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“Russians tortured us so badly we thought we wouldn’t make it out alive,” civilian survivors say

A Ukrainian detainee said the savage beatings he endured were so extreme, he was certain he wouldn’t survive the torture alive after Russians used nightsticks, kicks, and fists simultaneously.
Torture chamber for Izolyatsia prisoners with a military field telephone’s electric generator used to electrocute them. Isolyitsia – a prison that was created after the capture of Donetsk by Russian troops in 2014. Photo: Telegram/traktorist_dn
“Russians tortured us so badly we thought we wouldn’t make it out alive,” civilian survivors say

Reports of torture in the territories of Ukraine that have been occupied by Russian forces often emerge months after the incidents take place. The victims themselves share these accounts with documentarians who specialize in recording war crimes.

Kupiansk, a small city in Kharkiv Oblast with a population of 26,000 and located 40 kilometers from the Russian border, became one site of a torture center established by the Russians. This center became a place of suffering for dozens of Ukrainian men and women.

Serhiy and Vitaliy, two of the early victims of Russian torture in Kupiansk, recounted their experiences to documentarians from ZMINA Human Rights Center, a Ukrainian organization dedicated to human rights advocacy.

Believing Ukrainian forces had entered – only to be detained

On 22 April 2022, amid the early stages of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Vitaliy and Serhiy encountered an unattended Russian BMP vehicle in Kupiansk. The absence of soldiers and a vanished checkpoint led them to believe Russian forces had retreated, prompting them to remove the Russian and “LNR” flags from the vehicle and set it ablaze.

Vitaliy recounted, “We thought our troops had arrived. It was quiet, no checkpoints, and the BMP stood there with flags. We tore them off and set it on fire.” However, their actions quickly led to their capture by “LNR” illegal armed group members. Serhiy described the harrowing moment: “Seven armed soldiers appeared, threatening and beating us, pushing us to the ground.”

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While deciding their fate, the burning BMP’s ammunition exploded. The Russians then bound Vitaliy and Serhiy, transported them in a vehicle marked with a Z, and detained them at the temporary detention center in Kupiansk’s police station, placing them in separate cells.

At that time, the detention center held a total of six-seven people, mostly those detained for violating the curfew. However, in just a couple of months, the Russians brought over 100 people to the center – activists, soldiers who participated in the war against Russian forces since 2014, people with pro-Ukrainian views, as well as anyone the military deemed “suspicious.”

Space in the cells quickly ran out, so some people were locked up in the outdoor yard.

Weeks of endless torture and humiliation

Serhiy mentioned that initially, they were told they would be part of a prisoner exchange. However, rather than being exchanged, both men were subjected to interrogation.

The interrogation began with Vitaliy, who was beaten three times on the first night. The Russians suspected them of being part of a Ukrainian sabotage and reconnaissance team and sought information on other resistance members and participants in the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO), Ukraine’s war against Russian proxy forces in its eastern Donbas region.

They were also coerced into testifying to setting the BMP on fire.

Vitaliy recounted: “They beat me all over, breaking my ribs and knocking out my teeth.”

Serhiy’s interrogation followed in the morning, after which he felt his chances of survival were slim. “The beating was so severe, I knew I wouldn’t make it out alive,” he shared. Facing this situation, Serhiy, when returned to his cell, broke a cup to slash his wrists.

“I was lying there covered in blood until they called the commander. I thought at least an ambulance would come, but instead they beat me up even more,” says Serhiy.

Detention center staff, not medical professionals, assessed his injuries. They deemed stitches unnecessary, applied an antiseptic solution to his wounds, and placed him in a cold solitary cell for the night. Additionally, the military officer who had interrogated Serhiy warned him that any further attempts at self-harm would result in having his hands cut off.

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The initial questioning was carried out by members of the so-called “LNR,” with Vitaliy’s interrogators using the call signs “Topaz” and “Guest,” and Serhiy’s known as “Odesa.”

“Later, career Russian military intelligence (FSB) officers came in – the support team,” says Serhiy.

The second round of interrogations was conducted by the FSB, during which Vitaliy and Serhiy were subjected to electric shocks. “They attached wires to the thumbs of our hands. Burn marks were left on them after the torture,” recalls Serhiy.

As for Vitaliy, they poured water on him so he wouldn’t lose consciousness from the blows:

“They shocked me hard enough to make me jerk up. I was already lying on the floor. I tried to bend my legs, but one of the soldiers hit me for that,” the man recounts.

This form of torture would last for 15-20 minutes at a stretch. For three weeks, Vitaliy and Serhiy endured nightly torture sessions. The opening of their cell door signaled another impending round of beatings.

Prior to each interrogation session, a guard would prepare the prisoner by making him face the wall, binding his hands and feet, covering his head with a hat, and applying tape. In this restrained state, the prisoner was dragged through the corridors to and from the interrogation.

“They could even tape up my mouth – leaving just a hole to breathe through,” adds Vitaliy.

According to him, sometimes, the detainees were thrown back into their cells without even removing the tape. “It was good if they at least freed your hands so you could use the toilet. But sometimes they’d return you to your cell for the night tied up like that,” says Vitaliy.

Later on, he says, the soldiers would come and laugh that there was no need to tie the inmates up again — they would just grab them and drag them away.

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Vitaliy was thrown back into his cell bound twice over the course of his detention. He asked to use the toilet, but the guard threatened to beat him for it: “I lay there, enduring it. And once I managed to stretch the tape myself in order to relieve myself.”

Sometimes the men would come for them two or three times a night. “They just beat us up and back to the cell,” says Vitaliy. To extract any kind of information from the men, the Russians kicked them all over their bodies.

“I was flying around like a tin can. I crawled out of that office on my elbows. I thought if I didn’t keep crawling now, that would be the end of me,” adds Serhiy.

According to Vitaliy, sometimes, as many as four people would simultaneously participate in the beatings.

“They’d drag you in, and there were four men there already: one kicks you with his foot, one with a nightstick. One beats your head, the other your legs, your muscles. And there was the one shocking you with electricity.”

From interrogations to forced labor

Following three weeks of interrogation, Vitaliy and Serhiy admitted to burning the BMP. Subsequently, their conditions slightly improved: they were relocated to a shared cell and provided basic comforts such as a pillow and blanket. Instead of the scant water and bread provided twice daily, they received leftovers from the soldiers, usually consisting of pearl barley, pasta, and tea.

Initially, like many families of abducted civilians, Vitaliy and Serhiy’s relatives were falsely informed that the men were not detained. However, the Russians later acknowledged holding them but initially barred them from receiving parcels, labeling them as terrorists.

Serhiy explained that eventually, relatives were allowed to bring items on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, though not everything was permitted, particularly food and personal belongings, which were selectively allowed.

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Despite their confessions, the Russians continued to interrogate Vitaliy and Serhiy, focusing now on any connections to ATO participants rather than treating them as partisans. About a month after the arrest, when Vitaliy’s and Serhiy’s bruises from the beatings had faded, they started being taken out for forced labor.

“Almost every day they took us out. We mopped the floors, cleaned the toilet, took out the trash,” says Vitaliy.

According to him, once they were driven to clean deputy Mykola Masliy’s house. That’s where the Russian military said Vitaliy Ganchev, the Kremlin-appointed head of the Kharkiv Regional Administration, would be moving into. “We threw out everything from the house, and mopped the floors,” recounts Vitaliy.

On another occasion, says Serhiy, the men were sent to wash the interrogation room. “And there was spit there, and blood, and a piece of blade,” he recalls. Before that, loud screams and moans could be heard from that room, the man adds. According to him, the Russians forced one of the detainees to cut off his tattoo.

Release after rotation of Russian troops

For months, Vitaliy and Serhiy’s experience shifted from beatings and interrogations to forced labor. During this period, the detention center underwent a staff change, introducing a new group of Russians. This prompted the men to inquire about their potential release.

“There was an FSB guy from customs, about 45 years old. Well-groomed, shaven. We didn’t see him before or after. We washed his car and asked if we’d be held much longer,” recounts Vitaliy.

Surprisingly, just two hours following this interaction, another FSB officer, this one wearing a balaclava, entered their cell with instructions to “Gather your things” and “Get out of here.”

Upon leaving, they carried not only their few possessions but also the physical and mental scars of their captivity: dental damage, fractured ribs, kidney injuries, along with enduring anxiety and insomnia. The torture they endured while imprisoned still haunts them.

Article by: Olesia Lantsman

Adapted by: Orysia Hrudka

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