A forensic expert examines the premises of the District Police Department used by Russian occupiers for torture, Balakliia, Kharkiv Region, northeastern Ukraine.
Vyacheslav Madiyevskyyukrinform/DDP via ZUMA Press
BALAKLIYA, Ukraine — On Aug. 3, Russian soldiers came to Oleksander Loboda’s fire station, put a bag over his head and took him and three co-workers away in handcuffs.
“They told us to forget that we have a life, that we no longer exist, that our life is over,” said the resident of Balakliya, one of a swath of towns recently wrested from Russian control.
During three interrogation sessions, Loboda said he was beaten with a plastic baton and shocked with electricity as the occupiers accused him of passing information to the Ukrainian military.
The three-storey police building in the centre of Balakliya was the site of one of more than 20 alleged torture facilities identified since Russian forces were pushed out of Ukraine’s eastern Kharkiv region.
Russian forces used the sites to hold those they thought were linked to the police and military, said Dmytro Shevchuk, deputy of the Department of Investigation of Crimes Committed in Armed Conflict.
“They are civilians, peaceful citizens who just live in the city,” Shevchuk said. He was so shocked by how detainees were treated that he finds it difficult to put it into words, he said.
Ukrainian authorities say the torture facilities have been found across the occupied areas: in cities such as Balakliya, Izyum, and Kupiansk, and in villages such as Kozacha Lopan, Ohirtsi and Lyptsi.
Though the numbers held at the ghastly prisons in Kharkiv region remain unknown, investigators have been interviewing victims as the Ukrainian offensive has made it possible to do so.
Their accounts of mistreatment are the latest evidence the forces of President Vladimir Putin have routinely used torture as part of their attempt to seize neighbouring Ukraine.
In Balakliya, a city of about 26,000 located between Kharkiv and Izyum that has survived Nazi and now Russian occupation, interrogations were conducted in two first-floor rooms.
“They asked how my health is and touched me three or four times with a stun gun to my knee and shoulder,” recalled Oleksii Yakovliev, who was also detained at the alleged torture centre.
“And then proposed that I talk with them.”
Yakovliev said the Russians pick him up for having a Ukrainian flag on his property. Oddly, some of the Russian interrogators wore brown hockey masks.
Around 40 people were held in the prison at any time, he added. Their families brought them clothing, medicine and cigarettes. Some were released following interrogation and were replaced by others.
Soldiers from the Luhansk People’s Republic, a pro-Russian enclave in Ukraine seized by Moscow in 2014, looked after prisoners. One of the guards was later found dead.
“They asked me why I became a soldier,” said a Ukrainian ex-soldier, Vitalii Alseriuk, who was among those held at the Balakliya site after he was captured on July 9.
“And when they didn’t like my reply, they told me, ‘Let’s call Vladimir Putin and start spinning the Dynamo,’” Alseriuk said.
The Dynamo is a military phone the Russian used in his torture sessions, Alseriuk said. Electric cables were connected to a detainee’s legs or hands. The faster the phone dial is spun, the greater the electric shock.
In an interview, Loboda said the Russians accused him of feeding information to the Ukrainian army that allowed artillery gunners to adjust their fire for accuracy.
The invaders also charged him with collecting the names of locals who were assisting the Russians and handing the lists over to the Ukrainian military. He denied ever doing so.
The detainees held with him were mostly relatives of members of Ukraine’s armed forces and police, and past or present police employees and representatives of the local government.
“One who was with us, he represented a political party before. They accused him of being a nationalist. And they beat him very strongly. Normally they beat him outside, but two times it has happened in our ward,” he said.
Loboda said was held with six to seven others in a first-floor room that measured three metres by 1.5 metres. It was so cramped that detainees had to take turns sleeping and struggled to walk when they were let out.
Women were held in a separate room that was slightly better and had a toilet, he said. But Loboda said his cell had just a single bed and lacked a window, sink or even a toilet.
Each morning, soldiers put sugar bags over the prisoners’ heads and led them out of their cells in a column, with each required to keep their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them.
Once they reached a wall, they were allowed to remove their bags so they could urinate and defecate. The procedure was repeated at 7 p.m. each night, Oleksandr said.
“We received food twice a day, at 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. Normally, it was millet porridge or rice without salt,” he said. But the food was bad, he said, adding his mother cooked better meals for her pigs.
No bread, tea or juice was provided, Loboda said. The water was collected in a bottle from another ward, which had a sink. On occasion, the prisoners would get scraps from the Russian soldiers.
The Russians would also give them copies of their newspaper, called Kharkiv Z, after the logo of Moscow’s invasion. Prisoners used it to clean their plates and as toilet paper.
Loboda had been held for 13 days when he was handcuffed and told he was being deported from Russian-controlled territory for life for “resisting,” he said.
But others were kept locked up until Ukrainian forces reached Balakliya on Sept. 8. That morning, the detainees realized the Russians were fleeing and broke out through a window.
After the town was retaken by Ukraine, Loboda and his colleagues were among the first to return to Balakliya. They have been helping dismantle the war-damaged buildings and in the process, trying to erase what they went through during their time in Russian custody.
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