“And then they beat me for hours” – this is the most recurring sentence in Konstantin’s testimony. He is speaking about the time he was locked up in a detention center in Kherson, in what had been a Ukrainian detention facility before the war. From the outside, you can sense that there is something peculiar about the place. Neatly installed barbed wire, falling down in places, is interrupted only by the high walls surrounding a heavy iron door. It is not a place where one goes willingly; it conveys the menacing atmosphere of prisons. Now, however, after applying for permits, one can visit it with an escort of Ukrainian policemen.
Since the liberation of the western part of Kherson, Ukrainian authorities have released dozens of reports on torture carried out by the Russian military during the occupation. There are reports of at least 10 torture chambers discovered in the city and many more outside it. But this is information that is often difficult to verify, because the international tribunal that is supposed to investigate war crimes needs a very long time, and this is a task that is unlikely to be done with the conflict still ongoing. Meanwhile, the government in Kyiv has established a special division of agents and experts who are sent to liberated territories and collect evidence and testimony.
The following statements are part of the witness account of a man in his mid-40s who recounted his experience in a humanitarian aid distribution center, outside the detention facility and without Ukrainian military to monitor him. This is an extremely sensitive issue, but it is not the only testimony we have collected in recent weeks in Kherson, and it seemed significant to report it.
“On July 9, Russian soldiers came to pick me up from my house, hooded me and tied my hands behind my back. It was about 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Then they took me to a checkpoint near the bridge, where they beat me for hours. I remained there until late at night,” Konstantin recounts. The same night they transferred him to the detention center, to a cell with five other people. Why? “Because the Russians had lists with the names of those who had been in the military in the past, and they believed I knew where Ukrainian partisans were hiding or where the secret resistance weapons depots were,” he says, showing a scar on his wrist and one on his head, the marks of those hours. In 2017-18, Konstantin served in the Donbass during the war against Russian-backed separatist troops.
The next day, the interrogations began. In addition to the beatings, Konstantin says that in a room on the ground floor, with chairs nailed to the floor, detainees were subjected to electroshock sessions. “They would stick electrodes between my fingers or on my earlobes and shock me. They wanted me to talk, but I didn’t know anything.” For the first three days it went on like this, between electroshock sessions and beating sessions, with no specific schedule. “Sometimes they would even wet me so that the shock would have more effect.” One of his cellmates was raped, and when the military came back they told him that if he did not confess, they would do the same thing to him. This didn’t happen.
The center was run by both the military and the Russian police. “When the military was there it was tougher, it all seemed improvised, I got the impression that often they had no idea what the hell they were doing.”
The military repeated endlessly: “Tell us where the weapons are, we want the weapons,” and Konstantin recounts that he answered, exhausted: “I really don’t know. If I tell you a random place and you don’t find anything there then you’ll torture me again. Find someone else who was in the army in the Donbass, I don’t know.” What happened next? They beat him again.
“There was also psychological torture, let’s call it that: at night, when they didn’t take me, I could hear the screams from the room on the ground floor, and (laughs) I also began to tell apart those who were being beaten from those who were being electroshocked. I could never sleep at night, I would try during the day. Sometimes I would hear shouts: ‘What should we do with this body?’ I think some were thrown directly into the Dnipro. Another prisoner was shot eight times in non-lethal places and they threatened to do the same thing to me. Sometimes they organized mock executions. That happened to me too, they shot a volley in front of my feet.”
Have you ever personally seen a comrade get killed? “Once I saw someone from my cell get shot, but he didn’t die. After taking him away, the military ordered us to clean up the blood.”
“At that time there was no real head of the center. Then a guy from the FSB [Russian intelligence service] came and things changed: they started planning, analyzing our cases. It became more systematic, although it still happened that drunk soldiers would suddenly come into the cell and drag us out to beat us for five to 10 minutes. But five or 10 minutes is still better than a three-hour beating.”
When they were “interrogating,” the soldiers all wore balaclavas, so Konstantin says that he never saw their faces, except for a few times when he brought them tea, since at one point they had moved him to work in the kitchens.
After 37 days, on Aug. 18, they released him. “But they told me two days before it happened. I was afraid they were just messing with me, then they started telling me that as a last torture they were going to attach electrodes to my penis. I begged them not to do it, and luckily they didn’t.” Afterwards, the military came to his home three more times, but they did not arrest him again before the Ukrainians entered the city, despite threatening him several times that they’d take him back to the center.