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Hungary-Russia POW deal: 'I was told to say I was Hungarian'

Hanna Sokolova-Stekh in Uzhhorod | Keno Verseck in Uzhhorod
March 28, 2024

In June 2023, Russia transferred 11 allegedly ethnic Hungarian Ukrainian POWs to Hungary without Kyiv's knowledge. Two of them have now revealed details of their release in an exclusive interview with DW.

A Ukrainian prisoner of war holds a Ukrainian flag up to his face as he cries while calling his relatives after a prisoner exchange on the Ukrainian-Russian border, January 31, 2024
A Ukrainian prisoner of war calls his family after his release from captivity; this photo was taken during a prisoner exchange on the Ukrainian-Russian border on January 31, 2024Image: Danylo Pavlov/AP Photo/picture alliance

The two men speak in short sentences, often looking down and falling silent when talking of their time in Russian captivity and the strange circumstances of their release.

"When I got back, I was given sedatives," says one. "I only recently started sleeping normally again," says the other.

The two men speak to DW in a small, simply furnished office in the western Ukrainian city of Uzhhorod on the Slovak border.

Andriy and Ivan are two of the 11 allegedly ethnic Hungarian Ukrainian soldiers transferred from Russia to Hungary in June 2023. This is the first time any of the group has spoken out about their experience. Andriy and Ivan are not their real names, but their identities are known to DW.

A diplomatic row between Budapest and Kyiv

Unusually for a prisoner transfer, this case attracted considerable international attention at the time.

Four people sit at a white table in a room, two men with blurred faces sit with their backs to the camera opposite DW journalists Hanna Sokolova-Stekh (left) and Keno Verseck (right), who are both facing the camera, Uzhhorod, Ukraine
Former POWs Andriy und Ivan (not their real names) told their story to DW journalists Hanna Sokolova-Stekh (left) and Keno Verseck (right) in Uzhhorod, UkraineImage: Hanna Sokolova-Stekh/DW

It caused a diplomatic row between Kyiv and Budapest because although international law stipulates that the home country must be informed when prisoners of war (POWs) are transferred to a third country, Ukraine says it was never informed — something a member of Viktor Orban's Hungarian government initially admitted.

Another bone of contention was that at the time, Hungary framed the POW transfer as a humanitarian move and assistance for the Hungarian minority in the western Ukrainian region of Transcarpathia, which is home to approximately 100,000 ethnic Hungarians.

POWs contradict Hungary's official line

According to Andriy and Ivan, however, only one of the 11 men transferred to Hungary was an ethnic Hungarian. What's more, they say that they were told by the Russian Secret Service to say that they were Hungarian to ensure their release.

The two men also say that once in Hungary, they were told that if they returned to Ukraine before the end of the war, other, similar POW transfers would not be possible. The Hungarian side said at the time that the 11 men were free to go wherever they pleased.

Captured in eastern Ukraine

Both Andriy and Ivan come from Transcarpathia, though they had never met before their capture.

Before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Andriy worked as a professional truck driver. Ivan is married and has two small children. Before the Russian invasion, he worked in the EU. Neither has Hungarian roots; both consider themselves to be Ukrainian.

Memorial with the images of soldiers who were killed in action, Berehove, Ukraine, March 2024
A memorial in the western Ukrainian city of Berehove (Hungarian: Beregszasz) for Ukrainian soldiers who were killed in Russia's war in UkraineImage: Hanna Sokolova-Stekh/DW

Andriy and Ivan volunteered for military service in the spring of 2022. Both say that they wanted to defend their homeland.

Just a few months later, in June 2022, they were captured during a battle in Luhansk Oblast in eastern Ukraine. When asked about the details, their faces harden. "We thought they were going to shoot us," is all they are willing to say.

Interned in a Russian prison camp

The men were brought to a prison camp in Sukhodilsk in Luhansk Oblast in a part of eastern Ukraine that has been under Russian occupation since 2014. Before Russian occupation began, the camp was Ukraine's Prison No. 36. Former inmates have told Ukrainian human rights activists that prisoners in the Russian camp are systematically humiliated, abused and tortured.

Andriy and Ivan don't want to say much about their time there. "We were beaten from time to time," says Andriy. Every morning, they were forced to sing the Russian national anthem. Anyone who didn't join in, was beaten, they say.

A group of soldiers walks along a muddy road accompanied by two other soldiers, at an unknown location in Ukraine, 2023
Ukrainian soldiers during a prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia in 2023Image: Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War/Handout/REUTERS

The two men estimate that there were about 500 prisoners in the camp. The food was barely edible, they say, mostly a kind of porridge or soup made using rotten vegetables: "Just enough to stay alive." Andriy, a tall, stocky man, says he lost 30 kg (66 lb) there. Ivan, who is of a much slimmer build, lost 10 kg.

'I was told to say I was Hungarian'

Last June, almost exactly a year after they were captured, Andriy, Ivan and a group of other prisoners, were blindfolded, tied up and loaded into a truck. "I thought they were bringing us to a different camp or were going to shoot us," says Andriy.

After a day and a half on the road, they ended up in Moscow, where a member of the Russian Secret Service told them they would be released to Hungary — on one condition: "I was told to say I was Hungarian," says Andriy. "If I didn't, I'd be sent back." He shrugs his shoulders. "So, I did."

On June 8, they were flown from Moscow to Istanbul, and from there to Budapest, where they were put up in a hotel-like building somewhere on the outskirts of the city. Both say they were treated well. They were given telephones so they could call their families and were allowed to leave the building. However, they were told — neither man can say by whom exactly — that they should not return to Ukraine before the end of the war.

Hungarian lawmakers at their desks in parliament; in the front are Hungary's Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen (front left) and Prime Minister Victor Orban (front right), June 20, 2018
The Hungarian government has not responded to DW's request for details of the former POWs' time in Hungary after their release and the circumstances surrounding their transfer from RussiaImage: Szilard Koszticsak/MTI/AP/picture alliance

Hungary's Deputy PM Zsolt Semjen says the former prisoners were looked after by staff at the Hungarian Charity Service of the Catholic Order of Malta.

DW sent the Hungarian government a detailed request for information about this and the circumstances surrounding the POW transfer. No response was received by the time of publication.

Where are the other former POWs?

Vlasta Repasi, the government commissioner for missing persons in the Transcarpathian region at the time, found out about the POWs in Hungary from the men's families.

Together with the Ukrainian Embassy in Budapest, she organized the return of some of the POWs. By the end of June 2023, five — including the only one in the group with Hungarian roots — returned to Ukraine. The remaining six later left Hungary for other EU countries.

Repasi says that of those who returned to Ukraine, one is undergoing psychiatric treatment, another died following a lung disease and another has returned to the front.

The Kremlin's 'dirty hybrid special operation'

Once the transfer was complete, the Hungarian authorities remained silent. The government made no attempt to milk the story for propaganda purposes. Ukrainian political scientist Dmytro Tushanskyy, head of the Institute for Central European Strategy (ICES) in Uzhhorod, believes he knows why.

Tushanskyy told DW that the whole thing was a "dirty hybrid special operation by the Kremlin" to undermine the West's united front of support for Ukraine.

A woman with long red hair (Vlasta Repasi) sits at a desk with a Ukrainian flag
Vlasta Repasi, former Ukrainian government commissioner for missing persons in Transcarpathia, says she found out about the POWs' transfer to Hungary from their families, March 2024Image: Hanna Sokolova-Stekh/DW

He says that the operation shows that Hungary is not acting like the EU and NATO ally it is on paper, but instead poses "a direct threat to the security and unity" of both blocs.

'We love our country'

Andriy and Ivan now live in very modest circumstances. On their return, they spent several months in a rehabilitation program. Officially, they are still soldiers, but because there is at present no law on demobilization in Ukraine, their status is unclear.

Ivan would like to look after his wife, who is seriously ill, and his children and work in the civilian sector. Andriy has not yet made up his mind; he's waiting for clarification of his status.

Neither of them complains, and while the atmosphere does become oppressive when they answer questions with silence, they don't seem like broken men. On the contrary, they radiate dignity.

What do they think of their own story, looking back? "It's an experience," says Ivan, smiling. Andriy nods.

"We came back because we didn't want to feel like traitors," they say. "This is our country, and we love it. And we wouldn't do anything differently."

This article was originally written in German.