Screams from Russia’s alleged torture chambers are still circulating in Kherson, Ukraine

KHERSON, Ukraine — Just speaking in Ukrainian could result in them being arrested and even tortured, local residents say. Displaying a Ukrainian flag was out of the question. They say they suffered daily humiliation and lived in fear during the Russian occupation of this southern Ukrainian city.

“People didn’t take to the streets” except to buy basic necessities like groceries, says Maryna Zinevych, a 54-year-old who has lived in Kherson all her life. “We were under constant pressure, constant observation.”

These were just some of the frightening reports from residents of Cherson after 8 1/2 months under Russian occupation.

Today, Ukrainians celebrate and sing patriotic songs in the main square, a week after the withdrawal of Russian forces. But behind the carnival atmosphere emerges a picture of what the citizens had to endure under Russian rule. They describe instances of detention and abuse amidst a climate of terror and mistrust.

“We heard these crazy screams at night”

As Zinevych speaks to NPR on the city’s Freedom Square, she’s wearing a shimmering Ukrainian flag wrapped like a scarf around her shoulders. All around them, the residents are celebrating the Russian withdrawal. People take selfies with a plump watermelon – a symbol of Kherson.

Maryna Zinevych, 54, in Kherson's central square on Wednesday. "People didn't take to the streets" except to buy basic necessities like groceries, Zinevych says of life under Russian occupation. "We were under constant pressure, constant surveillance."

Jason Beaubien/NPR

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NPR

Maryna Zinevych, 54, in Kherson’s central square on Wednesday. “People didn’t take to the streets” except to buy basic necessities like groceries, Zinevych says of life under Russian occupation. “We were under constant pressure, constant observation.”

The joyful scene would have been impossible just eight days ago, before Ukrainian forces retook control.

Zinevych says the Kremlin-installed authorities were constantly on the lookout for people they considered “partisans” — anyone who could pass information to the Ukrainian authorities that could undermine the occupation.

And in public everyone had to speak Russian.

“To the [speaking] the Ukrainian language [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 armed forces.

One such facility was located in a police station on the north side of Kherson near Antonivsky Bridge.

Mariya Kryvoruchko, who lives half a block from the police station, recalls some terrifying moments.

“We heard these crazy screams at night,” says Kryvoruchko. “Screams of people were tortured from the prison at night. In the summer, when you opened the window, we heard it very well.”

As she speaks to NPR, an explosion suddenly rings out in the distance. Kryvoruchko doesn’t flinch. “That’s outgoing,” she says, “don’t worry!”

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

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

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

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 held there is Maksym Negro.

He has returned to the compound to find the cell where he was held from March to mid-April.

“The Russians arrested everyone who represented a pro-Ukrainian position,” says Negrov while standing on the deserted police compound. Three vandalized vans stand in the yard, their emblems of the Ukrainian police erased with red spray paint.

The Russian prisoners beat and tortured all the prisoners, he says, including him.

Negro, 45, had served in the Ukrainian military in his youth. “I was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the resistance movement,” he says. “But at the beginning of the war I was just a businessman.”

At some point, he says, the Russians let him go.

A damaged portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin outside a police station that Kherson residents say was used by Russians as a detention and torture center.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

A damaged portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin outside a police station that Kherson residents say was used by Russians as a detention and torture center.

Officials are investigating allegations of torture

Human rights commissioner in Ukraine’s parliament, Dmytro Lubinets, said his office is investigating allegations of human rights abuses and crimes against humanity by the occupying Russian military in Kherson.

“These include torture in basements, enforced disappearances, the taking of civilians hostage and extrajudicial executions,” he said on the messaging app Telegram.

United Nations investigators and human rights groups also say they are gathering evidence of torture and other ill-treatment.

There is resistance underground

Another says he was part of what he calls the “peaceful” underground resistance in Kherson. The 25-year-old only uses his alias Ivan because he says he is still involved in covert operations.

“They kept trying to arrest us,” he says.

Ivan is the coordinator of a group called the Yellow Ribbon Movement.

“We put graffiti and yellow ribbons to remind people that Kherson is still Ukraine,” he says.

His group also distributed leaflets and put up flyers to help people resist the Russian occupation. A key message: do not take a Russian passport with you.

The Moscow-backed government tried to issue residents with Russian passports, saying it would entitle them to food aid and other assistance.

“They would try to force you to take their passport from them,” he says. And for young Ukrainian men, he adds, “their passport is like a ticket to their army.”

According to Ivan, hundreds of men from Kherson were drafted into the Russian military. There have been reports of Russia conscripting Ukrainian men in occupied territories, but NPR has not confirmed how many.

As the Kremlin struggles to get recruits to the front lines, Ivan says, “They want Ukrainians to fight Ukrainians.”

He now says that Kherson is liberated, his celebrations were inspirational.

He works with activists in Crimea and other Russian-held areas on guerrilla information campaigns, spreading the message that no matter what the Kremlin says, these areas are still part of Ukraine.

A woman lays flowers at a makeshift memorial in the central square of recently liberated Kherson on Wednesday.

/ Pete Kiehart for NPR

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Pete Kiehart for NPR

A woman lays flowers at a makeshift memorial in the central square of recently liberated Kherson on Wednesday.

Polina Lytvynova contributed to this report.

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