Liberation has finally come in Kharkiv in Ukraine. But the scars of Russia’s brutal occupation remain


Kupiansk, Ukraine
CNN

There is little respite in victory for Ukrainian forces in the recently liberated Kupiansk. Russian shells still hit the pockmarked streets, marring the skyline with plumes of black smoke.

Intense damage is visible on almost every building. A huge billboard depicting a waving Russian flag stands next to the bridge that crosses the Oskil River in the city center, saying, “We are one people with Russia!”

For now, the Ukrainian army has pushed Russian forces over the bridge and appears to be building momentum by crossing the eastern banks of the river into Luhansk, a key separatist area controlled by Moscow. CNN witnessed Ukrainian infantry returning on foot from the east side.

But in this city, one of the many liberated in the eastern region of Kharkov, are the telltale signs of an infernal occupation. A former police building was used by the Russians as a huge detention center, where at one point up to 400 prisoners were held in the cramped and dark cells, with eight or nine prisoners per room, Ukrainian authorities told CNN. A brightly colored mural of a Russian soldier with a “Z” on his armband standing next to an elderly woman waving the flag of the former Soviet empire is still visible on one wall.

Before CNN was allowed in, an inmate with his hands bound in glossy blue tape was quickly led out, placed in a vehicle and driven off.

This may have been a Russian soldier, according to the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), who believes he either abandoned his troops or was abandoned. The inmate claimed to be a local, the SBU said.

On the floor just outside the entrance to the building were two Russian flags tied to wooden poles, one with signs of burning. Inside, trash lay on the floors of the damp room. Down the narrow corridor were small rooms on each side, where Russians held their prisoners.

Some small cells showed a few small mattresses and tables, others contained only a table and two chairs, remnants of what could have been an interrogation room.

The small rooms where eight to nine prisoners were held by Russian troops in a former police building in Kupiansk.

Not all rooms had been cleared of possible explosives, officials told CNN. A grenade booby trap sat on a bench in a cell, held in place by a half-eaten food can.

As CNN walked downtown, an SBU officer noticed the fall and wrote “Grenade!!!” on the wall outside the cell with a black marker and an arrow to indicate exactly which room investigators should enter. The door was closed.

As the investigation continues, Ukrainian officials are also discovering other scars, such as those from alleged torture.

A former prisoner introduced to CNN by Ukraine’s security services said he was locked in the building about a month ago. As he walked down the hall, he showed CNN the room where he said the Russians were questioning him.

“They put me in this seat,” said the former inmate — who CNN has not named for his safety — pointing. “There was the detective, and there was the man with the phone and someone else helping.”

The phone was an old wind-up model that he said was used to send it electric shocks. He believes his interrogator had experience with this method from their time with the Russian security services, the FSB.

The occupiers asked him who he was in contact with from the Ukrainian army and told them he was once a chef in the army, he said.

“They said to me, ‘You think you’re tough. Let’s see how hard,'” he said. “They also shot me with some gun. Here and in the leg,” he told CNN, pointing at his chest and leg.

“They promised me that I would not see the sun and the sky again until they forced me into a minefield,” he said. “The most important thing is to survive and resist. It took me a week and a half to recover when I was released.”

Two Russian flags can be seen outside the detention center, one with signs of burning.

The man is not alone in bearing the scars of a brutal invasion, detention and alleged torture.

As authorities continue to investigate and evacuate the liberated towns in the Kharkiv region, they find mounting evidence of detention centers and cells used for torture.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Saturday that “more than 10 torture chambers” used by the occupying forces have been found in the area so far. “When the occupiers fled, they also dropped the torture devices,” he said.

CNN has contacted the Russian government for comment, but has not received a response.

Kupiansk may have recently been liberated, but the city is a ghost town, punctuated by destruction and rubble.

The few locals still huddled in the empty shell.

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