We pass cell blocks and rusting outdoor exercise cages, pass through guard rooms, turnstiles and heavy iron gates, and travel along fences topped with reams of barbed wire in this Soviet-era prison. until we reach one of the epicenters of Russia’s brutal occupation of Ukraine. .
It’s here, in a dark, rubble-strewn hallway, that Oleksander and another former prisoner who didn’t want to be interviewed say Russian guards executed Ukrainian prisoners for chanting or pro-tattoos. Ukrainians. CNN identifies Oleksander only by his first name for security reasons.
As Oleksander pushes a strong red iron cell door down the hall, burning wood falls from the ceiling, smoke billows, and glowing embers rise. The ceiling of this part of the cellblock is lit and burning beams are collapsing.
This is where the Russian troops brought people to torture them, Oleksander tells us. After the Russians withdrew from Kherson, “they set fire to [to] to destroy evidence of their crimes,” he said. It is impossible to enter to check, because of the flames.
The Russian retreat was swift – some 30,000 troops, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, executed their withdrawal within three days of Russia’s announcement of their departure. They had been preparing for the move for several weeks and attributed it to the poor quality of supply lines on the Dnipro River, which Ukraine had been intentionally targeting with US-made HIMARS rocket launchers since late July.
Back in the daylight outside the cell block, Oleksander says he was arrested in his apartment by Russian police, accused of being a criminal. He says they deliberately broke his leg by kneeling on it as they restrained him.
He tells us that it was not his first time in the Kherson prison, having previously spent time there for a criminal offense. But unlike the Ukrainian guards, he said, the Russians were unnecessarily brutal. “They abused everyone, kept us starving, used us as free labor to fix their military vehicles, beat us as they wanted,” Oleksander says.
Fear of employees
Kosta’s experience was different – his alleged abuse was more psychological than physical, although he claims to have experienced a lot of it as well.
The Russians suspected him of being part of an underground network of saboteurs targeting their officials and facilities, says Kosta, who CNN identifies only by his first name for security reasons.
Shortly after underground militants blew up a Russian police vehicle near Kosta’s apartment in Kherson, he says 11 heavily armed Russians showed up at his door and forced their way in.
Closer to 30 than 20, Kosta doesn’t let us show his face to the camera. He says the Russians have him in a database and knew his cellphone details when they showed up at his apartment.
They were so prepared they knew where he went to school, Kosta says, and accused him of being a former member of the “Right Sector”, a far-right nationalist organization with political and military wings. He denies belonging to the organization.
When we meet in the central square of Kherson amid the cacophony of liberation celebrations, Kosta is less jubilant than the others around him. He says he needs time to adjust to the new freedoms and he fears that Russian collaborators, still on the run, will target him.
Many Ukrainians who came to chat with us during the first heady days of liberation told us of their surprise at the number of people they knew who had collaborated with the Russians when they took over the city in early March. .
A vivacious 71-year-old former marine engineer who spoke to us just hours after the Russians left was particularly animated on the subject. “A lot of people who were born here, educated here, worked here, they welcomed the Orcs (anti-Russian insult), I was stunned, I hated it,” said the man, who did not gave his name.
The reasons for such collaboration vary. Conversations with townspeople suggest a minority were pro-Russian and thought Russians would be here to stay, making collaboration the path to an easier life; others were forced by the Russians to collaborate.
Unlike Kosta, the former engineer was less worried about the reappearance of those who worked with the Russians and more concerned about them being held accountable. “I mean burn those people who collaborated with foreign forces in hell,” he said.
“It was really scary”
In any other circumstance, Kosta seems like the kind of guy who can handle himself – nervous and judging by his handshake, strong – but he says the Russians put him through a psychological wringer.
It started, he said, while he was still inside the apartment when the Russians first detained him. “A guy came up to me with a gun, with a gun to his head and started asking questions. Do you know what [will] going on with your wife? If you won’t tell us the truth? I say okay, I guess I’ll tell everyone, just start asking questions. They say no, you tell us no questions asked.”
It was just the beginning, says Kosta. When they took him to the police station and put him in a cell, the mental torture worsened. “There’s nothing that can prepare you for it,” he says.
They again pointed a gun to his head, he said, and told him to speak – again, no questions asked, to increase the pressure on him to speak – and pulled the trigger. Emotions etch deeper into Kosta’s face as he explains the torment. “I’m not sure that all life passes[ed] before my eyes, but it was really scary,” he says.
Kosta does not claim to be part of this resistance organized in part by the Ukrainian intelligence service, or SBU, but many people in Kherson helped where they could. A hotel owner told CNN he hid injured Ukrainian soldiers in his basement for several months until they could be brought to safety.
The Russians’ hold on Kherson depended on the eradication of pro-Ukrainian sentiment. Kosta knew that if he couldn’t convince the Russians he was innocent, they would take him deeper into Russian-held territory for further questioning.
After the mock execution, he said, they attempted mock electrocutions. “They put electricity to my testicles…but don’t start the electricity.”
He said he was prepared to snap if the torture got very physical. “I understand [with] the real torture that no one can bear,” he says. Indeed, in the cells below his, he says he could hear people screaming and crying for their mothers as they were beaten to extract confessions.
Through it all, he didn’t crack and, without hard evidence, he says, the Russians let him go – but he still finds himself looking over his shoulder.
Kosta may feel some relief in the coming weeks. A Ukrainian reconnaissance commander whom CNN met months ago during the push into Kherson arrived in the city on Monday with a stated mission: root out locals who had worked with the Russians.
How the Ukrainian military treats these suspects will be a true measure of their willingness to separate themselves from the Russian-style brutality that Kherson has endured for most of 2022.