Standing amid ruins on the outskirts of the eastern city of Balakliya, Svitlana gets teary when she speaks about her son, a soldier who she says had been injured during the counteroffensive that saw Ukrainian forces retake the majority of the occupied Kharkiv region last month.
Svitlana said that’s why the Russians detained her in the summer – they learned her son was in the Ukrainian armed forces. She told Byline Times that the Russians searched her home and took her to the local police station, where authorities and published personal accounts say residents were tortured during the city’s occupation.
“They were asking for his number,” Svitlana said. “They said: we want to know how much longer he wants to keep fighting.”
Balakliya, with a pre-war population of 26,000, was captured by Russian forces in early March. It was the first city to be liberated in a lightning counteroffensive that saw Ukrainian troops reclaim thousands of square kilometres of territory in the country’s east within a matter of days.
Byline Times last month travelled to liberated towns in the Kharkiv region, where residents described the hardship and suffering of living under bombardment and Russian occupation.The ruins of Balakliya. Photo: Natalie Vikhrov
In Balakliya, shelling has turned some buildings in the city to rubble. But Ukrainian officials say some of the worst atrocities also took place at the local police station. Inside one holding room in the building, a prayer has been scratched into the wall. Above it, a series of dashes indicating the number of days a prisoner had spent in detention.
Svitlana believes she ended up at the station because one of the locals had informed the Russians that her son was in the military. It’s not known how many people were detained at the station but investigators late last month said they had identified at least 20 people who were tortured, including by electric shocks.
Svitlana said the Russians threatened her with electric shocks but never applied them.
“I gave the impression that I was already in pain,” she said, adding that she believed an earlier injury to her arm saved her from torture. “My arm was purple. It was in a sling. I started crying that my arm was hurting.”
Svitlana said she didn’t give the Russians information about her son and was released after a day but some of those who had been detained were held prisoner at the station for weeks or longer.
Investigators say the Russians imprisoned several types of people — former police and military, relatives of those in the armed forces and anyone believed to be aiding the Ukrainian Army.
“There was this guy that had a trident tattoo … the Ukrainian symbol tattoo. They burned it out of his body,” an investigator who asked to be identified only as Oleksandr said through a translator.
Investigators also said they were also aware of cases where women had been detained and raped by Russian forces.
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Police have discovered more than 20 places of torture across liberated settlements in the region, according to local media reports. Among them, a basement of a local police station in the town of Izyum, some 40 kilometers southeast of Balakliya.
When Byline Times visited last month, a wooden club and gas masks sat on a small table in the basement.
“They were doing everything possible for the gas masks to malfunction and use them for a person to suffocate,” said Oleksandr.
Human Rights Watch had collected more than a dozen testimonies from people who said they were tortured across a number of facilities in the town. Dozens of others told the organisation that they had family or friends who had been tortured.
Further evidence of atrocities was discovered at a mass burial site in a pine forest on the outskirts of town.More than 440 individual graves have been discovered at the site as well as a mass grave with Ukrainian soldiers.
According to the police, a local funeral service buried civilians at the site under the control of the Russians. A resident also maintained a log of the people buried there. Police said a number of the bodies had signs of torture – hands bound behind their backs, cut wounds – but many had also been killed by shelling.
Izyum, which served as a strategic hub for the Russians to restock their forces further east, was under heavy fire for a month before the Russians captured it in early April.
Many who spoke to Byline Times shared similar stories of survival. They lived in basements, cooked on bonfires when there was a lull in shelling and melted snow for water during the first and coldest weeks of the war. They ate tinned food and then whatever they could grow in their garden.
“The scariest thing is when there was nothing to feed the pets,” said one local named Natalia.
“They stand there and look at you with hungry eyes.”Waiting for humanitarian aid in Izyum. Photo: Natalie Vikhrov
On a sunny autumn morning, she was among dozens of residents waiting in the town square for the daily delivery of humanitarian aid, something locals said was rarely distributed during occupation.
Another resident, 60-year-old Tamara, said the shelling had continued after the city’s occupation but she became used to it. Then the Russians came to their street.
“They bombed us for a month and then came in here. By that time, the fear had left,” Tamara said.
“They came up to us and said hello. We asked: who are you? And they said: yours.”
Tamara said the Russians would check their documents but didn’t hurt them.
“We’re poor, we have an old house and aren’t very interesting,” she said.
Less than half an hour drive from Izyum, Byline Times met a family who at the start of the war fled the city of Kharkiv to a summer home in the small village of Kun’je, thinking it would be safer there. But shortly after, the village was occupied by Russian forces, forcing them to hide in the basement for months.
Tatiana said Russians stole, tortured and threatened local residents, including her husband, who they tried to scare into heading a Russian-controlled local administration.
“They said they would execute you for sabotage,” Tatiana told Byline Times.
Tatiana said the Russians started offering locals Russian passports. The Russians also told them that they were now enemies of Ukraine for being there with them, Tatiana recalled.
In early September, as Ukrainian forces advanced, Russian defence lines collapsed quickly. Tatiana said her family heard gunfire for two days before they saw the Ukrainian armed forces.
When asked how they feel now, both Tatiana and her husband say “free.”
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