Kherson: the joy of liberation and terrifying memories


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April 21, 2023

Kherson: the joy of liberation and terrifying memories

  • Dispatches from Ukraine
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • war
Photo by Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine

The wide and mighty Dnieper river separates the two warring armies, which fire missiles and rockets at each other. On the right bank is positioned the Ukrainian army, which had recently recaptured the city of Kherson and a large part of the Kherson oblast. On the left bank–the Russians are on the defensive.

It was the sound of the Dnieper’s water that Roman heard when, during the Russian occupation, he lay tied up, with a sack over his head and stripped naked. Roman had grown up in Kherson and wouldn’t mistake that noise for any other. But this time it wasn’t a carefree trip to the river. People in uniform took him from the prison, put a bag over his head and took him away. As he lay naked afterwards, one of them asked, “What the fuck should I cut off? Balls or cock?” “Don’t cut anything off, I beg you!” Roman stammered. “What the fuck do I cut off? Quick, tell me!”

They frightened him some more, then drove him back to the detention center, the place where he was tortured.

This is how Roman remembered the scene–a man in his thirties whose name has been changed in this text. His mind is full of terrible experiences, still fresh, mixed with routine and violence, which he tries to suppress with alcohol.

How long was he in custody? Roman is completely lost in time. They stopped him a total of seven times. For various reasons. Each time, however, he says, they abused him. He says that they beat him so hard that to this day his kidneys hurt, and they electrocuted him so that his whole body went into convulsions. Roman, though he often got into trouble, did not expect something like this.

In Kherson, where nearly 300,000 people lived before the Russian invasion, Ukrainian authorities have so far discovered two Russian torture chambers and are convinced that it will not end there.

Therefore the outburst of joy that swept over the city after the end of more than eight months of occupation is caused not only by attachment to one’s country, but also by the awareness that living in fear has come to an end.

At your own risk

When the invasion began, Russian troops broke through from the occupied Crimea to the Kherson region in the blink of an eye. How did it happen that this theoretically easy to defend section of the front—easy, because the Russians had to pass through a narrow isthmus connecting the Crimea with continental Ukraine; if it was, for example, mined, it would have been difficult—immediately fell under the pressure of the advancing troops? This is one of the great mysteries of this war. There are various hypotheses about this in Ukraine.

The fact is that then, in early March, the Russians were rapidly moving towards Kherson.

On that day, when the Kremlin began its “special operation”, 36-year-old Maryna—a long-time employee of the State Migration Service of Ukraine branch in the Kherson region—was in her office with other employees from six in the morning. They knew they had little time to take out sensitive documents, including passports, as well as databases.

Maryna does not want to reveal the place where they hid it all. But she says that it survived. In the weeks that followed, they also sneaked away computers, furniture, and anything of value.

“We did it at our own risk, but we cared because we knew that our boys would eventually save us, and then we would have to have something to work on,” recalls Maryna.

After the employees of the Migration Service secured sensitive data, the official rushed to help. Although she was very afraid, because sirens were constantly wailing, announcing air raids, and the advancing Russian army was rapidly approaching Kherson.

Soon after the start of the invasion, the first soldiers, both Ukrainian and Russian, began to arrive at the hospitals. Medical facilities were not prepared for this. They lacked bandages, clothes, bedding and food. People like Maryna tried to provide all this. As she says, they helped everyone–regardless of which side of the front they were fighting on.

The Russians took Kherson in early March. Before this happened, as an employee of one of the hospitals who asks for anonymity admits in an interview, nurses changed Ukrainian soldiers into civilian clothes and took them to their homes so that they would not fall into the hands of the occupation authorities. Then they helped them get out of the city. Not everyone succeeded.

The occupiers also targeted those members of the local Ukrainian territorial defense who had not managed to leave the city in advance. When the Russians took it, many of its members disappeared without a trace.

“We haven’t found them yet.” I hope all is well with them, says Maryna. She repeats: “I hope.”


When the Russians appeared in the city, Maryna and her family hardly left the house. They didn’t know what to expect.

Although initially in Kherson, people went out to pro-Ukrainian demonstrations for many weeks, they were eventually suppressed by the occupying authorities.

The inhabitants felt that they were on their own. They were not prepared to face an armed enemy. They could not resist them other than by chanting slogans, holding banners that they had painted themselves and waving Ukrainian flags.

It was killing Maryna that her city and country were in chaos and there was nothing she could do about it. She threatened her parents that if she had a rifle, she would go defend the city. They laughed at her militant declarations.

“We were powerless,” says Maryna.

The war in Ukraine has been going on since 2014. At that time, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and contributed to the creation of two unrecognized republics in Donbas, in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. As a result of this conflict, which lasted almost eight years, from spring 2014 to February 24, 2022, at least 13,000 people were killed.

Today, Maryna says that it was only when the Russians occupied Kherson that she began to understand the plight of her compatriots from Crimea and the east of the country.

“What have we been doing these eight years? Nothing, we had fun. To end up in a similar situation myself…” she admits.

For more than eight months of the occupation, she says, she lived in a strange state–although she was in her hometown, she felt as if it had become a stranger. She left her four walls and everything seemed the same, but she felt that the city no longer belonged to her. People in foreign uniforms walked the streets. There was ever-present fear, because anyone could become a suspect. In stores, on the other hand, things were sold that tasted different, usually worse. Even her cat refused to eat the store-bought food.

When the Ukrainians recaptured Kherson, a military friend wrote to Maryna: “You are home again!” And that’s indeed how she felt.

Phone under the bra

Maryna’s mother, 56-year-old Lyudmila, is the director of one of the kindergartens in Kherson. She thought that such a place would be left alone by the Russians. Since the beginning of the invasion, the facility has not accepted children. Nevertheless, employees came to look after the building.

Lyudmila rarely left the house. Mainly to go to her shift at the kindergarten. She was afraid that the Russians would come for her and force her to do things she didn’t want to do. She did not want to instill in her children what the occupation authorities imposed.

She was also afraid that they would find her phone, on which from the first days of the occupation she recorded what was happening around her–including queues to pharmacies and shops, as well as empty shelves. That’s why she threw one cell phone into her purse, which she would give up in the event of an inspection (Russian soldiers then demanded that the phone be unlocked and looked through its contents). On the other hand, the one with valuable contacts, messages, photos and videos she put under her bra, between her breasts.

Her 10-year-old grandson, Timofiy, could have caused her a lot of trouble. One time, the family was sorting children’s things at home to give them to the inhabitants of the surrounding villages, who were fleeing the fighting around Kherson. They often came with nothing.

Lyudmila’s family wanted to help them and donate everything they could. So when they were rummaging through Timofii’s clothes, he found a blue and yellow handkerchief he had been given when he was three. He slipped it into his pocket, and none of the adults noticed.

Then Lyudmila went with her grandson to the playground. There were Russian patrols around. Fortunately, the soldiers were not looking up.

At some point, one of the women approached and asked: “My dear, whose child has raised the Ukrainian flag?”

Over their heads was Timofiy’s blue and yellow shawl.

The occupier is taking the furniture

It turned out that the boy had climbed unnoticed onto the roof of the turret in the playground.

Lyudmila’s grandson didn’t even know that he was the first to hoist the Ukrainian flag in a public place by accident long before Ukrainian troops entered Kherson. Then, after pleading with his grandmother, he quickly removed it before causing a scandal.

Despite her fear, her grandson’s act filled her with pride.

The kindergarten employees had peace and quiet until the end of August. Then the Russians came to them–just in time for Ukraine’s independence day. Lyudmila was not on shift at the time. One of the employees called and told her not to come. The Russians ordered them to hand over the keys and chased them out of the kindergarten.

What happened to the building? Only rumors reached Lyudmila: that they had taken furniture, bedding, equipment, tables, chairs, and even potted flowers. Someone saw them cutting down trees in the yard.

Although several days have passed since the liberation, Lyudmila has not yet gone to kindergarten to see with her own eyes what it looks like now. Until Ukrainian sappers check whether the rooms are safe, she is afraid to enter.

Place of torture

It will be some time before the mine and pyrotechnic teams reach Lyudmila’s kindergarten. They have their hands full. While they were checking the building of the local branch of the Security Service of Ukraine, one of their employees was killed.

On the third day after the recapture of Kherson, they dealt with the police station. The Russians tortured prisoners there during the occupation.

In one of the garages there are: a washing machine, toilet bowls, refrigerators, a computer and a radiator. Police officials say they were previously in offices. Oleksandr, one of the sappers, says that the occupiers were preparing to take the items.

On the ground floor they found a telephone with a dynamo. It could be used for conversations, but it could also be used to electrocute the prisoner by cables connected to the body–the more powerful the faster the torturer turned the crank.

In another room, there were office chairs bolted to the floor. Russian uniforms and documents were scattered here and there. The cells were a mess, as if a tornado had gone through them. Some had no bunks. Poems and paintings painted on the walls glorified Russia.

After sappers went through the building, several people went inside. Among them were former prisoners, who came to look at the place where they were tortured. Roman was one of them.

Roman asks: for what?

He was not an activist, activist or interested in politics at all. Roman is just a boy from the housing project, prone to fights and to fun.

It was his carelessness that caused him problems. For two years he lived in Odessa, where he worked in a restaurant and was also a kayaking and paddle board instructor. He was just getting his life together. He was content with his earnings and the life he led. He hoped he wouldn’t end up in prison again. He returned to Kherson on the eve of the invasion, because he wanted to rest here, play with his friends and help his mother.

He was first detained for returning home from a nearby liquor store after curfew. Roman lives right next to the police station, so he could expect to run into a patrol. But he was so eager to drink that he didn’t consider this. He was on his way home when he saw the beam of the flashlights. “Come here immediately!” he heard.

He tried in vain to deny, to convince that he was only going home. They took him into custody but released him shortly after. However, they did not hand back his documents–he was left with only a copy of the first page of his passport.

The second time it was much worse. He was going to visit a friend. It was warm, so he was wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt. A passing patrol saw a tattoo on his forearm. The Russian services, repeated in many stories since 2014, are fixated on tattoos. They stopped Roman. “Face the wall!” “Okay, okay…” he didn’t resist. “Do you have any other tattoos?” “I do.” “Get undressed.” Before he could, they began to beat him and tore off his clothes. He had two Stars of the Iron Cross tattooed on his chest. Such a cross was once used by the Nazis. Roman claims that it has nothing to do with his political views, that it is just an old juvenile excess. He was 19 when he went to prison, he wanted a tattoo there and he liked this design.

After the patrol finished beating him, they took him to some basement. They kept on beating him there. Then they took him to the police station. “Now you have someone to play with,” said the servicemen who brought him to the guards.

Roman claims that they beat him, burned him, electrocuted him, including his genitals, made him shout: “Glory to Russia! Glory to Putin! Glory to Shoigu!” Prisoners were also to be forced to sing the Russian anthem and praise the occupation authorities. They were given a glass of tea and a piece of bread to eat.

“I’ve been to prison before, but our guys didn’t do anything like that. You have to do your time, but to plug your genitals into electricity, beat you from behind. Is that normal?” Roman asks.

First, he was placed in a regular cell. Then they threw him in solitary confinement, without a sink. There were seven people in the small room, then the guards brought in one more. From the window of the isolation cell, Roman could see the balcony of his apartment.

He’s standing in this room now.

Suddenly he starts crying. He covers his face with his hands and slides down the wall.

“Did I do something wrong to someone?!” What the fuck were they holding me for?!” he shouts.

Roman will probably never find out.

This text was originally published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Translated from Polish by Lukasz ChelminskiThis piece is part of the DS collection: Dispatches from Ukraine.


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