- Residents describe detention, torture and death in Kherson
- The nine-month occupation ended on Friday when the Russians withdrew
- Among the detainees were suspected resistance fighters
- Russia denies abuse of detainees
- UN officials say both sides have abused prisoners of war
KHERSON, Ukraine, Nov 16 (Reuters) – Residents of the southern Ukraine city of Kherson call the two-story police station “The Hole”. Vitalii Serdiuk, a pensioner, said he was lucky to get out alive.
“I persevered,” the retired medical equipment repairman said as he recounted his ordeal in Russian detention, two blocks from where he and his wife live in a small Soviet-era apartment.
The green-roofed police station at No. 3 Energy Workers’ Street was the most notorious of several locations where, according to more than half a dozen local residents in the recently recaptured city, people were interrogated and tortured during Russia’s nine-month occupation. . Another was a large prison.
Two residents of an apartment building overlooking the police station courtyard said they saw bodies wrapped in white sheets being carried out of the building, stored in a garage and later thrown into garbage trucks for disposal.
Reuters was unable to independently verify all of the events described by the residents of Kherson.
The Kremlin and the Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to questions about Serdiuk’s story or that of others Reuters spoke to in Kherson.
Moscow has dismissed allegations of abuse against civilians and soldiers and has accused Ukraine of staging such abuse in places like Bucha.
On Tuesday, the UN human rights office said it had found evidence that both sides had tortured prisoners of war, which the International Criminal Court has classified as a war crime. The Russian abuse was “quite systematic,” a UN official said.
As Russian security forces withdraw from large swaths of territory in the north, east and south, evidence of abuse mounts.
Among those detained in Kherson were people who resisted the Russian occupation, residents, such as Serdiuk, who believed to have information about the positions of enemy soldiers, as well as suspected underground resistance fighters and their associates.
Serdiuk said he was beaten on the legs, back and torso with a club and shocked with electrodes attached to his scrotum by a Russian official who demanded to know the whereabouts and unit of his son, a soldier in the Ukrainian army.
“I didn’t tell him anything. ‘I don’t know’ was my only answer,” the 65-year-old said in his apartment, which was lit by a single candle.
‘To remind! To remind! To remind!’ was the constant response.”
Stark memories of life under occupation in Kherson follow the unbridled joy and relief when Ukrainian soldiers recaptured the city on Friday after Russian troops retreated across the Dnipro River.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said two days later that investigators had uncovered more than 400 Russian war crimes and found the bodies of both military and civilians in areas of the Kherson region liberated from Russian occupation.
“I personally saw five bodies taken away,” said 20-year-old Oleh, who lives in an apartment building overlooking the police station, and declined to give his last name. “We could see hands hanging from the sheets and we understood that these were corpses.”
Speaking separately, Svytlana Bestanik, 41, who lives on the same block and works in a small shop between the building and the station, also recalled seeing prisoners carrying bodies.
“They carried dead people out and threw them in a truck with the garbage,” she said, describing the stench of decomposing bodies in the air. “We witnessed sadism in its purest form.”
Reuters journalists visited the police station on Tuesday but were not allowed to go beyond the courtyard, bordered by a barbed wire wall, by armed police officers and a soldier who said investigators were inside to collect evidence.
An officer, who declined to give his name, said up to 12 detainees were held in small cages, a report corroborated by Serdiuk.
Neighbors reported hearing screams from men and women emerging from the station and said that when the Russians emerged they wore balaclavas that covered all but their eyes.
“They came into the store every day,” Bestanik said. “I decided not to talk to them. I was too afraid of them.”
Aliona Lapchuk said she and her eldest son Kherson fled in April after a terrifying ordeal by Russian security personnel on March 27, the last time she saw her husband Vitaliy.
Vitaliy had been an underground resistance fighter since Russian forces took Kherson on March 2, according to Lapchuk, and she became concerned when he didn’t return her calls.
Soon after, she said, three cars with the Russian “Z” sign painted on them pulled up at her mother’s house where they lived. They brought Vitaliy, who was badly beaten.
The soldiers, who identified themselves as Russian troops, threatened to knock her teeth out when she tried to berate them. They confiscated their cell phones and laptops, she said, then discovered weapons in the basement.
They savagely beat her husband in the cellar before dragging him out.
“He didn’t walk out of the basement; they dragged him out. They broke through his cheekbone,” she said, sobbing in the village of Krasne, about 60 miles west of Kherson.
Lapchuk and her eldest son, Andriy, wore a hood and were taken to the police station at 4, Lutheran Street, in Kherson, where she could hear her husband being interrogated through a wall, she said. She and Andriy were later released.
After leaving Kherson, Lapchuk wrote to everyone she could think of to try and find her husband.
On June 9, she said she received a message from a pathologist telling her to call the next day. She knew immediately that Vitaliy was dead.
His body had been found floating in a river, she said, with pictures taken by a pathologist showing a birthmark on his shoulder.
Lapchuk said she paid for Vitaliy’s funeral and has not yet seen the grave.
She is convinced that her husband was betrayed to the Russians by someone very close to them.
Ruslan, 52, who runs a beer shop opposite the police station where Serdiuk was held, said Russian-made Ural trucks stopped outside the gray front door every day at the beginning of the occupation.
Detainees, he said, would be hurled from behind, hands bound and heads covered with bags.
“This place was called ‘Yama’ (The Hole),” he said.
Serhii Polako, 48, a merchant who lives across the street from the station, echoed Ruslan’s story.
He said that a few weeks after the occupation, the Russian National Guard troops deployed to the site were replaced by men driving vehicles with the letter “V”, which is when the screaming started.
“If there was hell on earth, there was one,” he said.
About two weeks ago, he said, the Russians released those held in the station, apparently in preparation for their withdrawal.
“Suddenly they emptied the place and we understood that something was going on,” he told Reuters.
Serdiuk believes he was betrayed by an informant as the father of a Ukrainian soldier.
He said Russian security personnel handcuffed him, put a bag over his head, forced him to bend over and put him in a vehicle with a frog.
At the station, he was placed in a cell so cramped that the occupants could not move while lying down. On some days, prisoners received only one meal.
The next day he was hooded, his hands tied, and taken to a basement room. The interrogation and torture lasted about 90 minutes, he said.
His Russian interrogator knew all his details and those of his family, and said that unless he cooperated, he would have his wife arrested and call his son so he could hear them both scream under torture, Serdiuk said.
Two days later he was released without explanation. His wife found him outside the store where Bestanik works, virtually unable to walk.
Tom Balmforth reported from Krasne, Ukraine; Edited by Mike Collett-White and Philippa Fletcher
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Principles of Trust.