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'I heard my husband’s inhuman screams' Kherson residents recount the torture they experienced under Russian occupation
Original story by Victoria Ponomareva from The Insider. Translated summary by Sam Breazeale.
The Ukrainian city of Kherson came under Russian occupation almost as soon as Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In late September, Russia formally annexed the entire Kherson region. Then, a month and a half later, the Russian army retreated across the Dnipro River, and Ukrainian troops liberated the regional capital. In a new report, the independent Russian outlet The Insider asked Kherson residents about what they experienced during Russia’s occupation. They described theft, torture, and arbitrary arrests.
Olha Kuts is a music teacher who’s lived in Kherson for her entire life. She told The Insider that after the start of Russia’s full-scale war, “people started coming out to mass protests, and Russian soldiers didn’t understand why they weren’t being joyfully welcomed.”
The protests lasted all March and April. We were trying to prove that nobody had asked [the Russian army] to come here.
Before long, Olha said, she started hearing stories from her neighbors of local men being detained, beaten, and then taken away to unknown locations. She’s certain now that the Russians were “seeking out people from lists” that contained local deputies, volunteers, and former police employees.
In the summer, the occupying soldiers started setting up checkpoints throughout the city and stopping people on the streets to check the contents of their phones. If they found anything suspicious, Olha said, they would take the person away for questioning, which usually entailed beatings and torture in basements.
On the eve of Ukrainian Independence Day (August 24), Olha received a call from her former workplace. The caller asked her to return to her job at the school, an offer she declined. A few days later, 15 men carrying machine guns broke into her home and abducted her and her husband. Olha spent the next 10 days in captivity, while her husband wasn’t released for two months.
According to Olha, after her detention, she was immediately sent in for questioning. While she was being interrogated, she could hear men in neighboring cells, including her husband, wailing in pain. “I could hear my husband’s inhuman screams mixed with the screams of other men — they were just squealing from pain. With that in the background, they continued to lecture me, and then they sent me to ‘think’ in the cell, which was just bare concrete, dingy walls, dampness, cold, and two chairs,” said Olha.
The prisoners’ Russian captors did not allow them to sleep, Olha said. She was fed expired food once a day, and only had 30–40 seconds to eat it. She was initially given half a liter of water for three days, after which they started bringing her rust-colored water from the bathroom.
Olha also recalled how when she asked a guard to let her go to the bathroom, he responded, “You’re Ukrainian scum and you don’t deserve it! Go on yourself like an animal.” She ended up having to relieve herself in a corner of the cell for several days, until a different guard gave her a bucket.
Whenever any of the soldiers entered Olha's cell, she said, she was supposed to put a bag over her head.
Sometimes they would burst in and immediately strike my head and my arms. They beat us with everything they could find — police batons, bottles. They would just beat us and leave. One time, I ventured to ask why they did that, and the answer [they gave] was simple: because I’m a Ukrainian, and all of us in Kherson were oppressing the Russian-speaking population.
According to Olha, the Russians subjected her husband to electric shocks, beat him, and even filed down his teeth. “I saw him lose consciousness, and the soldiers literally had to drag his body into the cell. They might leave him there for four days, or even a week without food and water.”
Olha was released from captivity ten days after her detention. The only reason her captors let her go, she said, is because she developed an oral infection that caused her throat to swell, and she was starting to suffocate. When she arrived back at her home, she found that it had been ransacked.
Lyudmila Vovchuk, another Kherson resident, described how occupying Russian soldiers would openly rob people, including by taking people’s cars at checkpoints and parking lots, as well as by beating down the doors to people’s apartments and taking everything they could. She said a family she knows was told they had one day to leave their house before Russian soldiers took it over.
Often, you could watch from your apartment window as they took people away with bags on their heads.
According to Lyudmila, Russian troops abducted one of her husband’s friends, while one of her own friends was shot because the soldiers “didn’t like his behavior.” She said the man’s death was later recorded as a drunken brawl gone wrong.
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Lyudmila also said that some men were issued Russian passports and forcibly sent to fight against Ukraine, while anybody who refused was imprisoned. She doesn’t know what ultimately happened to those prisoners.
A Kherson woman named Anya (whose name has been changed for security reasons) told The Insider that soldiers abducted people and held them for ransom. She said many of her friends were volunteers who were “taken away to basements.” Those who were unable to pay the $5,000 ransom the soldiers demanded were held the longest. “But after three or four months of torture, [the soldiers] would lose interest in the prisoners, and they would release them. It also happened that people would get taken not because they were activists or volunteers, but just because [the soldiers] didn’t like their face,” she said.
What shocked Anna most, however, were the shelling attacks the Russian troops started launching regularly at the city after they retreated.
The strikes are so powerful that they’ve blurred out all of my previous impressions. Not long ago, one landed right next to the pier where we would fetch water, and the strike was so powerful and loud that I involuntarily burst into tears, even though I’ve been seeing missiles hit since the occupation period.
Translated summary by Sam Breazeale
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