Stories of the torture victims in Kherson region
Today, the Kherson region is subject to some of the heaviest Russian shelling. Almost daily, the National Police of Ukraine registers dozens of criminal proceedings on war crimes linked to Russian aggression in the region. According to the Kherson region prosecutor’s office, more than 6,000 criminal proceedings have been registered since the full-scale invasion.
In late April 2022, the National Police recorded 609 war crimes committed by Russians in the area, many of them having taken place in the 15 torture chambers that where discovered in the region. In addition, law enforcement officers recorded 65 cases of sexual violence committed by the Russian occupying forces in the Kherson region — the highest recorded number across Ukrainian regions. As more evidence comes to light following the liberation of some of the region, a large part of it remains under occupation.
Crimes of the Russian military and representatives of illegal armed formations, the so-called LPR and DPR, led to the death of at least 500 civilians in the region, including children. According to the prosecutor’s office, in most cases, civilians were killed by artillery fire; some were simply shot by the Russian military or died from torture.
After the liberation of Kherson we had a chance to meet some of the people who were made victims of torture by the Russian military. These are their stories.
“I’m not trash, I’m Ukrainian!”
“I’m not trash, I’m Ukrainian!” — these were the words that Victoria repeated to herself, standing with a bag on her head, facing the wall, when Russian soldiers entered the prison room again to take her away for questioning or further abuse.
The story of Victoria, who is a 36 year-old photographer and Kherson resident, is similar to the stories of many residents who were forcibly imprisoned because of either their pro-Ukrainian position or suspicions that they were linked in some way to the Ukrainian Armed Forces (ZSU).
When the war started, Victoria started helping volunteers, helping to deliver food to the local population. During one of her journeys, she was detained and her apartment was searched. In her apartment, Russian soldiers found Ukrainian symbols and embroidery with ZSU inscriptions. As a result, Victoria was forcibly taken into captivity and was held from Sept. 18 to Oct. 23. Initially, she was taken for questioning and then kept in a basement in what was known as “prison room #1.” On one side, there were further prison rooms and, on the other side, three rooms where innocent civilians were interrogated and tortured.
Victoria said that the Russian soldiers beat her over her head and against her ribs. They tied her hands together and used an electric shock treatment on her. It was so painful that, on one occasion, she inadvertently pulled out her own nail by clenching her fingers together so tightly. Victoria said that, although the Russian soldiers had not attempted to rape her, they had forced her to strip off her T-shirt and bra threatening to give electric shocks to her breasts. Although the soldiers did not carry out this threat, they did put Victoria under the constant psychological pressure that such force could be used against her at any time.
“They wanted us to break down, cry, ask for forgiveness. But I never once cried. I only screamed in pain, but I did not cry.” Russian soldiers would put as many as five people in cramped prison cells where they had to sleep on cardboard.
“I covered myself with a bag which I had to put on my head when someone entered the room. Then I still asked for at least one more sheet of cardboard for the floor, and I was suddenly given a mattress and two blankets. But only two for five people in the cell.”
Whenever soldiers entered the room, people were forced to put rubbish bags over their heads and stand with their front to the wall. There was CCTV in the cells and nobody was allowed to move or speak. But soon, Victoria and the other people discovered that the cameras only recorded movement, not sound. “We used to sing the Ukrainian anthem sometimes. Very quietly, of course, not to be heard in the corridor.”
“We were fed in the evening, not every day. They could feed us for four days in a row, and then not feed us for two days. They gave us buckwheat porridge. And that’s it.”
Instead of toilets, there were bottles and bags.
On Oct. 23, when the Russian forces were retreating, they took Vika and the other prisoners out of the city by bus and left them in different parts of the region. Vika was lucky to catch a lift in a car that took her through checkpoints to Kherson city. When she returned to her apartment, she found that the Russians had stolen her photographic equipment, her car, and $8,000, which she had been saving in order to renovate the apartment.
“They were surprised and it irritated them. They couldn’t imagine how it could be — that I am a girl and not married, but I live in an apartment on my own and I have my own car. They couldn’t believe this”.
Vika plans to stay in Kherson and continue helping others. After giving her account of the suffering she was subject to and despite everything she has endured, she smiled as she wished us a good day.
“All the days that I was in the prison cell, I was handcuffed to the radiator with one hand.”
Valerii was one of those men who could be called a partisan, although he refused to be named as such. “We simply did what we could.”
Together with his friends, Valerii damaged Russian military vehicles and cars by pouring water instead of petrol into the fuel tanks, painted Ukrainian flags on buildings, and took part in pro-Ukrainian demonstrations. “Initially, there were five of us. Later, some people left Kherson, and, in the end, there were three of us who continued with this diversionary work.”
People were active until June. Then Russian soldiers became more severe. They could arrest people on the street and search their homes if something looked suspicious. Despite this, Valerii continued his activity, trying to be more careful and not doing it so often. On Aug. 24, Ukrainian Independence Day, someone — Valerii preferred not to give names of anyone whom he suspected — betrayed him and gave his home address to the Russian military. Russian soldiers arrived at his apartment where he lived with Olya, his girlfriend, who was the only person who knew about Valerii’s activity and also took part in diversionary work.
“Russian soldiers forced open the door and they pinned me to the floor with a gun to my head. They beat me, blindfolded me, and put me into a car,” Valerii said. His girlfriend, Olya, was also detained.
Valerii was taken to the former building of the Kherson regional court, then occupied by the Russian military. It was one of the locations which were used as a prison and place of torture. Valerii stayed there from Aug. 24 until mid-September. He was interrogated and beaten. Russian interrogators who, according to Valerii, consisted of both FSB officials and soldiers, wanted him to divulge the names and addresses of other people from his organization. But he remained silent.
“They used to beat me over my ribs and on my legs, but not on my face, so as to leave no obvious traces of torture. They also used electric shock treatment,” Valerii recalled. When asked by journalists whether there had been cases when people died after such torture, Valerii answered: “most likely, yes.” He could not see other victims as his eyes — and other people’s — were closed with bags over their heads when they walked along corridors. But he could hear very well how people were crying and screaming during their torture treatment which continued day after day.
There was one man who was tortured all day long but, later on, a doctor arrived.
“We could recognize that it was a doctor as we heard him speaking in a corridor,” Valerii said. He recalled that the torture room was situated in front of the room where he was held. “Doctors used to arrive in some severe cases when someone was beaten badly or something happened.” Valerii supposed that the man was killed during torture because he did not hear that man’s voice anymore.
“All the days that I was in the prison cell, I was handcuffed to the radiator with one hand. When soldiers entered the room, we all had to put rubbish bags over our heads. We were not allowed to lie down during the day, only at night time. During the day, we had to sit or stand. People were not fed regularly and they were given only technical water to drink. I used my t-shirt to filter water somehow because it wasn’t clean at all.” He lost 15 kilos in weight during his captivity.
In September, he was transferred to somewhere out of Kherson city and kept in another confined room. At the end of October, when the Russian military began to prepare for the evacuation of russian troops to retreat, they freed all the prisoners so Valerii was released. He was taken to Komyshany [editor’s note: an urban-type settlement in the Kherson region] and, from there, he walked. His girlfriend, Olya, had been released in September. Before the liberation of Kherson, Valerii hid and lived at a friend’s home and did not return to his apartment. He returned only after Nov. 11 after the Russian military was kicked out for good. Was he happy when the city was liberated — “of course I was!” said Valerii. He never planned to leave Kherson when it was under Russian occupation and he has no intention to leave now. “We will stay in Kherson until spring. We will see how the situation is. We want to live here”. Nowadays, Valerii and Olya volunteer to deliver humanitarian aid to elderly people.
Text by Natalia Vlasenko
Photo Raphaël Lafargue
Designed by Nadia Firman