IZUMI, Ukraine (AP) — When Russian soldiers first caught him, they tied him up, blindfolded him, and threw him into a trench covered with wooden boards for days.
Then they beat him again and again: hammers to the legs, arms, knees, all accompanied by furious denunciations of Ukraine. They took away his passport and his Ukrainian military ID before releasing him.
“No one needs you,” the commander sneered. “We can shoot you at any time. We can bury you half a meter underground. That’s it.”
The brutal encounter at the end of March was just the beginning. Andriy Kotsar will be captured twice by Russian forces in Izium and will be tortured, further exacerbating his pain.
An Associated Press investigation found that torture by Russia in Idium was arbitrary, pervasive, and absolutely routine for both civilians and soldiers in the city. However, the devastated suburbs of Kyiv were occupied for only one month. Idium served as a base for Russian soldiers for about seven months, during which time torture sites were set up throughout.
Based on survivor and police testimony, AP journalists located 10 torture sites in town and were able to enter 5 of them. They included deep shaded pits in residential areas with brick walls carved with dates, damp underground prisons that reeked of urine and rotten food, clinics, police stations and kindergartens. rice field.
The Associated Press spoke with 15 survivors of Russian torture in the Kharkiv region and two families whose loved ones fell into Russian hands. Two of his men were repeatedly kidnapped and abused. A battered and unconscious Ukrainian soldier was shown to her wife and forced to provide information she did not have.
The AP also confirmed that eight men had been tortured to death in Russian custody, according to survivors and family members. All but one were civilians.
At least 30 of the 447 bodies recently unearthed in a mass grave created by the Russians and found in the Izium Forest bore visible signs of torture. public prosecutor’s office. Those injuries corresponded to descriptions of the pain inflicted on the survivors.
AP journalists also saw corpses with their wrists bound in mass graves. Among the trees were hundreds of simple wooden crosses, most marked only with numbers, one said they contained the bodies of 17 Ukrainian soldiers. Officials say at least two mass graves have been found in the town, all of which were heavily mined.
A doctor who treated hundreds of Idium wounded during the Russian occupation said people routinely returned to his emergency room with injuries consistent with torture, including gunshots to his limbs, broken bones, severe bruising and burns. He said there was no one to explain their wounds.
“Even when people came to the hospital, silence was the norm,” said Dr. Yury Kuznetsov, the head of the hospital. He added that one soldier came to treat an injured hand.
Men with ties to the Ukrainian military were repeatedly singled out for torture, and any adult male was at risk of being caught. She said she documented “widespread practices of torture or ill-treatment of civilian detainees” by the Russian military and associated organizations. Torture of soldiers was also systematic, she said.
Any form of torture during armed conflict, whether of prisoners of war or of civilians, is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.
Rachel Denver of Human Rights Watch said: “Torture involves questioning to extort information, but also to punish and sow fear. It sends a chilling message to everyone else.”
no safe haven
AP journalists found the 26-year-old Kotzer hiding in an Idium monastery. His blond hair was neatly tied up in an orthodox fashion, and he wore a beard that curled under his chin. He had no way to safely contact his loved ones who he thought were dead.
In March, after the first torture, Kotzal fled to the gilded Pyshansky Church. Russian soldiers were everywhere and nowhere in Idium was safe.
Hiding inside the icon, Kotzal listened to the roar of Russian armored vehicles outside and contemplated suicide. I don’t know if I survived the
A few days later, a Russian patrol caught him as he emerged from the church. They kept him for a week. His captive joke idea was to shave his legs with a knife and then debate loudly whether to cut off his limbs entirely.
“They, I don’t know exactly what it was, took an iron, maybe a glass rod, and burned the skin bit by bit,” he said.
He knew nothing that could help them. So they released him again, and he took refuge with the monks again. He had nowhere else to go.
By then, the church and monastery complex had become a refuge for about 100 people, including 40 children. Kotzal took a version of monasticism where he lived with his black-robed brothers, helped them care for refugees, and spent his free time contemplating in front of gilded icons. rice field.
Meanwhile, Izium was transforming into a logistics hub for Russia. The town was swarmed with troops and the electricity, gas, water and telephone networks were cut. Izium was effectively cut off from the rest of Ukraine.
scream in the night
It was also in the spring that the Russians first tracked down Mykola Moshakin, driving down a rutted dirt road to a fenced-in Ukrainian soldier’s hut. Moshakin, 38, was not in the same unit as Kotzal, but he enlisted after the war began.
They threw him into a pit filled with water, handcuffed him, and hung him with restraints until his skin was numb. They waited in vain for him to speak.
“They beat me with sticks. “They said, ‘Dance,’ but I didn’t. So they shot me in the leg.”
Three days later, they dropped him off near the hospital and gave the order, “Tell him you had an accident.”
At least two men, a father and a son, both civilians, were taken simultaneously from Moshchakin’s neighborhood. Staring at the ground, the father whispers about his two weeks in the basement. His adult son refuses to talk about it at all.
The family, along with another man who was tortured in a cellar also on the east bank of Izium, spoke on condition of anonymity.
Moshakin was recaptured by another Russian unit a few days later. This time he attended a second school and was regularly beaten along with other Ukrainians. The AP journalist found a discarded Ukrainian soldier’s jacket in the same blue cell he detailed, where the school also served as a base and field hospital for Russian soldiers and was housed there. At least two of his Ukrainians died.
However, the soldiers released Moshakin again. To this day he doesn’t know why.
He also doesn’t understand why they would release him only to catch him a few days later and take him to the crowded garage of a clinic near the railroad tracks. , was imprisoned with him, soldiers and civilians. Two garages were for men, one for women, and his other larger garage (the only one with windows) was for Russian soldiers.
Women were housed in garages closest to the soldiers’ quarters. According to Mosyakyn and Kotsar, their screams were heard at night. Ukrainian intelligence officials said they were regularly raped.
For men, Room 6 was for electrocution. Room 9 was for waterboarding, Moshakin said. He described how he covered his face with a cloth bag and poured water from a kettle to mimic the sensation of drowning. They also connected his toes to electricity and attached electrodes to his ears to shock him.
Here Moshakin saw Russian soldiers drag out the corpses of two civilians who had been tortured to death.
Kotsar was taken to a clinic in July and received slightly different treatments, including a Soviet-era gas mask and leg electrodes. AP journalists also found gas masks at two schools.
By the time the Kotzal arrived, the people had already been there for twelve to sixteen days. They told him that his arm and leg were broken and that people had been taken out to be shot. If he survived, he swore that he would never be captured again.
They released him a few weeks later. He longed for the faces he knew and for people who meant no harm to him. He went back to being a monk.
“When I came out, everything was green. It was very strange because there was no color at all,” he said. “Everything was great and very vivid.”
In mid-August, the bodies of three men were found in a shallow forested pit on the outskirts of town.
Ivan Shabelnyk left home on March 23 with his friends to collect pine cones so that the family could light the samovar and drink tea. they never came back.
Another man brought with them reluctantly told the Schabelnik family about the torture they endured together, first in the basement of a nearby house, and then at the second school. Then he left town.
Their bodies were found by a man digging for firewood in mid-August, the last day of the occupation. He followed the smell of death to a shallow grave in the woods.
Shabelnyk’s hand was shot, his ribs were broken, and his face was unknown. They identified him by the jacket he wore, from the local grain mill where he worked, his grieving mother showed the photo to AP.
“He kept this photo with him, it was taken with him when he was little,” Ludmila Schabelnik said through tears. “Why did they destroy people like him? I don’t understand. Why is our country like this?”
His sister, Olha Zaparoshechenko, walked with journalists through the cemetery to see his grave.
“They tortured civilians at will, like bullies,” she said. “There is only one word, genocide.”
The chief prosecutor of the Kharkiv region, Oleksandr Filchakov, told the Associated Press that it was too early to determine how many people were tortured with Idium, but said the number could easily be in the dozens. .
“Every day I get calls from people who were in the occupied territories asking for information,” he said. “Every day, relatives come to us and tell us that their friends and family members were tortured by Russian soldiers.”
Never miss another
After his last escape, Kotzal hid in a monastery for over a month. Without his identifying documents and phone connection, he was too scared to leave.
Kotsar’s family did not know what had happened to him. They simply reported him missing, like many other Ukrainian soldiers captured on the other side of the front line.
He spoke to AP journalists enthusiastically, and at one point asked them to turn off the cameras so he could calm down. AP reached out to the Commissioner about the missing person issue under special circumstances and confirmed his identity through the missing person report and photos on file. Afterwards, Kotzal’s own forces, who had confused Izium, returned and pursued him.
Kotsar doesn’t know what will happen next. Ukrainian authorities are in the process of restoring his identity documents, without which he has nowhere to go.He wants psychiatric treatment to deal with the trauma of repeated torture and is However, he is staying with a monk.
“Without them, I probably wouldn’t have survived,” he said. “They saved me.”
Kotsar’s first call was to his best friend’s sister — the only one in his circle of loved ones he was sure was in a safe place. He grinned when the connection was made.
“Tell him I’m alive,” he said. “Tell him I’m alive and completely broken.”
Sarah El Deeb contributed from Beirut.
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