In recaptured border village, Ukrainians point to signs of Russian abuse of civilians: NPR


Luda Toryanyk, 58, crosses the train tracks in Kozacha Lopan, Ukraine, on Sunday. The village was recaptured by Ukrainian troops on September 11 after being occupied by Russian forces for more than six months. Torianyk brings home bags of food that Ukrainian volunteers were distributing in the center of the village.

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In recaptured border village, Ukrainians point to signs of Russian abuse of civilians: NPR

Luda Toryanyk, 58, crosses the train tracks in Kozacha Lopan, Ukraine, on Sunday. The village was recaptured by Ukrainian troops on September 11 after being occupied by Russian forces for more than six months. Torianyk brings home bags of food that Ukrainian volunteers were distributing in the center of the village.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

KOZACHA LOPAN, Ukraine — This village was once the last train stop in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine before crossing into Russia.

Passengers could exchange Ukrainian hryvnia for Russian rubles, have a coffee and stretch their legs.

Now the customs post is destroyed. The high-ceilinged station is riddled with bullet holes. The steel tracks in front of the platform are twisted by the explosions. And Ukrainian police say they found a torture chamber in the basement of the station where the Russians interrogated residents.

In recaptured border village, Ukrainians point to signs of Russian abuse of civilians: NPR

Bedding and sleeping bags in a basement where Ukrainian authorities say they found a torture cell used during the Russian occupation on Saturday in the recaptured village of Kozacha Lopan.

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In recaptured border village, Ukrainians point to signs of Russian abuse of civilians: NPR

Bedding and sleeping bags in a basement where Ukrainian authorities say they found a torture cell used during the Russian occupation on Saturday in the recaptured village of Kozacha Lopan.

Leo Correa/AP

Luda Toryanyk, 58, who has lived his whole life in Kozacha Lopan, says a local man was interrogated behind the post office for several days after trying to cross into Ukrainian-held territory to return visit his hospitalized mother. And she says she saw him when he was released.

“He lifted his shirt and his back was black and blue with bruises,” she said. “He was beaten there for nothing.”

Kozacha Lopan was one of the first places Russian troops took control when they invaded Ukraine in late February. But Ukrainian forces retook the village and much of the Kharkiv region in a swift counteroffensive this month. Since the withdrawal of Russian troops, Ukrainian officials have reported finding evidence of alleged torture of civilians. And residents have told NPR of allegations of abuse during the nearly 200 days of Russian occupation.

Her son was detained

Torianyk says she saw her own son being taken to the station by three armed Russian soldiers in April. She says she waited outside the station, shivering in the rain, for two hours before they let him go.

At first, her son downplayed the incident, she said, insisting to his mother that he had simply been asked about a looting. They made him sit on a chair, he told him, his hands bound with duct tape and a hood over his head.

But she quickly suspected the incident was far worse than he had told her and that he may have suffered abuse while in custody.

“Later that night when he was screaming because of the nightmares, I realized he didn’t want to upset me and that’s why he didn’t tell me he had been beaten,” says- she.

She stayed to take care of the neighbours’ animals

After Russian forces invaded, many of the village’s 4,000 residents fled either to Ukrainian-held territory or to Russia. Toryanyk says she stayed in Kozacha Lopan in part because she agreed to take care of her neighbour’s cats, dogs, flocks of chickens and geese. She says she couldn’t give up on them. Toryanyk also planted flowers to make it clear that she had no plans to leave.

In recaptured border village, Ukrainians point to signs of Russian abuse of civilians: NPR

A building that was destroyed during the first offensive by Russian troops in February on the main street of Kozacha Lopan on Sunday. Locals say Russian soldiers used the building as a base during the occupation of the border town.

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In recaptured border village, Ukrainians point to signs of Russian abuse of civilians: NPR

A building that was destroyed during the first offensive by Russian troops in February on the main street of Kozacha Lopan on Sunday. Locals say Russian soldiers used the building as a base during the occupation of the border town.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

The fighting left the main street in ruins. It looks like a ghost town. Skinny stray dogs sleep in front of burnt-out buildings. The post office door and windows are blown out. All shops and grocery stores are destroyed.

Torianyk says residents lived off produce from their gardens and food packets distributed by the Russians.

Now Ukrainian volunteers have started arriving to distribute basic supplies. Kirill Krasnikov, an 18-year-old university student from the city of Kharkiv, was handing out bread, water and bags of pasta from a small sedan.

In recaptured border village, Ukrainians point to signs of Russian abuse of civilians: NPR

Soldiers deliver boxes of humanitarian aid to the village council of Kozacha Lopan on September 16.

Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images


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In recaptured border village, Ukrainians point to signs of Russian abuse of civilians: NPR

Soldiers deliver boxes of humanitarian aid to the village council of Kozacha Lopan on September 16.

Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Krasnikov says the needs here are huge. People need medical supplies and clean water, he said. Gas pipes for heating and cooking were damaged at the start of the fighting and were never repaired. Power lines hang in the streets. “Now in this village they have no electricity at all,” says Krasnikov. “It’s a very big problem.”

On top of that, residents still have limited access to information, as Russian-aligned forces have shut down Ukrainian cellphones and internet connections.

In other parts of Ukraine that have come under Russian control, conditions are similar or worse.

In recaptured border village, Ukrainians point to signs of Russian abuse of civilians: NPR

Scenes from a mass grave at Izium on Friday.

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In recaptured border village, Ukrainians point to signs of Russian abuse of civilians: NPR

Scenes from a mass grave at Izium on Friday.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Further south, in the town 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 high-rise buildings without windows, the windows blown out by the explosions. Residents cook over open fires. They are afraid of facing the approaching winter without gas heating.

But back in Kozacha Lopan, Toryanyk says she can survive the winter without gas or electricity. The most important thing, she says, is that the Russian forces are gone.

“If we have to, we will live with candles. But we will live in our own country, with our own authorities, as Ukrainians,” not Russians, she said. “We’ll rebuild. It’s not a big deal. We’ll restore everything. But we’ll stay here.”

In recaptured border village, Ukrainians point to signs of Russian abuse of civilians: NPR

The train tracks at Kozacha Lopan station, looking north towards the Russian border, on Sunday.

Jason Beaubien/NPR


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In recaptured border village, Ukrainians point to signs of Russian abuse of civilians: NPR

The train tracks at Kozacha Lopan station, looking north towards the Russian border, on Sunday.

Jason Beaubien/NPR


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