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destroyed and burned houses in the city during the war in Ukrain

Ukrainian Survivors Speak after Russia’s Occupation of Kherson

People have been tortured and killed by Russians during the Kherson occupation.

Pictures: Sofiia

It has been three weeks since Kherson’s liberation. Kherson is Ukraine’s only regional capital that Russia managed to occupy since the start of its full-scale invasion. Russia also annexed the city and the region during its illegal referendum this year. On Nov. 11, 2022, the Ukrainian army entered the city as Russians fled.

Before leaving, Russian soldiers destroyed all critical infrastructure. The city that had almost 300,000 residents before the invasion has been without electricity, water, and heating. Ukrainian authorities are working to restore services, but this is difficult as the city — and the rest of Ukraine — are under constant bombardment by Russian missiles.

When Ukrainian forces freed Kherson, they discovered mass graves with with the corpses of more than 400 civilians. There also found nine torture chambers. Locals recount experiences of persecution, threats, violence, and looting at the hands of the Russian forces.

Anzela Slobodyan is a former journalist from Kherson. She was at home when the Russian invasion started, and when Russian soldiers occupied her hometown. During the occupation, she was imprisoned for one month by Russian invaders, and agreed to share her testimony.


“We were five women in one cell for three people,” Anzela recalled, “We called our cell Ward No. 6.” The moniker is a reference to a short story by Anton Chekhov, where he describes a mental institution. For Anzela, her imprisonment reminded her of that. She spent a month in the city’s temporary detention facility, which Russians turned into a large torture chamber.

Anzela was taken to prison from her own house. Russian soldiers appeared on the doorstep of her Kherson apartment, put a bag on her head, and absconded her. Her partner Oleksandr was also detained although she was not informed about his whereabouts.

Portrait of Anzela, courtesy Anzela Slobodyan.

“Russians did not beat us,” she continued, “They had other punishments for us. They were humiliating us, torturing us mentally, without any pity.”

Anzela and her cellmates regularly heard other prisoners, men, being tortured in the cell next to them. Many were former soldiers or volunteers, some were regular citizens who dared to protest against Russian occupation, and others were just random locals. Anzela recalled listening to Russian guards arguing how to dispose of the body of a man they had murdered. She also heard a person raped in the neighboring cell. The noise of guards dragging a corpse through the hallway became a familiar sound.

Anzela's cell, courtesy Anzela Slobodyan.

“We knew it was our boys that were tortured with electrocution; they were beaten, and were forced to speak,” Anzela said, “Russians did not know anything about the pain. They spread their toxicity into all living things. Wretched creatures.”

“It was a terrible experience,” she continued, “Every day we, the patients of Ward No. 6, began with the thought that we must survive. But not everyone survived.”

Anzela’s cellmate, a 66-year-old woman, had a heart attack while in prison and died. She was captured because her son was a local volunteer.

“My other cellmate was imprisoned because of her husband,” Anzela proceeded, “And they released her when they no longer needed her. They took her for questioning and then told her:  ‘Your husband is killed, so you can go now.’ That’s one more lost life.”

“Another cellmate was a teacher,” the woman continued, “She was imprisoned because of her brother. She spent 33 days captive, without any questioning.”

Images of the cells where prisoners were held, courtesy Suspilne Media:


Anzela got her freedom after 30 days in captivity.

“On the next day after my release, I was already back at the prison,” she recalled, “But this time, I was on the other side. I was waiting by the gates to bring some food for my former cellmate. She was there for four months for fake accusations.”

All the women were released before the liberation, so they were able to celebrate the Russian retreat. However, Anzela is not celebrating yet.

“I know that 36 people were taken when Russians retreated,” she said, “There were three women whose names I know, and I hope they will be discovered. When Russians release you from captivity, they take away your documents, money, and phones.”

One of the captives is Kherson’s mayor, Ihor Kolykhayev. He has been in captivity since the occupation. Despite many appeals from the local and international community to release him, Russians refused. Kolykhayev has serious health problems. When the Russians retreated, they took him with them. Currently, he is in Chaplynka, in the Kherson region, which is the part of the region that Russians still control.

Kherson is constantly being bombed from the nearby occupied area. There is a looming humanitarian crisis in the city as there is no heating while the temperatures fall below zero Celsius. However, locals remain resilient. Ukrainian supermarkets, postal offices, and trains are returning to the city; those who fled during the invasion are also slowly coming back.

This is also true of Anzela. The woman had trouble sleeping — while she was imprisoned Russians left the light on continually in their cell. She is also still trying to get rid of her traumatic memories.

“I hope to forget everything that I experienced,” she concluded, “And to celebrate our victory with my former cellmates.”

At least 200 people remain missing after Kherson’s liberation.

Anna Romandash


Anna Romandash is an award-winning journalist from Ukraine.


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