WITH the horrific stench of burning bodies and the harrowing screams of people being tortured, this was day-to-day life under Vladimir Putin’s control in occupied Ukraine.
Russians controlled the city of Izyum and nearby towns for five months until they were forced out by Ukrainian forces last month – but the scars Putin’s troops left behind will take much longer to heal.
Living under some of the most inhuman brutality of the war so far, brave survivors told The Sun Online about the cruelty they suffered at the hands of the Russians.
They told of being interrogated, imprisoned, smelling dead bodies, hearing torture victims scream, having friends and neighbours beaten and given electric shocks, and other horrors meted out by Putin’s forces.
Viktoriia Shcherbak will never forget the sick words spoke by the Russians soldiers as she held her daughter tight in their stinking cell.
“We will show you how we rape your daughter,” one them had told her during yet another vile interrogation.
Viktoriia and her family were from the city of Balakliya, 25 miles from Izyum.
And they were living a happy life before their hometown fell to the Russian armed forces in March.
The 55-year-old worked at a local secondary school as an English teacher and, together with her husband of 35 years, Sergiy, adopted a little girl seven years ago after their own daughter died aged 23.
Between yoga sessions, choir practice, and hours spent painting and gardening, the family were happy – but soon their home would become the frontline of the biggest war in Europe since World War 2.
Bombs were dropped on the town at the end of February and then days later the Russians moved in – seizing control and leaving the family hunkered down in their basement in fear.
“There was no electricity, and often no water either. Thank God, there was gas, and so we cooked food,” she told The Sun Online.
Speaking from Lviv, a cultural town in western Ukraine, Viktoriia described how Russian soldiers were shooting and moving right next to her home as they advanced through the neighbourhood.
And the family hoped they would be released when the fighting stopped – but then the Russians sealed the city off in May.
“No one was allowed to leave. The shops, banks and pharmacies were closed. The terror began,” she said.
“People started disappearing.”
Viktoriia remembers how the Russians closed the hospital, after having “stripped the doctors and staff and put them on their knees”.
She claimed an ambulance driver was killed, and some men were arrested.
And with the conditions worsening and Viktoriia fearing for her life, the family decided to try and flee Balakliya.
They were prepared to flee on June 24.
Every person sitting in the jail cell or room near the place where another person is tortured hears what happened, hears the screaming
Sergiy had already driven their car to the checkpoint of the Henkel Bautechnik plant to pick up a large batch of medicines for Balakliya, before returning home to pick up his family – before he was then snatched by the Russians.
At the same moment, Viktoriia and her daughter’s packing was disturbed when five soldiers stormed their house.
This was the start of their illegal imprisonment – a war crime thousands in Ukraine have endured and they found themselves among dozens of other civilians.
“With bags on our heads, we were taken to the basement, where we were put in a cage. We could only sit and stand, it was very cramped, we were taken to the toilet once a day,” Viktoriia recalled.
Transferred to a prison, Viktoriia and her daughter, now 16, were locked up in a double cell. They were not told what had happened to Sergiy.
There were five women in the call, which had no light and a broken ventilator in the middle of Ukraine’s summer season.
“The toilet smelled terribly. We slept on bare boards, one girl right on the floor. They fed us once a day, one portion for two. We shared two litres of water per day for everyone.
“But the worst thing was uncertainty, we didn’t know what was waiting for us. I tried not to lose heart, told funny stories, made paper cards with my daughter and played.
“I was afraid for my child and tried to distract her. We were surrounded by drunken soldiers, and we were in their complete power.”
After what appeared to be several days, the women were taken one-by-one for questioning.
“My daughter was not beaten, but she was very scared. This was the first time I cried, when my girl was taken from me,” Viktoriia remembered.
“My neighbours in the cell told us that they had been beaten with electric shockers, had been stripped naked and mocked, forced to tell on the camera how they lived well now with the Russians.”
Viktoriia was interrogated and intimidated by three armed men in balaclavas.
“[They] wanted me to work for them, to teach schoolchildren according to Russian programmes. The interrogation was filmed. I had to answer in such a way that we would be freed and at the same time not betray the motherland.”
But the worst was to come.
“I wasn’t afraid, but when they started threatening to show me how they were raping my daughter, I lost consciousness,” Viktoriia, who suffered a myocardial infarction before the occupation, said.
“The nervous tension led to a heart attack, but it saved me and my daughter from further abuse.”
The pair were taken by ambulance to a broken down clinic, where they stayed for several days.
But a glimmer of hope appeared when Sergiy, who Viktoriia had not heard from since he was arrested, was released two weeks later.
“When he entered the yard, I did not recognize him. He looked like the living dead,” the survivor explained.
‘Everything is bombed, everything is in ruins’
ANASTASIIA Buhera, whose nickname is Nastya, fled her town after it fell under Russian control – suffering under the lawless occupation.
“Russian soldiers often abused alcohol and shot in the air with automatic weapons. Human rights abuses were constant,” the young woman, who specialises in law and cyber security, explained.
“Everything was difficult, but sometimes silence was the most difficult, because there was no understanding: “Why is it quiet? What happened?”
Light was shed onto one of those atrocities when hundreds of bodies – many showing signs of torture according to pathologists- were discovered on the outskirts of her city after the Ukrainian armed forces retook the town.
“This is fear. I suspected that something like this could happen, but such atrocities… They must be punished. They kill, mercilessly kill our Ukrainian people: soldiers, old people, civilians, children.
“I can say for sure that the residents of the city are shocked by this [the mass graves].”
Because of her beliefs, young Nastya also thought she may be jailed by Russian soldiers, and decided to escape Izyum.
Now living in Poland, the young woman is desperate for a sign a life from her boyfriend. He had joined the Ukrainian army six months before the war. He had travelled to Mariupol on military matters, but on February 24, his life was shaken up when the Russians invaded the city.
Nastya’s boyfriend is now in captivity in Olenivka in Donetsk Oblast, one of the four regions in eastern Ukraine that Putin annexed through sham referenda last week.
“He stayed to defend Mariupol, there was no other way out,” Nastya explained.
“Now I have been waiting for him for months. We haven’t seen each other for almost a year and I haven’t heard from him for almost six months, we haven’t been able to talk on the phone since March 3.”
She added: “Of course I am very proud of him, but I really want to hug him so that he can come home alive as soon as possible. I just kiss his photo before going bed and hug the doll which he gave to me as a present. I feel that he is holding on, so I also have no right to be weak here, I have to fight for him.”
She added: “My city is now gone, it has been destroyed. Everything is bombed and everything is in ruins. People are very traumatised, and not only physically.
“Now after the liberation of the city, people continue to be afraid. They are afraid to talk about what happened. They are afraid because they think that Russia will come and punish them for this.”
A week later, volunteers transported Viktoriia and her daughter to Kharkiv, in liberated territory.
All they took with them – the memories of their old life in Balakliya – were two bags and a laptop between them.
“When we first saw Ukrainian soldiers, we hugged and cried with relief. The first thing we did was buy ice cream.
“It was unusual that shells did not whistle overhead, that it was quiet.”
Now in Lviv, the family has tried to adapt, and rebuild their lives – saying they “cried with happiness” when their home was liberated, but they still cannot go back due to the damage.
Sasha Romantsova, executive director of the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL) which was awarded the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize last week, said Russians have committed war crimes in Ukraine.
Illegal detention and denial of medical treatment are all commonplace tactics uses by the Russians, she said.
“Every time Russia occupies a territory, they start detaining people. Their motivation is to find the people who may resist: men who have military experience, or people who have served in special services even if they are pensioners now,” she explained.
“It’s the same situation with war prisoners: their first line of conduct is torture.
And she Viktoriia’s family’s experience is widespread, saying: “Every person sitting in the jail cell or room near the place where another person is tortured hears what happened, hears the screaming.”
Romantsova, whose coalition of 28 human rights organisations documents human rights abuses and war crimes, explained that while many villages and cities were liberated in recent weeks, many civilians still remain unaccounted for.
“We have a separate list of 638 persons who were forcibly disappeared,” she said.
“These people are not combatants, they are not soldiers, they are “active” civilians: for example journalists, activists or even people in occupied territories, who were leaders of opinion in some capacity for example a director of school or even teachers.
“Anyone who didn’t openly support the Russian occupation has been a target for aggressive war crimes against civilians.”
‘Executions and rapes, terror and torture’
ILLIA Puntosov had been on holiday at his parents’ home in Izyum when the Russian forces made rapid advances towards them.
“We were told there was no reason to panic, and no evacuation was carried out either,” he told The Sun.
“The first time I saw Russian soldiers outside my window was on March 10. Fierce battles raged in the city for the whole month.”
At first, the PhD student in philosophy, who enjoyed taking photographs at concerts and tattoos, said he tried to minimise his movements around the city.
“But the purges started right away, they were looking for troops and prioritised those who have experience in the ATO [Ukraine’s Anti-Terrorist Operation].
“Checkpoints immediately appeared to control the male population. Anyone with tattoos or believed-to-be-Ukrainian symbols went taken to jail”.
Illia explained how he was regularly stopped at checkpoints, where he was consistently questioned by the Russians.
Soon, all electricity, water, gas, mobile communications, and telephone services disappeared in Izyum.
“The local population lived in constant terror. There was looting by the Russian military,” claimed Illia.
“There were death threats, pseudo executions and people were made to dig graves for themselves.
“People were buried in housing estates everywhere, others disappeared.”
Illia estimates up to 2,000 people were killed during the active phase of the fighting – and described how conditions only got worse.
Illia described “survival in the conditions of the stone age […] but add in there executions and rapes, terror and torture. Current and hunger, time and despair.”
What’s more, Illia had been actively participating in efforts to support the Ukrainian army – meaning he was at high risk of being taken by Russian forces occupying his city – so he decided to risk his life to evade Izyum on May 3.
In the depth of darkness, Illia and a companion fled via Viktoriia’s city of Balakliya, and onto Pervomaisky – a two hour drive from Izyum that took all night – before the group was waived down at a Ukrainian checkpoint.
“I experienced a serious contrast when we drove 80 km from Izyum to the city of Pervomaisky: no consequences of the war, whole houses still standing, children walking on the street, light and water,” said Illia, who is now staying in Kyiv with his father.
Between February 24 and September 27, the Regional Centre for Human Rights found that 14,500 civilians were reported missing.
In occupied Kherson, where human rights monitors reportedly estimated that at least 600 people had been forcibly disappeared by July, Romantsova described an utter horror: the fate of some of those who were forcibly disappeared.
“In the city, people smell burning bodies dropped in fires. This is a smell like no other – not a smell from artillery shelling. No, that is the unbroken smell of bodies being burned.
“I hope these people were killed before they were put in the fire,” she added.
Discussing the annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia announced by Putin last week as his seven-month war entered a terrifying new phase, Nastya said she is afraid for her entire family who lives in one of the occupied territories.
In a rambling speech, the Russian leader vowed to “defend our land with all means” – and said the people living in the stolen Ukrainian regions are “our citizens forever”.
“I am very worried about them. And not only for my family, but also for everyone who remains in the occupied territories, because it is very difficult and very scary.”
“This war will leave a big mark on the souls of Ukrainians forever. The whole world should remember the price that Ukrainians are currently paying for the future of not only our country, but also the whole Europe.”
This feeling is shared by PhD student Illia, whose friends are still fighting on the frontline today: “People broken by the occupation have forgotten things like trust, humour and subjectivity.”
For human rights activist Romanstova, the annexation is a big worry for civilians living in these territories.
“It’s a big problem that Russia used these polls, because it is a concrete process.
“For civilians, it’s not changing much, because practices of forces disappearances and illegal detention are common place, and will continue to be.
“Anyone who didn’t openly support the Russian occupation has been a target for aggressive war crimes against civilians.”
https://www.the-sun.com/news/6449155/torture-screams-smelled-burning-bodies-russians-rape-kids-ukraine/ We heard torture victims’ screams, smelled burning bodies & Russians threatened to rape our kids in occupied Ukraine