'I was afraid I would never see my son again”

16-year-old Illia from Kherson Oblast spent 6 days in a Russian torture chamber. He didn't tell his mother much about what he saw there.  He was arrested after taking part in a meeting against the Russian occupation. This interview with his mother was published by the Ukrainian tv-station Hromadske.

zwerfhondenStray dogs in Ukraine

by Alina Yevych

In December 2022, the world was stunned by the news that 'children's torture chambers' had been found in the de-occupied Kherson Oblast. In them, the Russians tortured underage Ukrainians who were suspected of spying for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Sometimes they would take children to the 'basement' in the middle of the street, tearing them literally out of their mothers' hands for showing disobedience to the occupiers.

At our request, the Information Policy Department of the Prosecutor General's Office clarified: no 'specialized' torture chambers were established for children, meaning that torture places were shared by adults and adolescents.

In total, 54 torture chambers were found on the territory of Ukraine where the Russians were present. Only in Kherson Oblast, there are a dozen. Of these, 6 are in Kherson Raion, and 4 more are in Beryslav Raion. In the temporary detention center of the Kherson District Police Department of the National Police alone, Russians tortured more than 300 people, and minors were abused on a par with adults.

We found a teenager who was being held there and talked to his mother and law enforcement officers. They agreed to the publication but asked us to change their data.

'When my son was being taken to the basement, I got down on my knees to get him released'

16-year-old Illia from Kherson Oblast spent 6 days in a Russian torture chamber. It happened in the late summer of 2022. There was a torture room right above his cell. Illia himself was taken there twice.

His mother Olena says that the occupiers first noticed the boy in July – at a pro-Ukrainian rally. Illia went there despite the ban. He did not shout slogans or hold Ukrainian symbols, but he was noticed. By this time, their house had already been searched.

'Our place was searched several times. They called it checks. They asked if we had any Ukrainian flags, who lived in the house, and whether we were hiding anyone. Whom could we be hiding when the whole region was ‘under their control’...?' Olena recalls.

After the rally, the occupiers came again. They searched all the houses on the street and turned things over.

'They always walked around with machine guns, so no one contradicted them. They could only ask gently: "Guys, don't turn things over, don't break them," but to prevent them from entering or something else was scary. And they came to our house. I was in the house with my son. The three of them came in: one stood at the door with an assault rifle, and the other two rummaged through the closet. They turned all the laundry out, scattered clothes and shoes, looking for something,' says Olena.

The men then approached Illia and said: 'You are coming with us.'

Olena took her son by the hand and asked: 'Why? Where are you going? We didn't do anything!'

The Russians responded that Illia 'went where he shouldn't have gone'.

'Then I realized it was about the rally. My son said he saw the rally, but he didn't take an active part in it, so why take him somewhere? I approached the Russian and asked him to leave my son,' says Olena.

With tears the woman recalls: she told them that her son was too young, he didn't understand anything, he didn't do anything. This did not work – they started taking him out of the house and into the street. Olena tried to take the soldier's hand, but he pushed her away. They took Illia outside and asked him to tell them what he knew about the Ukrainian military.

'Back then, there were rumors that young people were passing information to our guys (the Ukrainian Armed Forces). They ran to them or met with them, I don't know. I knew for sure that it wasn't Illia, and I couldn't believe it was real because we were surrounded by the Russian army,' says Olena. 'Illia said he wouldn't say anything, even though he didn't know anything. The one who was in charge (I think) hit him on the head with an assault rifle and smashed his lip. And Illia spat blood - it so happened that it was at that man's feet.'

The boy was immediately shackled – several times in front of his mother they hit him under the ribs and in the face. Olena was crying on her knees, asking for her son to be released. However, he was taken away. As it turned out, he was taken to a pre-trial detention center, the so-called torture chamber, on Teplo-enerhetikiv Street.

'They realized that I was just a kid who knew nothing'

Illia spent six days in the same cell with several dozen prisoners. There was not enough space in the room for everyone. He had to sleep with his legs tucked under him, which made them hurt a lot.

'He told me that he was interrogated twice. On the first day, when they first brought him, they beat him because they demanded that he tell them everything he knew. But Illia was silent – what could he say? But they didn't beat him much then – on his legs, a little on his arms. He had bruises after that... The second time, on the fourth day, they organized another interrogation. Then they said they would torture him with electricity and break his bones. They tied him up, everyone was standing with machine guns, and sometimes they pointed them at him to make him talk.'

'Illia had already said that he knew nothing. He told me that back then: "They realized that I was just a kid and knew nothing". They returned him to the cell anyway, as if to let him think more about it. And on Friday night they brought him home by car. They dropped him off in the yard and drove away,' Olena recalls.

His whole body was bruised. His right side was badly bruised. According to the teenager, one of the Russians kicked him in the ribs. All these days, all the prisoners were given a small bag of crackers, a liter bottle of water, and scraps from the dry rations. One day, prisoners found a candy that had been chewed, and they gave it to Illia.

'I don't know what happened there. He didn't tell me everything then, he said: "You don't need to know". Maybe he was ashamed because I only recently found out that they all went to relieve themselves in the corner of that cell. There was a terrible stench there, but he didn't tell me anything about it – he accidentally said it in a conversation,' says the teenager's mother.

Beatings, starvation, electric shocks

The victims testified to prosecutors that they were beaten with electric shocks and truncheons, not provided with medical care, and men and women were kept in the same cells. Sometimes detainees were kept without light for 20 days. Sometimes, on the contrary, the light was used as a method of influence on the prisoners – it was not turned off around the clock. In addition, prisoners (including children) were handcuffed.

The Prosecutor General's Office says that there were video surveillance cameras in the rooms – the prisoners were monitored around the clock. If they moved without permission, they were beaten. They were also starved and given minimal water.

Currently, prosecutors from the Kherson Regional Prosecutor's Office are investigating seven criminal proceedings over the abduction of children and minors. The victims, eight boys aged 14 to 17, were held together with adults, deprived of food, and threatened with death. The boys identified the Russian servicemen who abused them. The actions of the occupiers fall under Article 438 of the Criminal Code, which provides for life imprisonment.

Fortunately, there were no cases of children dying as a result of torture in the torture chambers. However, the damage from such a stay can be felt for a long time.

'Red flags' for help of a psychologist

Nataliia Sosovenko, a psychologist at the Voices of Children Foundation, explains how traumatic experience changes a child's behavior. A previously active child can withdraw into themselves, or vice versa – a calm child can become hyperactive.

'Loss of appetite or increased hunger, sleep disturbances, apathy or aggression, and constant fetal position can indicate trauma. This can also be seen in everyday activities and behavior: feelings of guilt, difficulty with paying attention and concentrating, impaired memory or attention, and impoverished or increased speech activity. Often, trauma manifests itself in the exacerbation of diseases. In particular, in frequent stomach pains, headaches, respiratory disorders, or heart problems,' says Sosovenko.

In addition, in adolescents (children aged 12-18), signs of post-traumatic stress disorder include suddenly manifested selfishness, dangerous behavior for the child's life or the child's environment, and rebellion, both at home and at school. Abrupt changes in relationships with family and friends, avoidance of communication or depression, and ways to distance oneself from feelings of shame, humiliation, or anger. The American National Center for PTSD emphasizes that the desire for revenge and nightmares are also red flags.

All of this does not necessarily indicate that a child has PTSD or other disorders, but it may be a sign that they need psychological help and support.

'It is a mistake for parents to think that they need to do everything possible to make their child/adolescent erase all the events of torture, violence, and death from their memory as soon as possible. These opinions are erroneous because children and adolescents need psychosocial support and psychological counseling. Parents should be involved in the rehabilitation of their children after the experience and seek help from specialists. The balanced state of close adults is the main factor that ensures the successful dynamics of this process. Therefore, a comprehensive approach to child rehabilitation will help not only children but also parents to adapt,' the psychologist emphasizes.

This interview was published by Hromadske TV