Pete Keihart for NPR
Kherson, Ukraine – Residents say simply speaking Ukrainian could lead to them being arrested and even tortured. Displaying the Ukrainian flag was out of the question. They say they suffered daily indignities and lived in fear during the Russian occupation of this southern Ukrainian city.
“People didn’t go out into the streets,” says Marina Zenevich, 54, who has lived in Kherson all her life, except to buy essentials like food. “We were under constant pressure and constant surveillance.”
These were just some of the terrifying accounts from Kherson residents after eight and a half months under Russian occupation.
Today, the Ukrainians Celebration and singing of patriotic songs In the main square a week after the withdrawal of the Russian forces. But from behind the carnival atmosphere, a picture emerges of what citizens suffered under Russian rule. They describe detentions and abuses amid a climate of terror and suspicion.
We heard these crazy screams in the night.
As Zinevich spoke to NPR in the city’s Freedom Square, she wore a glittering Ukrainian flag draped around her shoulders like a shawl. The people around her celebrate the Russian withdrawal. People take selfies with plump watermelons – a symbol of Kherson.
The euphoric spectacle would have been impossible just eight days ago, before Ukrainian forces regained control.
Installed by the Kremlin, Zenevich says, the authorities were constantly on the lookout for people they viewed as “partisans”—anyone who might pass information to the Ukrainian authorities that could undermine the occupation.
And in public places everyone had to speak Russian.
“for [speaking] Ukrainian language or [showing] Ukrainian symbols, you can be taken to the cellar and torture, “you say.” In the basement” means the detention centers set up by the Russian forces.
One such facility was at a police station on the north side of Kherson near the Antonevsky Bridge.
Maria Krivoruchko, who lives half a block from the police station, recalls some terrifying moments.
“We heard these crazy screams at night,” says Kryvoruchko. “There were shouts from the prison of people being tortured at night. In the summer when I opened the window, we heard it well.”
As she was speaking with National Public Radio (NPR), an explosion suddenly occurred in the distance. Kryvoruchko does not flinch. She says: “This is outgoing, don’t worry!”
The 70-year-old said she did not know who was being held or tortured at the police station.
“When I passed the police station, I was afraid to even look. [The Russians] There were guns,” she says.
It was suspected to be part of the underground
A man who says he was held there is Maxim Negrov.
He returns to the compound to find the cell where he was held from March until mid-April.
“The Russians arrested everyone with a pro-Ukrainian position,” Negrov says, standing inside the now-abandoned police compound. Three vandalized trucks with Ukrainian police insignia smeared with red spray paint sit in the yard.
He adds that the Russian kidnappers beat and tortured all the detainees, including himself.
Negrov, 45, had served in the Ukrainian army when he was younger. “I was arrested on suspicion of being involved in the resistance movement,” he says. “But at the beginning of the war, I was just a businessman.”
In the end, he says, the Russians let him go.
Officials are investigating allegations of torture
Verkhovna Rada Commissioner for Human Rights Dmytro Lubinets said his office is investigating allegations of human rights violations and crimes against humanity by the occupying Russian army in Kherson.
“Among them are torture in basements, enforced disappearances, hostage-taking of civilians, and extrajudicial executions,” he said. cable Messaging application.
Investigators from the United Nations and human rights groups say they are collecting evidence of torture and other abuses.
There is resistance underground
Another man says he was part of what he calls the “peaceful” underground resistance in Kherson. The 25-year-old only gives his code name, Evan, because he says he’s still involved in covert operations.
“They were constantly trying to arrest us,” he says.
Evan is the coordinator of a group called the Yellow Ribbon Movement.
“We put up graffiti and yellow ribbons to remind people that Kherson is still Ukraine,” he says.
His group also distributed flyers and published pamphlets trying to help people resist the Russian occupation. One major message: don’t take a Russian passport.
The Moscow-backed administration has tried to give residents Russian passports, saying it would make them eligible for food and other aid.
“They would try to force you to take their passport,” he says. For young Ukrainians, he adds, “their passport is like a ticket into their army.”
Hundreds of men from Kherson were drafted into the Russian army, according to Ivan. There have been reports of Russia recruiting 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 against Ukrainians.”
Now that Kherson is liberated, he says, the festivities are inspiring.
He works with activists in Crimea and other Russian-occupied regions on guerrilla warfare media campaigns and spreading the message that no matter what the Kremlin says, those lands are still part of Ukraine.
Pete Keihart for NPR
Polina Litvinova contributed to this report.
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