WHEN RUSSIAN SOLDIERS opened fire on our car, I thought we were dead. It was March 4, eight days into the invasion of Ukraine. My wife and I had hurriedly packed all our valuables that could fit in one suitcase and a couple of carry-ons. We hired a driver, thinking we could make it to the train station in Irpin — a small village outside of Kyiv. Nearly as soon as we pulled away from the relative safety of the rural farmhouse we had fled to after the missiles had started falling, we ran into a group of Russian armored vehicles.
“Weaponry!” screamed my wife, Iryna, who was in the front seat and spotted the Russians first. “Go back, go back!” she told the driver as he frantically tried to reverse.
It was too late. Without any warning, Russian infantrymen began spraying our Toyota Camry with automatic-weapons fire and started to chase after our vehicle. As I ducked behind the driver’s seat, I could hear the glass shattering into a million pieces as the bullets struck the windows.
The next few moments are a blur. Somehow we were able to jump out of the moving car, hop over a fence, and take cover behind a bright-blue port-a-potty. Our Camry careened down an incline and smashed into a fence around a small apartment house. It was a complete wreck — and full of more bullet holes than I could count.
“Come out from behind there — you there, hiding behind that toilet,” yelled one Russian soldier. We stepped out from our impractical shelter (plastic toilets usually not being effective shields against bullets), hands raised and explaining we were unarmed civilians on our way to a train station. The Russian soldiers approached and pointed rifles in our faces.
It was just the start of a terrifying ordeal: imprisonment and interrogation by one of the most murderous militaries that the modern world has ever seen. And for our teenage son, thousands of miles away, the beginning of an impossible rescue mission.
THE STORY OF our capture started with a miscalculation. “There will not be a war.” I heard that phrase over and over in Kyiv from many supposedly intelligent or informed people. My wife, Iryna Samsonenko, and I had been living in Ukraine for 21 years. I worked as a military-affairs and Russian political analyst, and as a consultant to the aerospace industry. Putin threatening Ukraine was a movie we had seen many times, and I assumed the saber rattling was just that and nothing more. I was never more wrong.
Iryna and I had taken a flight to Stockholm on Feb. 14 for some business meetings. My son, Antonio Brasileiro, was on break from his boarding school in Cambridge, England, and joined us in Sweden. Normally, Antonio would fly home to Kyiv to be with us over the holidays. He was born in the city, had attended school there until 2018, and many of his best friends were still living in Ukraine. However, this time, with the threat of the Russian invasion having put the entire country on edge, we decided to meet Antonio outside of Ukraine. “I wonder if I am ever coming back here to our home again,” he told us before he flew back to school in early January. “If there’s a Russian invasion, this could be the last time I ever see it.”
After Antonio flew back to London, we decided against the safe choice of remaining in Sweden and instead flew home to Kyiv. It seems an incomprehensible decision now, but it was too difficult for us to sit in some faraway European city and wait for Russia to invade or not.
Iryna’s brother, his family, and her mother were still in Ukraine. We had many friends in Kyiv and all over the country — people we did not want to leave behind. The place where you raised a son, where you remember every birthday, every holiday, has a strong pull. Too strong in our case.
Three days later, when the missile strikes began at around four in the morning and the air-raid sirens sounded, we sought shelter in the underground garage across the main street that we lived on in Kyiv. The building housed one of the most modern, luxury-shopping centers in the city and an upscale, 24-hour supermarket with two cafes and a wine bar in the basement. We waited out the day’s bombardment and watched as news reports of attacks by the Russian army in Ukrainian cities continued hour after hour.
When we finally returned home later that day, it was only a few hours into the evening before the missile strikes began anew. We did not know what to do. Getting in our car and driving to the west of the country was impossible. The roads were clogged with traffic for miles, and there was not a drop of petrol to be had anywhere from Kyiv to the border with Poland. Anyone left in the city was now trapped there.
Adding to the sense of helplessness was the odor of exploded ordnance permeating the air. This was not just a campaign against Ukraine’s armed forces; this was, and still is to this day, a war to terrorize the civilian population and to obliterate their way of life first and achieve tangible military objectives second.
After spending two nights in air-raid shelters in the center of Kyiv, we decided to evacuate. We had some close friends about an hour outside the city, and we asked them if we could come stay in their guesthouse until the bombardment subsided. They kindly agreed, but there had been no news about what was happening in their area. This turned out to be another disastrous mistake.
Within two days of arriving, the fighting in and around nearby Gostomel Airport had shut down all utilities. The artillery and mortar duels between Ukrainian and Russian forces destroyed the water and power lines. Reaching their house was not so difficult, but now going back to Kyiv was impossible — every bridge between where we were and the city had been blown up behind us to stall the Russian advance. In our attempt to reach safety, we had become trapped. There was no exit from this place as the entire area was now ringed with Russian troops and armor.
The battle raged for days all around us, with explosions sometimes so frequent that it was not clear if they would ever stop. Months after our ordeal, the slightest sound makes me flinch or look for cover. The immediate impulse now is to feel like we are always under attack.
For Antonio’s part, he was monitoring the war 24/7. He spent long nights speaking with people in Ukraine, in some cases even helping them to find air-raid shelters and ways to get out of one battle zone or another, but he had only limited contact with us.
No electricity except for about three hours a day from a petrol generator meant smartphones were almost impossible to recharge. Even when the phones had power, I had to climb to the top of the stairs of the guesthouse where we were staying to get a working signal, which was not the safest place to be with explosions taking place all around at all hours. In the city, air-raid sirens would warn everyone to head for an underground shelter. In the countryside, the only warning was the high-pitched whistling of an incoming mortar or artillery round.
Wednesday, March 2, was the last time we were able to talk to Antonio. The next day, I had expended most of the battery remaining on my MacBook Pro to compose an article on how the war was developing badly for the Russians. At one point I had to stop working and all of us — Iryna and I, our friends and their children, their housekeeper and nanny — had to take shelter in their root cellar while several Russian armored vehicles were stopped on the road outside the house. The Russians appeared to be lost in the maze of country roads.
They eventually moved on, but this incident, plus the fact that we were using flashlights in order to make trips to the toilet, were unable to bathe regularly, and had no place anywhere nearby to purchase food was making remaining in this place untenable. We thought we might return to our home in the center of Kyiv. The city had not fallen, as had been predicted. If we were home, we would at least be able to shower, the supermarkets were still working, and if we had to sleep in an air-raid shelter, it would be a small price to pay for creature comforts.
So we decided to make a break back to Kyiv — and fell into the hands of the Russian army.
WE WATCHED IN horror as the Russians looted our car. Still in shock over its demolished state, we were treated to the spectacle of our belongings being violently ransacked and everything of value being smashed or stolen. Iryna had a hard drive full of nothing but family pictures, photos, videos of our son playing piano. It was among the many items stolen and later sold somewhere by these war criminals and thieves in uniform. A lifetime of memories gone in an instant.
I noticed blood running down Iryna’s face. Although by some miracle none of us had been struck by a single bullet, flying fragments of glass had lacerated her left cheek, and there were even small grains of glass in her eye. Fortunately, a Russian combat medic was on the scene and managed to treat her before the condition could become worse. She still suffers from what she says feels like pieces of glass embedded in her cheek.
All of our computers and other hard drives were taken. All of the work, every article I had ever written, every document I had ever saved, every photograph I had ever taken were all gone. These were the same Russian soldiers who would later become known throughout the world for leaving chambers of horrors where they had tortured dozens of civilians before executing them, countless numbers of rape victims, half-burned bodies of violated women and children, and shocking numbers of mass graves in their wake.
But the big bonanza for these war criminals was yet to come. As they tore into my computer bag, they found the portfolio where I was keeping the money we had saved for my son’s education. “Foreign currency!” exclaimed the worst and most criminal of the group as he slammed down the bundles of cash on the bullet-ridden Toyota with glee.
This to them was the best payday they were ever going to see. The sums of money that they took from us when combined with the value of our car, our computers, and equipment, all of our iPhones, jewelry, cameras, clothing, and personal items are well in excess of $150,000.
Although their immediate attention was focused on anything that they could steal, these soldiers then began rifling through a pile of research materials I was using for some writing I was doing on the history of missile systems. The entire spectacle would have been humorous had we not felt terrified that they were just going to kill us at any moment.
Despite the fact these were articles from open-source publications, press releases, government publications with the word “unclassified” in bold type across the top and bottom of every page, these dimwits were convinced they had stumbled across some top-level intelligence operative. The same soldier so overjoyed at the prospect of stealing all our money put a grenade in the pocket of my coat and threatened to pull the pin if I did not tell him which secret agency I must be working for.
Once they had finished stealing everything that we owned, we were sent into a dark basement of a nearby building where numerous civilians were being held. One of them kept repeating his mobile number in the hope that I would remember it and report it to someone. Why these people had been detained was unclear, but I would be shocked if any of them are still alive today. Groups of people who were held in this area ended up in mass graves.
In the next step, we were packed into an armored vehicle and then had two Ukrainian civilians with their hands tied behind their backs thrown in on top of our legs. We traveled this way over some distance for what seemed like an hour and a half. While in transit one of the Russian soldiers stole a gold ring that I had owned for 25 years. Its sentimental value was incalculable, and I had planned to give it to Antonio once he had graduated from university.
At some point we stopped in the middle of a forest. The two Ukrainians thrown in on top of us were tossed out onto the freezing cold mud. I never saw what happened to them, but given the brutality we witnessed, I fear the worst.
We were told to stand, not sit, in one place with temperatures dropping precipitously. By nightfall we were freezing. Were we just going to be taken into the woods and shot once the troops around us went to sleep for the night — so there would be no witnesses?
We stood this way for two hours face-to-face, trying to keep our hands warm by holding onto each other and shifting the handbag that Iryna had been allowed to keep — the only item that was not stolen — from one hand to another. At some point, a group of soldiers took pity on us and gave us half cups of hot tea. Then we waited, with the temperature dropping and no word as to our fate.
Finally, after some questioning about my papers, they left us in a van overnight with a box of the Russian equivalent of C rations and some water, and said we would be taken someplace else the following day. The driver would come in periodically during the night and run the engine for 10 minutes or so to warm up the interior and then shut it down again. We tried to sleep on the hard benches in the back of the van, but without knowing what the next day would bring, sleep was not really possible.
The next morning, we were packed into a 4×4 vehicle and taken down roads strewn with burned-out military and civilian vehicles. The back half of rockets protruded from out of the ground — unexploded duds — and signs of explosions and devastation were everywhere. It was a journey through the landscape of hell.
Then we saw our destination: Gostomel Airport. Given all the criticism I had written about Putin, I was seriously worried about being whisked to Russia in an aircraft and thrown into a gulag. Or worse. But the runways were no longer serviceable, and the Russian army was using Gostomel as a command post of sorts. We were blindfolded and taken to an underground bunker, and when the blindfolds were removed, we were in a small room with a wooden desk with all its drawers removed, three cheap chairs, and nothing else.
The floor was filthy; the air cold, wet, and perfect for catching pneumonia. Hope faded, but Iryna and I found solace in each other and thoughts of our son. There was no clock to tell time and no calendar to know the date. Iryna began keeping track of the days Alexandre Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo-style, by making the traditional six vertical lines and then a seventh horizontal line at an angle on the wall. How long we would be in this place was impossible to determine. No one told us why we were there or under what auspices we were held. No one in the outside world knew where we were, or if we were even still alive. All we knew was each morning when the radios and phones in the room on the other side of the corridor began ringing, it was the beginning of another day of war.
How long we would be in this modern dungeon was impossible to determine. No one in the outside world knew where we were, or if we were even still alive.
BACK IN CAMBRIDGE, Antonio knew something was wrong. It was now Sunday, and he had not heard from us since Wednesday. He finally managed to get a call through to our friends whose place we had been staying at, and they told him the horrifying news.
They learned what had happened from the driver we had hired. He was not sent with us to the forest and on to Gostomel the next day. He had instead been taken with a group of people, but somehow managed to escape. We learned later he was able to make his way back to the home of our friends, which was how they learned of our fate.
My son knew many of my friends and colleagues, numerous people who were retired military and now defense contractors or worked in the Pentagon. Even at age 18, he knew how the U.S. government bureaucracy worked and went straight to work trying to save his parents.
Antonio’s first call was to the U.S. Embassy in London. Trying not to panic, he began to explain how he needed to come to the embassy to speak to someone about his parents. The person he spoke to told him robotically he “would have to make an appointment.”
His next step was to ring a close friend of ours, retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. John Schoeppner. Schoeppner is a fighter pilot’s fighter pilot. He flew 154 combat missions over Vietnam and was the commander of Edwards Air Force Base.
He was also famous for being very direct or otherwise having a sense-of-humor failure when he felt he was being misunderstood, misinterpreted, or ignored.
When Antonio relayed the situation, Schoeppner’s general’s stars began flashing — at about 50,000 lumens. He rang the U.S. Embassy in London in what I was told was “an exercise in focusing their attention.” (The notes I have taken in Russian by Antonio read “General John made a big noise with them.”)
His intervention had the desired effect. Antonio received a call back from someone further up the food chain in the London embassy within just a few minutes, who then relayed him to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The State Department, to its credit, then put our situation in the hands of some very focused people.
The person who spoke to Antonio was very thorough and asked all the right questions. Our health condition, where we were taken, where we might be held, etc. They also told him that arrangements for how and where we could be exchanged or released were being explored.
In the meantime, Schoeppner was on the phone to those he knew in the Pentagon, raising an equal level of attention with people there. I was a longtime consultant there and have been a regular visitor to the building for more than 30 years, so I was not an unknown quantity.
After these initial interactions, Antonio was on the phone constantly with people from almost every government entity in the U.S., U.K., and Ukraine that you could think of. In Kyiv they were beginning to put together a rescue plan that would involve Ukrainian special-ops troops storming the airport.
But we knew none of this. Antonio had no way of communicating with us. He was sleeping just two hours a night and overwhelmed with anxiety. The emotional strain on him was tremendous. I am sure it will be a long time before his wounds heal.
TO SAY WE were in an information vacuum is being generous. All we knew was that there would be no quick end to this war. This was a fact becoming very clear at this point in early March, even to the Russian soldiers now guarding us. After a few days, when we were able to talk to them and were able to get to know them, they confessed — like the rest of the Russian army — their superiors had told them, “You will be in Ukraine only four to five days, and then the country will be conquered and you can come back home.”
We were held in a windowless, underground room with a door we could have never opened without fear of being shot. There was always a soldier on watch with an AK-47 cradled on his lap all hours of the day. The guards rotated off duty every hour. We were alone only when we were asleep. There was no possible escape, not even MacGyver could have found a way out.
We slept on a flimsy, wafer-thin mattress large enough for only one person, and we had only a single blanket against the clammy cold of early March. We had to fold up my overcoat for a pillow and used Iryna’s fur coat as a second blanket. The floor was rock-hard. The same floor did nothing but exacerbate bodily harm inflicted when our car was machine-gunned and I had to jump out while it was still in motion. It has taken months to recover from some of the physical trauma.
Sanitary conditions were nonexistent. I had to urinate into an empty plastic water bottle. Defecating was done into a bucket in the corner of the room that we thankfully had a cover for to suppress the foul smell. We were provided more boxes of the Russian army C rations but did not consume much. “You are not eating anything,” said the one officer who came in to question us several times in the first few days.
Although originally the soldiers who looted our car forbid us to take any clothing or any belongings, in an act of personal bravery, Iryna confronted these people pointing automatic weapons at her and shamed them into permitting her to retrieve my medicines, a few personal items, and a journal that I began writing a record of our ordeal in — one that I hoped to give to Antonio someday.
The medicines were essential as I suffer from hypertension, and the tablets in my travel pouch were the only way to keep it under control. However, the strain of being in this modern-day dungeon began to cause considerable stress. I began to show signs of dangerously high blood pressure.
Our captors did everything they could to hide what was going on in the other sections of the bunker, but we could hear everything. The room next to ours was a medical triage unit. The doctors were supposed to stabilize wounded soldiers to make them fit for transport to a field hospital. The sounds of the maimed and dying haunts me. Soldiers screaming from their injuries. Others babbling incoherently, slipping in and out of consciousness as the morphine could only partially kill their pain.
Then there was the sound of a big, wide roll of packing tape being dispensed and wound around something. We knew what this sound was: Tape is used to bind the ankles of dead soldiers inside a body bag. These, I told myself, are the worst sounds of war. Another life gone because of this maniac in the Kremlin.
Every day we were under bombardment. The Ukrainian forces were never far away, and by conducting “shoot and scoot” harassment attacks against the aerodrome, they made it impossible for the Russians to repair the runways. The building shook from the proximity of the sustained blasts. Even in the middle of the night an artillery or mortar duel was not uncommon. We began to worry when the bombardments were accompanied by the sound of small-arms fire, signs the fighting was almost on top of us.
One day, the guard sitting in the corner with his AK-47 was visited by another soldier from the group that traded off the duty to watch over us. He brought in sets of combat-grade body armor. The building was in danger of being overrun, so they were prepared for a firefight that could end up as a last stand outside of the room we were held in.
THE PEOPLE HOLDING us hostage must have known about the efforts to free us stateside, but they never said a word. Only one officer, who I saw only twice, came into our room and told us “your transport from here is being organized,” but the supposed commander of this outfit found it impossible to be honest with us. After a time we never saw him again.
The only impressive person in the bunch was one of the doctors in the triage section who began treating my high blood pressure. Intelligent, conscientious, considerate, capable of normal conversation — it was hard to believe he was a member of the same army that had done so many horrible things to us.
He also turned out to be — just as a hobby — an aviation-history enthusiast. We would have long conversations about old aircraft that could be seen today only in museums. He looked to be about 28 years old and was extremely capable and competent. Much too good for the officers who were leading his army.
I never found out if he survived. We were told that just after we were taken from Gostomel the airport was assaulted by a large Ukrainian force and the Russians remaining wiped out. My fear is that he was another casualty of this insane war.
Eight days after we were captured, Antonio was contacted by another Ukrainian friend of ours who now lives and works in Washington, D.C. The call was from a Ukrainian-émigré colleague I knew in Kyiv. She had been active for years as a translator and analyst for high-level U.S. military and retired military officials interacting with Ukraine, and she had her own connections to the Pentagon. She informed Antonio that there was a solution to our situation. She spoke with the same people at the State Department who were working on our case and also with Schoeppner. It was at this pressure point that something was put into motion.
We still had no idea that any of this was taking place, but there was ultimately a number of people working on our release.
Schoeppner and his wife, Martha, and two of our close friends in Boca Raton, Florida, Todd and Lena Markel, brought in friends and political contacts like Thomas Gaitens, a successful businessman who was also one of the founders of the Tea Party. Gaitens informed the office of Sen. Marco Rubio. Todd’s sister Cindy contacted the office of Sen. Ted Cruz.
Others were engaged through their own channels. Charlie Mount, who runs the catamaran charter-cruise service Lena works for, met with one of his friends. His friend phoned someone — he never told Charlie who it was — but when he put the phone down, he said, “Something is in motion. Don’t ask me what, but things are happening.”
Two days later, two soldiers we had never seen before appeared in our room and told us we were leaving. We were again blindfolded, then brought to the surface for the first time in 10 days. Supposedly we were going to be taken from the airport to another location, but it almost became the trip that never happened.
When we were halfway between the bunker and the truck to transport us, Gostomel was hit with a mortar attack. Our escorts scampered for cover and left us out in the open, blindfolded, exposed to furious shelling, and with a good chance of being killed. How we managed to avoid being hit I do not know, but when the firing subsided, our escorts shoved us into a truck that was piled inside with assorted junk and our two carry-on bags.
We were taken to a nearby village and put into a small building being used by the Russians as a command post. Inside, they stuck us in a shower room with the shower heads removed, almost like in the movies about Nazi death camps during World War II. We were fed a small hot meal — the first one in two weeks — and then told we had to sleep sitting up on cold, metal chairs.
The next morning, March 15, we were driven for hours toward the north. The trip wound through the radiation zone of Chernobyl. The road was littered with cars shot to pieces like ours. There were burned-out military vehicles, endless signs of explosions, and the tracks of heavy vehicles that had chewed up the road. Ukraine’s infrastructure will take decades to be repaired.
Several hours later, we were dropped in the middle of nowhere. The driver of our vehicle gave us back our passports and said, “Back the way you came is Ukraine, and that way is Belarus.” Pointing toward Belarus, he said, “You should start walking.” We could see nothing but empty fields and forests off in the distance. It was 5 p.m. and less than two hours from nightfall, so we started walking.
We finally reached a Belarus border checkpoint some time later and explained that we were refugees. They let us cross after a series of questions from their immigration, customs, and security personnel. Then came the greatest moment of our lives. A Red Cross worker had a tablet, and we were able to call Antonio on Telegram and tell him we were alive. I was never so happy to hear my son’s voice.
The next day we boarded a night train that took us to the Polish border at Brest, and the great nightmare was over. Several hours later, we were in Warsaw. First Iryna, and then I, some days later, flew to the U.S. The following month, Antonio had his Easter break and flew from London to America. We were reunited.
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“Welcome home, Papa,” he said as I hugged him, my body shaking with emotion. “I will always be here waiting for you.”