ILOVAISK, Ukraine -- Ruslan Tinkalyuk cut a forlorn figure as he took a long, slow drag on a Chesterfield cigarette. Dirty and unkempt, he was curled up by a small barrel fire amid the rubble of an apartment destroyed by a rocket in this war-torn eastern Ukrainian town.
Ruslan Tinkalyuk, 28, a fighter from Ukraine's Donbass Battalion, holds his head in his hands during a break from his work repairing an apartment hit by a rocket in August as Kiev government forces battled pro-Russian rebels in the town of Ilovaisk. (All images: Evgeny Feldman)
He should have been with his family in Ivano-Frankivsk, a charming provincial city nestled at the edge of the Carpathian Mountains, watching autumn turn the sprawling forests their vibrant seasonal hues.
Instead he was here -- a prisoner of war, being closely watched by gun-toting, pro-Russian rebels.
Ruslan Tinkalyuk stares out at the eastern Ukrainian steppe. Since he and about 70 Donbass Battalion fighters were captured by pro-Russian rebels in August, he has been forced to do difficult manual labor, mainly repairing buildings in Ilovaisk that were damaged during fighting over the summer.
Tinkalyuk, a volunteer fighter loyal to Kiev, considers himself "one of the lucky ones," having escaped from an ambush in which hundreds of his comrades were killed, some by Russian army units.
On Aug. 14, volunteer Ukrainian troops had entered Ilovaisk, a key strategic town. Their goal was to split the separatists' territory in half by isolating Donetsk -- the unofficial separatist capital -- from neighboring Luhansk to effectively cut off an all-important supply line. But the tide of the battle changed and the volunteer troops were forced to take shelter inside a local school.
Hunkering down, the volunteers waited for days for the reinforcements promised by Kiev. But the cavalry never came. Instead, a "green corridor" was negotiated through which the Ukrainian troops could retreat.
The safe passage turned out to be a trap, however: They were ambushed by Russian forces who bombarded them with artillery and rocket fire.
During the attack, the rebels took many Ukrainian troops captive and, despite several prisoner exchanges since, hundreds of soldiers are still missing.
In Ilovaisk, the POWs are held in dark, dank basements inside rebel headquarters. The men aren't allowed to communicate with the outside world. They are forced to sleep on grimy cots and soiled mattresses thrown onto floors that crawl with insects drawn to the squalor in which the men live. And they are woken up every day at dawn so they can work for the rebels until sundown.
Andrei, a brawny rebel commander who observed POWs repairing a rooftop destroyed by ordnance, was eager to tell of the prisoners comfort, noting that they have access to showers and bathrooms and are given a television on which they can watch "romances and comedies, but nothing patriotic that would excite them," he said.
Holding a matchstick between his lips, Andrei kept flicking the safety on his rifle up and down with his right thumb and index finger. He then offered a cigarette to one of his prisoners.
"We're not monsters," he said.
A pro-Russian rebel commander stands guard near Ukrainian prisoners of war who are forced to repair the rooftop of a garage damaged by shelling in August in the eastern Ukrainian town of Ilovaisk. (Image: Evgeny Feldman)
Still, conditions here are grim.
Each prisoner has just one set of clothes -- no changes of underwear or socks. And while coats were recently handed out to the prisoners for the bitter cold, many lacked insulation and were ripped at the seams.
Alexei, the prisoner who had taken the cigarette offered by Andrei, said that POWs are fed three meals a day, but that they consist mostly of bread, cold oats and runny soup. On good days, they get cheese and sausage.
"It's not enough really," he said. "But it's better than nothing."
It was his only criticism in an otherwise positive review of his rebel captors. Having by held by them, his perspective on the separatists, he said, had "changed 100 percent."
"I think we understand each other," he said, looking at Andrei. It was unclear how heartfelt the sentiment was, given the presence of Andrei's rifle. Another prisoner later suggested that Alexei might be suffering from Stockholm syndrome - sympathizing with his captor.
"He's not the same anymore," said the prisoner, who asked that he not be named for fear of being shot by a firing squad for speaking critically of his captors.
Two pro-Russian rebels look on as two of their prisoners - fighters Ukraine's Donbass Battalion - walk toward a work site inside a local school in the town of Ilovaisk.
With real peace in Ukraine still seemingly far away, the men have prepared themselves for what could be an extended stay in limbo. Kiev and the rebels once did prisoner exchanges but the swaps have recently slowed because Kiev has traded most of the rebels it once held. In more than one case, in fact, the Ukrainian government have been found releasing common criminals rather than bona fide fighters.
"It's simple," Oksana Bylozir, a Ukrainian official told Mashable last month: The separatists have "a lot more prisoners than we do."
To stay sane, Maxim, a thin, pale-faced prisoner, said he tries to think only about the present. But he admitted that he still holds on to the hope that he'll be set free soon.
"We simply survive," he said, choking up. "We eat, sleep and work. And we hope that someday we will be released. What else can we do?"
A fighter of the pro-Kiev Donbass Battalion who was taken prisoner by Russian-backed rebels in August is forced to repair a garage roof last week in Ilovaisk as armed guards stand nearby.
In the beginning, life in captivity had been particularly hard.
"The thought did cross my mind of killing myself," he said, adding that he now feels better, even though he is bitter that he has been made a prisoner in "my own country, by my own people."
Like the other POWs, Tinkalyuk hasn't been allowed to communicate with his family and so hasn't spoken to a loved one since August.
He spoke to Mashable in the hope it might help his family know his fate. "They don't know that we're still alive," Tinkalyuk said.
Later, as Tinkalyuk worked with four other prisoners to repair a damaged apartment and the guard was called away momentarily, he was quick to pass on the contact information of a relative.
"If you can, let them know I'm alive and healthy," he told me.
The relative, his sister-in-law who lives with his brother in western Ukraine, wept when shown a photograph of Tinkalyuk last week.
"We last saw him on May 31," she said. "When he finally returns home safely, we will hold him tight and never let him go."
Christopher Miller, Mashable.