast Governor Oleksandr Starukh, Russians have held captive five minors in Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Two of them remained imprisoned until the end of July.
A total of 203 kids have been recorded missing in Ukraine as of the beginning of August. Most of them went missing in the war’s hotspots.
Russia’s war has also killed at least 358 children as of Aug. 4. The numbers are expected to be higher since they don’t include casualties in the Russian-occupied territories and areas where hostilities are ongoing.
Among all of Russia’s atrocities against Ukrainian children, Buryak’s story has a happy ending. On July 7, he was released.
Oleh Buryak (L), the head of the Zaporizhzhia District State Administration, takes a selfie with his son Vladyslav Buryak moments after the boy was released from Russian captivity on July 7. (Oleh Buryak)
Vladyslav Buryak’s “normal and happy” teenage life came to a halt when Russia began its all-out invasion on Ukraine. Buryak’s native city of Melitopol, where he lived with his mother and younger sister, was occupied by Russians in the first days of the full-scale war.
Oleh Buryak was already in Zaporizhzhia, where he had moved before the war.
Even though his father had urged Vladyslav and the family to evacuate, the boy wanted to stay in the occupied city to take care of his grandfather, who was sick with late-stage cancer.
“I was with him almost all the time,” he says.
Leaving the city in early March was also too risky since there were too many Russian troops everywhere, according to Vladyslav.
Horrendous sounds of shelling, missile attacks, and street fights became a part of Buryak’s everyday life in Melitopol. In between supporting his grandfather and hiding from Russia’s attacks, Buryak shared information on local collaborators, Russian tanks, and other machinery movements with his father.
“We agreed that if (Vladyslav) sees that I read the message, he should wait 10 minutes and immediately delete it,” Oleh Buryak says.
When talking on the phone, the two also called themselves by different names so that Russians couldn’t identify them.
“I forbade him to call me father or dad,” Oleh says.
“I was worried from day one that sooner or later they would be captured.”
As he was looking for ways to get his son out of the occupied city, Oleh’s friend from Melitopol found some local women with whom Vladyslav could evacuate. The boy’s mother and sister fled the city a week before him. But he didn’t want to leave his grandfather behind until the end.
On Apr. 8, the day the women were planning to flee Melitopol, Vladyslav’s grandfather died.
“I came to hold his hand, kissed him goodbye, and then left,” the boy said.
Comforting the dying
Oleh was at a work meeting when he received a call from a friend. The earth slipped beneath his feet when he heard that Russian soldiers had abducted his son.
“I instantly started thinking of what I could do, what solution I could find,” he says.
For the first few days in captivity, the Russians didn’t give Buryak any food or water. Out of stress, he says he didn’t even want anything.
Five days later they brought Vladyslav some food and water for the first time. After about two weeks, the Russian soldiers allowed him to take a shower. And only one month after he was imprisoned, Vladyslav was finally allowed to wash his clothes.
But that wasn’t the biggest challenge.
“When I got there on the first day, I couldn’t understand why someone was screaming so loudly, wildly,” Buryak says.
Later he would realize they were Ukrainian prisoners screaming in agony while being tortured by Russian soldiers.
“Most Ukrainian prisoners kept there were members of territorial defense units or civilians, who the Russian military tortured and interrogated to get information,” he says.
He remembers that on the fourth day of his imprisonment the Russians threw a 24-year-old man into his prison cell. That man told Vladyslav he was a local priest. He was married and had a little daughter. Russian troops detained him along with members of a local territorial defense unit, thinking he was part of it.
The Russian troops tortured the young priest for several hours a day, for two days straight.
“At first, they beat him very hard. Then he was electrocuted. On the second day, they took off his pants, and for another 20 minutes, they beat him on the genitals,” Buryak says.
“He came to the cell in tears. He was stammering and couldn’t say anything properly. He used the toilet every three to five minutes, and he practically didn’t have a face,” he says. “I put him on the bed, covered him with a blanket, hugged him, and supported him.”
Broken by the torture, the priest decided to commit suicide. Vladyslav says he had tried to talk him out of it, and stopped him when he tried to hang himself in the cell. Eventually, the man slit his wrists.
“He didn’t think he’d get out of there alive. He thought it would be better to die than endure the torture again,” Buryak says.
There, in a small prison cell, a 16-year-old boy tried to comfort a man who had just slit his wrists with a can lid.
A Russian soldier entered the cell shortly and called a doctor who bandaged his hands and took him away. Buryak never saw the man again. He doesn’t know if he survived.
He says that man became one of the reasons he found the strength to survive the horrors of captivity.
“He told me, ‘Get out from this captivity and tell about everything we’ve been through,” Buryak says. “‘Tell my story so that my death is not in vain.'”
During his three months in the Russian captivity, 16-year-old Vladyslav Buryak witnessed Ukrainian prisoners being tortured by Russian troops and was forced to clean the so-called “torture room,” filled with prisoners’ blood. (Save Vlad Buryak/Facebook)
‘Army of good’
The Russian soldiers never tortured Buryak since he was considered a “valuable” prisoner they could use in an exchange. Instead, they made the boy work.
“I worked as a kitchen assistant, cleaned the floor, washed the torture room, and collected trash around the prison,” Buryak says.
Vladyslav was forced to clean the so-called torture room up to five times a week. The room was a slightly bigger prison cell where Russian soldiers interrogated Ukrainians, severely beating them with “iron fittings, rubber batons, and machine guns.”
There, Buryak saw a special tool with wires used for electrocution. He says that Russians often tortured their prisoners by pushing needles underneath their nails, sometimes connecting the needles to the electrocution tool to increase the pain.
He heard Russian soldiers discussing how they would torture their prisoners. Once, he heard them laughing when torturing someone.
“Those people are beasts. (Torturing people) is like fun to them,” Buryak says.
One day when he came to clean the torture room, it wasn’t empty as usual. He saw a man hanging from the ceiling with his hands tied with cables. A small bucket with blood stood next to them. The floor was covered in blood, too.
“It was one of the days when I saw (the torture) myself,” he says.
He often heard Russians saying they had come to “save Ukraine and liberate it from Nazism.” Buryak says they called themselves the “army of good” and claimed they were “doing everything for the Ukrainian nation to live well.”
Almost every day, Vladyslav was allowed to spend 10 minutes outside. Other than that, the boy either worked or was locked alone in his prison cell.
Vladyslav spent a total of 48 days in prison. He says that each day, he hoped he wouldn’t become the soldiers’ next victim.
Oleh says he was doing everything he could to never let that happen.
Soon after Vladyslav was captured, his father went public with it. His strategy was to publicize the case so that Russians would value Vladyslav as a prisoner and save his life.
He knew the horrors that his son was exposed to. At one point during the boy’s three-month captivity, Oleh was shown a transcript of the testimony of a former prisoner of the jail where Vladyslav was kept. That person had survived two weeks of torture that included sexual violence.
Almost immediately after his son was captured, a Russian officer contacted Oleh to begin what would be an arduous process of negotiations to free Vladyslav.
The officer wanted to exchange the boy for a specific person, “an adult citizen of Ukraine,” Oleh says. He can’t disclose any more details, including whether that exchange took place.
After 48 days in prison, the Russians transferred Vladyslav to a hotel in occupied Melitopol, where he spent another 42 days. While the conditions were much better — there was a toilet and a shower in the room — Vladyslav was still a prisoner, and it wasn’t clear whether they would agree to set him free.
Finally, on July 4, a Russian negotiator agreed to release Vladyslav – three months after he was captured.
Oleh was worried that the Russians might change their mind. Even when Vladyslav called him late on July 6, saying the Russians said they would let him go the following day, Oleh told him not to get too excited.
But on July 7, Vladyslav was put into one of the civilian cars evacuating from Melitopol.
When he saw his son getting out of the car in the Ukrainian-controlled area of Zaporizhzhia Oblast, Oleh said he felt that “a piece of his heart returned home.”
There, on the road not far from the Russian-occupied settlements, the two stood for several minutes, hugging and crying. Vladyslav had made it back home.
Although he is safe now, he will never forget the horrors of captivity he endured.
“Death, horror, destruction — this is what (Russia) represents,” said Vladyslav. “Nothing more.”
Seeing his son alive and at home with him feels like a personal “victory” for Oleh.
“Now we need a victory for the country,” Oleh said.
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