Liberation has finally reached the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. But the effects of the brutal Russian occupation remain


Kobyansk, Ukraine
CNN

There is little comfort in the victory of Ukrainian forces in the recently liberated Kobyansk. Russian shells still pound its potholed streets, marring the horizon with plumes of black smoke.

Severe damage can be seen in almost every building. A huge plaque with the image of the Russian flag waving beside the bridge that crosses the Oskil River in the city center, and the words “We are one people with Russia!”

Currently, the Ukrainian army has chased Russian forces over the bridge and appears to be building some momentum across the eastern banks of the river towards Luhansk, a major breakaway region controlled by Moscow. CNN saw the Ukrainian infantry return from the eastern side on foot.

However, within this city, one of several cities in the eastern region of Kharkiv that were liberated, there are telltale signs of a hellish occupation. Ukrainian authorities told CNN that the former police building was used as a vast detention center by the Russians, with up to 400 prisoners held at one time in its cramped, dark cells, with eight or nine prisoners in each room. On one wall remains a brightly painted mural of a Russian soldier with the letter “Z” on his arm, standing next to an elderly woman waving the flag of the former Soviet Empire.

Before CNN was allowed in, a prisoner with his hands tied with a bright blue ribbon was quickly taken outside, put in a car, and driven away.

This may have been a Russian soldier, according to Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU), who is believed to have either deserted his forces or been left behind. The SBU said the prisoner claimed to be a local resident.

Just outside the entrance to the building, there were two Russian flags tied to wooden poles scattered on the ground, one of which had burn marks on it. Inside, litter was scattered on the floors of the damp space. Across the narrow corridor were small rooms on each side, where the Russians used to keep their prisoners.

A few mattresses and little tables were seen in some of the small cells, others only holding a table and two chairs, the remains of what would have been an interrogation room.

Officials told CNN that not all rooms had been cleared of potential explosives. A grenade booby trap was placed on a bench inside a cell, held in place by a can of half-eaten food.

While CNN was walking through the center, an officer of the State Security Administration noticed the trap and wrote, “Grenade!!!” On the wall outside the cell is marked with a black marker and an arrow to indicate exactly which room the investigators should enter. The door was closed.

As investigations continue, Ukrainian officials are discovering other scars as well, such as those from alleged torture.

A former prisoner provided by Ukraine’s security services told CNN that he was imprisoned in the building about a month ago. As he walked down the aisle, he showed CNN the room in which he said the Russians had interrogated him.

“They put me in this chair,” said the former prisoner, who was not mentioned by CNN for his own safety. “There the interrogator sat, and there was a man with the phone and another who helped him.”

The phone was an old filter model that he said was used to send electric shocks to him. His investigator is believed to have been experienced in this method since his time in the Russian Federal Security Service.

The occupiers of the Ukrainian army asked him who he was in contact with, and told them that he was a chef in the army.

“They said to me, ‘You think you’re tough. Let’s find out how hard it is. They also shot me with some kind of pistol. Here and in the leg,'” he told CNN, pointing to his chest and leg.

“They promised me that I would never see the sun and the sky again unless they forced me into a minefield,” he said. “The main thing is to stay alive and survive. It took me a week and a half to recover when I got out.”

Two Russian flags, one with burn marks, appear outside the detention center.

He is not the only man dealing with the scars of a brutal invasion, detention and alleged torture.

As the authorities continue to investigate and cleanse the liberated towns of the Kharkiv region, they are finding more and more evidence of detention centers and cells used for torture.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Saturday that “more than 10 torture chambers” used by the occupation forces have so far been found in the area. “When the occupiers fled, they dropped the torture devices,” he said.

CNN has contacted the Russian government for comment but has not received a response.

Kobyansk may have recently been liberated but the city has become a ghost town strewn with devastation and debris.

Very few locals still congregate in its empty shell.

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