- Residents describe detention, torture and death in Kherson
- The nine-month occupation ended on Friday as the Russians retreated
- Those arrested are suspected to be resistance fighters
- Russia denies abusing prisoners
- UN officials say both sides have abused prisoners of war
Kherson, Ukraine, Nov. 16 (Reuters) – Residents of Ukraine’s southern city of Kherson call a two-story police station “The Hole.” Vitalii Serdiuk, a pensioner, said he was lucky to be alive.
“I hung on,” the retired medical equipment repairman said as he recounted his ordeal in Russian custody two blocks from where he and his wife live in a small Soviet-era apartment.
No. The green-roofed police building at 3, Energy Workers Street, is the most infamous of the many sites where people were interrogated and tortured during Russia’s nine-month occupation, according to half a dozen locals in the recently recaptured city. . Another is a large prison.
Two residents of an apartment building overlooking the police station courtyard said they saw bodies wrapped in white sheets being taken from the building, stored in a garage and thrown into garbage trucks to be taken away.
Reuters could not independently verify all the incidents described by Kherson residents.
The Kremlin and Russia’s Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to questions about Sertyuk’s account or others who Reuters spoke to in Kherson.
Moscow has denied allegations of abuses against civilians and soldiers and accused Ukraine of staging such abuses in places like Bucha.
On Tuesday, the UN human rights office said it had found evidence of torture of prisoners of war by both sides, which has been classified as a war crime by the International Criminal Court. A UN official said the Russian abuse was “very systematic”.
As Russian security forces withdraw from large swathes of land in the north, east and south, evidence of abuses is mounting.
Those arrested in Kherson are believed to include people who voiced opposition to Russia’s occupation, residents like Sertyuk, information about enemy positions and suspected underground resistance fighters and their allies.
Serdiuk said he was beaten in the legs, back and torso by a Russian officer who demanded the location and division of his son, a soldier in the Ukrainian army, and was shocked with electrodes in his scrotum.
“I didn’t tell him anything. My only answer was ‘I don’t know,'” the 65-year-old said in her apartment, which was lit by a single candle.
‘Remember! Remember! Remember!’ standard response.”
Poignant memories of occupied life in Kherson were followed by boundless joy and relief as Ukrainian soldiers retook the city on Friday after Russian troops retreated across the Dnipro River.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said two days later that investigators had found more than 400 Russian war crimes and the bodies of both soldiers and civilians in the Kherson region had been recovered from Russian occupation.
“I personally saw five bodies taken out,” said Ole, 20, who lives in an apartment overlooking the police station, declining to give his last name. “We saw hands hanging from the sheets and we understood that these were corpses.”
Separately, 41-year-old Svitlana Pestanic, who lives in the same block and works in a small shop between the building and the station, also recalled prisoners carrying the bodies.
“They would take the dead out and throw them in a truck with the garbage,” he said, describing the stench of rotting bodies in the air. “We saw tragedy in its purest form.”
Reuters journalists visited the police station on Tuesday but were barred from going beyond the courtyard, surrounded by a razor-wire-topped wall, armed police officers and a soldier, who said investigators were gathering evidence.
An official, who declined to give his name, said up to 12 prisoners were kept in small cages, which Serdiuk confirmed.
Neighbors said they heard men and women screaming from the station, and whenever the Russians emerged, they said they wore balaclavas to cover all but their eyes.
“They came to the store every day,” Pestanic said. “I decided not to talk to them, I was so afraid of them.”
Aliona Lapchuk said she and her eldest son fled Kherson in April after a horrific ordeal at the hands of Russian security officials on March 27, the last time she saw her husband Vitaly.
According to Lapchuk, Vitaly had been an underground resistance fighter since Russian troops captured Kherson on March 2, and she became concerned when he did not answer her phone calls.
After some time, three cars with Russian “Z” markings arrived at his mother’s house where they live. They brought Vitaly, who was badly beaten.
The soldiers, who identified themselves as Russian troops, threatened to knock out her teeth when they tried to harass her. They confiscated their mobile phones and laptops and later found weapons in the basement.
They brutally beat the husband downstairs before dragging him outside.
“He didn’t leave the basement; they dragged him out. They broke his cheekbone,” he said through tears in the village of Krasne, 100 km (60 miles) west of Kherson.
Lapchuk and her eldest son, Andriy, wearing masks, were taken to the police station at 4, Lutheran Street in Kherson, where she said she heard her husband being interrogated through a wall. She and Andrei were later released.
After leaving Kherson, Lapchuk wrote to everyone who could think of trying to find her husband.
On June 9, she said she received a message from the pathologist, who told her to call the next day. She immediately knew that Vitaly was dead.
His body was found floating in a river, he showed photographs taken by a pathologist who could see a birthmark on his shoulder.
Lapchuk said he paid for Vitaly’s burial and has yet to see the grave.
She believes her husband was betrayed by someone very close to the Russians.
Ruslan, 52, who runs a beer shop opposite the police station where Sertyuk was held, said that at the start of the occupation, Russian-made Ural trucks would pull up daily in front of the gray front door.
Prisoners would be thrown from their backs, their hands tied and their heads covered with bags, he said.
“This place was called ‘yama’ (hole),” he said.
Serhii Bolago, 48, a businessman who lives opposite the station, echoed Ruslan’s account.
Several weeks into the occupation, Russian National Guard troops stationed at the site were replaced by men driving vehicles emblazoned with the letter “V,” and that’s when the screaming began, he said.
“If there was a hell on earth, it was there,” he said.
About two weeks ago the Russians released those held at the station in apparent preparation for their withdrawal.
“Suddenly, they evacuated the place and we realized something was going on,” he told Reuters.
Serdiuk believes he was betrayed by an informant as the father of a Ukrainian serviceman.
He said Russian security personnel handcuffed him, put a bag over his head, bent his waist and frog-marched him into a vehicle.
At the station, he was placed in a cell so tight that the occupants could not move while lying down. On some days, the prisoners got only one meal.
The next day, he was veiled, handcuffed and taken to the cellar. The interrogation and torture lasted about 90 minutes, he said.
Sertyuk said his Russian interrogator knew all the details of him and his family and if he didn’t cooperate, he would arrest his wife and call his son on the phone so he could hear them both screaming under torture.
Two days later, he was released without explanation. His wife found him outside the shop where Pestanic worked, barely able to walk.
Tom Balmforth reports from Krasne, Ukraine; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Philippa Fletcher
Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.