Oleksandr Fedorenko’s odyssey began with a victory for his native Ukraine.
It was last October and Ukrainian forces launched an offensive that would eventually liberate the southern city of Kherson. As the Russian occupation forces prepared to withdraw, they took 2,500 Ukrainian criminals from the city’s prisons, including Mr Fedorenko.
What followed over the next few months was a bizarre journey that took some convicts more than 4,000 miles through five prisons and five countries.
“We were met with screams, beatings and humiliations,” said 47-year-old Fedorenko, who was in Kherson for robbery, describing his introduction to a Russian-controlled prison. “Face to the ground, don’t look, don’t talk, and clap, clap, clap.”
The behavior of the Russians confused the convicts from the start, and no one, apparently not including their new jailers, had a good idea what to do with them.
At first, the prisoners were largely left to fend for themselves in their Ukrainian prisons. They were then unexpectedly and without explanation shipped to Russian-controlled territory. But nothing punctuated their haphazard treatment better than what happened when some of them reached the end of their original sentences.
The convicts were pleasantly surprised when Russian guards came to escort them out of prison after their sentences had expired. But a bigger shock awaited at the entrance to the prison: some were immediately detained again by Russian police and charged with violating immigration laws; they were fined and charged with entering the country illegally.
“They asked me, ‘How did you get into Russia?'” said Ruslan Osadchyi, another Kherson prisoner. “‘You brought me here, under the muzzle of automatic rifles!'”
“Like everything in Russia, it was completely absurd,” Mr. Osadchyi added.
No Russian official has publicly acknowledged the transfer of Kherson prisoners to Russia in a possible violation of international law, which prohibits the forcible removal of people from an occupied zone. Russian criminal and national police officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The ordeal of the Kherson prisoners began a week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine last February. Like most Ukrainians, the speed of Russia’s initial advance in the south of the country had taken them by surprise.
On the television sets in their cells, they watched as Russian armored columns crossed the Dnipro River into the city.
Ukrainian officials acknowledged that prisoners — some of whom had been convicted of murder, kidnapping and rape — had been largely forgotten in the chaos of the Ukrainian retreat.
“There was a war going on,” said Ludmila Denisova, Ukraine’s human rights chief at the time, in an interview, describing the response she received from Ukrainian authorities at the time. “Who had time for prisoners?”
In at least one Kherson prison, inmates said retreating Ukrainian officials looted food supplies and left them to fend for themselves under the watch of the few officers who remained at their posts.
“We felt a bitterness in our souls, because Ukraine, our motherland, had left us,” said Andrii Stukalin, one of the prisoners. “We wanted them to at least open our cell doors so we could defend ourselves so we could fight for our lives.”
One day the television suddenly switched to Russian programs. The prisoners immediately understood: a new law had been introduced.
The Russian occupation authorities initially left the Kherson prisoners to fend for themselves, focusing instead on purging Kiev’s supporters from the city and looting. Food was scarce and prisoners sometimes ate only one meal a day.
In the fall, the distant rumble of explosions sounded, announcing the approach of Ukrainian troops to take back Kherson.
As the shelling got closer, the occupation authorities moved the inmates from Kherson’s four prisons to a facility farther from the fighting. The move forced about 2,500 men to take turns sleeping in a space designed for 500.
Weeks later came a bigger shock: a unit of Russian special forces arrived at the prison to transport the prisoners to Russia.
“No one had asked our permission or what we thought about it,” Mr Fedorenko said.
Upon arrival at a transit prison in Crimea, the Kherson prisoners were beaten by masked guards, according to the four ex-detainees interviewed. Mr. Fedorenko said he came away with a bloodied face. Some were knocked unconscious, he said.
Mr. Osadchyi claimed that the guards shouted: “Greet the Russian world!” as they beat him.
All prisoners were stripped of possessions and put in prison robes and rough felt boots. It was a drastic change from the informal rules of Ukrainian prisons, where inmates often manage prison grounds and wear civilian clothes, the former convicts said.
After the stop in Crimea, the Ukrainians were driven further east and scattered in prisons in southern Russia, thousands of miles from their homes. Overall, Ukrainian officials estimate that Russian forces forcibly brought about 3,500 captured Ukrainian civilians to Russia, including 2,500 from Kherson, when they withdrew from occupied territory last year.
At first, Kherson prisoners thought they would be pressured the convict battalions who had formed the Russian mercenary group Wagner. But Wagner recruiters came and went, not accepting even the few Ukrainians who volunteered.
As time passed, Mr. Fedorenko and his companions wondered more and more: Why were they in Russia?
They were not forced to dig Russia’s defenses, nor was there any attempt to exchange them for Russian prisoners of war in Ukraine.
“There was no logic to it,” said Mr Osadchyi, 44, who was serving 12 years for murder. “They could not understand that we are foreign people who have nothing to do with the Russian Federation.”
In Russia, prison officials offered Ukrainian prisoners Russian passports, but few took them. Some rejected them out of patriotism; others feared retaliation from the Kiev government.
“I am living my seventh decade. How can I suddenly accept Russian citizenship if I am Ukrainian?” said Anatoly Korin, who was in Kherson for theft.
The situation of prisoners who have served their original sentences was complicated by the lack of diplomatic relations between Russia and Ukraine, which meant that there was nowhere to be sent legally.
Earlier this month, three Kherson prisoners went on a five-day hunger strike to protest their detention at an immigration detention center in the southern Russian city of Volgograd.
Some Ukrainians held in the immigration prison eventually received help from Unmode, a collective of advocates for the rights of prisoners in former Soviet states. With Unmode’s legal backing, they were able to appeal their immigration decisions after spending weeks or even months in the detention center.
Still, the shocking twists and turns of their journey were not over.
A group of 14 ex-convicts were driven 1,000 miles across Russia in a prison van for deportation to Latvia. Upon arrival at the border, some of them received a piece of paper from the Latvian immigration authorities which read in Ukrainian: “In these difficult times, the Latvian Republic and its people are ready to accept the citizens of Ukraine with open hearts.”
But to their surprise, they were stopped at the border by the Baltic country’s special police forces and escorted back to Russia.
Latvia’s Border Guard and Ministry of Interior did not respond to requests for comment.
Finally, with the help of Unmode, Mr. Fedorenko managed to reach the Georgian border and leave Russia. But the vast majority of Kherson prisoners remain in Russian prisons, waiting for their terms of imprisonment to end, some of which are years away.
The organizer of Unmode in Georgia, Aidana Fedosik, said the predicament of the Kherson prisoners is a microcosm of the Russian occupation regime in Ukraine.
“It’s this 19th century mentality of grabbing a piece of land for personal glory,” she said. ‘But why do you need it? What do you want to do with it?”
From Georgia Mr. Fedorenko and about 15 other Kherson prisoners eventually made their way home, mainly through a journey through Moldova, which borders their homeland. From there they made their way home, though some were detained by Ukrainian intelligence officers, interrogated for 12 hours and put through a lie detector, on suspicion of collaboration.
Back in Ukraine, Mr. Fedorenko said he is now volunteering for Unmode to help compatriots still imprisoned in Russian prisons, and hopes to leave professional theft behind. After years of imprisonment, he said he is not ready to volunteer for the army, but would fight if mobilized.
“Everyone hates this Russian Federation, because we all know we are nobody there,” he said by phone from his hometown in central Ukraine. “Because no laws are respected there, especially if you’re a prisoner.”
Natalia Yermak contributed reporting from Kiev, Ukraine, and Alina Lobzina from London.