Liberation has finally come to Kharkiv, Ukraine. But the scars of Russia’s brutal occupation remain



Kupiansk, Ukraine
CNN

The victory of Ukrainian forces in the newly liberated Kupiansk has little rest. Russian shells still pound its cobbled streets and stain the sky with plumes of black smoke.

Major damage is seen in almost all buildings. A huge poster with an image of a waving Russian flag stands near the bridge over the Oskil River in the center of the city, proclaiming “We are one nation with Russia!”

For now, the Ukrainian army has chased Russian forces off the bridge and appears to be building up a force along the eastern bank of the river towards Luhansk, the main separatist territory controlled by Moscow. CNN saw Ukrainian infantry returning on foot from the east.

Yet within this city, one of several in the liberated eastern Kharkiv region, there are signs of a hellish occupation. A former police building was used by the Russians as a sprawling detention center, where at one point they held 400 prisoners in cramped, dark cells with eight to nine prisoners per cell, Ukrainian officials told CNN. A vivid mural of a Russian soldier with a “Z” on his arm next to an elderly woman waving the flag of the former Soviet empire is still painted on one wall.

Before CNN was allowed in, a prisoner with his hands bound in bright blue tape was quickly ushered out, into a vehicle and driven away.

This may be a Russian soldier who, according to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), is believed to have deserted or left his troops behind. The SBU said the prisoner was local.

Outside the building’s entrance, two Russian flags tied to wooden poles lay on the ground, with signs that one had been burned. Inside, rubbish littered the floors of the damp space. Along the narrow corridor were small rooms on each side where the Russians used to keep prisoners.

In some of the small cells, a few mattresses and small tables could be seen, while others had only a table and two chairs, the remains of what might have been an interrogation room.

Not all rooms were cleared of possible explosives, officials told CNN. A grenade trap sat on a bench inside a cell, propped up by a half-eaten can of food.

As CNN walked downtown, an SBU officer spotted the trap and yelled “Grenade!!!” he wrote on the outer wall of the cell with a black marker and an arrow to show exactly which room the investigators should enter. The door was closed.

As the investigation progresses, Ukrainian officials are finding other scars, such as those from alleged torture.

An ex-prisoner who was introduced to CNN by the Security Services of Ukraine said that he was imprisoned in the building about a month ago. Down the hall, he showed CNN the room where the Russians had interrogated him.

“They put me in this chair,” said the ex-prisoner – who has not been named by CNN for his safety – pointing out. “There was the investigator sitting there, and there was the guy with the phone and another guy who helped.”

He said the phone was an old wind model that was used to send electric shocks. He believes that his interrogator had experience with this method in the Russian Security Service, the FSB.

The occupiers asked him who he was related to in the Ukrainian army, and he told them that he had once been a cook in the army.

“They told me, ‘You think you’re tough. Let’s see how tough it is,'” he said. “They also shot me with some kind of gun. Here and in the leg,” he told CNN, pointing to his chest and leg.

“I was promised that I would see the sun and the sky again if I was forced into a mine field,” he said. “The main thing is to survive and endure. It took me a week and a half to recover.”

Two Russian flags are seen outside the detention center, one with signs of having been burned.

The man is not the only one dealing with the scars of a brutal invasion, detention and alleged torture.

As authorities continue to investigate and clear liberated villages in the Kharkiv region, more and more evidence is being found of detention centers and cells used for torture.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Saturday that “more than 10 torture chambers” used by the occupying forces had been found in the area. “As the occupiers fled, they also threw away the torture devices,” he said.

CNN has reached out to the Russian government for comment, but has not heard back.

Kupiansk may have been recently liberated, but the city is a ghost town of destruction and ruins.

The very few remaining natives are gathered in the bare native bark.