“You Will Die and No One Will Know”

How the kidnapping, torture and terror is organized in the center of Ukrainian guerrilla resistance — Russian-occupied Melitopol

“You Will Die and No One Will Know”

TW: the text contains violent scenes’ descriptions.

Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhya Oblast of Ukraine has been under Russian occupation since the first days of the full-scale invasion. During this time, the city has become a center of guerrilla resistance and at the same time the largest prison in Europe, where the Russians kidnap and torture hundreds of locals. IStories talked to people who managed to get out alive from Melitopol torture chambers. We describe how the reign of terror is organized in the occupied territories.

“They settled in, brought in security services and opened torture chambers”

Already on February 25, 2022, the Russian military entered Melitopol. In the first days, local residents were rude to the occupiers, demanding to leave their land. “The first week they [the Russian military] reacted with restraint. They did not go to the conflict. When people asked, ‘Why are you here? Go away!’, they lowered their eyes, averted their gaze. And then they started to show their fangs, when they had more or less settled in, brought in security services, opened commandants’ offices, opened torture chambers. They started capturing people,” recalls Maxim Ivanov, a 29-year-old landscape designer from Melitopol.

IStories video reportage

Maxim and his girlfriend Tatyana Bekh were first kidnapped in early April 2022. “We came out of the house, and I had a [Ukrainian] flag with me. An APC drove by nearby, I took out the flag, waving and shouting: ‘Get off our land.’ They stopped, ten people surrounded me, threw the flag on the ground, and trampled it. They said: ‘We'll take you to re-education now.’”

Maxim and Tatiana were left overnight in the local commandant’s office. Other people who were pro-Ukrainian or violated the curfew were also detained there. “They [Russian military officers] said: ‘Did you shout ‘Glory to Ukraine?’’ Now shout ‘Glory to Russia.’’ I said I would not say that shit, and then they started hitting me with rubber truncheons. At that time it seemed to me that they were hitting hard.” Two days later Maxim and Tatyana were offered to sign a paper saying they had no claims and were released.

In March, such kidnappings became widespread. The Ukrainian hotline Vikradeni Melitopoltsi [“Kidnapped Melitopol residents”] was launched, where people reported the kidnapping of relatives. They were advised on how to act, which departments to contact, and they could also get help from a psychologist.

Melitopol residents protest against Russian occupation March 2, 2022. In the first days, the Russians hardly suppressed the protests. Kidnappings and torture began when Russian security services settled in the city and opened commandants’ offices and torture chambers
Melitopol residents protest against Russian occupation March 2, 2022. In the first days, the Russians hardly suppressed the protests. Kidnappings and torture began when Russian security services settled in the city and opened commandants’ offices and torture chambers
Photo: Reuters

An employee of the call center, Natalia, told IStories that at the beginning of the occupation, Russians kidnapped people from local self-government bodies. Closer to the fall, when the occupation authorities wanted to implement the educational process according to Russian programs, they kidnapped school principals and teachers who continued to teach according to Ukrainian standards. “Then it was the turn of farmers. There was a period when they kidnapped very many veterans of the ATO [‘Anti-Terrorist Operation’, as Ukraine officially called the war in Donbass in 2014–2018], — says Natalia. — And a lot of businessmen were kidnapped for ransom.”

Since the beginning of the full-scale war, the hotline workers have recorded 311 kidnappings, 107 people are still in captivity, 56 of them are unknown. According to estimates by the employees of the hotline Vikradeni Melitopoltsi, the real number of kidnapped people is three to four times higher.

“There was a space with chains inside, next to a small gymnasium with people with bags over their heads”

By kidnapping and abuse, especially in the first year, Russian security forces tried to make the residents cooperate with the occupation authorities, and if that did not work, they found a way to make money.

“I refused to work with Russia from day one, and I was constantly asked the question ‘why’, telling me it is a bright future for life. They suggested I go into management, they needed mayors and deputy mayors. They said: ‘We lack people like you in leadership positions, you have experience, you used to run a company, you know a lot of people in the city,’ — recalls Melitopol businessman Sergey, who was engaged in the repair of equipment. — I refused. I wanted to sit quietly until I was released, but they did not let me.”

In September 2022, Sergey was kidnapped. He was brought to the building of the former vocational school 24. According to Sergey, the first and second floors were occupied by Rosgvardia [National Guard of Russia] officers, while the basement rooms, warehouses and gymnasium were equipped as torture chambers. Before the interrogation, he was led through the basements to show what awaited him: “There was a space with chains inside, and next to it was a small gymnasium with people in it. They were sitting on the floor in different corners with bags over their heads.”

Support IStories
Your support will allow us to continue to spread the truth about what is happening in the war, the occupied territories and inside Russia

The bound Sergey was beaten for several hours. “All the bullshit that goes on Russian TV, also sounded from them: that they are a great power, they liberated us, we have Nazis here,” Sergey recalls. — I said, there are no Nazis here, I have lived in this country since birth. For ‘wrong’ answers, I got punished every time. They threatened physical violence against my family, my children. I believed them. I knew what they were doing in Melitopol and other occupied cities.”

After the beating, a man came who introduced himself as an “FSB colonel” and said that if Sergey refused to cooperate and refused to take positions in the administration, he should leave the “liberated territories” within two days, otherwise he would be taken to the basement again. For this “deal” the “FSB colonel” demanded 6 thousand dollars: “We went to my house, they took the money, and within a couple of days my family and I left the city. No one wanted to stay and test fate.”

“It was very unsafe, but I wanted to drive this filth out of the city”

“At the moment, Melitopol is the center of the guerrilla [Ukrainian] movement, says Natalia, a representative of the Vikradeni Melitopoltsi hotline. — The Russians want to destroy it and capture, as they say, the ‘partisans’.”

On the morning of August 22, landscape designer Maxim Ivanov, who was detained “for re-education” for a Ukrainian flag, together with his girlfriend Tatyana went out to paste up leaflets for Ukraine’s Independence Day (August 24). 

But the couple only managed to paste up a few of them: “A squad of the so-called police came for us. They examined our stuff, there were leaflets, and in my phone they found correspondence with another person to whom I was giving the coordinates [of Russian military equipment].” Maxim was thrown to the ground, tied up and thrown into the trunk. Together with Tatyana, they were detained for the second time and taken to the police station on Chernyshevsky Street.

Tatyana is sure that they were ratted out by someone from the neighborhood: “There are people who, for money, if they see something, call and report it immediately. This time we started putting up flyers in the center. When we were putting up flyers near high-rise buildings, the police came five minutes later — someone ratted us out.”

In some districts, the occupation authorities have launched their own Telegram bots, where anyone can report information about “saboteurs.” If a person is detained after the report, the author of the denunciation is promised a reward of 500,000 rubles (≈5 thousand dollars).

During the search, the police found not only leaflets, but also a phone with messages about the movement of Russian equipment. “I used a chatbot in Telegram to transmit the coordinates of the movement of living forces and the location of military equipment in Melitopol and its vicinity. It was very unsafe, but I wanted to drive this filth out of the city and I knew I was doing the right thing,” Maxim said. 

During his first interrogation, he was beaten at the police station and suffered broken ribs. They did not heal even a year after his captivity. The next day, the man was taken to garages under the bridge leading to the Novy Melitopol neighborhood and again brutally beaten.

“A bag over my head, they took me out. They threw me down, I fell, I got up, they started beating me with metal rebar, some wooden sticks. I felt it all on my ribs, on my back. Then they put a metal bucket on my head and started hitting me aggressively. I fell down a couple of times, losing consciousness. I could not feel a thing. Then it turned out I fell and broke my big toes. I realized I could be killed right now. I asked for a phone to call my parents and say goodbye. I was told that I will die and no one will know. Then they took me into the garage and left. I opened my eyes, the blood was gushing, and everything around me was covered in blood,” recalls Maxim Ivanov.

The next day, the beatings continued. “It was like groundhog day. I was facing the wall, and they came in and hit me from behind on my ribs powerfully, to the cervical vertebrae.” After five days, Maxim, along with his cellmates, were taken out to take a shower. “There was just a hose with running water. But we were glad, because we had not bathed for so long. I undressed, the onlookers joked among themselves and said, ‘This one is ready, let’s take him away.’ They probably saw that my back and ribs were all black and purple and decided that that was enough for me.”

Maxim Ivanov and Tatyana Bekh were pasting up leaflets in support of Ukraine when the Russians kidnapped them and held them captive. Maxim’s health has still not recovered from the torture
Maxim Ivanov and Tatyana Bekh were pasting up leaflets in support of Ukraine when the Russians kidnapped them and held them captive. Maxim’s health has still not recovered from the torture

Alexey (name changed) was also taken prisoner by neighbors’ snitch. Before the full-scale Russian invasion, he worked at a state enterprise and lived in a village near Melitopol. “I was on my way home and was stopped by the Russian military. They asked my name, I answered, and they immediately pulled me out of the car and put me on the asphalt.” This happened in November 2022, by which time kidnappings had become so frequent that the man was not even too surprised to be detained. “Well, why should I be surprised? You understand it: they do what they want,” Alexey recalls his emotions.

The man believes that he was taken away on a tip-off from some of his fellow villagers. “I am a citizen of Ukraine, I support my country and do not hide it. Of course, I did not go around shouting ‘Glory to Ukraine,’ but in conversations with the guys I always said: ‘They are not here forever, Ukraine will come back here.’”

After being detained, Alexey was led to an apartment where a search was already underway. “They thought I was a partisan and started asking me where the caches were, where the weapons were and where the drones were launched. Well, of course, I do not know any of this, because I was not a partisan. They found the flag of Ukraine, found the uniform of my brother, who served in the army. They took my cell phone. I had a lot of voice [messages] with my friends there, and they listened to each one. And then they found that I wrote in a chatbot about a passing column of military equipment. But there were no coordinates. They said, ‘That’s it, it’s all over for you.’” The man was tied up and taken in the trunk of a car to the commandant’s office.

He started beating me from the passageway until I could not breathe anymore. Then he took me to the office, took out pliers and tried to bite off my finger. He took out his phone and turned on a video where a Ukrainian military man’s genitals were cut off. He took out a knife and said: “If you do not talk to [the FSB officer] Altai normally next time, I will cut your balls off”
Alexey
Survivor of Russian captivity in Melitopol

In 36 days of detention, Alexey went through three interrogations. “I was summoned at night five days after I was taken. The questions were the same: why did you write [to the Telegram bot], where are the partisans, where are the weapons. Then [an FSB officer with the call sign Altai] demanded to name people with pro-Ukrainian views. I said, ‘No one talks about such topics anymore. It's taboo.’ He said, ‘You are lying to me.’ So the first time ended there.”

For the second interrogation Alexey was summoned by the commandant. “He started beating me from the passageway until I could not breathe anymore. Then he took me to the office, took out pliers and tried to bite off my finger. He took out his phone and turned on a video where a Ukrainian military man’s genitals were cut off. He took out a knife and said: ‘If you do not talk to Altai normally next time, I will cut your balls off.’ 

At the third interrogation with the FSB officer, the same questions were asked: ‘Where are the partisans, why did you write to the bot about the equipment?’ I was afraid to answer the first time, and at the third interrogation I answered, ‘I wasn’t expecting you there and I’m not happy with you.’ He did not say anything to me, he just continued writing everything down on the form.”

While Alexey was in captivity, the military interrogated all his acquaintances and relatives and realized that he was indeed not a partisan, but even then they did not release him. Alexey’s friends and brothers, who did not live in the occupied territory, began to publish posts that he was missing. A few weeks later, a Melitopol resident came out to them and said that he could help with his release. At first he asked for 10 thousand dollars for his release, but the brothers managed to agree on 5. Through Melitopol residents who remained in the occupied territory, they were able to transfer the ransom, but even after that Alexey did not return home. Only after an additional thousand dollars and another month in captivity he was released.

“There were days when it was quiet, but more often it was torture somewhere”

From conversations with survivors of kidnapping and torture and relatives of those still in captivity, IStories was able to identify five addresses where kidnapped persons are being held.

Most often people are sent to one of the commandant’s offices: one is located at 26 Ivan Alekseev Street, in the building of the former traffic police, and the second is at 37 Chernyshevsky Street, where the sixth police department for combating organized crime used to be located.

It was in the commandant’s office on Ivan Alekseev Street that the military kept and drove 23-year-old Leonid Popov to exhaustion — IStories told about him being tortured. Already from the hospital, he told his mother that many people were sitting with him that their relatives did not know about.  

Six months before Leonid, Alexey was held in the same place for over a month. The building of the former traffic police was not at all intended for the detention of people. Alexey told what conditions the prisoners lived in: “I was sitting in three cells. In the first cell, a piece of wall instead of a window was broken out and covered with a grate. A concrete floor, walls, planks on the floor and rags. That was it. The second cell was better, it was heated. We slept on tables. There were mattresses and pillows, which people were given and allowed to keep. In the third cell there were a lot of people, we did not have enough space on the tables, and we slept on the floor. The window was covered with black polyethylene so that we could not see what was happening outside.”

Interrogation and torture chambers were located next to the cells, so captives could hear how others were being tortured. The most brutal torture was inflicted on former Ukrainian military personnel and people suspected of passing coordinates of Russian military.

[After two months in captivity] I was no longer walking, literally crawling on all fours and peeing blood. <...> There were days when it was quiet, but more often it was torture somewhere. There were sounds of beating. One could hear screaming. Sometimes they shouted: “Help me, stop, I beg you”
Maxim Ivanov
Survivor of Russian captivity in Melitopol

Maxim and Tatyana were brought to the commandant’s office in Chernyshevsky Street immediately after the detention. The next day Maxim was moved to the garages under the bridge on Novy Melitopol, where he was beaten again. And Tatyana, after a search and six-hour interrogation, was put in a container in the courtyard of the commandant's office: 

“There was a parking lot for cars, an iron container two by two meters stood on it, like in cargo ports. Without windows, only the door was cut out, locked. It was August, unbearably hot during the day and very cold at night. Inside there were two benches and a stool. There was water, but it smelled so bad that it was impossible to drink. For the first few days I was not fed. Then some cook started bringing food. They took me to the toilet only twice a day, but it was impossible. I found a small bucket, used it, and poured it out by the door, under their feet.”

After the container and beatings in the garages under the bridge, Maxim and Tatyana were transported to the city police station on Hetmanskaya Street. They were kept in different cells. Tatyana was not touched, while Maxim continued to be beaten:

“Two men came into the cell. They put a bag over my head, wrapped it with duct tape so that my nose was practically tied up and it was hard to breathe. They told me to sit on the floor. And on my legs, I felt, they started to put tongs on them, like clamps on my fingers, — Maxim says. — Now I recall it more or less calmly. But when I start to visualize it all ... They electrocuted me. I screamed and almost passed out. They ask about the SBU [Security Service of Ukraine], the ATO, the police. I said, I do not know anyone, I have not had a record with the police, I have not encountered the SBU at all. ‘No, you are lying!’ They electrocuted me for a long time, about 20 minutes. They turned on the charge for seven seconds. And when I was no longer screaming, but just passing out, they turned it off. And a couple seconds later, they were back on again.”

The police building at the intersection of Hetmanskaya Street and Alexander Nevsky Street, where Maxim Ivanov was beaten and electrocuted for two months. Here Maxim witnessed the suicide of another prisoner
The police building at the intersection of Hetmanskaya Street and Alexander Nevsky Street, where Maxim Ivanov was beaten and electrocuted for two months. Here Maxim witnessed the suicide of another prisoner
Photo: MLTPL City

To drown out the sounds of torture, the torturers turned on loud music from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., all survivors of captivity told IStories. Maxim remembers that there were Russian national anthem, many “suicidal” songs about death, Russian pop and rock songs.

But the music still did not completely drown out the screams of the captives. “There were days when it was quiet, but more often it was torture somewhere. There were sounds of beating. One could hear screaming. Sometimes they shouted: ‘Help me, stop, I beg you,’ sometimes just a long ‘A-a-a-a-a-a,’” Maxim describes the atmosphere in the cells.

Some could not stand it and committed suicide. “The supervisor came to one of the cells, dialed someone on the phone, saying that he had killed himself. Half an hour later, everyone was already running down the corridor. Then it was heard how the body was packed, wrapped in something,” — Maxim recalls one of these cases. Other captives also told IStories about suicide cases.

“The farther these events are from me, the more often my psyche reminds me of them…” 

After being electrocuted, Maxim together with Tatyana were forced to star in a propaganda piece about the attempted assassination of the head of the occupation administration of Zaporizhzhya Oblast, Yevhen Balitsky. 

Soon after that, Tatyana was released, and he was beaten for another month. After two months of captivity and beatings, Maxim was in a critical condition. “I was no longer walking, literally crawling on all fours and peeing blood,” the man recalls his condition. 

At the end of October 2022, he was deported to Ukrainian-controlled territory — with the condition that from there he would give the Russians the coordinates of the SBU through a Telegram channel. The interrogator wrote its name on a piece of paper and put it in Maxim’s pocket.

Maxim was taken to the village of Vasylivka, the last checkpoint in the occupied territory — at that time it was still possible to pass through it to the Ukrainian-controlled part of Zaporizhzhya Oblast, but now the Russians have blocked this way.

“They read me the sentence on camera, that I was an undesirable person in Melitopol, — Maxim recalls. — Then I walked 40 kilometers from Vasylivka [to the Ukrainian checkpoint] in Kamenskoye. It was a horror. Kamenskoye is a gray zone, there are our guys on one hill and these bastards on the other, there is shelling. I just could not go any further. I thought of asking someone to spend the night in Kamenskoye, but it was a dead village, no one was there, the houses were destroyed. I went to an abandoned gas station and sat there all night. It was cold, the end of October. Frost was falling, my feet were freezing. I found a piece of fiberglass wool, and threw it over my feet. And there was shelling all the time. Nearby an explosion and I could hear the ground crumbling from the blast. I thought this gas station would be my grave.”

At dawn, Maxim reached the checkpoint: “I saw the Ukrainian flag, I fell on my knees, I almost cried. I thought they were going to kill me now, because I had no documents, they [Russians] did not give them to me. But our people there fed me, gave me coffee, and calmed me down. The police came and took me to Zaporizhzhya. After everything I experienced, I had no emotions. I did not believe that it was really happening: that I could see the sun, that I was breathing air and I did not have to be scared of every sound.

Many people still do not believe it: how can it be, torture in the 21st century? I went through it, thousands of guys and girls went through it, it still happens today.
Maxim Ivanov
Survivor of Russian captivity in Melitopol

Tatyana was deported a month earlier, and now she and Maxim live in Zaporizhzhya. Tatyana works at a factory, Maxim cannot work yet because he was severely crippled during the torture — and not only physically. 

“It was almost a year ago, but for me it’s like a week has passed, — says Maxim. — I bend over a little, and that’s it, the pain is terrible, because the ribs, unfortunately, are not a leg, you can not put a cast on, so how they are joined, I do not know. The toes are not joined properly. I have nightmares a lot. Never had them before. The farther these events are from me, the more often my psyche reminds me of them... Many people still do not believe it: how can it be, torture in the 21st century? I went through it, thousands of guys and girls went through it, it still happens today.”

The head of the occupation administration of Zaporizhzhya Oblast signed a decree “on deportation of citizens involved in committing terrorist acts” in July 2022. Representatives of the occupation administration called the deportation “the most humane measure of punishment.” “Deportation” was recorded on video: men with bags over their heads listened to the “sentences” and set off towards the Ukrainian checkpoint, which was several dozen kilometers away. Many were not given their documents back. The last known deportation was in January 2023, since then the captives have stopped being allowed out of the city.

Alexey was released a month later after his brothers paid the ransom for him: “I signed my name as if I had no claims and left the commandant’s office. Emotions were overflowing. Joy that I was free. I did not want to stay there. Many of my acquaintances had cooperated with the occupation authorities, and I was already disgusted to see them. You feel like you are not home anymore. I just could not. I finished my household chores and in February I left for Ukraine.”

Editor: Alesya Marokhovskaya