Ukraine war: Stories of torture emerging out of Kherson

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BBC News, Odesa

While his homemade borsch bubbles on the hob, OlexanderGuz shows me pictures of his bruised body on his phone.

The injuries, he says, were inflicted by the Russian authorities. “They put a bag on my head,” Olexander tells me. “The Russians threatened that I would not have kidneys left.”

The BBC has gathered several graphic testimonies of residents in Kherson who say they were tortured.

Warning: this report contains some graphic content that readers may find distressing.

Olexander used to live in Bilozerka, a small village in the Kherson region. He was one of the village’s deputies. As a young man he was a conscript in the army, but now runs his own business.

He and his wife were publicly anti-Russia: she attended pro-Ukrainian rallies, he tried to stop Russian troops entering their village.

It wasn’t long after Russia took over that soldiers came looking for him.

“They tied a rope around my neck and another around my wrists,” he recalls. He says they told him to stand with his legs wide apart while they questioned him.

“When I didn’t answer them, they hit me between my legs. When I fell, I started to suffocate. As you try to get up, they beat you. Then they ask again.”

Russian troops took control of Kherson, in southern Ukraine, early in the war. Ukrainian TV stations were quickly replaced with Russian state broadcasts. Western products were changed for Russian alternatives.

According to multiple first-hand testimonies, people also began to disappear.

Piecing together what is happening inside Kherson is difficult. As Russia has tightened its grip on the region, people have become increasingly frightened to speak out.

Those who manage to leave often delete all the photos and videos from their phones for fear of being stopped and detained at Russian checkpoints. Olexander sent images of his injuries to his son, who was abroad, for safe keeping before wiping his phone.

It means to corroborate testimonies, it is necessary to speak to multiple people who say they have been victims of torture.

Broken ribs

OlehBaturin is one of them. He was a journalist for an independent newspaper in the Kherson region. Within days of Russia’s invasion, he says he was kidnapped.

“They shouted, ‘On your knees’,” he says. “They covered my face… and put my hands behind my back. They beat me on the back, ribs and legs… and hit me with the butt of a machine gun.”

It was only later, when he went to see a doctor, that Oleh realised they had broken four of his ribs. He says he was imprisoned for eight days. In that time, he heard others being tortured and witnessed a young man’s mock execution.

Both Olexander and Oleh are now in Ukrainian-held territory. They provided the BBC with photos of what they said were police reports of the abuse.

Some allegations of torture are particularly graphic. I spoke to one doctor who worked in a hospital in Kherson. He asked to remain anonymous, but provided me with a picture of his hospital ID.

“There were signs of bodily mutilation,” he says, listing haematomas (localised bleeding outside blood vessels that appears as a bad bruise), abrasions, cut marks, signs of electrocution, traces of binding on the hands and strangulation marks on the neck.

He says he also saw burns on people’s feet and hands, and that one patient told him he was beaten with a hose filled with sand.

“Some of the worst were burn marks on genitals, a gunshot wound to the head of a girl who was raped and burns from an iron on a patient’s back and stomach. The patient told me two wires from a car battery were attached to his groin and he was told to stand on a wet rag”, the doctor adds.

He believes there were many others severely injured who did not receive treatment.

Some stay at home because they are too intimidated to go outside. And some, he says, are “psychologically pressured” by the Russians. “They threaten that their families will be killed, and they intimidate them in every possible way.”

He says he asked the patients why they had been picked by the Russian authorities.

“They were tortured if they did not want to go over to the Russian side, for being at rallies, for being in the territorial defence, for the fact that one of the family members fought against the separatists, some got there randomly.”

Some people are afraid their loved ones could be next.

Victoria (not her real name) fears for her parents, who are still in Kherson. Her father used to be in the Ukrainian territorial defence and has already been kidnapped and beaten once, she tells me.

“They dropped him in the middle of a field. When he got home, after a few minutes he burst into tears, even though he is not a sentimental person. I’m trying to help, but it all made me feel like a little girl.”

Now Victoria worries it could happen again.

The BBC is not the only one investigating what is going on in Kherson. Both the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine and Human Rights Watch have told us they are also concerned about the allegations of torture and enforced disappearances.

BelkisWille, from Human Rights Watch, says the testimony gathered by the BBC is consistent with what they are hearing.

She says the concern is that Russian forces, in areas they are occupying, are continuing to a certain extent to “terrorise the local civilian population and use abusive practices like arbitrary detention and forced disappearance and torture”.

“These are potential war crimes we’re looking at,” she adds.

The Russian Ministry of Defence did not respond to the BBC’s request for comment. Previously, the Kremlin spokesperson said allegations of war crimes in Bucha were “obvious fakes and the most egregious ones are staged, as has been convincingly proved by our experts.”

Exactly what is happening in Kherson is near impossible to establish from the outside, but as more testimonies are gathered, many paint a picture of fear, intimidation, violence and repression.

Victoria is trying to get her parents out.

“In Kherson, now people go missing all the time,” she tells me. “There is a war going on, only this part is without bombs.”

(BBC News)

By Caroline Davies