Evidence of widespread Russian war crimes can be found across Ukraine. Mass graves in Bucha, heartbreaking testimonies from towns like Irpin and Borodyanka, and blood-smeared walls beneath a once bustling train station are malignant reminders of the Kremlin’s atrocities.
Following the Boromlya River as it snakes its way through Sumy Oblast, I eventually arrive in the bomb-battered northeastern city of Trostyanets on a hot summer morning.
In early March, many of the 20,000 people living here bore witness to unimaginable horrors. Seeing the area as a strategic point between Sumy and Kharkiv, Russian boots marched through the streets, rolled tanks into peaceful neighborhoods, bombed shops and schools, raped and murdered civilians, and dragged innocent Ukrainian men from their homes.
Those who weren’t immediately executed were taken as prisoners to the nearby train station.
A solemn member of the station’s staff leads me into the ground level waiting area. It’s clean and empty now. But during the occupation, this large marble-floored room was used by the invaders as living quarters.
“When the Ukrainian army retook Trostyanets and we could come back inside, we found this room filled with dirty sleeping bags, rubbish and even human excrement” the staff worker tells me. “The Russian officers slept upstairs where it was more comfortable. But down here, the soldiers lived like animals.”
Leading me down to the shower blocks, my eyes are opened to the full extent of their barbarity. It was down here, in the small damp ticket booth, that numerous local men were horrifically tortured.
As I walk down the steps into the darkness, the hairs on my arms raise as I try to imagine the fear and terror going through the minds of the men marched down here.
Blindfolded, with their arms and legs bound, they were thrown against the wall that is still caked in their blood.
Dima, a part-time mechanic and one of few to resurface from the torture chamber alive, describes laying in pain and listening to a fellow prisoner screaming beside him. His ribs broke as Russian brutes bound him into the “lastochka” or “swallow position” – a torture method devised to inflict ultimate pain and discomfort.
Some Ukrainian civilians were beaten to death down here. Others were tortured – stabbed, electrocuted and threatened with rape and mutilation if they didn’t denounce Ukraine or give up information about the whereabouts of Ukrainian units. None of them could provide such information.
Dima recalls a man named Kolya, who refused to retract his public denunciations of Moscow’s illegal invasion. He was savagely beaten. Hearing the torturer’s boots leaving the makeshift cell, Dima heard a gurgle from the blood filling Kolya’s throat and lungs. He was no longer breathing.
“I shouted at the guards: ‘He’s dying, he’s dying!’ But the sadistic soldiers ignored his desperate pleas. They simply laughed and said: ‘If he dies, he dies. All Ukrainians must die.’ I kept calling to Kolya but he didn’t reply.”
“I tried with my bound feet to push a bottle of water towards him, but tragically it was too late and Koyla was already gone,” recounts Dima. “They kept his body next to me until the morning when they removed it and brought in two more people.”
The air in the room is still stale and suffocating. At least three victims have been recorded as either missing or murdered. The whereabouts of others, including an elderly military veteran, are still unknown.
This is just one story of many that documents the terrifying crimes against humanity discovered in Ukraine after Russia’s barbaric soldiers retreated north.
They are accounts that could take up entire tomes. Heartbreaking stories of stolen lands and stolen lives.
I leave in silence, heading back up to the daylight and giving the still visibly upset staff member a hug, I realize that no matter what I write, this particular story is best told by simply staring at the wall in that pitch-black chamber of horrors. The dry blood upon its cold surface speaks volumes.
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