Prisoners of war put to work in east Ukraine

Prisoners of war put to work in east Ukraine
A Ukrainian prisoner from the "Donbass" bataillon, smokes a cigarette as he repairs the roof of a library, next to a Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) rebel guard in the eastern Ukrainian city of Ilovaisk, controlled by pro-russian rebels, on December 4, 2014. Ukraine and the pro-Russian rebels said on December 4 they had agree to halt fire across the eastern war zone on December 9 under the terms of a Kremlin-brokered truce.

ILOVAISK, Ukraine - On the snowy roof of a music school in eastern Ukraine, workers are busy fixing damage from artillery shelling. When their shift ends, they line up in single file to return to their cells.

The workers are Ukrainian prisoners of war, captured by pro-Russian rebels and pressed into forced labour in the small eastern town of Ilovaisk.

The majority were taken during the terrible battle for this town in August. Officially, the government lost more than 100 soldiers in its failed attempt to retake it from the separatists, though many believe the toll was far higher.

Today, under orders from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR), the prisoners fix windows and repaint walls in a bid to patch up some of the ravages of war.

"It's their fault. So it's up to them to put things back as they were and think about what they've done," says one rebel fighter, Piotr Kuprin, overseeing the work.

He is bitter that their families, in the peaceful west of the country, have not had to endure the daily bombardments of this eight-month war, which has claimed more than 4,300 lives and displaced nearly a million people according to the UN.

"Their children don't know about war and shelling," he says.

In the attic of the music school, the prisoners work alongside local builders, laying planks to fix the shattered roof. All are wrapped in big coats in a bid to fight off temperatures that have dropped to minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit).

"We don't treat them badly. They work like these other guys, like the civilians and volunteers. There are no special rules for them," said Ivan Vinik, 61, who is in charge of the town's reconstruction.

A few floors down, the tinkling of piano keys can be heard. One of the prisoners, in jeans and a black hoodie, is retuning the instrument.

It was his hobby, he says, before the war broke out.

"We want to go home. We really hope they let us go," says one prisoner in his twenties.

"We have gotten used to living like this, but psychologically it's hard." He says they are fed and have hot water to wash. On a few rare occasions, they have been allowed to contact their loved ones.

'We need hands'

At least 65 prisoners are being held in Ilovaisk, according to a local DNR official and witnesses.

They work six hours a day, Monday to Friday. The priority is schools, nurseries and hospitals.

"In the beginning, we were paying close attention to them. But now we see that they work well," says Lioubov Strokhina, 58, head of a nursery where seven prisoners are working.

Children are playing just a few feet away from the prisoners, overseen by a few armed rebels.

"There is no aggression towards them," she says, adding that they were just given lunch.

She appears untroubled by the fact that they are prisoners of war put to forced labour.

"The nursery was badly damaged. We need hands, and we don't care which hands, to do the work. So from that point of view, we are happy they are here. We were able to fix the roof before the cold arrived.

"At least these guys are not fighting. It seems like the best solution for them. At least they are still alive."

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