‘The guards mentioned a football game with the prisoners. I didn’t know we were the footballs’: Ukrainian POW reveals Russians’ brutal new torture technique that sees them kicked around a yard while blindfolded
- Ukrainian prisoners of war told of the horror of daily torture at Russian prison
- They were subjected to various torture routines also faced by Ukrainian civilians
Ukrainian prisoners of war have told of the horror of daily torture and mistreatment at a Russian detention camp in the southern city of Taganrog, where some inmates claimed they were ‘used as footballs’ by their captors.
Artem Dyblenko, a sergeant major in Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade, told the BBC he overheard Russian guards talking about playing football with their charges, and was initially intrigued by the idea.
But, instead of Russians vs Ukrainians, the game of ‘football’ saw Artem blindfolded and ordered to run.
When he inevitably tripped or was pushed to the ground, the Russian guards would pile in, kicking him around the turf before ordering him to his feet – only to repeat the process over and over.
‘There were constant kicks. You did feel like a football,’ he said.
Besides the game of ‘football’, inmates were regularly and consistently subjected to beatings with batons, chairs and whatever blunt instruments their captors could lay hands on.
Several Ukrainians are said to have died at the facility, having suffered heart attacks or severe trauma left unattended by uninterested prison doctors.
Prior to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Taganrog’s ‘Pre-Trial Detention Facility Number Two’ was used to house Russian prisoners
From the outside, the buildings look fairly nondescript – a few small turquoise and red-brick blocks set just off one of the city’s main streets. But behind the flimsy metal gates and rusty barbed wire fences, a sinister machine of systematic brutality and terror now operates to punish, degrade and in some cases eliminate Ukrainian soldiers
Prior to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Taganrog’s ‘Pre-Trial Detention Facility Number Two’ was used to house Russian prisoners.
From the outside, the buildings look fairly nondescript – a few small turquoise and red-brick blocks set just off one of the city’s main streets surrounded by beauty parlours, a petrol station and adverts for a children’s centre offering art, mathematics and English lessons.
But behind the flimsy metal gates and rusty barbed wire fences, a sinister machine of systematic brutality and terror now operates to punish, degrade and in some cases eliminate Ukrainian soldiers who have the misfortune to be captured defending their country in the South East.
Artem Seredniak, a 27-year-old sniper platoon leader from the Azov Regiment, was a prime target for sadistic torment after being seized.
Stripped down to his underwear, he was thrown into a chilling interrogation chamber where electric shock devices were forced into his back, neck and groin.
The jolts coursed through his body as ruthless guards demanded details about his military role, accused him of looting Mariupol – the southeastern port city bombed into oblivion by Russian missiles last year – and attempted to extract social media details of his girlfriend.
‘They hammered you like a nail,’ Seredniak recalled.
In the midst of Mariupol’s Russian siege last year, hundreds of beleaguered soldiers were commanded to surrender from their hideout in Azovstal steelworks. Seredniak was among the last captured, and it is there his hellish journey commenced.
Transferred to various facilities, he eventually ended up in the sinister Taganrog facility, where the captives were scrutinised mercilessly, any pretext seized upon for torment.
The guards seemed fixated on sniffing out any hint of pro-Nazi sentiment, with tattoos drawing their malevolent gaze.
Body ink – irrespective of the style – was a ticket to abuse. Those sporting Ukrainian tridents or other symbols deemed nationalist were singled out for yet more extreme punishment.
One Ukrainian prisoner allegedly smashed a small mirror in his quarters and used the jagged edge of glass to slash his throat in an attempt to end his torment – only for fellow inmates to stop the bleeding.
Russian doctors occasionally graced the detainees with their presence, but offered little solace. Nourishment was scant, with Seredniak claiming to have lost 20kg during his time behind bars.
Plastic ties for torture and a broken chair are seen inside a basement of an office building, where prosecutors say 30 people were held two months during a Russian occupation, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Kherson, December 10, 2022
Soviet-era gas masks lie on the floor at the corridor of School No. 2 which was used as a Russian military base and torture site in Izium, Ukraine
Pictured: A view from a preliminary detention centre which, as Ukrainians say, was used by Russian service members to jail and torture people, before they retreated from Kherson, Ukraine November 16, 2022
Women were treated no differently.
Iryna Stohnii, a battle-hardened 36-year-old senior combat medic, recounted the relentless malnourishment they endured. ‘No food, no sunlight. Just bars and agony,’ she told the BBC.
Stohnii’s nightmare extended to brutal inspections, where women were subjected to cruel stress positions and humiliating strip-downs. She claimed the prison guards abused her and fellow female captives and every way excluding rape.
‘Only devils live and work’ in this grim abyss, she said.
Denys Haiduk, a 29-year-old military surgeon, shared his own harrowing ordeal.
Guards forced him to run, battered and beaten, in a surreal game of cruelty. Electric shocks coursed through his body from an improvised torture device – his Russian captors having ripped out the exposed wires of a military phone to administer a current.
Haiduk also explained how inmates were intimidated into confessing to all manner of crimes they hadn’t committed to create false evidence used in show trials. Those who refused were further beaten.
When the surgeon refused to sign an incriminating document upon his release from the Taganrog facility, he was savagely attacked, suffering broken ribs and bruising of the heart muscle from repeated blows to the chest.
The dark tales of Taganrog prison echo those recounted by Ukrainian civilians who were subjected to harrowing treatment at the hands of Russian troops in occupied Ukraine.
Kyiv’s troops, having liberated regions of Kherson from Russian occupation, stumbled upon makeshift dungeons and torture chambers set up by the invaders to torment, intimidate and brutalise civilians under their dominion.
Earlier this year, civilians who were unlucky enough to see the inside of these cells recounted their experience.
Oksana Minenko, a 44-year-old accountant who lives in the Ukrainian city of Kherson, said she was repeatedly detained and tortured by occupying Russian forces.
Her husband, a Ukrainian soldier, died defending Kherson’s Antonivskyi bridge on the first day of full-scale war, she said.
During several interrogations in the spring, Russian forces submerged her hands in boiling water, pulled out her fingernails and beat her in the face with rifle butts so badly she needed plastic surgery, according to Minenko.
‘One pain grew into another,’ said Minenko, speaking while at an improvised humanitarian aid centre in early December with scarring visible around her eyes from what she said was an operation to repair the damage. ‘I was a living corpse.’
The methods of the alleged physical torture administered by occupying Russian forces have included electric shocks to genitals and other parts of the body, beatings and various forms of suffocation.
Oksana Minenko (pictured), a 44-year-old accountant who lives in the Ukrainian city of Kherson, said she was repeatedly detained and tortured by occupying Russian forces. The scale of alleged torture and illegal detentions perpetrated by Russian forces in the Ukrainian city of Kherson has emerged as investigators speak to victims in the southern city
During several interrogations in the spring, Minenko said Russian forces submerged her hands (pictured) in boiling water, pulled out her fingernails and beat her in the face with rifle butts so badly she needed plastic surgery, according to Minenko
Left: Ukrainian investigators mark Russian-language documents as evidence in a courthouse in the village of Bilozerka, and right: A garage adjacent to the courthouse where Ukrainian authorities say Russian forces were stationed and unlawfully detained civilians
Pictured: Plastic ties for torture are seen inside a basement of an office building, where prosecutors say 30 people were held two months during a Russian occupation, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Kherson, December 10, 2022
The campaign of torture ‘was done systematically, exhaustingly’ to obtain information about the Ukrainian military and suspected collaborators or to punish those critical of the Russian occupation, according to Andriy Kovalenko, the Kherson region’s chief war crimes prosecutor.
Moscow, which has said it is conducting a ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, has denied committing war crimes or targeting civilians – despite overwhelming evidence to suggest otherwise.
The scale of alleged crimes in the Kherson region appears to be much greater than around the capital of Kyiv, say members of Ukrainian law enforcement, which they attribute to the fact that it was occupied for so much longer.
Ukraine’s top war crimes prosecutor, Yuriy Belousov, said authorities identified ten sites in the Kherson region used by Russian forces for unlawful detentions.
Around 200 people who were allegedly tortured or physically assaulted while held at those sites and about another 400 people were illegally held there, he said.
The United Nations last year said it had found evidence that both sides had tortured prisoners of war, with a U.N. official saying Russian abuse was ‘fairly systematic.’
Kyiv has previously said it would investigate any alleged abuses by its armed forces.
One 35-year-old man from Kherson city said that during a five-day detention in August, Russian forces beat him, made him undress and administered electric shocks to his genitals and ears.
When the current hits ‘it’s like a ball flying into your head and you pass out,’ said the man, who asked to be identified only by his first name Andriy due to fear of reprisals.
He said his captors interrogated him about Ukraine’s military efforts, including the storage of weapons and explosives, because they suspected him of having links to the resistance movement.
One of the largest detention facilities in the region was an office building in Kherson city, according to Ukrainian authorities.
They say more than 30 people are known to have been held in just one of the rooms in the warren-like basement that was used for detention and torture during the Russian occupation. An investigation to establish the total number of people held is ongoing, authorities said.
During a December visit to the building’s basement, the smell of human excrement filled the air, bricked-up windows blocked the light and lying visible were signs of what Ukrainian authorities say were tools of torture by Russian forces such as metal pipes, plastic ties for ligatures and a wire hanging from the ceiling allegedly used to administer electric shocks.
Scratched on the wall were notches, which authorities said were made by detainees possibly to count the number of days held, as well as messages. One read: ‘For Her I Live.’
Another location in the city where people were allegedly interrogated and tortured was a police building that locals have referred to as ‘the hole,’ according to Ukrainian authorities.
Liudmyla Shumkova, 47, said she and her 53-year old sister were held captive at the site, on No. 3 Energy Workers’ Street, for most of the more than fifty days they spent in detention last summer.
She said the Russians asked them about her sister’s son because they believed he was involved in the resistance movement.
Shumkova, who works as a lawyer in the health sector, said about half a dozen people packed into a cell with just a small window for light and as little food as one meal a day. She said she wasn’t physically tortured but fellow detainees were, including a female police officer she shared a cell with.
Men received particularly harsh torture, she said. ‘They screamed, it was constant, every day. It could last for 2 or 3 hours.’
Investigators continue to try to identify those responsible for the alleged war crimes, including the possible role of senior military leadership.
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