By ELENA BECATOROS and LEO CORREA – Associated Press
KOZACHA LOPAN, Ukraine (AP) — In a damp basement behind the local supermarket, metal bars wrap around one corner of the room to form a large cell. Dirty sleeping bags and quilts show three places to sleep on styrofoam sheets for damp earth floor insulation. In the corner, two black buckets served as toilets.
A few yards (meters) outside the barred cell, three dilapidated chairs stand around a table, cigarette butts and empty pumpkin seed pods strewn on the ground around them.
Ukrainian authorities said it was a makeshift prison where Russian forces abused detainees before Ukrainian troops swept into the village of Kozacha Lopan in a major counteroffensive in the region of Kharkiv this month. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said more than 10 such “torture chambers” had been discovered in the area since the hasty withdrawal of Russian troops last week. Claims of what happened in the room could not be independently confirmed.
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Kozacha Lopan, whose edge lies less than two kilometers (just over a mile) from the Russian border, was recaptured by Ukrainian forces on September 11.
In a statement published on its Telegram channel on Saturday, the prosecutor’s office of the Kharkiv region, in whose jurisdiction Kozacha Lopan is located, said that the room seen by AP journalists had been used as a torture cell during occupation of the area. He said the Russian forces had set up a local police force that ran the prison, adding that documents confirming the operation of the police department and instruments of torture had been seized. The press release states that an investigation is underway.
Footage released by prosecutors showed a Russian TA-57 military phone with extra wires and alligator clips attached. Ukrainian officials have accused Russian forces of using Soviet-era radiotelephones as a power source to shock prisoners during interrogations.
In his nightly address to the nation on Saturday, Zelenskyy mentioned another location, Kozacha Lopan station, where he said “a torture chamber and electric torture tools were found.” AP reporters did not see this place.
Zelenskyy compared Russians to Nazis during World War II.
“And they will respond the same way – both on the battlefield and in the courtrooms,” he said.
Burial sites have been discovered in some areas where Russian forces have been pushed back, including in the town of Izium, where Ukrainian officials say more than 440 graves have been discovered near the town’s cemetery. Zelenskyy said they contained the bodies of civilian adults and children, as well as soldiers, showing signs of violent death, some likely due to torture.
Vitalii, a National Guard commander, said his team was searching for graves of possible abuse victims at the Kozacha Lopan detention center. He asked to be identified by his first name only for security reasons.
The team also recovers bodies from the battlefield, which lie where they fell in agricultural fields or inside burnt-out tanks. The Russian army has been pushed back across the border into Russia after occupying the area for months. But artillery shells are still whizzing through the air, fired from inside Russia and landing with echoing blasts and billows of black smoke on Ukrainian territory.
Despite the shelling, a small group of soldiers meanders along a rutted mud track to where a dead Ukrainian fighter lies, spotted by a drone used to search for bodies and shallow graves.
“It’s a risk. We are always risking our lives and at any moment there could be shells coming from Russian territory,” Vitalii said.
The dead Ukrainian is lying on his back with a bulletproof vest and helmet, a cap underneath to block the sun. The body has been there for a long time.
They document the scene and lift the remains into a body bag before heading further along the track towards a charred Russian tank. It only takes one member of the team to remove the body bag containing the remains of the Russian found inside.
Autopsies will follow, and details of the sites recorded and passed on to investigators investigating possible war crimes, Vitalii said.
All along this border zone, where fierce fighting has raged, the villages bear the devastating scars of the war: bombed and burnt houses, roads dug with craters from exploded mortar shells, crushed cars lying on the side of the roads.
In the days following the Russians’ hunt, residents returned to see what remains of their homes.
“Three days before we decided to leave, it was hell here” of all the shootings, said Larysa Letiucha, 56, in the nearby village of Prudyanka. “He was flying everywhere. It hissed and exploded. We hid in the basement and…our door was blown off.
She left with her family in April and returned to check on her property days after Ukrainian soldiers recaptured the village.
“I saw a horror. I still can’t pull myself together,’ she said as she recounted her first sight of what was left of her home. “We have lived here all our lives. We were building it, doing renovations. Our whole life has been invested here.
The windows are blown out and the ceiling is leaking from which a patch is missing due to an explosion. In the small house that his parents built on the same land, the entire back part is missing. Shrapnel and debris litter the house.
“Our houses are comfortable even though we live in the village,” Letiucha said. “It’s a horror. I don’t even know when we are going to renovate and rebuild all this.
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