By LORI HINNANT, EVGENIY MALOLETKA and VASILISA STEPANENKO
October 2, 2022
IZIUM, Ukraine (AP) — The first time the Russian soldiers caught him, they tossed him bound and blindfolded into a trench covered with wooden boards for days on end.
Then they beat him, over and over: Legs, arms, a hammer to the knees, all accompanied by furious diatribes against Ukraine. Before they let him go, they took away his passport and Ukrainian military ID — all he had to prove his existence — and made sure he knew exactly how worthless his life was.
“No one needs you,” the commander taunted. “We can shoot you any time, bury you a half-meter underground and that’s it.”
The brutal encounter at the end of March was just the start. Andriy Kotsar would be captured and tortured twice more by Russian forces in Izium, and the pain would be even worse.
Andriy Kotsar, who was tortured by Russian soldiers, sits at a table after a service at Pishchanskyi church in the recently liberated town of Izium, Ukraine, Monday, Sept. 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
Russian torture in Izium was arbitrary, widespread and absolutely routine for both civilians and soldiers throughout the city, an Associated Press investigation has found. While torture was also evident in Bucha, that devastated Kyiv suburb was only occupied for a month. Izium served as a hub for Russian soldiers for nearly seven months, during which they established torture sites everywhere.
Based on accounts of survivors and police, AP journalists located 10 torture sites in the town and gained access to five of them. They included a deep sunless pit in a residential compound with dates carved in the brick wall, a clammy underground jail that reeked of urine and rotting food, a medical clinic, a police station and a kindergarten.
The AP spoke to 15 survivors of Russian torture in the Kharkiv region, as well as two families whose loved ones disappeared into Russian hands. Two of the men were taken repeatedly and abused. One battered, unconscious Ukrainian soldier was displayed to his wife to force her to provide information she simply didn’t have.
The AP also confirmed eight men were killed under torture in Russian custody, according to survivors and families. All but one were civilians.
At a mass grave site created by the Russians and discovered in the woods of Izium, at least 30 of the 447 bodies recently excavated bore visible marks of torture — bound hands, close gunshot wounds, knife wounds and broken limbs, according to the Kharkiv regional prosecutor’s office. Those injuries corresponded to the descriptions of the pain inflicted upon the survivors.
AP journalists also saw bodies with bound wrists at the mass grave. Amid the trees were hundreds of simple wooden crosses, most marked only with numbers. One said it contained the bodies of 17 Ukrainian soldiers. At least two more mass graves have been found in the town, all heavily mined, authorities said.
Unidentified graves of civilians and Ukrainian soldiers are marked with a cross in a cemetery in the recently liberated town of Izium, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022.
A physician who treated hundreds of Izium’s injured during the Russian occupation said people regularly arrived at his emergency room with injuries consistent with torture, including gunshots to their hands and feet, broken bones and severe bruising, and burns. None would explain their wounds, he said.
“Even if people came to the hospital, silence was the norm,” chief Dr. Yuriy Kuznetsov said. He added that one soldier came in for treatment for hand injuries, clearly from being cuffed, but the man refused to say what happened.
Men with links to Ukrainian forces were singled out repeatedly for torture, but any adult man risked getting caught up. Matilda Bogner, the head of the U.N. human rights mission in Ukraine, told the AP they had documented “widespread practices of torture or ill-treatment of civilian detainees” by Russian forces and affiliates. Torture of soldiers was also systemic, she said.
Torture in any form during an armed conflict is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions, whether of prisoners of war or civilians.
“It serves three purposes,” said Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch. “Torture came with questions to coerce information, but it is also to punish and to sow fear. It is to send a chilling message to everyone else.”
A Ukrainian soldier's jacket with a national flag is sits in a room at School No. 2 in the recently liberated town of Izium, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022.
Spoons rest in a bowl as it sits on the floor in a holding cell in the basement of a police station which was used by Russian forces in the recently retaken town of Izium, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022.
Light shines through a window of a holding cell in the basement of a police station which was used by Russian forces in the recently liberated town of Izium, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022.
NO SAFE HAVEN
AP journalists found Kotsar, 26, hiding in a monastery in Izium, his blond hair tied back neatly in the Orthodox fashion and his beard curling beneath his chin. He had no way to safely contact his loved ones, who thought he was dead.
Back in March, after his first round of torture, Kotsar fled to the gold-domed Pishchanskyi church. Russian soldiers were everywhere, and nowhere in Izium was safe.
Hiding amid the icons, Kotsar listened to the rumble of Russian armored vehicles outside and contemplated suicide. He had been a soldier for just under a month and had no idea if anyone in his little unit had survived the Russian onslaught.