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Inside Russian torture chambers: electroshocks, asphyxiation and blows against the wall

We go inside one of the torture chambers used by the Kremlin against the civilian population of the cities it occupied in eastern Ukraine, along with a young man who was tortured there for 46 days
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PHOTO/MARIA SENOVILLA  -   One of the rooms of the Russian torture chamber found in Balakliya (Kharkiv) where detainees could spend days or weeks in deplorable sanitary conditions.

It has been two weeks since the Ukrainian army managed to recapture 380 villages and towns in the province of Kharkiv. All of the east and south. More than 2,000 square kilometres of land. 150,000 people who were once again free in their own country, Ukraine. And it is precisely these residents, who endured six months of Russian occupation and deprivation, who are beginning to give their testimony of what they endured under the Kremlin's yoke.  

"My sister and her husband were detained for 9 days. They were beaten and given electric shocks, many electric shocks. They went to look for them at home, and they took them to the police station. That's where they tortured people. It's a few metres down the street, just beyond those two apartment buildings," Inna explains, pointing to some flat blocks.

Inna's husband runs a coffee stall in Balakliya's central market, although they have been without electricity for three weeks and can currently only sell instant coffee, which they mix with boiling water from a thermos. But electricity is the least of it now: there are no more Russians in Balakliya, and they feel nothing but relief. Even if they have no light. 

"During the occupation, Russian soldiers were in contact with the locals. They didn't stay on the sidelines. They guarded the workplaces. They were everywhere, there wasn't a single courtyard where there wasn't a Russian soldier. And you had to be on good terms with them, because if you spoke badly to them they could arrest you for no reason and take you to the police station. And we all knew what they were doing there," she continues. 

Inna's sister, Marina, and her brother-in-law, Victor, did not get to see the town being liberated on 11 September. They had to leave Balakliya after being tortured. "I know my sister was very ill, she couldn't sleep or eat, she couldn't go out in the street. Everything brought back memories of that".

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PHOTO/MARIA SENOVILLA - Artem, held and tortured by Russian soldiers for 46 days in Balakliya, looks into one of the rooms where he was beaten and given electric shocks

To leave the city, which was under occupation, they had to travel first to Kupiansk and then to the Russian border. They were allowed to cross without any problem. Then they continued on to Latvia, and from there they finally reached Ireland, where they are now refugees. "Marina is better now... with medication," says Inna. 

With a plastic bag over the head

The streets of Balakliya are slowly coming back to life, although there is much need. People swarm around cars carrying humanitarian aid from Lozovaya and other towns. Food supplies are also being brought in by train from the capital, Kharkiv. Workers have rebuilt in record time the bridges and railway sections that were destroyed during the 200 days of fighting and shelling there.  

But it will take much longer to rebuild people's souls and heal the unseen wounds left by the fear and psychological warfare to which Russian soldiers subjected them. A terror that can be felt as you walk through each of the rooms of the Balaklia police station, used as a torture chamber by the Kremlin army.  

Entering this place is one of the most disturbing experiences imaginable. Signs of what happened there for more than six months are present in every corner, and the stench is unbearable.  

It is hard to believe that Artem, 32, survived Russian torture for 46 days straight. But with admirable fortitude, he guides us through each room of the Balakliya police station and explains what happened there.  

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PHOTO/MARIA SENOVILLA - The plastic bags with which Russian soldiers covered the heads of the Ukrainian citizens they tortured so that they would not recognise them

He doesn't know how many soldiers there were in that place, because he was always being carried from one room to another with a plastic bag over his head. "There could have been 10 or 100, I will never know," he says. Nor will he ever know why he was arrested or why he was tortured for 46 days. He has no connection with the Ukrainian army, nor does he hold a political office. "I am an ordinary worker, I worked as a salesman in a supermarket chain that sold building materials," he says, "and they never told me why they kept me there".  

The detainees were kept crammed into small, unventilated cells on the ground floor. They could spend days or weeks there. Incommunicado with their families, who lived the anguish of not knowing whether their loved ones were alive or dead. Entering the cubicles, the smell gives you a slap in the face of reality that almost makes you dizzy. No one cleaned the facilities, and the detainees were forced to live with the filth. 

On the top floor, where the police officers' offices were located, is where they were interrogated. "They would enter the cell and put a plastic bag over your head, and you knew what was going to happen," Artem says. What happened was that the session of electroshocks, humiliation and beatings would begin. 

"They did this to our heads," he says, touching a hole in the wall of one of the offices. When you look there, you see that there isn't just one hole, there are dozens. The wires used to deliver the electric shocks are also scattered on the floor. Along with items of clothing, which were probably torn off during the torture sessions. 

Complete control of the civilian population

So far, ten Russian torture chambers have been found in the liberated cities of Kharkiv. Along with Balakliya, the city of Izyum is another city that has experienced terror first hand. And where most evidence has been found. In addition to torture chambers, a mass burial site was discovered that shocked the whole of Ukraine. 

From this makeshift cemetery in Izyum - where there were several mass graves, as well as hundreds of unidentified graves - 447 bodies have now been exhumed. More than thirty of them bore signs of torture. 

"Many of the dead are missing limbs, others had their hands tied, shrapnel wounds, head and chest injuries, mutilated or castrated genitals, broken ribs, stab wounds, penetrating bullet wounds, and bodies with ropes around their necks have also been found," Sergey Bolvinov, chief investigator for the Kharkiv police, said over the weekend. 

The UN has already officially declared that Russia has committed war crimes in Ukraine, and testimonies are only beginning to emerge. In all the liberated villages Atalayar has visited - Izyum, Balakliya, Shechenkove, Martove, Cherkasy... - the same stories are repeated: abuse of power by Russian soldiers, looting of houses, arrests in the middle of the street, passport and mobile phone checks, and a long etcetera of conditions that made life unbearable. 

Annexing the occupied territories

With this evidence on the table, it is easy to imagine the psychological pressure and constant fear with which Ukrainians in the areas still occupied by the Kremlin army in Ukraine continue to live today. Places like Kherson, Zaporiyia, Lugansk and much of Donetsk, where referendums are currently being held to ask citizens - tortured and frightened - whether they want to officially annex Russia. 

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PHOTO/MARIA SENOVILLA - Artem holds in his hand one of the wires with which Russian soldiers gave him electric shocks during the 46 days he was tortured in Balakliya

The referendums have no international observers, and the process has only been recognised by the governments of North Korea, Syria and the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as well as Russia.

Ukraine's president, Volodymir Zelensky, has already stated that he will not recognise the results as valid, and other international leaders, such as the US leader, have also issued statements on the matter. Biden stated that "the United States will never recognise Ukrainian territory as anything other than part of Ukraine". 

Referendums at Kalashnikov point

Voting began on the 23rd and will continue until the 27th. But the videos that are circulating on the web, showing how the voting process is going, leave one speechless.

The Russian collaborators in charge of organising the elections go from house to house collecting the votes. They do so in pairs, one carrying the plastic ballot box with the ballots and the other the list of names and addresses. And they are escorted at all times by two other Russian soldiers - armed to the teeth - who even observe how Ukrainians fill in their ballot papers inside their homes, where they are surprised by this peculiar electoral committee.

In various Telegram channels, through which more and more videos and testimonies are being disseminated, there is also talk that some people have been visited on up to two occasions. And although they have explained that they had already voted, they have been forced to place their vote in the ballot box. Again.

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PHOTO/MARIA SENOVILLA - A cell in the Balakliya police station, which the Russians used as a torture centre during the occupation of this town in Kharkiv, Ukraine

A Dantesque scene that perfectly illustrates the lack of guarantees and credibility of referendums that have no validity whatsoever, and which only seek to provide new arguments for the Kremlin, which will now claim that Ukraine is attacking Russian territory in order to continue its war campaign.

Just like the initial excuse that Ukraine was being invaded to "cleanse it of Nazis", this too will fall of its own weight. All the more so now, at a time when the international community is more concerned about the energy and food crisis that Putin has unleashed than about threats to press the nuclear button, and countries such as China - Russia's most important partner - are beginning to show discomfort with the continuation of an armed conflict that is turning the world upside down.