To reach the dank, eerie basement where Russian police held Ukrainian civilians, one had to climb a crumbling concrete staircase leading to a dark abyss below.
The site still reeked of smoke from a fire. Plastic ties used to bind hands were strewn across the hallway, along with meter-long sections of plastic and metal pipes – evidence, according to Ukrainian war crimes investigators, that the basement had been a site of torture and abuse.
As the headlamps swept across the walls of the chamber, dozens of drawings appeared, etched into the soft plaster of the walls. Some were raw images of houses; others wrote down the names of those detained or noted the number of days they had been there.
The site in an unassuming office building in central Kherson was a secret detention center for Russia’s security services, a successor agency to the KGB, Ukrainian prosecutors said on Wednesday.
The release of Kherson last week was largely a jubilant affair. After months of bloody fighting, the Russians withdrew from the southern city without a fight. A crowd poured into a central square, and when the Ukrainian soldiers arrived, the women hugged them and the men hoisted them into the air.
A darker side emerged on Wednesday: the torture chambers. Ukrainian prosecutors split into seven teams for a first day of investigating war crimes in the city and in the afternoon said they had found 11 detention centers, including four sites they believed the Russians used to detain and torture civilians.
Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskyi also said in a television interview broadcast on Wednesday that the bodies of 63 people who had been tortured had been found in the Kherson region liberated from Russian forces. Exhumations were ongoing, he added.
The grim pattern of abuse evident in other areas liberated from Russian occupation was repeated in the southern city of Kherson, prosecutors said. Sites of interest had been identified months ago by interviewing people who had left the city for other parts of Ukraine.
Investigators found several sites with signs of extrajudicial detention and indications of abuse in basement prisons.
“We knew this place existed and we were looking for it,” said a Ukrainian intelligence officer, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. He showed the holding area under an office building to New York Times reporters on Wednesday, shortly after experts swept the building for mines and booby traps.
Another detention center in Kherson was not accessible to journalists because investigators were still clearing it. At this location, residents told prosecutors, the smell of decomposing bodies had been lingering for days, though it was unclear what would ultimately be found.
“The Russians could come to a house for a search, accuse a person and bring him to the police station, where they would start the torture,” Mary Okopyan, deputy interior minister, told a conference on Wednesday. release in Kherson. She described it as “psychological and physical”.
“We are trying to collect as much evidence as possible to open criminal cases,” Okopyan said.
Russian forces detained three categories of civilians, Andriy Kovalenko, a prosecutor at the Kherson Regional Prosecutor’s Office, said in an interview.
They arrested people suspected of being pro-Ukrainian underground guerrillas, he said. They also arrested relatives of Ukrainian soldiers, to irritate those who were fighting, as well as government employees who refused to accept jobs in the occupation administration, he said.
Prosecutors have already collected testimony about more than 800 Russian detentions in the Kherson region, Kovalenko said. The most common type of abuse was electric shocks and beatings with a plastic or rubber baton, he said.
Russian jailers would also place a gas mask over prisoners’ heads and pinch off the breathing tube, he said. This technique, previously documented in other occupied areas of Ukraine, is common in Russian prisons, to the point that it has acquired a nickname: “the little elephant”.
Torture in pre-trial detention and prisons in Russia is widespread and has been documented by rights groups for much of the post-Soviet period.
Ukrainian prosecutors say they are gathering evidence of torture in areas of Ukraine occupied by the Russian military since the invasion in February for what they hope will eventually become an international criminal proceeding.
At all sites in Kherson, Ukrainian soldiers found the cells empty. The Russians freed some detainees and took others with them into their retreat, Kovalenko said.
Across town from the office building, Ukrainian officials showed reporters another site of alleged abuse: a remand center the Russians had used to hold political prisoners. The center had served as a prison in the Ukrainian criminal justice system before the war.
Inside, a portrait of Vladimir Putin had been taken down from a wall and placed on a chair, the glass broken.
The cells were littered with plastic water bottles, heaps of foul bedding and dirty clothes. In one cell, electrical wires with the insulation removed at the ends snaked along the floor, suggesting possible abuse with electric shocks.
Elsewhere in Kherson, the Russians had detained civilians in the basements of private homes or businesses. In the office building, for example, nothing on the outside hinted at the horrors of the basement. Signs on the building suggested that before the war it housed an insurance company, a dance studio and a bank.
Ruslan Paklov, the superintendent of the building, said in an interview that soldiers wearing ski masks arrived in May and ordered office workers to leave.
“They said, ‘A new government is here, and we will use this building,'” Paklov recalled. He only learned about the basement prison in recent days, after the city was liberated. “It’s just terrible,” he said.
Russian jailers had screwed heavy iron latches into six rooms where prisoners were held, while another room had no lock. It was the interrogation and abuse room, said the intelligence officer, who had interviewed former detainees before arriving on the scene.
The concrete floor was covered in soot and boot prints. Only a bare desk remained; the metal hose and gas masks, the possible instruments of abuse, were found elsewhere, the officer said.
The carvings on the walls were striking: times, dates, and names of inmates.
In one place was a representation of what appeared to be a Ukrainian village house, carved in plaster.
The Ukrainian intelligence officer suggested that a prisoner had drawn his house on the cell wall to pass the time or perhaps cheer himself up in this most gloomy place.
In one place, a word in Ukrainian had been engraved on the wall: “Freedom”.