Pete Kiehart for NPR
KHERSON, Ukraine – Just talking in Ukrainian could arrest and even torture them, residents say. Showing a Ukrainian flag was out of the question. They say they suffered daily humiliations and lived in fear during the Russian occupation of this southern Ukrainian city.
“People didn’t take to the streets” except to buy basic necessities like food, said Maryna Zinevych, a 54-year-old who has lived in Kherson all her life. “We were under constant pressure, under constant scrutiny.”
These were just some of the chilling accounts from Kherson residents after 8 1/2 months under Russian occupation.
Today, Ukrainians celebrate and sing patriotic songs in the main square, a week after the withdrawal of Russian troops. But from behind the carnival atmosphere, an image emerges of what civilians endured under Russian rule. They describe cases of detention and abuse in a climate of terror and suspicion.
“We heard these crazy cries at night”
As Zinevych speaks to NPR in the city’s Freedom Square, she carries a glittering Ukrainian flag wrapped around her shoulders like a shawl. Residents around her celebrate the Russian withdrawal. People take selfies with a fat watermelon – a symbol of Kherson.
The joyful scene would have been impossible just eight days ago, before Ukrainian troops retook control.
Zinevych says Kremlin-installed authorities were constantly on the lookout for people they considered “partisan” — anyone who could pass on information to Ukrainian authorities that could undermine the occupation.
And in public everyone had to speak Russian.
“In front of [speaking] the Ukrainian language or [showing] Ukrainian symbols, you could be taken to the basement and tortured,” she says. By “basement” she means detention centers set up by the Russian armed forces.
One such facility was at a police station on the north side of Kherson near Antonivskiy Bridge.
Mariya Kryvoruchko, who lives half a block from the police station, recalls some frightening moments.
“We heard these crazy cries at night,” says Kryvoruchko. “There were screams from the prison of people who were tortured at night. If you opened the window in the summer, we heard it very well.”
While speaking to NPR, an explosion is suddenly heard in the distance. Kryvoruchko does not flinch. “That’s extroverted,” she says, “don’t worry!”
Pete Kiehart for NPR
The 70-year-old says he does not know who was detained or tortured at the police station.
“When I passed the police station, I didn’t even dare to look. [The Russians] were there with guns,” she says.
He was suspected of being part of the underground
One man who says he was held there is Maksym Negrov.
He has returned to the compound to find the cell where he was held from March to mid-April.
“The Russians arrested anyone who had a pro-Ukrainian position,” says Negrov, standing at the now-abandoned police station. Three wrecked vans with their Ukrainian police decals blotted out with red spray paint are in the yard.
The Russian captors beat and tortured all the prisoners, he says, including himself.
Negrov, 45, had served in the Ukrainian army when he was younger. “I was detained on suspicion of involvement with the resistance,” he says. “But at the beginning of the war I was just a businessman.”
In the end, he says, the Russians let him go.
Officials are investigating allegations of torture
Dmytro Lubinets, human rights commissioner of Ukraine’s parliament, says his office is investigating allegations of human rights violations and crimes against humanity committed by the occupying Russian army in Kherson.
“These include torture in cellars, enforced disappearances, hostage-taking of civilians and extrajudicial killings,” he said on the Telegram messaging app.
Investigators from the United Nations and human rights organizations also say they are collecting evidence of torture and other abuse.
There is an underground resistance
Another man says he was part of what he calls the “peaceful” underground resistance in Kherson. The 25-year-old only gives his code name, Ivan, because he says he is still involved in covert operations.
“They were constantly trying to arrest us,” he says.
Ivan is the coordinator of a group called the Yellow Ribbon Movement.
“We put up graffiti and yellow ribbons to remind people that Kherson is still Ukraine,” he says.
His group also distributed leaflets and posted flyers to help people resist the Russian occupation. One important message: do not bring a Russian passport.
The Moscow-backed government tried to give residents Russian passports, saying it would make them eligible for food aid and other aid.
“They would try to force you to take their passport,” he says. And for young Ukrainian men, he adds, “their passport is like a ticket to their army.”
According to Ivan, hundreds of men from Kherson were conscripted into the Russian army. There are reports that Russia has drafted Ukrainian men into occupied territories, but NPR has not confirmed how many.
As the Kremlin struggles to get recruits to the front lines, Ivan says, “They want Ukrainians to fight Ukrainians.”
He says that now that Kherson has been released, the celebrations have been inspiring.
He collaborates with activists in Crimea and other Russian-occupied areas on guerrilla information campaigns and spreads the message that, whatever the Kremlin says, those areas are still part of Ukraine.
Pete Kiehart for NPR
Polina Lytvynova contributed to this report.