The middle-aged men of Izyum speak with shaky voices. When the Russians came the younger men had already fled, and it was the older ones, army veterans especially, who were suspect.
“The first time they took me away, they beat me until I was a vegetable,” said Oleksandr Hlushko, 53, who once served in the army and who the Russians thought must be in touch with Ukrainian partisans. After five days in which he had his ribs crushed, was beaten about the head and whipped on the soles of his feet, he was thrown out of a car and dumped by the side of the road.
He was in hospital for six weeks. “If it wasn’t for the doctors, I wouldn’t be here today,” he said at his apartment. He now suffers from “brain-shake”, and slurs his words as if he is drunk.
It was similar for Oleksandr Maiboroda, 54, who had been in the territorial defence, said his mother-in-law, Larisa Halitsona. Her daughter, his wife, had fled to Kharkiv early in the invasion. “When I found him, his face was black and blue.”
A third man, whose eyes twitched as he spoke, insisted on anonymity, saying he feared the Russians had not really left and would “come and get him again”. He said he had been left standing in excrement in a slurry pit for 24 hours before being put in police cells, where he had his ribs broken.
He described how the Russians used the dyba, a favourite technique also in Assad’s Syria, where a man is suspended by the handcuffs binding his hands behind his back.
Izyum was taken by the Russians in March, a fulcrum between territory they held in the Donbas and their assault on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city. When they fled from a Ukrainian counteroffensive nine days ago, they left a city in disarray, physically smashed by March’s bombing and emotionally by the turmoil of occupation.
Residents lived for six months in the wreckage of their blitzed apartments, they said. They buried the hundreds of dead in a mass burial site next to the town’s cemetery in the forest, line after line of graves with wooden crosses.
The Russians added to the cemetery piecemeal. Ukrainian investigators found at least two civilian bodies with hands tied, indicating summary execution. One was a man who had been partially castrated, officials said.
A separate pit contained 17 Ukrainian soldiers, with evidence suggesting they had been captured alive. Investigators asked The Times to withhold the nature of that evidence pending post-mortem examinations, but President Zelensky has said that they showed signs of torture.
He also said that ten “torture chambers” had been found in recaptured towns. In Izyum, locals said scores of men were held in underground cells at the main police station. A visit yesterday showed the dank and dripping rooms had been recently used. Clothing and mattresses were shoved into small spaces.
Hlushko said he was first arrested in April and asked about his time in the army and whether he knew of partisan activity — Ukrainian troops and others left behind to report on Russian positions.
At one point he earned himself a respite from the beatings by making up a story that partisans had been hiding out in garages in the forest. When they realised he had been lying, though, they came back and beat him harder.
The second time he was seized, he was held for two weeks. They used electrodes attached to his little fingers to give him shocks. “The second time, I almost hit the ceiling,” he said.
He added that his fate was better than that of his cellmate, aged 68, who eventually went mad from the abuse. At that point, the Russian held his lower arm down and smashed it with a pipe. The cell mate was said by neighbours to be recovering in hospital.
The man who wished to remain anonymous said he was accused of hiding weapons. “Of course I wasn’t.” However, they learnt that his brother had been in the army, and went looking for the brother in the city, keeping him in the slurry pit and hoping he would give them information. He told them he had a broken rib from an accident, so they beat him and broke two more. “They beat me every day for five days. They stubbed cigarettes out on my hands.”
Valentina Lomarkina, 61, was a rare female occupant, arrested with four others while looking for a mobile phone signal on a hilltop. Threatened by a Chechen soldier with being shot on the spot, she was instead told to report daily to the police station. Two days later, she received a call. A curfew was in place, and the Russians had better things to do. The Ukrainians were coming.