- Residents described detention, torture and death in Kherson
- The nine-month occupation ended on Friday with the Russians retreating
- Among the detainees were suspected resistance fighters
- Russia denies ill-treatment of detainees
- UN officials say both sides have mistreated prisoners of war
KHERSON, Ukraine (Reuters) – Residents of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson call the two-storey police station “The Pit”. Vitaly Serdyuk, a pensioner, said that he was lucky that he managed to survive.
“I held on,” said the retired medical equipment repairman, recounting his ordeal while being held in Russian detention two blocks away, where he and his wife live in a small Soviet-era apartment.
The green-roofed police building at No. 3, Power Workers Street, was the most notorious of the many locations where, according to more than half a dozen locals in the recently recaptured city, people were interrogated and tortured during the nine-month Russian occupation. . Another was a large prison.
Two residents living in an apartment building overlooking the courtyard of the police station said they saw bodies wrapped in white sheets removed from the building, stored in a garage, and later dumped into garbage trucks to be taken away.
Reuters could not independently verify all of the events described by Kherson residents.
The Kremlin and the Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to questions about Serdyuk’s account or that of others Reuters spoke to in Kherson.
Moscow has rejected allegations of abuse against civilians and soldiers and has accused Ukraine of committing such abuses in places like Bucha.
The United Nations human rights office said Tuesday it had found evidence that both sides tortured prisoners of war, which the International Criminal Court classifies as a war crime. A UN official said the Russian abuses were “somewhat systematic”.
As Russian security forces withdraw from swathes of the north, east and south, evidence of abuse is mounting.
Among those detained in Kherson were people who had expressed opposition to the Russian occupation, residents, such as Serdyuk, who were believed to have information on the locations of enemy soldiers, as well as suspected underground resistance fighters and their associates.
Serdyuk said he was beaten on the legs, back and torso with a baton and shocked with electrodes attached to his scrotum by a Russian official who demanded to know the location and unit of his son, a soldier in the Ukrainian army.
“I didn’t tell him anything. My only answer was ‘I don’t know,'” said the 65-year-old in his apartment lit by a single candle.
‘to remember! to remember! to remember!’ was the persistent response.”
Bleak memories of life under occupation in Kherson were followed by wild joy and relief when Ukrainian soldiers retook the city on Friday after Russian forces withdrew across the Dnipro River.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said two days later that investigators had discovered more than 400 Russian war crimes and found the bodies of soldiers and civilians in areas of the Kherson region that were liberated from Russian occupation.
“I personally saw five corpses moved,” said Oula, 20, who lives in an apartment building overlooking the police station, refusing to give his last name. “We could see our hands hanging from the sheets and we understood that they were dead bodies.”
Speaking separately, Svetlana Pestanek, 41, who lives in the same building and works in a convenience store between the building and the station, also recalled seeing prisoners carrying corpses.
“They would carry the dead out and dump them in a truck with the garbage,” she said, describing the stench of decomposing corpses in the air. “We were witnessing sadism in its purest form.”
Reuters journalists visited the police station on Tuesday, but armed police officers and a soldier prevented them from leaving the courtyard, which is surrounded by a barbed wire wall, and said investigators were inside collecting evidence.
One officer, who declined to be named, said that up to 12 detainees were being held in small cages, an account confirmed by Cerdiuc.
Neighbors related that they heard the screams of men and women coming from the station, and said that whenever the Russians appeared, they wore masks that hid everything but their eyes.
“They came to the store every day,” said your gardener. “I decided not to talk to them. I was very afraid of them.”
Alyona Lapchuk said she and her eldest son fled Kherson in April after a terrible ordeal at the hands of Russian security personnel on March 27, the last time she saw her husband, Vitaly.
Vitaly had been an underground resistance fighter since Russian forces captured Kherson on March 2, according to Lapchuk, and became anxious when he didn’t answer her phone calls.
Soon after, she said, three cars with a Russian “Z” sign pulled up at her mother’s house where they lived. And they brought in Vitaly, who was badly beaten.
The soldiers, who identified themselves as Russian soldiers, threatened to break her teeth when she tried to scold them. They confiscated their mobile phones and laptops, she said, and then discovered weapons in the basement.
They brutally beat her husband in the basement before dragging him outside.
“He didn’t come out of the cellar, they dragged him. They broke his cheekbone,” she said, sobbing in the village of Krasny, about 100 km west of Kherson.
She said that Lapchuk and her eldest son, Andrey, were covered and taken to the police station at 4, Lutheran Street, in Kherson, where she heard her husband being interrogated through a wall. She and Andre are later released.
After leaving Kherson, Labchuk wrote to everyone she could think of to try to find her husband.
On June 9, she said she received a letter from a pathologist who told her to call the next day. I knew immediately that Vitaly was dead.
His body was found floating in a river, she said, showing photos taken by a pathologist where a birthmark can be seen on his shoulder.
Lapchuk said she paid for Vitaly’s burial and has yet to see the grave.
She is convinced that her husband has been betrayed by someone very close to them.
Ruslan, 52, who runs a beer shop across from the police station where Serdyuk was held, said that at the beginning of the occupation, Russian-made Ural trucks parked daily at the gray front door.
He said that detainees would be thrown from behind, with their hands tied and bags covering their heads.
“This place was called Yama (the hole),” he said.
Serhiy Polako, 48, a merchant who lives across the street from the station, echoed Ruslan’s account.
After several weeks of occupation, he said, Russian National Guard troops deployed to the site had been replaced by men driving cars emblazoned with the letter “V,” and that was when the shouting began.
He said: “If there is hell on earth, then it is.”
About two weeks ago, he said, the Russians released those held at the station, apparently in preparation for their withdrawal.
“Suddenly they emptied the place and we understood that something was going on,” he told Reuters.
Serdyuk believes he has been betrayed by an informant as the father of a Ukrainian soldier.
He said Russian security personnel handcuffed him, put a sack over his head, forced him to bend at the waist and toaded him into a car.
At the station, he was kept in a cell so cramped that passengers could not move while lying down. On some days, the prisoners only got one meal.
The next day, he was covered, handcuffed, and taken to a room in the basement. He said the interrogation and torture lasted about 90 minutes.
Serdyuk said that his Russian interrogator knew all his and his family’s details, and said that unless he cooperated, his wife would be arrested and his son called until he heard both of them scream under torture.
Two days later, he was released without explanation. His wife finds him outside the store where your gardener works, virtually unable to walk.
Tom Palmforth reported from Krasin, Ukraine. Editing by Mike Collett-White and Philippa Fletcher
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