In May, Russian forces took seven Sri Lankans into custody, including Dilujan. The group had just started a long walk from their homes in Kupiansk, which is in northeastern Ukraine, to the safer city of Kharkiv, which is about 75 miles away and 120 km away.
But when they got to the first checkpoint, they were caught by Russian soldiers. The Sri Lankans were blindfolded and had their hands tied. They were then taken to a machine tool factory in the town of Vovchansk, which is close to the border with Russia.
It was the beginning of a four-month nightmare in which they were kept in jail, forced to work, and even tortured.
The group had come to Ukraine to look for work or to go to school. Now that they were in jail, they had very little to eat and could only go to the bathroom for two minutes once a day. Even when they were allowed to take a shower, they were only given two minutes.
All of the men, who were mostly in their 20s, were kept in the same room. Mary Edit Uthajkumar, a 50-year-old woman, was the only woman in the group. She was kept apart.
She said, “They put us in a room.” “When we went to take a shower, they would beat us. Even worse, they wouldn’t let me meet the other people. We had no place to go for three months.”
Mary’s face was scarred by a car bomb in Sri Lanka, and she has a heart condition for which she didn’t get any medicine.
But it was the effect of being alone that really hurt him.
“I was so tense when I was by myself,” she says. “They said I had problems with my mental health and gave me pills. But I didn’t take them.”
Others have even more obvious signs of what they went through. One man took off his shoes to show that his toenails had been pulled off with pliers. It is said that this torture was also done to a second man.
The group also said that Russian soldiers would get drunk and then attack them for no apparent reason.
Thinesh Gogenthiran, who is 35 years old, said, “They shot me many times all over my body.” “I got punched in the stomach by one of them, and it hurt for two days. Then he asked for money from me.”
Dilukshan Robertclive, who is 25 years old, said, “We were so angry and sad that we cried every day.”
“Prayer and family memories were the only things that kept us going.”
Russia has said that it doesn’t target civilians or commit war crimes, but Sri Lanka and many other countries have said that Russian occupying forces have done terrible things.
Ukraine has been digging up graves in a forest near Izyum. Some of the bodies show signs of having been tortured. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said, “More than 10 torture chambers have already been found in liberated areas of the Kharkiv region, in different cities and towns.”
When the Ukrainian military started taking back parts of eastern Ukraine earlier this month, including Vovchansk, the seven Sri Lankans were finally able to go home.
The group was able to start walking again toward Kharkiv. They were alone and didn’t have phones, so they couldn’t get in touch with their families.
But their luck finally changed when someone saw them on the road and called the police. One of the officers gave them his or her phone.
Ainkaranathan Ganesamoorthi, age 40, started crying as soon as he saw his wife and daughter on the screen. The phone rang again, and more tears fell. In the end, everyone gathered around the shocked police chief and gave him a big hug.
The group has been taken to Kharkiv, where they are getting medical care and new clothes and sleeping in a rehabilitation centre with a pool and a gym.
“Right now, I’m very, very happy,” Dilukshan says with a big grin.