KOZACHA LOPAN, Ukraine – This village was the last railway stop in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine before reaching Russia.
Passengers could exchange Ukrainian hryvnias for Russian rubles, sip coffee and stretch their legs.
Now the customs post has been blown apart. The high-ceilinged train station is marked with bullet holes. The steel tracks in front of the platform are twisted from the explosions. And Ukrainian police said they found a torture chamber in the basement of the station where the Russians interrogated residents.
Luda Torjanyk, 58, who has lived in Kozacha Lopan all his life, says one local man was interrogated for days behind the post office after he tried to cross into Ukrainian-controlled territory to visit his hospitalized mother. And he says he saw him when he was released.
“He lifted his shirt up and his back was black and blue and bruised,” she says. “He was beaten there for nothing.”
Kozacha Lopan was one of the first places that Russian forces took over when they invaded Ukraine at the end of February. But Ukrainian forces retook the village and much of Kharkiv Oblast in a swift counterattack this month. After Russian forces left, Ukrainian officials said they had found evidence of alleged torture of civilians. And residents have described to NPR allegations of abuse during the nearly 200-day Russian occupation.
His son was detained
Torjanyk says he witnessed three Russian soldiers with guns marching his own son to the train station in April. He says he waited outside the station, shivering in the rain, for two hours before they let him go.
At first, the son downplayed the incident, he says, and assures his mother that he was just being questioned about some looting. They made him sit in a chair, he told her, with his hands taped and a hood over his head.
But he soon suspected that the case was much worse than he told her, and that he may have been abused while in custody.
“Later in the evening, when he screamed about the nightmares, I realized that he didn’t want to disturb me and that’s why he hadn’t told me that he was beaten,” she says.
He stayed to take care of the neighbors’ animals
After the invasion of Russian troops, many of the village’s 4,000 inhabitants fled to either Ukrainian-held territory or Russia. Toryanyk says he stayed in Kozacha Lopan in part because he agreed to take care of his neighbor’s cats, dogs, flocks of chickens and geese. He says he couldn’t give them up. Torjanyk also planted flowers to make it clear that he had no intention of leaving.
The fighting left the main street in ruins. It looks like a ghost town. Emaciated stray dogs sleep in front of burnt buildings. The door and windows of the post office are blown open. All shops and grocery stores will be destroyed.
According to Torjanyk, the residents lived on the produce of their gardens and food parcels handed out by the Russians.
Now volunteers from Ukraine have started arriving to distribute basic necessities. Kirill Krasnikov, an 18-year-old student from the city of Kharkiv, distributed bread, water and bags of pasta from a small hatchery.
Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images
Krasnikov says the needs here are great. People need medical attention and drinking water, he says. Gas pipes for heating and cooking were damaged in the early days of the fighting and were never repaired. Power lines hang in the streets. “Now they don’t have electricity in this village at all,” says Krasnikov. “It’s a very big problem.”
In addition, residents still have limited access to information as Russian-aligned forces shut down cell phone and Internet connections in Ukraine.
Elsewhere in parts of Ukraine under Russian control, conditions are similar or even worse.
Farther south, in the city of Izium, Ukrainian investigators are exhuming hundreds of bodies from a forest burial site believed to be civilians killed during the Russian occupation. People live in windowless high-rise buildings, the glass of which has been blown out by explosions. Residents cook on an open wood stove. They are worried about the approaching winter without gas heating.
But back in Kozacha Lopan, Toryanyk reports that he can survive the winter without gas and electricity. According to him, the most important thing is that the Russian troops are gone.
“If necessary, we live with candles. But we live in our own country, with our own authorities, as Ukrainians,” he says, not as Russians. “We’re rebuilding. It’s not a big deal. We’re rebuilding everything. But we’re staying here.”