Abducted and tortured by the Russians, Kherson’s survivors tell their stories
Three torture survivors from Kherson, Nova Kakhovka and Kakhovka told openDemocracy what happened to them
Since the city of Kherson was liberated from Russian occupation in mid-November, Ukrainian law enforcement has been recording war crimes that occurred in the city and nearby areas – at a rate of around 70 reports per day.
Abductions of civilians happened most frequently. Often they were for no obvious reason – even people simply walking along the street could be abducted. They were usually detained, interrogated and tortured, sometimes for a day, sometimes for much longer.
“I don’t think there was any logic to it,” explained Stanislav Troshin, deputy chair of Kherson city council.
“I think that [most abductions] happened completely at random. The Russians had a small dormant agent network.” He believes only 5% of detentions would have been the result of actual intelligence about pro-Ukrainian activity gleaned from informants.
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According to Troshin, Russian forces’ campaigns of detention and torture were most intense in the cities of Kherson, Nova Kakhovka and Kakhovka – the latter two remain under Russian occupation. In Kherson, torture sites have been discovered in four locations, and authorities say there are more.
openDemocracy spoke to three men who were abducted by Russian forces earlier this year. They described what they went through – including beatings, threats and torture. We’ve not used their full names, in order to protect their families.
Viktor – abducted at random
At the end of July, Viktor, 50, was talking to a neighbour in front of his house in suburban Kherson when two Russians, in civilian clothing and carrying weapons, arrived. They detained him at gunpoint without explanation, but left his neighbour.
They put a bag over his head, tied his hands behind his back and took him away in a car.
Viktor ended up in a cell. At one point, he managed to lift the bag covering his eyes and saw concrete walls and a pipe to which his hands were tied. Holes in the wall, around 40cm in diameter, ran through all the cells, each of which contained a prisoner.
When the Russians beat a prisoner, everyone could hear it via the holes. Viktor heard soldiers breaking a prisoner’s ribs, legs and arms, and then a soldier saying: “Let’s wrap him up with plaster.”
I walked ten kilometres [to get home]. It was the greatest joy of my life. I was glad to be alive
On the first day, the guards didn’t ask Viktor any questions – they just beat him with their hands, feet, rifles, batons and a mop. On the second day, they started asking questions: how did he place guidance markers for Ukrainian artillery and communicate with the “partisans”, meaning locals involved in sabotage against the Russian occupation?
Viktor said he had not “done any of that”. He was tortured repeatedly – while wearing handcuffs, with his head in a bag, without food, drink or a toilet. He was subject to constant threats, including with gang rape and the murder of his wife.
“I went through such torture that if I had known something, I would definitely have told them,” Viktor says.
“For the first two days, I spoke to them in pure Ukrainian. They would say: ‘Kherson is…’ and I would answer ‘Ukraine’. Then bash-bash, again and again.”
Because his torturers spoke Ukrainian, Viktor suspects he was tortured by men from Donetsk and Luhansk, Ukrainian territories in the east of the country which are currently under Russian occupation. “When soldiers from the Russian National Guard saw me all covered in bruises, they said: ‘No-no, we don’t do this, your people did this,” he recalls.
The men also used electric shocks, he says, attaching exposed wires to each of Viktor’s ears. This form of torture was called “phone a friend”.
“I can’t even explain what it’s like. Your brain starts melting. They did it six or seven times, for two to three seconds at a time. Your brain feels like it’s melting and you pass out. You come to your senses – and the same questions start again.”
Viktor describes another form of torture his captors called “playing golf”, whereby they would beat the heels of his feet while he was lying on the floor.
On the third day, the men said they would shoot him if he didn’t tell them everything. They took him to an unknown location in a car, then made him get out. They hit his legs, he fell, and they put a gun to his head. They said: “That’s it, Vitek, pray.”
“I thought that was the end, honestly. They put me in the same position as the people executed in Bucha – on my knees, with a bag over my head, head down, hands behind my back. Exactly the same. I don't know why they didn’t shoot me,” he says.
After, Viktor was taken to the Suvorov district police station in the centre of Kherson, where they removed the bag from his head. He was put in a small cell with 20 or so people with broken arms, legs and ribs.
Four days later, they told him to go home. “I walked ten kilometres [to get home]. It was the greatest joy of my life. I was glad to be alive,” Viktor says.
Andriy – detained three times
Andriy, 46, was well known in Nova Kakhovka, a port city about 70km east of Kherson along the Dnipro river, as a proud and patriotic Ukrainian who had criticised the local mayor for alleged corruption.
So he knew that after his home town was occupied in late February, Russian soldiers might come looking for him. But he didn’t expect them to arrest him on three separate occasions.
“The first time they came for me, it was such a show,” Andriy recalls. On 2 April, Russian soldiers moved into his neighbourhood, then 20 soldiers burst into his house “as if they were detaining Bin Laden”.
They accused him of being an agent of the SBU, the Ukrainian security services, and took him away with a bag over his head. Andriy thought the soldiers might be “newcomers” because, in the car, they asked him for the address of the local police station.
Andriy says most of his interrogators looked like soldiers, but two wore black uniforms. He assumed they were members of Russian military intelligence.
Yuri Sobolevskyi, deputy chair of Kherson regional council, told openDemocracy that “anyone” on the Russian side “could wear a black uniform”, including Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Russian National Guard.
“Interrogators often didn’t wear any identification marks, any chevrons,” he said.
They took my phone, looked through my contacts and asked who among them supported the Ukrainian government. What to tell them – that everyone here supports Ukraine? What can you say to such fools?
His interrogators sat Andriy on a chair with his hands tied behind his back, and asked him questions while hitting him in the face.
“They asked me if I supported the Ukrainian government. I said I was an activist who fought against the local government. Then they took my phone, looked through my contacts and asked who among them supported the Ukrainian government. What to tell them – that everyone here supports Ukraine? What can you say to such fools?”
Andriy’s interrogators forced him to give them some names. He mentioned a few people who lived in Kyiv or who he was certain had evacuated Nova Kakhovka in the first days of the Russian invasion. The following day, he was released.
Three months later, on 8 July, the Russians came for him again, after the Ukrainian military struck a warehouse full of ammunition in Nova Kakhovka, causing a huge explosion.
Russian forces increased their detention campaign after Ukraine managed to destroy major infrastructure in the region, according to Stanislav Troshin from Kherson city council. He told openDemocracy that the occupying forces had “target numbers” for detaining saboteurs.
“People who lived near the Antoniv bridge, the railway bridges or the Kakhovska hydroelectric power station were constantly searched. They were accused of being artillery spotters and gunners,” he said.
Andriy remembers what happened: “It was 6am, I hadn’t even got out of bed when a soldier walked straight into my bedroom with a rifle. They made my family go outside. I was in my underwear. There was a rag on the tree that I’d used to wash the car. They wrapped it around my head and stuck it in place with tape,” he says.
Soldiers also detained Andriy’s father, mother and son, after finding a message on the family’s group chat in a messaging app that said: “Delete all messages from your chats.” The Russian soldiers claimed that the children had been collecting information about Russian military positions for Andriy’s mother to pass on to Ukrainian forces.
The Russians put Andriy and his family in a large truck. Andriy could see a little from beneath the rag over his head and realised they were somewhere near the North Crimean Canal.
“In the middle of a yard was a garage separated into three sections. I slept in one with my father and four other men. My son was thrown into another one. We slept on wooden boards, on our jackets.
“When the orcs [a derogatory term used in Ukraine for the Russian invaders] came to give us food, they knocked loudly on the metal door. We had to shout ‘Glory to Russia’ loudly and in unison or were threatened to be beaten. We had to get on all fours and face the wall, so that we couldn’t see who was entering.”
So, do we look like orcs?
Andriy spent four days there. He was released on 11 July.
Eight days later, on 19 July, he was detained for the third time.
“I woke up and there was a soldier in my bedroom pointing a gun at me. We said: ‘How come? You already detained us!’ This time, they had come for my father’s wife [who lived next door], as she had worked for the armed forces two years earlier. They talked to her and decided not to detain her.”
Andriy says that every time the Russians arrived, he saw new faces. They checked his phone and found the word “orcs” several times. They asked if he’d seen The Lord of the Rings films. Andriy said yes. They asked: “So, do we look like orcs?”
According to Sobolevsky from Kherson’s regional council, “using the word ‘orc’ in correspondence is enough to be taken to a basement.”
Sobolevsky also said “it was a mess” because personnel changed so frequently: “The Russian National Guard did their work, the FSB did theirs, and military counterintelligence as well, without communicating with each other… that means one person could be arrested and interrogated several times.”
On his third detention, Andriy was taken by a Russian soldier in a balaclava to the empty basement of what looked like an agricultural business. He saw beds, mattresses and people’s belongings, evidence that others had been kept there.
Andriy remembers a soldier with a taser, who said: “You are a Bandera-follower [referring to Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera] because you watch pro-Ukrainian YouTube channels.”
“I said I was watching different sources on my phone, that I didn’t understand the situation and how it all started. I lied a little. I was really scared that he would open Privat24 [a Ukrainian banking app], see that I had transferred 15,000 hryvnia [about £335] to the Ukrainian forces and realise that I was not neutral at all.
“He put me on a couch. My hands were tied to iron bars up above. He tasered me on the head, chest, shoulders and legs. Then he asked me to give him the names of Ukrainian military personnel. I told him they had all left. He beat me again, with a stun gun, and said: ‘Now you will remember everything.’”
Soldiers also used waterboarding – pouring water on a rag over Andriy’s head, causing him to feel as if he was drowning – and tortured him with an electric cable. They switched on the electricity, he screamed, then they asked if he remembered. Using the same tactic as before, he named people who he knew had left.
“A few minutes later, the commander came in,” Andriy recalls. “He said: ‘You haven’t seen what we did to the others. They pissed and crapped. We were gentle with you.’ They said Russia would continue to occupy Nova Kakhovka, but insisted: ‘You will live here and everything will be fine.’”
“When I came back home, it was hard for me to speak about what had happened – I couldn’t even tell my wife. I only said we had been taken to a basement. I felt horrible, not so much from pain, but psychologically. I felt as if I had been raped. I’ve lost some of my hearing. I’m almost deaf in my left ear.”
Shortly afterwards, Andriy and his mother managed to leave Nova Kakhovka for an unoccupied part of Ukraine.
Yevgen – captured at a pro-Ukraine protest
Kakhovka, another port city on the Dnipro river, was taken by Russian forces around the same time as Nova Kakhovka. For a while afterwards, the pro-Ukrainian demonstrations held by residents were tolerated by the occupiers. That was until 3 April, when the last protest was heavily repressed by Russian forces, who used rubber bullets and flash grenades.
Yevgen, 30, was one of the protesters. He was handcuffed and left lying in the rain, along with three other men and a woman. Then bags were put over their heads and they were taken to the police station in Nova Kakhovka.
If I happen to know that someone told anyone what happened to you, I will do bad things to you and your family
The Russian soldiers beat Yevgen repeatedly, leaving him too weak to stand, with cuts on his face and a black eye. “They said: ‘We will cut off your genitals, as your guys did to ours. We’ll stuff you into a car and burn you,’” Yevgen recalls.
Then he was pushed into a cell where he passed out, still handcuffed.
“I was terribly cold and damp, I was in wet clothes. I have no idea how long I stayed there,” he says.
Yevgen was interrogated every day. Some claimed they were his “friends”, saying the others were bad soldiers, but they were from the FSB and there to help if he could just give them what they wanted.
“The interrogation was rather primitive: why did you go to the rally, why did you place the Ukrainian flag on that video [a video shot on 6 March, shows Yevgen placing a Ukrainian flag on Kakhovka’s House of Culture], why don’t you like us, why aren’t you happy with us?” he recalls.
But Yevgen said he also heard sounds of full-blown torture. “Every night at 2am, we heard screams. Interrogators told us they had detained undercover members of the Ukrainian military. They tortured them for a very long time, about two hours every night. As far as I understood from the sounds, they used electrical torture and beat them with various objects. They didn’t ask anything, all they did was beat them.”
All the people captured at the protest on 3 April were released on 6 April.
“We were being driven back, blindfolded, and a soldier said: ‘That’s it, fellow countrymen. If I happen to know that someone told anyone what happened to you, I will do bad things to you and your family.’ I remember these words – it was disgusting,” Yevgen says.
“At the beginning of the occupation, Russians captured all the guys from the territorial defence, former police officers, former employees of the SBU. They were forced to show who they still cooperate with and to betray their comrades. Then [Russian] soldiers captured people who were at the protests. They tortured those people, tried to beat out information about who was organising the rallies,” Sobolevsky says.
Yevgen’s keys, mobile phone, bank cards, ID and passport were taken away and not returned. He had trouble escaping to Ukraine-controlled territory, but managed to leave Kakhovka – which is still occupied.
According to Troshin, some people were released after being beaten and tortured, but some are still in captivity. When the Russian army retreated from Kherson city, they took detainees with them across the Dnipro river to the left (east) bank, which is still occupied by Russia.
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