Screams from Russia’s alleged torture basements still haunt Ukraine’s Kherson

by | Nov 18, 2022 | Top Stories

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A burned cot in a police station in Kherson on Wednesday. Kherson residents say Russians used the police station to detain and torture violators of curfew and people suspected of collaborating with Ukrainian authorities.

Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

KHERSON, Ukraine — Just talking in Ukrainian could get them arrested and even tortured, residents say. Displaying a Ukrainian flag was out of the question. They say they suffered daily indignities and lived in fear during the Russian occupation of this southern Ukrainian city. “People didn’t go into the streets,” except to buy basics like food, says Maryna Zinevych, a 54-year-old who’s lived in Kherson all her life. “We were under constant pressure, constant watch.” These were just some of the chilling accounts from residents in Kherson after 8 1/2 months under Russian occupation.

Today, Ukrainians are celebrating and singing patriotic songs in the main square, one week after Russian forces retreated. But from behind the carnival atmosphere, a picture is emerging of what citizens endured under Russian rule. They describe instances of detention and abuse amid a climate of terror and suspicion. “We heard these crazy screams at night” As Zinevych speaks to NPR in the city’s Liberty Square, she wears a shimmering Ukrainian flag wrapped around her shoulders like a shawl. Residents all around her celebrate the Russian withdrawal. People are taking selfies with a plump watermelon — a symbol of Kherson.

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Maryna Zinevych, 54, in the central square of Kherson on Wednesday. “People didn’t go into the streets,” except to buy basics like food, says Zinevych of life under Russian occupation. “We were under constant pressure, constant watch.”

Jason Beaubien/NPR

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Jason Beaubien/NPR

The joyous scene would have been impossible just eight days ago, before Ukrainian forces took back control.

Zinevych says the Kremlin-installed authorities were constantly on the lookout for people they deemed “partisan” — anyone who might pass information to Ukrainian authorities that could undermine the occupation. And in public, everyone had to speak Russian. “For [speaking] the Ukrainian language or [showing] Ukrainian symbols, you could be taken to the basement and tortured,” she says. By “basement” she means detention centers set up by the Russian forces. One such facility was at a police station on the northern side of Kherson near the Antonivskiy Bridge. Mariya Kryvoruchko, who lives a half a block from the police station, remembers some terrifying moments. “We heard these crazy screams at night,” Kryvoruchko says. “There were shouts from the jail of people being tortured at night. In the summer when you opened the window, we heard it very well.” As she speaks with NPR, suddenly an explosion rings out in the distance. Kryvoruchko doesn’t flinch. “That’s outgoing,” she says, “don’t worry!”

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Mariya Kryvoruchko, 70, with her son-in-law’s dog, Sana, in recently liberated Kherson on Wednesday.

Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

The 70-year-old says she doesn’t know who was being held or tortured at the police station. “When I passed the police station I was even afraid to look. [The Russians] were there with guns,” she says. He was suspected of being part of the underground One man who says he was detained there is Maksym Negrov. He has come back to the compound to find the cell where he was held from March until mid-April. “The Russians arrested everyone who had a pro-Ukrainian position,” Negrov says, standing inside the now-abandoned police compound. Three vandalized vans with their Ukrainian police em …

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