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Confession

“They sawed my husband's teeth off, he screamed in pain, and I heard it all”: Kherson locals on life under Russian occupation

Victoria Ponomareva

The Russian army seized Kherson in early spring last year. After the city was liberated, Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) discovered torture chambers and hundreds of graves spread across the city. Kherson locals told The Insider how the Russian military abducted and tortured people in basements, stole cars, looted homes, and forced them to work for the occupation authorities by issuing death threats.

ALL CARDS
  • Olha Kuts: “The investigator moralized me while the men in the neighboring cell were screaming in pain.”

  • Lyudmila Vovchuk: “People were constantly being led out of the staircase with a bag on their heads.”

  • Maria (name changed): “They went around our apartment and took whatever they liked.”

  • Anya (name changed): “The ransom amounts were outrageous, 5 thousand dollars.”

  • Marina Martynenko: “When we tore down billboards, locals cried and then burned them themselves.”

Читать на русском языке

Olha Kuts: “The investigator moralized me while the men in the neighboring cell were screaming in pain.”

I’ve lived in Kherson all my life, and worked with children – I taught them to play musical instruments. The day before the invasion, we were about to go to work after the [Covid-19] quarantine. It felt like normal life was coming back. But in the morning a close friend called me and told me that war had begun. No one before that knew what Grads [BM-21 multiple rocket launchers] or rockets were. Only when the Russian military entered the city did we begin to realize little by little the horror going on around us.

There are many people of different nationalities in Kherson: Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, and Armenians. The war helped us understand that Ukraine is our home, we’ve all become one. People began to come out in mass rallies, and the Russian military did not understand why they were not greeted with joy. The protests went on all through March and April – we tried to prove that they weren’t welcome, no one had asked them to come here.

Closer to the summer, the occupiers began to indoctrinate us with their views and reshape things in their own way. In May, I began hearing stories from people I knew who saw men being dragged out of buses, beaten and taken to unidentified locations. At first, no one touched ordinary people: the soldiers went around the city and carried out searches in line with their lists. They were more interested in politicians, volunteers, and former police officers.

As the “referendum” approached, the situation got worse: the occupiers began setting up roadblocks and checking people's phones on the streets. When they found something suspicious, they took it away for interrogation, which in most cases meant beatings and torture in basements. At the end of the summer the hunt for activists began, and I realized that as a blogger I was in the danger zone.

I started a TikTok, where I looked for moral support from other Ukrainians. At that time there was a difficult situation in the country. The people of Kherson began to think that everyone had forgotten about them – the occupiers were pressing on, and the Ukrainian authorities seemed to be doing nothing. By making videos on TikTok, I tried not only to show all of Ukraine that Kherson was fighting for its freedom, but also to prove to my followers that we were not alone. I started to carry out live streams and gained a significant audience, but that drew the attention of the occupation authorities.

On the eve of [Ukraine’s] Independence Day on August 24, the school called me and offered to go back to work under the auspices of the Russians. I flatly refused, and a couple of days later 15 people with machine guns burst into our house and took us away. I spent ten days in a basement. My husband spent two months there.

One of the torture chambers where Olha and her husband Valeriy were kept
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One of the torture chambers where Olha and her husband Valeriy were kept

All that time we were kept in opposite cells. We found out that Elena Naumova, another famous blogger from Kherson, was also held in the same place. There were no other girls there except for us – Elena and I were the first ones they took.

When they brought us in, they immediately put me under interrogation – they asked who I was, where I was from, how I became such an ardent patriot. At that time my husband was being beaten in a nearby cell. They were treating men particularly harshly. I heard my husband's inhuman screams, which were mixed with the screams of other men – they were squealing in pain. They kept moralizing me and then sent me “to think” in a damp, cold cell with bare concrete, two chairs and shabby walls.

While I was being interrogated, I could hear my husband's inhuman screams.

Cameras were installed in every room and they filmed us 24 hours a day. We could only take a short nap when they left – that is, after about two in the morning.

If someone from the military came in, I had to put a bag over my head right away and not take it off. Sometimes they would break in, immediately hitting me on the head and hands. They would hit me with anything they could find – police batons, bottles. They just hit me and left. Once I dared to ask why they were doing this, and the answer was simple: because I am Ukrainian and we all harass the Russian-speaking population in Kherson. 70% of people in our city speak Russian, even if you look at my family – my mother’s Russian – I never felt any discrimination. But it was useless to try and prove anything: they didn't hear or understand anything. Perhaps they were jealous because they saw that I’m pretty happy: I have a family, close friends, and a loved one who took all the blame so no one would touch me.

I was luckier than my husband: I wasn’t electrocuted. Unfortunately, my husband was electrocuted, had his back teeth sawn off, and ribs fractured from frequent beatings. I saw him lose consciousness and the soldiers literally had to drag his body into the cell. They could leave him there for four days or a week without food or water. In the first month he was only physically traumatized, and when my husband was barely alive, they started crushing him mentally. They told him that I wasn’t a blogger, but an agent and that I worked for the SBU and that Kyiv had written me a script.

They told my husband that I was an agent, not a blogger, and that I worked for the SBU and that Kyiv had written me a script.

On the second day I realized that I needed to go to the bathroom. I heard someone walking around outside the door – new people were being brought in and taken out all the time, and there was always someone on duty in the room. I knocked and said that I needed to go to the toilet, to which I was told, “You Ukrainian scum and you don't deserve this! Soil yourself like an animal.” I had to defecate in one of the corners of the cell. Then they at least gave me a bucket. Maybe I was just lucky, as the guards on duty rotated – some were tougher and some were kinder.

You're Ukrainian scum, soil yourself like an animal.

They fed us once a day, most often with rotten food. The first two days I refused to eat, we were given canned meat, covered with grease from top to bottom. My protests were always answered by throwing food in my face. And we had no showers, of course.

Then they started giving us local products, though they were also expired. When I opened a container with something like porridge, it smelled awful. We were given 30-40 seconds to eat. Because of that I lost 12 kilos (26.5 pounds) – everybody who was in captivity lost weight instantly. The situation was no better with water. At first they gave me half a liter for three days, and then, having realized that I was scum and a Ukrainian Nazi, they started bringing water with rusty flakes from the toilet. I already had a kidney disease, but it got worse during my time in captivity – I developed [kidney] stones, and it became unbearable to go to the bathroom.

They brought water with rust flakes from the toilet, and it made my kidney disease worse.

I think I survived only because one of the interrogators had a kind of personal sympathy for me. He never touched me or called me names like the others. He’d bring me a bun in addition to the porridge if he was on duty.

We discussed my TikTok videos at the interrogations. They asked me why Kherson was Ukraine and why I spoke ill of the Russian military in my videos, why I hated them so much. But why should I love them? They came and ruined my life, invaded my home. I was forced to watch my students flee the city under fire. How can I smile after that and tell [the occupiers] that they’re awesome? They’re used to having someone command them at all times, but there’s no such thing in Kherson – we’re a free country, and everyone says and does what they want.

I was offered to work for the Russian government to the very last. When they realized that my family was one of my weak points, they started blackmailing me and threatening to kill all my relatives. It's not an easy situation: If I’d agreed, in Ukraine they would have given me 15 years in prison for cooperation, and if I refused, they could have taken me to Russia. But I decided that if they [wanted to] kill me, then I’d let them, but I’d never agree to cooperate with these people. My husband had the same attitude.

On the tenth day I developed a mouth infection (we were all fed from the same spoon, and the water bottles were dirty because of the rust). My throat was very swollen, which made me gasp a lot and I asked to call a doctor. They took me to an interrogation room. After they made sure that I was in a really bad state, they sent me back to my cell. After a while they came and told me to get ready for a firing squad, but I didn't have anything besides a plastic bag anyway. When they were loading me into the car, I had already accepted the fact that I could die, but I was comforted by the thought that I had done everything in good conscience.

I was actually brought home and placed under house arrest. They took away all my papers so I couldn't leave the city and gave me a set of rules: don't contact anyone, don't go out, and make my parents tell my friends and the rest of Kherson that I was either dead or gone.

Olha Kuts and her husband
Olha Kuts and her husband

When I came back home, I was in a state of mute shock: the occupiers had taken everything, even my lighter – a gift from my husband.

All that time they came to check on me, to make sure I was being quiet and really didn't go out. They told me to forget about my husband and, of course, they wouldn't give me any information about him. We were barred from any kind of contact, as in their eyes we were two terrorists. My husband was told that if they let him go, he shouldn’t contact me under any circumstances. They were sure that Kherson would be theirs forever and that the city couldn’t exist in any other way.

One day they came and ordered me and my husband to pack for evacuation to Ukraine, as they said there was nothing for terrorists to do in Kherson. Evacuation wasn’t an option for me due to my health – I paid for my freedom and gave them a suitcase with my husband's things. It was very difficult to cope with mentally: I didn't know where he was and what condition he was in. He could have been taken to the Crimea for a trial, or he could have been killed a long time ago.

Two days before he came back, I resigned myself to the fact I would never see him again.

Lyudmila Vovchuk: “People were constantly being led out of the staircase with a bag on their heads.”

After the occupation, it was scary at first, a lot of fake news caused panic. Prices quadrupled, so we bought everything in the cars standing in the market. Some went to Crimea to buy food and medicine, some brought them from Zaporizhzhia, but all Ukrainian products were soon banned. There were also those who shopped in Russian stores, usually people who cooperated with the occupation authorities and received their salaries in roubles or other benefits. We didn’t take roubles as a matter of principle and paid only in hryvnias.

Lyudmila Vovchuk
Lyudmila Vovchuk

After the occupation, it was scary at first, a lot of fake news caused panic. Prices quadrupled, so we bought everything in the cars standing in the market. Some went to Crimea to buy food and medicines, some brought them from Zaporizhzhia, but all Ukrainian products were soon banned. There were also those who shopped in Russian stores, usually people who cooperated with the occupation authorities and received their salaries in roubles or other benefits. We didn’t take roubles as a matter of principle and paid only in hryvnias.

We didn’t learn about the liberation of Kherson immediately – there was no light or communication. [The Russians] started jamming the networks in May, and that lasted until the end of the occupation. We didn't buy Russian SIM cards and we didn't use mobile Internet, as it was impossible to access any Ukrainian websites – you could only open something with a VPN.

We didn't need a phone, and not many people took one into the city – there could have been problems at checkpoints if the military had found anything related to support for Ukraine. For that, they could put someone into a database, after which they'd ban them from leaving the city.

It was difficult mentally: the occupiers stole cars right at the checkpoint, took them from parking lots of residential buildings, and also broke down apartment doors and took out everything they could. Our friends have a private home, where the occupiers broke into and looked them in the face and said, “You only have a day to leave, we’re going to live here now.”

After six p.m., the locals tried to stay off the streets so as not to run into the occupiers driving stolen cars around the city. But on occasion, Khersonians also looted, smashing windows to help the occupiers remove equipment and expensive items from the malls. In such cases, there was no one to turn to for help – the police were no longer functioning, and the territorial defense was banned from entering the city.

From the windows of our apartment, we could often see people with a bag over their heads being taken out of the entryway. When military cars pulled in by our apartment block, you couldn’t tell which neighbor's door would be kicked in today. Many local politicians drove out using fake papers, because only one road was always open. The occupiers used it to deliver their equipment to cities like Mykolaiv, using a convoy of civilians as cover. Then this road was closed and another was opened – to Kryvyi Rih, and after the explosion of the bridge the direction to Zaporizhzhia was opened.

It was virtually impossible to leave Kherson without money or a car. Buses charged 5-8 thousand [hryvnias] ($140-220) per person. The most difficult way out was through Crimea, as there were filtration camps, after which you could either be brought back to Kherson or taken away.

They tried to take the children to [summer] camps, away from the fighting. Our neighbors sent their children to Crimea, but they couldn't bring them back – [the Russian authorities] ended up taking them and their children to the Krasnodar region. They took almost all of the orphaned children from the orphanages back to Russia, and the rest of them tried to be placed with distant relatives at the very least.

Our neighbors sent their children to Crimea, but they couldn't bring them back.

During the occupation, my husband worked in a garage fixing cars, and he was soon reported to the authorities by the locals. The occupiers came to my husband with guns and demanded he cooperate with them. He, of course, refused, so they beat him and threatened to shoot him and his family at the first checkpoint if he tried to leave the city. My husband's friend was less fortunate – he was kidnapped and held for three months in Hola Prystan. Two of his cars were stolen.

But people didn't always die or suffer because of their volunteer work. My husband's friend was killed when he was with his family at the dacha (country home) outside of town. The occupiers just didn't like his behavior. His death was later declared “a drunken brawl with a lethal outcome”.

At the water canal, people were forcibly given Russian passports and the men were sent to fight on the side of the occupiers. There’s still no information about them. Those who refused were sent to the Kherson detention center. This is all incredibly scary, but we waited until the last moment for the AFU [Armed Forced of Ukraine], and even sewed [Ukrainian] flags to order. Then our joy was replaced by stress. Two weeks after the city was liberated, the Russians began shelling the apartment buildings, and we decided to leave for our own safety. It became scary to walk around the city again, because you never know where the [Russians] might walk in disguise.

Maria (name changed): “They went around our apartment and took whatever they liked.”

Once my mother and I were in a pharmacy talking to the pharmacist in Ukrainian. A man in civilian clothes came in and asked the pharmacist – “They make you speak Ukrainian here?” My mother turned to him and said that in her country she could speak whatever language she wanted. And he looked at her and said that he would take her “down to the basement” for that kind of talk, and there “they would decide who would speak what language.” My mother understood that there was nothing to argue about. We bought our medicines and went out, then walked and cried silently on the way home.

A man in civilian clothes threatened to take my mother “down to the basement” for speaking Ukrainian.

But it's possible to adapt to that. There was hell when the occupiers took my brother away. They came at six in the morning – about 10 people with machine guns, wearing armor, helmets and shields. My father opened the door. When they saw him, they immediately started shouting, “Come out to the front!” He went barefoot, followed by my mother, and the occupiers began to enter the apartment one by one, my sister had to run out in a blanket.

They interrogated mom and dad right in the entryway, trying to find out where my brother was. We had an alibi ready for that: my brother left for Poland, we don't communicate with him. Then they started looking at contacts in our phones, the photo gallery, asking if we had Signal [an encrypted messenger] installed, but we had deleted all correspondence long ago , so they didn’t find anything suspicious.

But no matter how hard we tried to save my brother, in July they still tracked him down and took him away. He was at his friend's house, and they took him away too. They probably knew where to look, though we tried our best to be careful – we always watched for someone following us when we went outside, we kept the boys from leaving the house.

The day my brother was taken away, both my sister and his fiancée were searched. The most cynical thing was that they showed her the keys from my brother’s apartment when they took him away. Two days later we found him; he was being held in a detention center, a kind of local torture chamber. We brought him food parcels and asked to see the investigators, but no one would let us do that. But when we came and knocked on the door, we were told: “Go home, there are no investigators here and never have been, someone from the military was playing a joke on you.” Then a car arrived and an occupier got out, came to the door, rang the bell and said: “This is the falcon. I've come to work.” Some man opened it for him, and my brother's fiancée pointed her finger at him and said, “Isn't that the investigator?” They nodded, but they shut the door in front of us anyway. It went on like that all summer.

Every time we came in, the occupiers standing at the door mocked us, saying, “We'll fix your repeat offenders and let you go home.” Then they took away two more of our acquaintances, and we also brought them packages. The one who took them told us – “Are all your friends in Kherson repeat offenders?”

He called us “the three musketeers,” because we always went in threes. One day we came again, and he said to us, “Maybe we should take you away, too? How much longer can we go around carrying these parcels? Leave the food here and go, instead you stand here asking questions.” It pissed him off that we were trying to find out what my brother's condition was. He would always say, “We don't have any complaints here.”

While we were standing in line, we saw different things – some people were beaten up, some were taken out and not brought back. I remember there was one man who was approached by military officers and said: “Give us your car, we need it.” He replied: “No.” And they said: “We're going to beat you up now, hold you in the basement and then see what you say.” And the man says, “Today the car and tomorrow the wife or what?” One of the parcels had “Iryna” written on it. As it turned out, the man had brought the package to his wife.

If you don't give us your car, we'll beat you up and send you to the basement.

A month and a half after my brother’s arrest, the occupiers came to one of the apartments where he was hiding. A motion-sensor camera went off. The owner's girlfriend is a nurse, and the occupiers took out a box of thermometers, a pulse oximeter, a tonometer, power banks, a laptop, and flash drives. When we watched the video, we were shocked. They calmly walked around the apartment and looted because they didn't notice the camera for the first seven minutes. They took all the jewelry, turned over things in the closets and asked each other: “Do you want this? And this? Guys, who wants this?” I shudder when I think of it.

In September we came back with another package for my brother, but he was no longer in the detention center. We were told he would be tried in Crimea for damaging Russia, and we were told not to get upset as he could have been killed, but he would just be convicted. Then we bought Russian SIM cards and started calling Crimean government agencies, who constantly told us that there was “no way that could happen.” “Maybe your brother was detained by the Ukrainian military in Russian uniform?” – they said. That broke my heart.

All we have now is a response from the FSB [Russia’s Federal Security Service] with the following wording: “the person in question is being held in conditions that exclude the possibility of a threat to life and health,” the person is “being investigated.» We appealed to the SBU, the police, and the Red Cross. Eventually we succeeded in getting my brother put on the list for an exchange – we were told that he was on the national search list, and that he was listed as a person held by the Russian authorities.

When our soldiers came into Kherson, we didn't even know about it – there was no communication at all, and it was a pleasant surprise. And the fact that we lived for the last 20 days without water, light and heat was irrelevant. We got drinking water from the church, and when it rained, we collected rainwater – service water. It was cold in the bathroom, steam was coming out of our mouths. So we bathed very quickly, warmed the water in pots, and dried our hair over gas stoves. We were lucky that we had gas, because some people had electric stoves. In the evening we read over a candle, but after the arrival of the AFU that didn’t bother us anymore – the main thing was that we were free.

We took drinking water from the church, and when it rained, we collected rainwater, and dried our hair over gas stoves.

Anya (name changed): “The ransom amounts were outrageous, 5 thousand dollars.”

I’m from the Kherson region, I lived near Henichesk. I came to Kherson to study back in 2012 and met my future husband here. Now my family is scattered both on the left and right bank [of the Dnipro river]. The last time I saw my relatives before the war was in early February.

I’m a makeup artist by trade. Almost all my clients left at the beginning of the invasion, but I continued to receive the rest at home. Word of mouth worked well, and by early September I had more new clients than old ones. At the end of September, almost all the clients left, and my work became a hobby.

There was Wi-Fi in the house for a while, and I could text my friends, which was both distracting and comforting. Later we forgot what the Internet was, and we only used phones to take pictures. People in the city communicated through paper flyers on poles near bus stops and markets – just like in the old days.

People often came to me from my home village. They managed to visit loved ones who were still there. My husband and I were afraid to drive across the steppes and pass twenty-two checkpoints – we had enough information from our fellow villagers, and after the referendum we tried not to take unnecessary risks. My husband is a young guy, and we understood what could happen to him on the streets. At first I wasn't afraid to go out, but it was because of stupidity and a feeling of suppressed aggression, of hatred toward the occupiers, who could be found even in a store. It was just frustrating to see them here. I realized that I tried to avoid them so as not to say anything unnecessary. I memorized routes where the risk of running into the military or a roadblock was minimal. But I had a regular client who lived on Ostriv – an area where it was impossible to avoid a roadblock. And every time she went to another part of town, she was asked to hand in her phone for inspection.

For men it was even harder: sometimes they not only took them out of the car and checked their phones, but undressed them completely on the street, trying to find nationalist tattoos. There was a case when the Russians found a work chat room of a friend of ours, who worked in the Kherson municipality before the occupation. His colleagues were discussing the situation in the city. The military took down his passport details, searched him completely and put him on a list marked as a “member of an unfavorable chat room”. Everyone tried to delete chats and photos on their phone as much as they could before going out.

A friend was put on the list marked as a “member of an unfavorable chat room” after he was searched.

Unfortunately, among our friends there are many volunteers who were held in basements. One of them said that those who were held there the longest were those for whom they couldn't pay, and the ransom amounts were outrageous – about five thousand dollars. But after three or four months of torture, the prisoners were no longer of interest to them and they were released. Sometimes people were detained not because they were activists or volunteers, but because they [the Russians] didn't like they way they looked, they didn’t like their faces.

Our guys were caught on one of the outings on the Antonivka bridge. They told us that the worst thing was when the FSB came to their cell instead of ordinary soldiers – they put on quite a lot of psychological pressure. One of our friends, a video streamer, was very lucky: he wasn’t at home when the soldiers broke in – his neighbors managed to warn him when they saw the occupiers entering the courtyard. He hid for a long time, but then managed to come back. The doors were broken, and the letter Z was painted on the wall. The occupiers took his car and recording equipment too.

After the Russian military left, everything was overturned in my friend's house, the doors were broken, and the letter Z was painted on the wall.

People were often found because of their neighbors – they reported them to the occupiers. There were times when someone wasn't particularly active, but the neighbors just didn’t like them, and they called in the military to search and arrest them. We once watched as a 70-year-old man was taken to the basement. His son had been serving in the AFU since the start of the war, and the neighbors tipped the authorities off on the house where he lived with his father. The occupiers went there, found grenades in the house and took his father away, then tortured and interrogated him.

But the thing that shocked me the most, strangely enough, was what happened after the liberation – the shelling. The blows were so powerful that they blurred out all my previous emotions. Recently there was a strike near a pier where we were collecting water, when [the water and power] were cut off, and the impact was so powerful and loud that I unintentionally wept, even though I had seen rockets when the Russians were still here – Mykolaiv was being shelled back then.

Marina Martynenko: “When we tore down billboards, locals cried and then burned them themselves.”

Marina Martynenko
Marina Martynenko

I came to Kherson the day after it was liberated – as part Ukraine’s State Emergency Service. At first it was very hard both physically and mentally. There was absolutely nothing in Kherson’s fire departments – the occupiers stole all the equipment and machinery, and what they couldn’t take, they destroyed. We had to rebuild everything literally in 1-2 days. The damaged infrastructure had to be rebuilt – there was no electricity, no communications, and no water in the city. We often couldn't find each other, even among the rescuers, because it was impossible to contact anyone. It got easier when they started installing Starlink.

I was particularly struck by the reaction of the people of Kherson. When they greeted us, they cried, hugged and laughed. A large number of people with flags came running out carrying everything they had to feed us – sandwiches, vegetables and fruit, even though we were preparing to help them. They wanted to show us how much they were waiting for us.

Torn-down Russian billboards in Kherson
Torn-down Russian billboards in Kherson
Marina Martynenko

We took fire trucks and stepladders and drove around the city tearing down billboards that read, “Russia is here forever.” We just couldn't look at those signs, and other agencies helped us with that. We wanted people not to look at them or read them. When we tore down the billboards, locals cried, applauded, and then even burned them themselves. It made us incredibly angry if we found portraits of Putin or Russian flags. When we found chevrons from Russian uniforms in one of the fire station drawers, we wanted to burn them all.

I was really taken aback when one woman told me: “We understand that we will be shelled, but I’m not afraid. I'd rather be shelled than live under occupation.”

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