Oleksandr Shutov was locked up for 36 days. For the first 26 of them, he huddled in a group cell and could hear the screams of other prisoners. Then the guards came for him, attached electric wires to his hands and tormented him with pulses of electricity.
Maksym Soter, 37, was only detained briefly, but suffered through the torture of his friend Vanya, abuse so savage that he would later die.
Lidiya Shulha, 64, was arrested shortly before liberation. She was one of the few women prisoners in Balakliya.
They are three of possibly several hundred people who were thrown into prison in the town in northeastern Ukraine. And now, they are able to tell their stories.
Just a few days after Putin’s troops began their invasion of Ukraine, the war reached Balakliya, a town with a prewar population of 30,000. Russian warplanes flew sorties in the surrounding area and panic quickly spread among the residents. Many fled, while others went into hiding. Russian soldiers and their auxiliary forces from the self-proclaimed people’s republics in the Donbas moved into the town with tanks, personnel carriers and rocket launchers.
The occupation of Balakliya would last for roughly half a year, ending on Sept. 8, when the Ukrainian army surprised the enemy with a lightning offensive , throwing the Russians out of Balakliya and dozens of other towns and villages in the Kharkiv region. The soldiers were followed by forensics specialists, Ukrainian investigators, criminal law experts and human rights activists. They quickly began scrutinizing the period of occupation and are looking into mounting evidence of torture and war crimes.
In the town of Izyum, located 50 kilometers away, investigators have exhumed a mass grave in a forest containing the bodies of 445 civilians killed in recent months. In a trench nearby, they found the corpses of 17 Ukrainian soldiers. Some of the dead showed clear signs of torture. Several had their hands tied behind their backs, and at least one of the bodies had a rope around the neck. Investigators also say that they have found 10 torture sites in the recently recaptured towns of the region. One of them is Balakliya.
On the tenth day after the town’s liberation, a warm, summerlike day in mid-September, dozens of elderly people are standing in front of a truck on October Street, the wide, main road of Balakliya. Aid workers from Kyiv have arrived to distribute flour and water, noodles and canned vegetables along with medical supplies to those in need. The signs of recent battle are visible. Just 100 meters from the gathered crowd is a gigantic crater, likely the product of a bomb dropped from a Russian warplane as Ukrainian troops advanced into town.
Also on October Street, not far from the monument to the national poet Taras Shevchenko, stands a two-story building – a broad, nondescript structure with neon letters on the roof spelling out "BalDruk," the name of the publishing house that occupied the building before the war. Now, though, nobody is allowed to enter, and investigators are walking across the courtyard. One of them, a criminal investigator from Kharkiv, points to the entrance door and says that the "Russian fascists" had operated from here. During their occupation of the town, the occupiers installed themselves inside the building, and Ukrainian officials say that around 40 prisoners were held by the occupiers of Balakliya at all times. The Russians, the officials say, tortured many of them.
Across the street, spruce trees surround a three-story building of bright sandstone, the Balakliya police station. The Russian occupiers set up a base here too, and it was also used for torture, as both locals and investigators report. Dozens of people were apparently locked away in the cells and rooms on the ground floor and in the basement.
It could be months before investigators are able to paint a detailed picture of what took place inside the two buildings. And several factors are making their efforts more challenging: Many residents are difficult to reach, either because they have no phones or because the mobile network isn’t up and running again yet. Meanwhile, some suspected torture victims have left town while others are too traumatized to speak about what they experienced.
Oleksandr Shutov also doesn’t trust the peace that has returned to Balakliya. But despite his fears and trauma, he has decided to speak out – at the place where his suffering began.
A gaunt man with dark eyes, Shutov has a short, vertical scar running between his eyebrows, lending him a severe appearance and making him look older than his 22 years. Shutov is calm and composed as he speaks, but when he shows where the guards attached electric wires to his fingers, it becomes apparent that his hands are swollen and are shaking.
Oleksandr Shutov says that when the Russian soldiers came to arrest him, they even knew his nickname.Foto: Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL
It is impossible to confirm all the details from his story. But DER SPIEGEL reporters spoke with relatives, neighbors and friends of Shutov in addition to investigators, and compared his narrative with that of other prisoners. Shutov’s description of events along with witness testimony and preliminary results from the investigation allow for a preliminary reconstruction of the atrocities that took place in Balakliya during the six months of Russian occupation.
As was the case for many Ukrainians, the war began for Shutov with shattered dreams. Just days before the invasion, he had received his trucker’s license and found a job with a dairy. His first trip was to take him to Odessa, the Black Sea port city. When the Russian army attacked the Kharkiv region with heavy artillery, bombs and rockets on Feb. 24, Oleksandr’s girlfriend Alina was among the hundreds of thousands of people who fled westward, ultimately crossing the border to safety in Poland.
He remained in Balakliya. Though he has his own home in town, he spent much of his time with his grandmother Svyeta. The occupiers set up roadblocks throughout the city, patrolled the streets and even distributed their own newspaper called Kharkov Z, a combination of the Russian name for the region and the symbol of the Russian invasion.
At the end of Gogol Street, where Oleksandr’s mother lives, the Russians set up a Grad multiple rocket launcher. They had little trust in the residents of areas under occupation and depended heavily on sympathizers and collaborators. Investigators and residents say the Russians had their eyes primarily on two groups: Ukrainian soldiers and their families, and all those that the Russians suspected of identifying targets for the Ukrainian artillery.
On August 3, Oleksandr Shutov was once again visiting his grandmother, sitting in the yard and drinking coffee. Vlad, a friend and neighbor of the same age as Shutov, climbed up onto the roof of his house to get better reception for a phone call to his wife. From there, he was able to see a truck marked with a "Z" approach the house.
Russian soldiers stormed into the yard and called for Shutov. "They knew my nickname," he says. He believes that a woman from the neighborhood had reported him to a neighborhood police officer who was working for the occupiers. The soldiers pulled a hood over his head and forced him and Vlad into the military vehicle – regular Russian soldiers, Shutov says. They drove him and his friend to the police station. "They put Vlad in the fourth cell and me in the first."
Shutov's grandmother Svetlana Lebed. Like many, she is afraid that the Russians might come back.Foto: Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL
Even several days after the Russians left, the cell block is still in a shambles. Scraps of lumber, documents, empty cardboard boxes and garbage bags are strewn about on the floor and the windowsills. Broken glass crunches underfoot in the offices. In four of the cells, there are two cots each behind the green metal doors. One cell has three cots and another, especially small one, has just a single bunk. Plastic bottles and items of clothing are scattered on the floor.
This is where Shutov spent more than a month. The soldiers locked him in a dark room packed with eight people, though there were just two beds. "They would continually bring in new prisoners, even at night," says the 22-year-old. Because the prisoners were kept in different cells, he cannot say for sure how many people were locked away during his time there. Shutov says the captives kept largely silent out of fear. A prayer is scratched into the wall of one of the cells.
On the first two days he was there, he says, he was given nothing to eat. Later, they were served soup if there was anything leftover after the soldiers and guards had eaten their fill. Most of the time, they were served porridge. "You can hardly call it food," says Shutov. "There were worms and grub in the porridge."
After just a few days, he began suffering from an upset stomach, and when he had to use the bathroom, guards would pull a sack over his head and take him to a pit toilet at the end of the hall. After just 10 seconds, they would start yelling at him to hurry up.
Only rarely would the guards turn on the fans in the cell tract. "They only did so when they were in a good mood," he says. It was almost impossible for him to sleep given the lack of space. The other prisoners encouraged him to lay down beneath the bed, but it was full of insects. And then there were the screams coming from the interrogation room when the guards zapped the prisoners with electric shocks. Others were beaten. One Russian soldier from the Caucasus beat up the older prisoners, Shutov recalls. "They even cut the ear off one of the prisoners from our cell."
Some detainees, though, had it even worse. Around a month before Oleksandr Shutov was arrested, another man whose parents also live on Gogol Street was taken to the police station. His name is Maksym Soter, a short-tempered 37-year-old with nervous eyes.
"I don’t want to think about that shit," Soter says in greeting. He says he fought in the Donbas from 2016 to 2018 against the Russian and their allies from the separatist regions. Despite that history, though, the occupiers allowed Soter to go free after just three days at the police station. He still has no idea why.
His friend Vanya, though, says Soter, was tortured to death. "I didn’t see what they did to him." But he says that Vanya was in such bad shape that he had to feed him with a spoon, and that he had smelled like excrement and urine. At the insistence of the other prisoners, the Russians brought him to a hospital in the city of Kupyansk, around 80 kilometers away. One investigator confirmed to DER SPIEGEL that the case of a young man named Ivan, nickname Vanya, was being looked into. The investigator said the young man died in Kupyansk, apparently as a result of torture.
At the end of August, it was Shutov’s turn, and the guards hauled him out of the cell. At 9 a.m., according to his recollections, they took him to be interrogated. It was day 27 of his imprisonment. A soldier attached wires to his fingers and then they sent an electrical current through his body. "I trembled, everything inside of me pulled together and twisted around." The soldier asked about Shutov’s father. He had fought in the Ukrainian army, hadn’t he, the man asked? Shutov replied by saying that nobody in his family was in the army. "Bullshit," the soldier yelled as a second jammed a stun gun into his back. "I can’t remember how long the interrogation lasted," says Shutov. "I only know that I lost consciousness."
A short time later, without Shutov realizing it, an acquaintance of his was brought to the police station: Lidiya Shulha, the administrator of a village on the outskirts of Balakliya where Shutov’s parents live.
Lidiya Shulha, the administrator of a village near Balakliya who was detained by the Russian occupiers.Foto: Maxim Dondyuk
It was during the period when the Ukrainians were softening up the Russian lines in preparation for their rapid surge in the region. They were firing on Russian positions with heavy artillery and the occupiers were growing increasingly nervous. On Sept. 3, according to Shulha, a Russian major and his deputy showed up and accused the 64-year-old of having communicated the locations of Russian positions to the Ukrainian army and threatened to blow her up with a grenade. Shulha fled to a village in the surroundings, but was ultimately found and brought to the police station in Balakliya two days later.
She was locked away in a basement room with three other women. When DER SPIEGEL visited the site, a woman’s handbag was still on the floor of the room, along with mattrasses.
"I was neither interrogated nor tortured," Shulha says. "But I think the other women went through a rough time." One of them, says Shulha, was 65 years old and the other two in their mid-50s. "One woman said that we were in the hands of the FSB," the Russian secret service. "But I don’t know if that’s true."
On the very next day, Sept. 6, the prisoners began hearing nervous shouting from their guards. The occupiers were running through the hallways, yelling at each other. And then, they left. Two days later, the inmates were able to break open the cell doors with iron bars. That is when Lidiya Shulha saw her acquaintance Oleksandr Shutov.
Neither of them was aware that the Ukrainian army had just liberated the town. Videos of locals falling into the arms of soldiers were being uploaded to social media sites, and one of them is from Gogol Street in Balakliya. It shows Shutov’s grandmother Svyeta and her neighbors cheering on the Ukrainian troops.
Just as they did when retreating from the Kyiv region in spring, the Russian troops in the area of Balakliya have left behind traces of potential atrocities. According to officials, 200 investigations against the Russian occupiers have already been launched in the Kharkiv region. A publisher from Izyum also told DER SPIEGEL of being tortured with electric shocks. A young construction worker from a town near Balakliya says that he lost his father when he stumbled into a booby trap in the neighbor’s yard. Two farmers from the region north of Kharkiv accuse the occupiers of having taken family members back to Russia against their will.
Shutov’s grandmother Svyeta says that her grandson still has trouble sleeping and is anxious. Like many others in town, he is afraid that the Russian troops could return. The horror of the occupation is still present in Balakliya.
With additional reporting by Artem Pribylnov