An investigation by Associated Press has uncovered how Ukrainian civilians are being forced to dig trenches for Russian soldiers. At gunpoint, they are herded into livestock trailers and transported to the front lines, forced to toil for over 12 hours digging. Many wear ill-fitting Russian military uniforms, making them vulnerable targets in the midst of conflict.
These civilians, often accused of minor offenses like speaking Ukrainian or resisting Russian occupation, face routine verbal and physical abuse and are subjected to brutal conditions.
A growing network of detention and forced labor
In direct violation of the Geneva Convention, thousands of Ukrainian civilians are being detained across Russia and the occupied territories, staying in places that range from brand-new prisons to clammy basements. Families struggle to locate their loved ones, as detainees are moved frequently to prevent tracing. Among the prisoners, there are teachers, doctors, business owners, students, and utility workers.
Held without charge or status under Russian law, they are being used as bargaining chips for prisoner exchanges and free labor in the ongoing conflict, being forced under threat of torture or worse to build fortifications for soldiers along the front lines.
Russia denies holding civilians at all, but mounting evidence, including satellite imagery, survivor testimonies, social media, and government documents, exposes the widespread detention network.
Lori Hinnant, Hanna Arhirova and Vasilisa Stepanenko report for the Associated Press,
The AP confirmed through satellite imagery the new trenches dug in the area where [Olena] Yahupova and a man on the Ukrainian crew with her said they were held. He requested anonymity because his relatives still live under occupation.
“Sometimes we even worked there 24 hours a day, when they had an inspection coming,” he said.
The man also spoke with other Ukrainian civilians digging mass graves nearby for at least 15 people. He said one civilian had been shot for refusing to dig. Satellite imagery shows a mound of freshly-dug earth in the spot the man described.
The man escaped during a Russian troop rotation, and Yahupova also made her way out. But both said hundreds of others are still in the occupied front lines, forced to work for Russia or die.
Routine torture and abuse
Within the detention centers, routine abuse and torture have become a grim reality for Ukrainian civilians. Shocking reports of electrical torture, beatings resulting in fractured ribs and cracked skulls, and simulated suffocation paint a horrifying picture of their daily existence. United Nations reports have documented instances of summary executions of civilian captives and deaths due to torture.
The U.N. reports a total of 37 detention facilities in Russia and Belarus and 125 in occupied Ukraine. However, Russia plans to create 25 new prison colonies and six more detention centers in occupied Ukraine by 2026, as revealed in a leaked government document obtained by the Associated Press.
Olena Yahupova considers it her duty to stand up and speak out about what is happening to her people.
“It’s a business of human trafficking. If we don’t talk about it and keep silent, then tomorrow anyone can be there — my neighbor, acquaintance, child.”
Freedom United stands in solidarity with her and all the survivors and families affected by these atrocities.