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Ukrainians describe life under Russian control

Anastasia Shepeleva
September 26, 2022

Ukraine launched a successful counteroffensive to retake the Kharkiv region in September. Two women from the recently liberated city of Balakliya recount the horrors of life under Russian occupation.

People walks and bike past a severely damaged building in Balakliya
Balakliya has suffered considerable damage during the conflictImage: Kyodo/picture alliance

Ukraine: The horrors under Russian occupation

During Russia's six-month occupation of the Kharkiv region, civilians endured torture, witnessed the denunciation of neighbors and were pressured into collaborating with the Russian invaders. Some felt reminded of the time when dictator Josef Stalin ruled the Soviet Union. Two women told DW about their experiences.

Marina from Balakliya spent nine days imprisoned by Russians

The city of Balakliya was captured quickly. My husband and I have always been pro-Ukrainian, but we wanted to stay because my father is paralyzed after two strokes. Many locals welcomed the Russians and even wanted to cooperate with them. There were a lot of denunciations. The Russians were informed about pro-Ukrainian citizens and men who had fought for Ukraine in the Donbas. The atmosphere was like in the 1930s.

After every fresh rotation of Russian troops, there were lootings. Sometimes, locals had their cars seized in the middle of the street. Our neighbors had a motorbike and quad bike stolen.

Policeman looking at wall in basement of police station with a tally of days and a prayer
Those who were held prisoner by Russian soldiers kept a tally of the days they spent in captivityImage: Gleb Garanich/REUTERS


The Russians often entered homes and checked people's cellphones. My friend was taken away because she had a video of a Russian vehicle convoy on her phone. Most people had videos of this kind, because they were filming when the Russians entered the city. The next day, her husband tried freeing her but he was beaten after they found a text conversation on his phone in which he had insulted the Russian military. It was very dangerous to walk around with a phone.

When the Russian occupation become unbearable in July, my husband and I decided to flee via Russia. We told everyone about our planned departure. When we were sitting on a bench, talking to neighbors, a group of six or seven masked men with assault rifles came to us. They searched drawers and took a computer, laptop, phones and documents. We were taken to the police station. They put bags over our heads and locked us in separate cells.

There were two young women in my cell who were roughly my age, and an older woman. Later, they crammed a total of eight women into this 2x2 meter (7x7 foot) cell, including a 70-year-old. Our mattresses stank; there was only one sink and one toilet. There was neither a lamp nor a clock.

Basement room used by Russian occupiers for holding civilians prisoner, showing mattresses on the floor and a sink
Several women were held in this basement roomImage: Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/Avalon/Photoshot/picture alliance

We were guarded by soldiers of the so-called Luhansk People's Republic, who told us they did not want to be there. They gave us tea and biscuits. There were three meals a day: mash with canned meat. I ate nothing on the first day and then I had to force myself to eat because the rice had gone moldy. One night, an elderly woman complained of heart problems, and we thought she was suffering a heart attack, but the guards did not respond to our knocking. It was only the next morning when they called an ambulance.

Some women were taken straight off the street and accused of working for the Ukrainian army. They said they had been tortured with electric shocks. They said they were also forced to undress to check for tattoos.

My husband said the men were treated even worse. He said they had to be carried out of the interrogations, because the injuries left them unable to walk. The cell for men was even smaller, without any lighting or functional toilet. One or two times a day, they were led to a toilet with bags on their heads. They were fed only twice a day.

I wasn't interrogated until day seven. Two masked men immediately began intimidating me and putting psychological pressure on me. They asked me how I felt about the Ukrainian army. Because I did not respond at first, as I did not understand them, they started torturing me with electric shocks. First, on my legs, then with more voltage on my bare hands. I was made to kneel, and they twisted my arms.

They asked me who in our home was working for the Ukrainian army. I spent more than 15 years working as an educator and directed a children's theater group. They asked a lot about my work and salary. They accused me of being a pro-Ukrainian teacher. Then they placed a sack over my head and returned me to my cell.

A room at a police station in Balakliya reportedly used for torture
Ukrainian civilians have reported that Russian soldiers tortured their prisoners in rooms like this oneImage: Kyodo/picture alliance

Two days later, a guard came to us and told me to come out. The day before, in the middle of the night, a young woman had been punched in the face and tortured with electric shocks. They had held a knife up, threatening to cut off her fingers. I thought this would be my fate as well. But my husband and I received all our possessions back and were released. It turned out my sister had used gold to buy our freedom.

I don't know if our arrest was connected to my refusal to work at the cultural center under Russian occupation. I simply couldn't. What would I have told the children? That they should stop loving Ukraine, and love another state instead? My husband was never interrogated.

At home, we were scared to talk loudly, worrying someone might be listening in. For a long time, I was too scared to flee via Russia; I was in a complete panic about it. But two weeks after our release, we left, this time without telling our relatives, fearing we could end up in the same situation as before. We have been in Ireland for a month now, and I am struggling to recover from my experience. I have heart problems and am turning gray. I lost 10 kilograms (about 22 pounds) during the occupation.

A map showing areas of eastern Ukraine retaken from Russia

Ljudmila left Balakliya in early July

When the Russians came to our city, everyone was too scared to leave their homes because they did not know what to expect. On the streets, people were frightened to speak their minds. But there were many who supported Russia and thought they had come to stay forever. I often heard people say the Russians should stay now they were there, since they had brought gas and food. Most people who had stayed in the city were pensioners or unemployed. But there were also some who were waiting for Ukraine, and who hated the Russian soldiers for coming to our country.

When the invasion began, my 18-year-old daughter, my husband and I drove to friends, who have a house. The first month and a half, we often sheltered in the cellar. We lived on muesli and pasta from the pantry. We baked our own bread. We were too scared to flee because the route to Kharkiv was under constant fire.

People receiving humanitarian aid in Balakliya
Residents of Balakliya received humanitarian aid after the city was retaken by the Ukrainian armyImage: Oleksandra Indiukhova/DW

The first time we went into the city, I was surprised to see how many houses had been abandoned. It looked like in Chernobyl. Broken windows, with curtains blowing in the wind. Like a deserted city, devoid of human life. I later saw children, waiting in line to receive humanitarian aid.

At first, shops were closed. Later, goods were brought in from Kupiansk, which were from Russia or the so-called Luhansk People's Republic. The cost of goods doubled or tripled. Once a month, there was humanitarian aid. But for that, you had to provide your personal details and were then handed out groceries according to a list.

Applications to receive Russian pensions were filed mainly by those people who believed in the Russian Federation, or elderly people who got their pensions by mail and had no other choice. But no Russian pensions were paid out. In August, a one-off payment of 10,000 rubles [roughly €175/$172] was made to people with disabilities and pensioners. When I was out in the city, I saw that only the Ukrainian hryvnia was in circulation and that even Russian servicemen were paying with the currency. That was strange.

Pharmacies and hospitals had no special drugs. This lack of medicines was one reason why we fled to Zaporizhzhia. I need hormone drugs, which were unavailable. Now, we want to return, but I am very worried the Russians could start an offensive again. I don't want them coming back.

This article was originally published in Ukrainian