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‘It Was Horror’: Ukrainians Share Grim Tales of Russian Occupation

With Russian soldiers pushed out of parts of the Kharkiv region, Ukrainian investigators have been overwhelmed with accounts of detentions, torture and missing relatives, as well as collaboration and property theft.

Oleksandr Avdeev looked on as the body of his son, Serhii, who was seized by Russian forces last month, was exhumed in Borova. [Ivor Prickett]

Russian troops spent weeks searching for Mariya, the 65-year-old common-law wife of a serving Ukrainian Army officer.

Twice, she said, they ransacked her cottage in a village outside the town of Balakliya, and when they did eventually detain her months later, they tortured her repeatedly under interrogation, using electric shocks and threats of rape.

The recapturing by Ukrainian fighters of much of the Kharkiv region a month ago is now revealing what life was like for thousands of people living under Russian military occupation from the early days of the war. For many there were periods of calm, but almost no food or public services. For those like Mariya, accused of sympathizing with or helping the Ukrainians, it was pure hell.

“In a word, it was horror,” Mariya said. “I thought I would not come out alive.”

Mariya at her ransacked cottage in Balakliya. She was held prisoner, beaten and tortured because her husband was in the Ukrainian army. [Ivor Prickett]

Russian forces spray-painted a symbol of the Russian occupying force on a car belonging to Mariya’s husband. [Ivor Prickett]

Police officers who have returned to towns and villages to re-establish a Ukrainian administration have been overwhelmed by complaints of theft and property damage, but also accounts of detentions, torture and missing relatives.

The scale of abuse of the population in eastern Ukraine under Russian occupation is most likely greater than that seen in the spring in Bucha and other areas around the capital, Kyiv, given the breadth of the territory and the length of the occupation, police officials said.

So far, police officers have logged more than 1,000 cases of people being detained in police stations and temporary holding facilities across the region, said Serhii Bolvinov, the police chief of Kharkiv Province. The real figure is probably two or three times that, he said.

Torture was routine, according to witnesses. The signs of abuse were already apparent in some of the 534 bodies recovered across the region, the police chief said. “There are bodies that were tortured to death,” he said. “There are people with tied hands, shot, strangled, people with cut wounds, cut genitals.”

Last week, in a small cemetery set amid open fields on the edge of the town of Borova, a father stood silent watch as Ukrainian investigators carried out the grisly task of exhuming and examining the body of his son, Serhii Avdeev. Mr. Avdeev’s wife had found his bullet riddled corpse in a pit at a camp vacated days earlier by Russian troops as they retreated.

War crimes investigators conducted a preliminary examination after Serhii Avdeev’s body was exhumed last week. [Ivor Prickett]

Mr. Avdeev’s mother, Svetlana Avdeeva, showed an old photograph of her son, at left. [Ivor Prickett]

The killing of Mr. Avdeev, 33, a welder who had earlier served in the Ukrainian army, is just the latest subject of interest to war crimes prosecutors. His was one of hundreds of corpses recovered in dozens of towns and villages recaptured by Ukrainian troops in northeastern Ukraine.

On Saturday a joint team of French and Ukrainian forensic specialists carried out an autopsy on Mr. Avdeev’s body in a morgue in Kharkiv, discovering at least 15 bullet wounds and four bullets lodged in his corpse. One of his nails and part of his finger had been torn off.

Accounts of those detained reveal the same pattern of abuse, including beatings and electric shocks during interrogations, in almost every police station and improvised jail across the region. Some inmates were held in open-air cages in the city of Kupiansk, one witness said.

French and Ukrainian forensic experts documenting the wounds on Serhii Avdeev’s body. [Ivor Prickett]

A mass burial site in Izium, where over 400 bodies have been recovered since the Russians retreated. [Ivor Prickett]

Mariya was held for 40 days in a police detention facility, where she endured hours of interrogation, electric shocks and threats of rape and death. One time, she fell from her chair, unconscious, and came around as someone was kicking her in the head.

Going by their accents she concluded that most of her interrogators were Russians, she said, and demanded to know where her husband was. They also repeatedly accused her of being a spotter who was identifying bombing targets for the Ukrainian Army.

From her cell, she could hear men and women screaming in pain. “Men screaming so hard I cannot describe it enough,” she said, weeping. She said she understood from the screams that women were being sexually assaulted (though she says she herself was not). “If they stripped me to my underwear, you can imagine what they did to the girls.”

There was another element to her persecution that was petty and vengeful.

Mariya hid in an empty apartment near a school where she worked as a cleaner, but she thinks someone disclosed her location to the Russians. In July, Russians wearing masks banged on the door and called out her name.

The second time they searched her house, the Russians spray-painted the letter Z — a symbol of the Russian occupying force — on every wall and door, including the interior of the refrigerator, and attacked her husband’s car with an ax and gunfire.

Russian forces used this basement in Balakliya to hold prisoners. [Ivor Prickett]

Prisoners were kept in Soviet-era cells at the Balakliya police station. [Ivor Prickett]

Another resident of Balakliya, Serhii, 30, a lumberjack, was detained by Russian soldiers in the woods near his house while he was out walking the dogs with his brother and a friend. The three men were stripped, beaten and interrogated.

“They wanted to know where the Ukrainian positions were,” said Serhii, who gave only his first name for fear of retribution, should the Russians ever return. “They were asking questions that we did not have the answers to.”

Then at 3 a.m. they were taken into the forest, made to dig a trench and put through a mock execution. “I thought they were dead,” Serhii said of his companions, his face crumpling as he broke into a sob.

The men were held in a basement and then after two weeks were released without explanation.

Investigators reopening police stations all over the recaptured territory have discovered hundreds of men and women with similar tales: beaten and tortured on accusations of serving in the Ukrainian Army, of having relatives in the army or of simply being pro-Ukrainian.

But even more were detained for a minor infraction, such as violating curfew, or on the catchall accusation of being a spy or a spotter.

Police investigators at a basement in Kozacha Lopan where Russian forces held prisoners. [Ivor Prickett]

Russian troops used a summer camp as a base. [Ivor Prickett]

Serhii Pletinka, 33, a builder who lives near the town of Shevchenkove, was detained twice, accused variously of being a Nazi, of illegally selling humanitarian aid and of plotting to kill a Russian-appointed police chief.

His accusers were all local men who had landed jobs with the new pro-Russian administration, and one of them had a longstanding dispute with him, Mr. Pletinka said.

Another man in his village, Oleh, 28, who was held for two weeks, said most of those making accusations were motivated by money or petty revenge. “Police officers were making false accusations to get rewards,” he said. “They did it for the money.”

Residents looked on as some of their neighbors began enjoying their newfound power and driving new cars, though things did not work out for all of them, Mr. Pletinka said. Among his cellmates, he said, was the first Russian-appointed mayor, who was later accused of misappropriation of funds and arrested.

Many of those who collaborated, including the imprisoned mayor, fled the country as Ukrainian troops recaptured the region and are thought to be in Russia, he said. But Mariya said her neighbors, some of whom, she recounted, stole her belongings and farm tools while she was in detention, have remained hostile, with one claiming he bought property from the Russians.

Serhii Pletinka was detained and beaten by Russian forces near the town of Shevchenkove. [Ivor Prickett]

Mobile phones confiscated by Russian forces were nailed to tree in the center of Kozacha Lopan. [Ivor Prickett]

In the police station of Kozacha Lopan, the site of a major Russian base near the border, investigators found a military field telephone used to administer electric shocks, along with documents identifying the Russian-appointed police chief who had been in charge at the station.

The Russians and their proxies often demonstrated an obsessive suspicion of spotters and others who might be helping the Ukrainian Army. They confiscated cellphones to prevent people from communicating with the other side, and even nailed cellphones to a tree on the main square of Kozacha Lopan to scare the public, Ukrainian police officers said.

“They were trying to establish a new rule,” said an investigator in Balakliya, who gave only his first name, Kyrylo, for security reasons. “And they were ruling through violence.”

The detentions continued right up until the end, even as Russian forces were retreating.

Mr. Avdeev, who had served in the military, had at first been questioned and beaten by Russian troops, but not held. Then on Sept. 9, when Russia’s hold on the region was unraveling, Russian-backed separatists from the region of Luhansk took him away.

His family found his body a week later in the abandoned Russian camp.

The bodies of a man and a woman were found in a pit at a summer camp used as a base by Russian troops. [Ivor Prickett]


(c) 2022, New York Times


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