In a lengthy interview with CNN, the two pilots said they were abused and threatened in Russian custody for more than a month before being part of a prisoner swap.
The Russian Defense Ministry has not responded to CNN’s requests for comment.
On March 8, an assignment took them north, near the city of Chernihiv. All four of the squadron’s helicopters completed the mission. But when they returned to their base near Kyiv, Chyzh noticed new enemy positions below them.
It was too late. Three of the helicopters were hit by enemy fire and crashed; Chyzh and Pepeliashko were the only survivors.
“I remember being cold and in pain,” Chyzh told CNN, speaking at the hospital in the capital, where both men are recovering from their injuries.
“I saw the wreckage of the helicopter and smelled burning fuel,” Pepeliashko said. “My leg was twisted to the other side.”
Both pilots had broken legs and Pepeliashko suffered spinal fractures from the impact of the crash.
He tried to crawl forward but kept falling unconscious. Then he saw several Russian soldiers appear.
“I begged them to shoot me. I was sure they came to kill us.”
First Ukrainian helicopter pilot in captivity
That day, according to the Ukrainian military, Chyzh and Pepeliashko became the first Ukrainian helicopter pilots captured by the Russians. Their accounts of captivity are staggering and the alleged ill-treatment would have violated international conventions governing the treatment of prisoners of war.
The two pilots said they were loaded onto an armored personnel carrier and taken to a field hospital, then to a hospital in the Russian city of Rylsk just across the border.
In the first days of their captivity, Chyzh said he was forced to read a statement on camera that he was fine, being treated and opposed to the war. The statement was subsequently uploaded to YouTube.
“I was warned that if I didn’t read the statement (and that) they would not treat me (and that) my legs would start to fester and would be amputated.”
Chyzh says he was also told that if he didn’t comply, his co-pilot would not receive medical treatment and would likely be dead by morning.
For nearly two weeks, both pilots were immobilized and bedridden by their injuries.
They said they were interrogated every day about Ukrainian military positions, how many Russians they killed, where biological laboratories were located and where “Nazis” were hiding.
Under the Geneva Conventions, interrogation is legal but “subject to the prohibition of torture and coercion… and the requirement of humane treatment.”
Chyzh once said he was pressured into taking Russian citizenship.
“You asked me: Why do you want to go back to Ukraine? Look how big and powerful Russia is. There’s a lot of opportunity here,” Chyzh told CNN, while noting the irony of hearing this in a hospital room where a dirty sheet of paper lay covering a broken window.
But Pepeliashko says he was also moved by the sympathy of some medical workers who provided her with new clothes.
“Even among bad people, there is always someone who has a slightly kinder heart,” he said.
prison and propaganda
After the operation they were taken to a POW camp; they don’t know where.
“We were taken to a tent for wounded prisoners. We were only given a small cup of water each day. The worst thing for me was that I couldn’t even wash my hands. It wasn’t until the eighth day that I was given a pack of wet wipes to clean myself up,” says Chyzh.
The pilots recalled hearing cries of pain from other tents. The tents were freezing, they said, and they kept a fire going by burning books.
After three weeks they were transferred again – to a prison in the Russian city of Kursk. Here there was no separation of wounded and healthy prisoners. All were beaten, claims Chyzh.
“They said, ‘How many of ours did you shoot down, you bastards?’ There were about 30 people in the room, and I had to stand there without crutches and undress and dress myself,” Chyzh said.
Pepeliashko recalls lying on the ground trying to make eye contact with a middle-aged woman who was among the guards.
“I was hoping that looking into my eyes would awaken her maternal instinct and tell everyone to stop the beating. But that didn’t happen. There was an emptiness in her eyes. They wanted to prove to us that we are nothing. They wanted us to stop respecting ourselves.”
Pepeliashko says it was his deepest moment of despair. “I thought: God, don’t you hear me at all?”
They even ripped off the cross he wore around his neck, he said. “‘Why do you need a cross? There is no God here,’ they said.”
Their time in prison was marked by a constant barrage of Russian propaganda and efforts to brainwash prisoners, both pilots said. Throughout the day, a radio in her cell broadcast propaganda and lectures about Stepan Bandera—a Ukrainian nationalist who collaborated with Nazi Germany and was murdered by the KGB after World War II, and whose followers fought against both the Nazis and the Soviets.
Female Ukrainian prisoners in a neighboring cell were forced to sing the Russian anthem and old Soviet songs, the two pilots said.
CNN has asked the Russian Defense Ministry for comment on the allegations made by the two pilots, but has received no response.
A prisoner exchange
Chyzh and Pepeliashko say they survived the ordeal by imagining they were somewhere else, maintaining a sense of humor and daydreaming about what they would do in the future while clinging to the hope that they would eventually be replaced.
“We exchanged recipes in great detail, lecturing each other on many different subjects. I remember Oleksii talking about visiting Paris. I closed my eyes and imagined being there. Then I promised myself that if I survived captivity, I would definitely go there in Paris. It distracted from the pain,” said Pepeliashko.
In mid-April, the two were informed that they would be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war. They didn’t believe it until they finally arrived in Kyiv on April 14th.
While in captivity, they were told that Kyiv had been “liberated” from Russia. Little did they know that the battle for Kyiv never really took place – and that the Russians had eventually left the region to refocus their efforts on eastern Ukraine.
The rehabilitation will be a long road for both of them. Chyzh still has trouble walking with crutches. He told CNN that the hospital is now his home. “That’s all I have. I have nothing else.”
They are obviously happy to be alive and to see their families again, but the war still weighs heavily on them. They worry that their comrades are still flying dangerous missions.
It’s not yet time for the trip to Paris – both pilots say they want to return to combat.
“We didn’t go through this hell to give up,” said Pepeliashko. “Our whole life is the way to heaven. And we will do everything we can to return to the helicopter cockpit.”