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Gone through fire, water and electric shocks - Kherson patrisans on tortures and Russian captivity

Gone through fire, water and electric shocks - Kherson patrisans on tortures and Russian captivity Kherson partisan Roman Shapovalenko (photo: Vitalii Nosach/RBC Ukraine)

The story about what happened to partisans in Russian captivity in occupied Kherson, and how former prisoners describe the "procedures" employed by occupiers.

Kherson was occupied by the Russian army a week after the start of the full-scale war. Many locals didn't even have time to realize how it happened – social media and news did not provide clear information, villages near the regional center quickly lost communication, and then unfamiliar military personnel appeared in the city. They claimed to have “liberated” Kherson, promising to establish a "Russian world" there.

For over 8 months, Kherson lived under occupation. All this time, a quiet struggle against the Russian invaders was ongoing in the city. The underground resistance worked in several directions, primarily ideological and military. Some hung Ukrainian flags, painted curbs in yellow-blue colors, and avoided meeting with Russians, while others actively sought them out. The most frequent outcome of such encounters was losses among the occupiers' personnel.

In response, the Russian army began utilizing its main instrument in the "liberated" settlements – terror. People were searched, detained, and taken to cells that quickly turned into torture chambers. There, they were interrogated, and subjected to "procedures”. The occupiers refused to believe that most partisans had neither "American curators" nor financial benefits.

“I was betrayed by local collaborators”

39-year-old Kherson resident Petro Zhadan spent 73 days in Russian captivity. He speaks in short phrases, rarely changing his stern expression. From 2015 to 2021, Petro fought in the Anti-Terrorist Operation in Donetsk and Mariupol. When the city was occupied, he realized that he could end up on the "undesirable" list.

"I was hiding. I didn't walk in the city unnecessarily. I didn't look for a job because if I were to apply somewhere with my documents, they would immediately be checked. There was a list there. Initially, I was on it, but people helped me, and the list was taken away. That's how they searched for me for so long,” he says.

Gone through fire, water and electric shocks - Kherson patrisans on tortures and Russian captivity

Kherson partisan Petro Zhadan

Petro had to be cautious, but he managed to get the necessary coordinates and provide the Armed Forces of Ukraine with precision strike data. Though, the Russians searched for Petro for about five months, and they probably wouldn't have found him if not for the local collaborators. He suspects he knows exactly who pointed him out – today, that person is hiding on the left bank of the region together with the occupiers. Petro was detained on August 6, but he finds the term "detention" not quite appropriate.

"I can't call it a detention; it was a kidnapping. Detention is when our police come. But what happened here was illegal. Some strangers came, broke down the door, and stormed in. We were made to lie facedown at gunpoint,” he recounts.

The Russians already knew that Petro had served in the military. He tried to save himself by saying he worked as a cook in the army, but RF Federal Security Service agents quickly recovered his military photos on a computer. In these photos, Petro could be seen armed in military bunkers. He was immediately taken to a temporary detention facility, and the interrogation with "procedures" was scheduled for the next day.

For 9 days straight, Petro endured physical abuse, electrocution, and beatings. When the brutality became insufferable, he was presented with a choice – give an "interview" to a Russian television channel and gain his freedom.

"I did the interview. They wanted to know how I ended up living like this, why went to war, where I served, and where I fought. It was all outlined on a sheet. They told me – we dictate, you write it down, we give you a day to study it, and that's it,” Petro says.

When the camera was turned off, the behavior of the young male interviewer and the two girls drastically changed. They threatened Petro with 20 years in Russian prison, and later even with life imprisonment. They referred to his so-called crime as "terrorism". After several meetings with propagandists, Petro understood that he wouldn't be released, despite the assurances given.

"After the video, they left me alone; I just sat there. They said they would release me 5 days, following the interview. But they released me on the 73d day," Petro tells us.

Petro recalls that his cell, designed for four, was crammed with 8-9 prisoners and suffered from a constant "overflow." They weren't allowed to walk into the yard. When asked about what food they were given, Petro simply replies, "Prison food." After 73 days, Petro was taken out of the cell and asked to sign a statement that he had no claims against those who tortured him and freed him.

Although Petro agreed to speak with journalists, it's clear that recalling these memories is harrowing for him. To relieve him from re-experiencing this trauma, we ask one final question about his plans. Unexpectedly, he smiles and leans back in his chair.

"I won't tell you that. It's a secret."

"Electricity is their fetish"

Roman Shapovalenko, 38, is a man of modest height with a red beard and light brown eyes. He sits across from us in a hoodie depicting Archangel Michael in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. At first, he appears noticeably nervous, constantly sipping cold tea from a bottle. However, very quickly, his speech becomes calm and fluent.

"In the early days, it was terrifying, but at the same time, we knew what to do and organized ourselves. I worked as a taxi driver. We had the Zello app, and we communicated using walkie-talkies, sending voice messages online. There were about 8-9 taxi drivers. Whoever noticed a gathering of the occupiers, or movement on the bridge, we would inform each other. Those who had contact with the military, share coordinates,” Roman says.

The formation of the partisan resistance happened naturally. There were no commanders, no specific plans, and no division of responsibilities. Everyone did what they could. Roman helped his friend Oleksii hang Ukrainian flags while simultaneously "surveilling" the positions of the occupiers.

"I managed to break into an area near the river, where a floating crane was located. A security guard noticed me. He approached. I immediately showed him my passport – one of yours. I said, 'I need to look at the Antonivskyi Bridge, to see how they’re moving.' He allowed me up and even gave me a pair of binoculars. I recorded a video of their movements. Then, the old man came up to me, saying, 'You've been spotted by their cameras, they're on their way.' I left quickly,” Roman recalls.

After some time, Kherson residents gradually began to lose hope. The underground resistance doubled its efforts to boost morale. On May 9, the partisans created a poster that read "Happy holiday, no rashism!" but the letter "r" was cleverly disguised as an "f". The poster was displayed for about ten days before the occupiers figured it out. During that time, many Kherson residents saw the poster, realizing the underground was active, and that not all was lost.

"Orcs (a pejorative term for Russians – Ed.) tried to capture three of our partisans. During the fight, only one of our guys was wounded, but two others got away. In short, our three guys killed 10-12 orcs. Threw grenades. I don't know how true that is, but that's the story that's been told, and some people heard it, there are witnesses. So, Kherson fought back. By any means available," he tells us.

Roman and Oleksii immediately agreed that if they were captured, they would give each other an hour. That day, Roman was the first to be detained. It took one and a half hours before the torture became unbearable and the Russians obtained information about Alexei.

"Electricity was some kind of fetish for them. They called it a ‘humane’ form of torture, although I fail to see the humanity in it. Maybe so that there are no visible bruises or injuries. But that didn't stop them from using physical blows and beatings. I experienced it several times. They broke my rib with their fists, as I later realized. For about 30 days, I couldn't turn properly. But yes, electricity was their fetish,” he adds.

During interrogations, Roman was asked standard questions typical of the Russian army: about his curator, and involvement in agitation activities. The occupiers just refused to believe that Roman, like many others, did it willingly.

"There was even one conversation in calm tones, so to speak. They said, 'Tell me, why do you do this, hanging your flags, all this stuff? I don't understand why you're all so ideological. What did your country give you that you're so devoted to it?' Then I fired back, 'Everything you want to take away from us.' After that, there was another beating. Apparently, they didn't like the answer,” he summarizes.

Roman endured three consecutive days of torture. The first two "procedures" mostly involved electricity – wires connected initially to his ears and then to his genitals. On the third day, he was taken for interrogation and asked which "procedure" he liked the most. Roman, once again showing a sense of humor, admits he answered incorrectly, stating that he was not particularly impressed with the "attractions" overall. And that's when they decided to drown him.

"They tied my hands behind my back, put a shirt over my head, and started pouring water from a five-liter jug onto my face. I choked, and they resuscitated me. They did this three or four times until I blacked out. One of them thought it wasn't enough, took a tactical knife, and cut my leg. Then they ‘applied a tourniquet’ – just put some tape. After the ‘procedure’, I entered the cell, and they said, 'Wanna some tea?' I said, 'Damn, guys, I drank like a fish. I think I drank a five-liter jug today," he recalls.

The occupiers attempted to maintain a "quota" in the cells, as Roman calls it. As soon as it turned out that the number of prisoners matched the capacity, they would fill the cell with another 4-5 people. The prison cells were renovated before the occupation – they laid wooden flooring, and installed heating, ventilation, TVs, and surveillance cameras there. However, the occupiers immediately removed and took cameras with them.

There were showers in the facility, but most prisoners preferred to wash in their cells. They were given two minutes for a shower – the time usually insufficient. So Roman and his cellmates devised their "shower". They punctured holes in a bottle cap with a piece of razor blade, heated water, laying on it all day, and in the evening poured it into a container to bathe.

Roman received his first food package a week after being captured.

"The package was ridiculously small – a loaf of bread and something resembling a sausage. That's it. And toilet paper. Trivial, but it was the most cherished package because I realized that they found me and knew where I was," Roman remembers.

It was very valuable for the prisoners to learn that their families had found them. One of Roman's cellmates was a young guy from Daryivka who was traveling to Poland for work but ended up in captivity. His family bid him farewell, thinking he was abroad. There are hundreds of such stories. So the fact of receiving a package indicated that there were people outside who cared for them.

"The packages were halved, even the cigarettes. When I saw the cigarettes my sister had sent, I thought something was wrong. She knows I smoke. And instead of my preferred Camel, we received BT and 'Stewardess'. These are cigarettes from the 90s; I saw my dad smoking them. It was also funny. You couldn't smoke them. It’s impossible to puff them, and they went out," he says.

The Russians would occasionally give normal cigarettes after the 'procedures,' so prisoners quickly developed a habit of asking those who were taken for interrogation to bring them a few cigarettes. Sometimes, after the torture session, the Russians would 'be generous' and give a prisoner a few cigarettes from their packages.

To prevent the occupiers from confiscating the prisoners' food, their families started making the packages as unappealing as possible. They would open sealed sausages, slice them, and pack them in jars. The Russians wouldn't take such food, fearing it might be poisoned.

Roman was released on October 19. That morning, he grabbed a cold coffee that remained from the previous night, and a cigarette, and headed to the 'balcony' – a place near a small window from where 'freedom' was visible.

"I sat down, lit a cigarette, and drank my coffee. At 8:15, the doors opened, and they said, 'Hey, you, go out.' Holding my coffee, I said, 'Let me finish my coffee at least.' I was shocked. And they said, 'What's wrong with you? Hurry up!',” he recalls.

The man didn't have suitable clothes for the weather since he was brought in the summer. But at that moment, Roman had no concern for the October cold. "There was a store nearby, so I approached it to have a smoke. My hands and legs were trembling, I don't know what feelings I had at that time. My former cellmate, an old man, was standing there. He said, 'Look at that, they released you!' We embraced. He asked, 'Are you going home? Do you have any money?' I said, 'I don't know how to go from here, I'll walk.'"

Nobody knew that Roman had been released. When his mother saw her son return, she immediately burst into tears, and his 10-year-old daughter ran to hug him. He went to his wife and picked her up from work.

During the conversation, Roman tries to make jokes and laughs from time to time, recalling various episodes of his not-at-all-funny story. But his voice becomes serious and starts trembling when answering the final question.

"What can you say about them?"

"Nothing. They are not human. They are not even orcs. They are monsters. I don't know who gave birth to them. Perhaps they were grown in some biolaboratory. If those degenerates ever return home, God forbid, how will they raise their children? With such methods? If they forced us to learn their anthem by applying electric shockers, let them make their children study using the same method."


Three prosecutors enter the room where the former prisoner was just interviewed – Liliia Rashevska, Valerii Kasianenko, and Oleksandr Holubtsov. All of them are from Kherson and the Kherson region. They sit in front of us, taking identical positions.

We ask them about how the testimonies of the victims are verified. Officially, there is no verification process – according to international standards, the testimonies of the victims are not doubted. However, the prosecutors, who have experience in similar cases, have their methods.

"We have already questioned 160 victims, and we have a certain picture of how it all happened. So when a person tells us how it was, it is already perceived as normal. And if they were telling something different, we would understand," says Oleksandr Holubtsov.

Liliia Rashevska adds that after the de-occupation of Kherson, law enforcement conducted a thorough examination of the facility. The victims being interviewed describe the cells and provide details.

"They show how they were led, where they were held, which cells they sat in. When the photos were published, the victims recognized their signs they left on the walls. Notches to count the days, phrases written. Even when we inspected the locations, people approached us and said, 'I recognized my cell, can I have a look?' And we asked them, 'Can we have your personal data?'," Liliia tells us.

Gone through fire, water and electric shocks - Kherson patrisans on tortures and Russian captivity

Liliia Rashevska, Oleksandr Holubtsov and Valerii Kasianenko

When we asked about what shocked them the most in the testimonies of the prisoner, the prosecutors immediately respond without hesitation: "Cruelty".

"It's shocking how they simply treat tortures. They stick needles under people's nails and into their backs. They attach wires to their genitals to deliver electric shocks. For them that's a...," adds Holubtsov.

"Pleasure," Valerii Kasianenko finishes the sentence.

Currently, all three prosecutors work with the victims in Kyiv. However, in the early weeks of the war, they found themselves trapped in their positions. The lists were compiled very quickly, and the task of leaving the city almost immediately turned into 'Russian roulette'.

"During the occupation period, while we were there, we never left our homes; we didn't live at our registered addresses. If we needed something, our relatives and friends took care of it. We didn't move around the city," states Rashevska.

Fortunately, all of them took their passports before their names appeared on the lists. When talking about their 'colleagues' who agreed to work for the occupiers, the prosecutors carefully choose their words, not because they don't want to offend anyone. It's simply that the position itself requires them to be mindful of their statements.

"We work, communicate with each other. We have a large circle of contacts with law enforcement officers from Kherson. They also went through these basements but made their choice in favor of Ukraine. As for those individuals... We probably can't comment on their moral qualities. It was their choice," says Rashevska.

"There were cases where people were tortured to force them to cooperate. But the majority refused because we took an oath. There is always a choice," adds Holubtsov.