Exhumed graves at a mass burial site in Izium, Ukraine. Credit: Nicole Tung for The New York Times
KHARKIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian police have recovered 534 bodies of civilians in territory recaptured by the Ukrainian Army since early September, Serhii Bolvinov, head of the investigative department of the regional police force in Kharkiv, said at a news briefing on Thursday.
The bodies included 226 women and 19 children. Most of the civilian bodies recovered — 447 — were found in a mass burial site in Izium.
The police have also discovered 22 locations that they suspect were used as torture chambers in areas of Kharkiv Province that were recently freed from Russian control, he said. Investigators have been gathering documents and other evidence from the sites and witness testimony, including from former detainees.
“Russian units set up such places of detention of civilians and prisoners of war in almost all the settlements where they were based,” Mr. Bolvinov said.
Ukrainian troops have recaptured nearly 500 towns and villages since Sept. 7 in a sweeping counterattack that has pushed Russian forces out of most of Kharkiv Province after nearly seven months of occupation.
“The most common torture techniques were electric shocks and severe beatings with sticks and other objects,” Mr. Bolvinov said. “There are cases of pulling out nails and using gas masks to restrict breathing.”
Most of the victims were residents who were detained for violating the nightly curfew or accused of acting as target spotters for Ukrainian artillery attacks.
Regional police investigators showed where Russian forces held and interrogated prisoners in a basement in Kozacha Lopan, in northern Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Thursday. Credit: Ivor Prickett for The New York Times
In one instance, Mr. Bolvinov said, a pensioner from Izium traveled out of the city but then returned for personal reasons. After a Ukrainian artillery strike on Izium on Aug. 29 the pensioner was detained at his home and taken to the local police station, which Russian troops were using as a military headquarters, Mr. Bolvinov said. The building is one of the locations being investigated as a torture chamber.
“People speaking with a Russian accent demanded to know who he was passing the coordinates to,” Mr. Bolvinov said, reading from the witness record. They hit the pensioner with a tube, breaking his arm, and pushed metal spokes from a bicycle wheel under his skin in the area of his shoulder blades. After two hours of torture, the man lost consciousness from the pain, Mr. Bolvinov said.
The police were also investigating a case in the village of Pisky-Radkivski, east of Izium, where a group of about 10 Russian soldiers, including a commander, set up a headquarters in a private house, Mr. Bolvinov said. They seized the home and two cars from a resident, he said.
“We have witnesses who heard screams from the basement, pleas for help,” Mr. Bolvinov said. “Sometimes, after the screams, the locals heard bursts of shots, after which the screams stopped.”
In the basement of the house, the police found ropes, Ukrainian army jackets, a gas mask, a dildo and a plastic container with dentures and gold teeth. Investigators also found records of testimony by Ukrainian prisoners.
Mr. Bolvinov said the authorities were investigating whether the teeth were evidence of torture or had been taken from a dentist’s practice. The teeth have been sent for DNA analysis, he said.
Mobile phones confiscated from local residents by Russian forces nailed to a tree in Kozacha Lopan, to deter others from trying to conceal phones during the occupation. Credit: Ivor Prickett for The New York Times
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