BALAKLIYA, Eastern Ukraine— “Our Father, Artist in Heaven,” begins the words of the Our Father being scratched against the side wall of a wall in a police station. torture room in the recently liberated city of Balakliya. The floors of the cells were still stained with blood, and the stench of human waste and rotting food. At the top is a series of scratches marking the passage of the date, and next to them is a simple cross.
For six months, this police station, like many others in the area, was at the center of a brutal incident Russian occupation regime based on violence and fear. Ukrainian officials claimed to have found at least ten of these interrogation centers spread across the liberated territory.
One former prisoner, Artyum – who did not want to be named for fear the Russians might return – told The Daily Beast he was brought in for questioning because he had a Ukrainian flag hanging on the wall at home. “They asked me why I have a Ukrainian flag. I told them ‘Because this is Ukraine! Should I have the Japanese flag instead? ‘”
The Ukrainians allege that for several weeks they held dozens of men and women in filthy tiny cells, demanding answers as to who was in the army and who was likely to supply them. Ukrainian team information about Russia’s positions in the region. “We don’t want to leave our house, because whenever you go out, they check your phone. If they see you writing anything rude about the Russians, or the Russian military, that’s the only reason they need to arrest you,” Artyum said. He could frequently hear detainees being tortured with electricity, despite saying it was never used against him.
The worst punishments are believed to be for prisoners of war from the Ukrainian army. “They detained and tortured every service member they could find,” said Oleksandr, a Ukrainian police investigator, as he told The Daily. The Daily Beast views another horror room in the police station in the neighboring city of Izyum. “I don’t know of a single Ukrainian soldier who was arrested but not tortured.”
In the station, there are electric wires used to prevent electric shock for detainees. There are respirators, modified so that the wearer can suffocate. On the ground were bloody ropes used to strangle detainees, as well as wooden sticks and police batons used to beat them. So far, police have identified 20 people detained there, but note that it is their first day on the job and they expect to find more quickly. The police stations themselves were ransacked, with floors covered in papers, unused file cabinets and shards of glass from windows destroyed. Sometimes sandbags or a piece of barbed wire are piled up against the wall.
These small cities in the Kharkiv region of eastern Ukraine were captured by Russia after heavy fighting in March, following an initial failure to capture the capital Kharkiv in the early days of the war. In particular, the city of Izyum was an important source of Russian logistics for motivating them to attack the northern part of the Donbas region, Putin’s main goal after he failed to capture Kyiv. Now, his army in the east also seems to be disintegrating. Over the past two weeks, Ukrainian forces have liberated about 8,500 square kilometers of their territory, while driving out Russian forces in the area.
Roads in the area are dotted with military vehicles including tanks and armored personnel carriers, all of which are marked with the infamous Z. But unlike the vehicles seen in the Kyiv region, all of which are husks that have been burned, many of these appear to have been abandoned in perfect working condition.
A joke going on on Ukrainian social media is that Russia has quickly overtaken the US as the largest donor of military aid to Ukraine. It is these repeated setbacks that have forced Putin to begin what he calls “partial mobilization” of Russia’s reserve forces, prompting the largest anti-war protests in Russia since the invasion. strategy begins in February.
In most of the region, life is beginning to return to normal, although heavy fighting continues in Kupyansk, the easternmost city on the Oskil River, which is the new front line in the region. Ukrainian forces are now ready to retake key parts of the Luhansk region, which Russia spent a lot of blood and treasure over the summer.
“Many people have died, please give some comfort to their loved ones.“
Outside, in the main square in Izyum, residents are beginning to emerge from their six-month nightmare. A small group was playing hopscotch next to a rose garden, while their parents reclined on benches next to them. The idyllic scene was broken by the sight of the buildings lining the square, all of which were destroyed by shelling.
Ukrainian authorities believe that more than 80% of buildings in Izyum were damaged in the fighting. Hundreds of residents were found buried in a mass grave just outside the city limits, most of whom are believed to have died from shelling or air strikes during the Russian attack on city in March.
A local Christian charity arrived to provide aid to about 50 people who were queuing in the square when The Daily Beast arrived this week.
The terms are simple fare: a bottle of Pepsi, a couple of cans of meat for lunch, and a pack of dry pasta. With most shops and supermarkets damaged or destroyed, and no electricity throughout the city, many residents have to rely on this to survive.
But before they distributed the items, a priest was called to lead the prayer group. “Our father, the art maker in heaven,” he began as he led the crowd in reciting the Our Father over the chilling echo of words scraping against the cell walls. He went on to deliver a short lecture to a long line of gaunt Ukrainian civilians. “I thank God for being merciful to these people. Many people have died, please help them get some comfort.”