Torture of civilians, denunciations by neighbors and coercion to collaborate are just a part of what people experienced in the Kharkiv region under Russian occupation for half a year. Everything reminded her of the time under the Soviet dictator Stalin. Two women told DW their story.

Marina from Balaklija spent nine days in Russian captivity:

The town of Balaklija was quickly taken. My husband and I have always been pro-Ukrainian, but we wanted to stay because my father is paralyzed after two strokes. Many locals welcomed the Russians and even wanted to cooperate with them. There were many denunciations. Pro-Ukrainian citizens and men who fought on the Ukrainian side in Donbass were betrayed. The atmosphere was like that of the 1930s.

After each rotation with the Russians there was looting. It also happened that people’s cars were taken away in the middle of the street. Our neighbors had a motorcycle and a quad stolen.

The Russians often went through the houses and checked cell phones. My girlfriend was picked up because of a video showing a convoy of Russian vehicles. Almost everyone had such a video, because when the Russians came to town, it was filmed.

The next day her husband tried to free her, but even he was beaten because they found correspondence on his phone insulting the Russian military. It was dangerous walking around with a cell phone.

In July, when living under occupation became unbearable, my husband and I decided to flee via Russia. We informed everyone of our departure.

As we sat on a bench chatting with neighbors, a group of six or seven masked people came with assault rifles. They searched every drawer, taking away a computer, a laptop, phones and documents. We were taken to the police station. There, bags were put over our heads and we were put in different cells.

In my cell were two young women about my age and an older woman. Later, there were eight of us in the two-by-two-meter room, including a 70-year-old woman. The mattresses stank, there was only one sink and one toilet. There was neither a lamp nor a clock.

We were guarded by soldiers from the so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic”, who told us that they didn’t want to be here at all. They gave us tea and biscuits. There was food three times a day – a porridge with canned meat. I didn’t eat anything the first day, then I had to force myself to because the rice was already moldy. One night, when an elderly woman complained of heart problems, we thought it might be a heart attack, but the guards didn’t answer our knock. Only in the morning did they call an ambulance.

Some of the women were taken straight off the streets and accused of working for the Ukrainian army. They said they were tortured with electric shocks during interrogation. They also had to undress because they were being checked for tattoos.

My husband says that men have been treated even worse. According to him, they were carried out of interrogation because they could not walk due to injuries sustained. The men’s cell was even smaller, with no light source and a broken toilet. They were taken to the toilet once or twice a day with bags over their heads. They only got food twice a day.

I was only interrogated on the seventh day. Two masked men immediately began to intimidate and psychologically pressure me. They asked how I feel about the Ukrainian army. Since I didn’t react because I didn’t understand them at first, they started to shock me with electric batons, first on my legs, then with even more voltage on my bare hands. I had to kneel and my arms were dislocated.

They asked who would work in our house for the Ukrainian army. I have been an educator for over 15 years and directed a children’s theater group. So they asked me a lot about my work and salary. They accused me of being a pro-Ukrainian teacher. Then they put a sack over my head again and took me back to the cell.

Two days later, a security guard came to us and asked me to come out. Just the day before, in the middle of the night, a young woman was severely slapped in the face and tortured with electric shocks. She was threatened with a raised dagger that her fingers would be chopped off. I thought this awaited me too. But my husband and I got all our belongings back and were released. As it turned out, my sister had bought our ransom with gold.

I don’t know if our arrest was related to my refusal to work at the cultural center under the occupying forces, but I couldn’t help it. What should I have said to the children? That they should no longer love Ukraine, but another state? My husband, on the other hand, was not interrogated.

At home we were afraid to speak loudly for fear of being overheard. For a long time I didn’t dare to flee via Russia, I was terrified of it. However, two weeks after our release, we left without telling our relatives for fear that the situation might repeat itself.

We have now been in Ireland for a month and I still cannot recover from what I experienced. Since then I’ve had heart problems and turned grey. During the occupation I lost ten kilograms in weight.

Lyudmila left Balakliya in early July:

When the Russians came to town, everyone was afraid to leave their homes because they didn’t know what to expect. And on the street, people were afraid to speak their minds. But there were many who supported Russia and believed that the Russians had come for good.

I’ve often heard people say that if the Russians are here, then they should stay with their gas and food. Most of the people who remained in the city were retired or unemployed. But there were also those who were waiting for Ukraine and hated the Russian soldiers for coming to our country.

When the invasion started, I went with my 18-year-old daughter and my husband to visit friends who own a house. For the first month and a half we had to repeatedly seek shelter in the basement. We subsisted on supplies of cereal and pasta. We baked bread ourselves. We were afraid to flee because the route to Kharkiv was constantly under fire.

When we first went into town I was amazed at how many houses were deserted. It was a sight like Chernobyl. Broken windows with curtains blowing in the wind. Like an extinct, completely deserted city. Later I even saw children queuing for humanitarian aid.

The shops were initially closed. Later, goods were imported from Kupyansk, which came from Russia or the so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic”. Prices went up two to three times. Humanitarian aid was given once a month. But first you had to enter your personal data and then you got groceries according to a list.

Applications for a Russian pension were mainly made by people who believed in the Russian Federation or by older people who received their pension by mail and had no other choice. But Russian pensions were not paid. It was not until August that a one-off payment of 10,000 rubles (approx. 175 euros – editor’s note) was made to disabled people and pensioners. Walking around the city, I saw that only the Ukrainian hryvnia was in circulation, that even the Russian military used it to pay. That was strange.

There were no special medicines in pharmacies and hospitals. The lack of medicines was one of the reasons why we fled to Zaporizhia. Because I have to take hormone preparations that were no longer available. Now we want to go home again, but I’m very worried that the Russians will start an offensive again. I don’t want them to come back.

Adaptation from the Ukrainian: Markian Ostapchuk

Author: Anastasia Shepeleva

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The original of this article “What victims of the Russian occupation in the Kharkiv region report” comes from Deutsche Welle.