They call it ‘The Hole’: Ukrainians describe horrors of Kherson occupation

  • Residents describe detention, torture and death in Kherson
  • The Russian withdrawal ended the nine-month occupation on Friday
  • Those detained include suspected resistance fighters
  • Russia has denied abusing the prisoners
  • UN officials say prisoners of war were mistreated by both sides

Kherson, Ukraine, Nov 16 (Reuters) – Residents of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson call the two-story police station “The Hole.” Vitaly Sardyuk, a pensioner, said he was lucky to make it out alive.

“I stopped,” said the retired medical equipment repairman as he recounted his ordeal in the two-block Russian detention center where he and his wife live in a small Soviet-era apartment.

The green-roofed police building at No. 3 Energy Workers Street was the most infamous of several places where, according to more than half a dozen locals in the recently captured city, people were interrogated and tortured during Russia’s nine-month occupation. . The other was a large prison.

Two residents who live in an apartment block overlooking the police station courtyard said they saw bodies wrapped in white sheets leaving the building, placed in a garage and thrown into a garbage truck 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 Serdic’s account or those of others who spoke to Reuters in Kherson.

Moscow has denied allegations of abuses against civilians and soldiers, and has accused Ukraine of similar abuses in places like Buka.

On Tuesday, the UN human rights office said it had found evidence of torture of prisoners of war by both sides, which the International Criminal Court has classified as a war crime. The Russian abuses were “quite systematic”, the UN official said.

Evidence of abuses is mounting as Russian security forces withdraw from large swathes of the north, east and south.

Those captured in Kherson include people who resisted Russian occupation, residents like Sardyuk who tipped off enemy soldiers’ locations, as well as suspected underground resistance fighters and their associates.

Serdyk said a Russian officer, who demanded to know the location and unit of his son, a soldier in the Ukrainian army, hit him in the legs, back and torso with a trunk and shocked his testicles with a wired electrode.

“I didn’t tell him anything. ‘I don’t know’ was my only answer,” the 65-year-old said in his apartment, which was lit by a single candle.

‘Remember! Remember! Remember!’ There was a constant response.”

‘Pure Sadism’

As Ukrainian soldiers took control of the city on Friday after Russian troops retreated across the Dnipro River, grim memories of life under occupation in Kherson provided unbroken joy and relief.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyi said two days later that investigators had uncovered more than 400 Russian war crimes and found the bodies of both soldiers and civilians in areas liberated from Russian control in the Kherson region.

“I personally saw five bodies being taken out,” said Oleh, 20, who lives in an apartment block overlooking the police station, declining to give his surname. “We saw a hand hanging from the sheet and we thought it was a corpse.”

Speaking separately, 41-year-old Svitlana Bestanic, who lives in the same block and works in a small store between the building and the station, recalls seeing the inmates removing the bodies.

“They would take dead people out and put them in garbage trucks,” she said, describing the stench of rotting corpses in the air. “We witnessed unhappiness in its purest form.”

Reuters reporters visited the police station on Tuesday but were barred from going beyond the courtyard, walled off with razor wire, 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, an account confirmed by Serdic.

Neighbors reported hearing the screams of men and women coming from the station and said that whenever the Russians came out, they wore balaclavas to hide everything but their eyes.

“They came to the store every day,” Bestnik said. “I decided not to talk to them. I was too afraid of them.”

Resistance Fighter

Aliona Lapchuk said she and her eldest son fled Kherson in April after a horrific ordeal at the hands of Russian security forces on March 27, the last time she saw her husband Vitaly.

According to Lapchuk, Vitaly had been an underground resistance fighter since Russian forces captured Kherson on March 2, and she became worried when he did not answer her phone calls.

Soon, she said, three cars with Russian “Z” signs pulled up to her mother’s house, where they lived. They brought Vitaly, who was badly beaten.

The soldiers, who identified themselves as Russian troops, threatened to pull out her teeth when she tried to beat them. They confiscated their mobile phones and laptops, she said, and later found weapons in the basement.

They brutally beat her husband in the basement before dragging him outside.

“He didn’t get out of the basement; they dragged him out. They broke his cheekbone,” she said through tears in the village of Krasne, about 100 km (60 miles) west of Kherson.

Lapchuk and her older son, Andriy, were taken to the police station in Hood and 4, Lutheran Street, Kherson, where she heard her husband being interrogated through a wall. She and Andrey were later released.

After leaving Kherson, Lapchuk wrote to everyone she could think of to try 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 the river, she said, showing photographs taken by a pathologist that showed a birthmark on his shoulder.

Lapchuk said she paid for Vitaly’s burial and has yet to see the grave.

She is convinced that her husband was betrayed by someone very close to the Russians.

‘hole’

Ruslan, 52, who runs a beer store opposite the police station where Serdic was held, said that at the beginning of the business, Russian-made Ural trucks would pull up in front of the gray door every day.

Detainees would be thrown from behind, their hands tied and their heads covered with bags, he said.

“This place was called ‘yam’ (the hole),” he said.

Serhi Polako, 48, a businessman who lives across the street from the station, echoes Ruslan’s account.

He said that after a few weeks in business, Russian National Guard troops stationed at the site were replaced by men driving vehicles emblazoned with the letter “V,” and that’s when the yelling began.

“If there was a hell on earth, he was there,” he said.

About two weeks ago, he said, the Russians released those held in the station in apparent preparation for their retreat.

“Suddenly, they evacuated the place and we realized something was happening,” he told Reuters.

Serdic believes he was betrayed by an informant posing as the father of a Ukrainian serviceman.

He said Russian security personnel handcuffed him, placed a bag over his head, forced him to bend at the waist and frog-marched him into a vehicle.

At the station, he was kept in a cell so cramped that the occupants could not move. Some days the prisoners would get only one meal.

The next day, he was hooded, handcuffed and taken down to the basement. The interrogation and torture lasted for about 90 minutes, he said.

His Russian interrogator knew all his details and his family and said he would arrest his wife unless he cooperated and call his son so he could hear them both screaming under torture, Serdic said.

Two days later, he was released without explanation. His wife found him outside the store where Bestanic worked, unable to walk.

Tom Balmforth reports from Krasne, Ukraine; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Philippa Fletcher

Our Standards: Principles of Thomson Reuters Trust.

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