Published10 hours ago
Ukraine says it has found the bodies of 63 civilians bearing signs of torture near the recently liberated city of Kherson. Russia has repeatedly denied committing atrocities in its invasion. But the BBC has spoken to two people who said they were held for more than a month in what are being described as “torture chambers”.
At one police station in recently liberated Kherson, each cell tells its own story.
Some have clothes strewn everywhere, one has a burnt-out bed, another has dog bowls and rubbish strewn everywhere. In one, a Russian flag lies in the centre of the floor.
In cell number six is Anzhela’s story.
It was here she spent 31 days with four other women after being captured by Russian soldiers in June.
Before the invasion of Ukraine in February, Anzhela, 49, was a TV presenter on a Telethon channel. By early March, armoured Russian convoys were entering her home city of Kherson.
As Russia’s grip tightened around the regional capital, demonstrations were gradually crushed, and freedoms were eroded. In June, armed men entered Anzhela’s home, separated her from her boyfriend, put a bag over her head and loaded her on to a bus.
It was from there Anzhela was taken to cell number six.
“On the third floor, men were beaten,” she recalls. “When the person is being tortured with electricity, you hear it. It is a peculiar sound.
“Men were screaming in pain.”
After the Russians took Kherson, investigators say they rounded up people with connections to the Ukrainian military or partisans who’d protested against their occupation.
They claim to have found 11 illegal prisons and four torture chambers in Kherson after it was liberated. More than 700 people have been reported as missing.
It’s feared they are either dead or have been illegally taken to Russian-occupied territories, or Russia itself.
And now Ukraine has announced the discovery of dozens of bodies with signs of torture near the city. Interior minister Denys Monastyrsky said the investigation into crimes there had only just begun, “so many more dungeons and burial places will be uncovered”.
Anzhela calmly describes being psychologically tortured for more than a month. She often saw bodies wrapped in plastic taken out after “interrogations went too far”.
Then she draws breath and describes the scars she still bears.
“There are some triggers,” she says. “When they opened the gates, they made a specific sound. It meant more people were arriving to be interrogated.”
The journalist says she couldn’t fall asleep because the lights were always on. Once released, she found she couldn’t go to bed in the dark.
What Anzhela didn’t know was that her boyfriend was being held at the police station too.
Oleksandr Maksimenko, 69, shared a room with 15 other men, who he claims were relentlessly beaten and tortured. Some were electrocuted.
“It’s horrible,” he remembers. “One guy who was brought to the cell after his interrogation came back with a black tongue. It was so swollen it couldn’t go back in his mouth.”
Oleksandr says he shared painkillers with his cell mates. Temperatures often reached 40C and they were made to learn the Russian national anthem.
“One man was so bruised, he was almost fully blue from his head to his legs. It took him eight days to be able to stand up,” he says.
Investigators say prisoners were often forced to confess to being a Ukrainian collaborator to be freed.
In Oleksandr’s case, he had to appear on Russian state TV.
As the tide of Russian occupation once again recedes in Ukraine, Moscow is again accused of committing war crimes.
Russia continues to deny deliberately targeting civilians, despite overwhelming evidence.
In liberated Kherson, the damage isn’t so much structural, instead a place where everyone has a tale of vivid struggle.
It seems like a city the Russians especially wanted to portray as their own.
They hoped targeting people like Oleskandr and Anzhela would help them in that goal.
Additional reporting by Anastasia Levchenko, Daria Sipigina, Moose Campbell, Alex Milner, Leisha Santorelli and Dave Bull.