A portrait of Alla, a Ukrainian woman who said she was held by Russian forces for 10 days in July in the occupied city of Izyum in Ukraine's northeast Kharkiv region. During that time, she said she was raped and tortured by her captors. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)
IZYUM, Ukraine — Soon after Russian forces took her prisoner, the 52-year-old woman picked up a nail and carved her name into a brick wall.
A-L-L-A, she wrote.
Below, she scratched how many days she had been held in the shed outside a medical clinic in her hometown. Above, she wrote in simple words what she had endured in captivity: ELECTRICAL SHOCK. UNDRESS. PAINFUL.
She hoped the markings would one day serve as clues for her son about what she expected to be the final days of her life.
“I thought if my son would look for me, he could find these writings and understand that I was there and died there,” she later recalled.
Some of Alla’s writing is still visible in the small shed in Izyum, the city in northeast Ukraine, where she said occupying Russian forces tortured, raped and beat her while she was held captive for 10 days in July.
The men who detained her, Alla said, were seeking information about her son, who works for Ukraine’s internal security service, the SBU, and about her own work at the region’s gas company. Her husband, who worked at the same company, was also detained and tortured on the clinic’s property.
Alla’s account of her treatment at the hands of Russian forces adds to a growing body of evidence of alleged war crimes committed by Russian troops and officials in the parts of Ukraine they occupied this year, after President Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion and launched a full-scale war.
Russian forces have left a trail of destruction and cruelty across Ukraine, including in Bucha, where they were accused of atrocities. New reports of barbarity are emerging as Ukraine’s military liberates more towns following months of occupation, and as authorities and rights groups try to document these acts of inhumanity in hopes of one day bringing perpetrators to justice, perhaps before an international tribunal.
Russia controlled Izyum, a small city in the northeast Kharkiv region, from March through September, when a surprise Ukrainian counteroffensive forced Russian troops and local collaborators to rapidly retreat. In the weeks since Ukraine retook its territory, horrific details have emerged about some of the most grievous offenses Russian forces allegedly committed during their violent occupation.
Civilians who survived the occupation have recounted other instances of rape and torture at the hands of Russian and Russian-backed troops. Some of the hundreds of civilian bodies retrieved from a mass burial site in Izyum showed signs of torture, Ukrainian officials said.
Alla shared her account with The Washington Post on the condition only her first name be used. The Post is also not naming her husband, or son, to protect her identity.
Washington Post journalists twice visited the site where she was imprisoned, once independently and once with Alla and her husband. Her account was consistent with what Post journalists found inside, including her name and other details still scrawled on the wall.
It was impossible to independently verify every detail of Alla’s case. But in an investigation into torture in Izyum, Human Rights Watch spoke to eight other men and one other woman who were detained at the clinic during the Russian occupation, said Belkis Wille, senior researcher in the group’s conflict and crisis division. The woman told the group she was threatened with rape but not sexually assaulted. A man who was held in a garage at the clinic during the same time as Alla reported that he heard women’s screams, and soldiers talking about denying food to a prisoner because she had not performed a sex act, Wille said.
Alla also showed The Post journalists a video of herself after she returned home, in which she appeared gaunt and disheveled.
Alla's name scratched onto the wall of the shed where she was held hostage and abused on the ground of a medical clinic that was used by Russian soldiers as a detention center and torture site in occupied Izyum. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)
The harassment started in mid-March.
After surviving heavy shelling, Alla braved a pedestrian bridge across the river that runs through Izyum to check on her son’s empty apartment near the city center. On her way, she found a scene of ruin: Corpses lay on the sides of the road, and there were destroyed buildings everywhere she looked.
Her son’s neighbors told her that Russians had visited the building, asked about her son, who was working elsewhere in the Kharkiv region, and searched his apartment. The men “started taking out everything,” she recalled, including his coffee machine, CD player, television and washing machine. Fearing all his belongings would be looted, she moved what valuables were left to a friend’s house nearby.
That same month, Russian forces began visiting her and her husband at their home. First they said they were looking for weapons or wanted photos of her son, who was deployed for work outside of Izyum. Later they started searching her phone, interrogating her and her husband about whether their son was hiding in Izyum and insisting he should collaborate with Russia.
Soldiers also told them that her son’s neighbors had provided intelligence to them about their family. They were “threatening us all the time, telling me that if my son collaborated with them, they won’t touch us, everything will be good,” Alla said. “We lived in constant fear, but they didn’t touch us, didn’t torture us.”
Like many other civilians, Alla and her husband knew they might be safer elsewhere but they feared leaving behind her elderly parents.
Then the Russians’ demands escalated.
The Russian-appointed mayor of Izyum and men who identified themselves as FSB agents repeatedly asked Alla to return to her job at the Kharkiv gas company. The gas supply was cut to the much of the city and Russian officials wanted to turn it back on. Alla insisted she would not return to work and that as a manager, she did not have the technical expertise they needed. When she finally visited her office, she found the door kicked in and her belongings turned upside down.
The next day, on July 1 at 11 a.m., two cars pulled up outside their house — both emblazoned with the Russian “Z.” About 10 men jumped out of the vehicles, including those who had visited them before. “ ‘You were saying you wouldn’t go to work?’ ” Alla recalled them shouting. “ ‘You went to the gas bureau and bossed around there? Now, get ready.’ ”
The men placed bags over Alla and her husband’s heads, bound their hands with duct tape and shoved them into the trunks of each car.
With her eyes covered, Alla did not know where she was being taken. Then the cars stopped and the soldiers jumped out. “ ‘We’ll beat the Ukrainian out of you here, you won’t come out of here alive,’ ” they told her. “ ‘Either you accept our rules and acknowledge that you live in Russia or you’ll go missing. No one will find you, ever.’ ”