Former detainees in liberated Kherson claim that Russia practices brutality and torture under the occupation

Kherson, Ukraine

Oleksandr’s restless, pale blue eyes speak as loudly as his words. He’s on edge, and for good reason, as he returns to the prison in the newly liberated city of Kherson, where he says Russian guards beat him daily.

We traverse cell blocks and rusting outdoor exercise cages, navigate guard rooms, turnstiles and heavy iron doors, and travel along fences topped with bundles of barbed wire in this Soviet-era prison until we reach one of the epicenters of Russia’s brutal occupation of Ukraine.

Here, in a dark, rubble-strewn corridor, Oleksandr and another former prisoner who didn’t want to be interviewed say Russian guards executed Ukrainian prisoners for pro-Ukrainian chants or tattoos. CNN only identifies Oleksander by his first name for security reasons.

As Oleksandr presses on a solid red iron door at the end of the corridor, burning wood drips from the roof, smoke billows, and glowing embers fall. The ceiling in this part of the cell is on fire and burnt wood is falling.

This is where Russian troops brought people to be tortured, Oleksandr tells us. After the Russians withdrew from Kherson, “they set fire [to] To destroy evidence of their crimes.” Impossible to enter to check because of the flames.

The Russian withdrawal was swift—about 30,000 troops, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, carried out their withdrawal within three days of Russia announcing their departure. They had been preparing for the move for several weeks and blamed it on the weak supply lines across the Dnipro River, which Ukraine had been purposely targeting with US-made HIMARS missile launchers since late July.

Back in broad daylight outside the cell, Oleksandr says the Russian police arrested him in his apartment for crimes. He says they deliberately broke his leg by kneeling on it while they tied him up.

He tells us that it was not the first time he was in a Kherson prison, having previously served time there for a criminal offense. But unlike the Ukrainian guards, he says, the Russians were unnecessarily brutal. “They abused everyone, kept us hungry, used us as free labor to repair their military vehicles, and beat us all they wanted,” says Oleksandr.

Russia has previously denied allegations of war crimes and claimed its forces do not target civilians, despite ample evidence gathered by international human rights experts, criminal investigators and international media at multiple locations.

A former prisoner holds prison keys in Kherson Central Prison after the city was liberated by Ukrainian forces.

Kosti’s experience was different — the alleged abuse was more psychological than physical, though he says he experienced a lot of that, too.

The Russians suspect he is part of a secret network of saboteurs targeting their officials and facilities, says Costa, whom CNN knows only by his first name for security reasons.

Mysterious car bombs and other explosions have become a nagging concern for the Russian-installed local administration, whose head, Kirill Strimosov, died in a sudden and unexplained car accident during the final days of the Russian occupation.

Not long after underground activists blew up a Russian police car near Kosta’s apartment in Kherson, he said 11 heavily armed Russians showed up at his door and forced their way in.

Closer to 30 than 20, Kosta won’t let us show his face on camera. He says the Russians put him in a database, and knew his cell phone details when they showed up at his apartment.

They were well prepared, knew where he had gone to school, Costa says, and had previously accused him of being a 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 Kherson’s central city square amidst the cacophony of liberation celebrations, Kosti is less elated than the others around him. He says it takes time to adjust to the new freedoms and he worries that Russian collaborators, who are still at large, might target him.

Several Ukrainians who came to talk to us during the first few days of liberation told us of their amazement at how many people they knew had cooperated with the Russians when they first took control of the city in early March.

The 71-year-old former naval engineer who came to talk to us a few hours after the Russians were gone was particularly moving about it. The unnamed man said: “Many people who were born here, educated here, work here, welcomed goblins (anti-Russian insult), I was amazed, and hated it.”

The reasons for this cooperation vary. Conversations with people in town indicate that the minority is pro-Russian and believed that the Russians would be there to stay, making cooperation the way to an easier life; The Russians forced others to cooperate.

Unlike Kosti, the former engineer was less concerned about the resurgence of those who worked with the Russians and more about being held accountable. He said, “I want to say burn in hell those people who cooperated with foreign forces.”

In any other circumstance, Costa seems like the kind of guy who can handle himself—wired and, judging by his handshake, tough—but he says the Russians put him in a psych gang.

He said it started when he was still inside the apartment when the Russians first detained him. “A guy comes up to me with a gun and a gun to my head and starts asking questions. You know what [will] happen with your wife? If you don’t tell us the truth? I say ok I guess I’ll tell everyone, just start asking questions. They say no, you will tell us without questions.

Costa says this was just the beginning. When they took him to a police station and put him in a cell, the psychological torture worsened. “There’s nothing that can prepare you for that,” he says.

He said they put a gun to his head again, told him to talk—again, without questions, to increase the pressure on him to talk—and then pulled the trigger. Emotions run deeper on Costa’s face as he explains the agony. “I’m not sure that all life goes by[ed] before my eyes but it was really scary.”

Kosta does not claim to be part of that resistance organized in part by the Intelligence Service of Ukraine, or SBU, but many people in Kherson helped where they could. One hotel owner told CNN that he hid wounded Ukrainian soldiers in his basement for several months so they could be smuggled to safety.

The Russians’ hold on Kherson depended on eliminating pro-Ukrainian sentiment. Costa knew that if he could not convince the Russians that he was innocent, they would take him deeper into Russian-controlled territory for further interrogations.

After the mock execution, he says, they tried a fake electrocution. “They put electricity into my testicles…but they didn’t start the energy.”

He said he prepared himself to crack if the torture was too physical. “I understand [with] It is the real torture that no one can take.” In fact, in the cells below his house, he said he could hear people screaming and crying for their mothers as they were being beaten to confess.

Through it all he’s not broken, and without hard evidence, he says, the Russians let him go — but he still finds himself looking over his shoulder.

Costa may feel some relief in the coming weeks; The Ukrainian reconnaissance chief met CNN months ago while lobbying Kherson and arrived in the city on Monday with one stated mission: to root out residents who worked with the Russians.

How the Ukrainian military handles these suspects will be a true measure of how much they want to separate themselves from the Russian-style brutality that Khersones have endured for most of 2022.

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