VELYKYI BURLUK, Kharkiv Oblast — War veteran Serhii Chepurnyi recently turned 40. This year, he didn't celebrate his birthday.
His hands shaking as he took a cigarette from its pack, Chepurnyi carefully chose his words as he recalled what Russian soldiers did to him when occupying his native village, Velykyi Burluk.
Velykyi Burluk, located roughly 50 kilometers from the Russian border, was swiftly occupied when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.
The small settlement was officially liberated on Sept. 12. A few days earlier, Chepurnyi was freed from a torture chamber in Vovchansk, located within just a few kilometers of Russia.
Chepurnyi spent 44 days in detainment, subjected to Russian torture, electrocution, and beatings on a daily basis.
"Everything was by the hour, everything was planned," Chepurnyi said of his time in a Russian torture chamber.
His testimony, along with other survivors’ accounts from torture chambers in other parts of Ukraine liberated from Russian soldiers, reveals that the torture of civilians was far from a spontaneous act of certain Russian units: It appears to have been a systematic, organized effort to terrorize local populations.
Serhii Bolvinov, Kharkiv Oblast chief investigator, said on Oct. 6 that his team found 22 Russian sites used to torture Ukrainians in Kharkiv Oblast, including in Vovchansk, Kupiansk, Velykyi Burluk, and Izium.
Belkis Wille, a senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch, led a three-week probe in Izium, where the organization interviewed over 100 victims of war crimes.
"Multiple victims shared credible accounts with us of similar experiences of torture during interrogation in facilities under the control of Russian forces and their subordinates, indicating this treatment was part of a policy and plan," said Wille.
Survivors' testimonies reveal the sheer scale of Russia's highly-organized plans to round up Ukrainian war veterans, volunteers, and civilians in a widespread network of torture chambers scattered across Kharkiv Oblast.
Police station torture chamber
As a Ukrainian war veteran who served when Russia invaded Crimea and Donbas in 2014, Chepurnyi knew he had a target on his back.
He served from 2001 as part of compulsory military service and then in the State Border Guard Service until 2014.
He said that Russian soldiers arrested him while he was doing utility work on a road nearby on July 28. They immediately brought him to Velykyi Burluk's police station, where they made him wait the whole day in a cell without water and access to toilets.
"They took me away at 9 a.m., they didn't give me water or anything," he said. "Then, at 10 p.m., they came to me, put a bag on my head, tied my hands, and took me away."
The Kyiv Independent had access to the Velykyi Burluk police station that Russian forces had taken over during the occupation. The station was heavily damaged during Ukraine's September counteroffensive.
According to Ukraine's open-source intelligence (OSINT) research group Molfar, Velykyi Burluk's police station harbored a battalion of Russia's 200th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade from the 14th Army Corps, servicemen from the 1st and 2nd Army Corps reserve, and a battalion of the 21st Separate Motor Rifle Brigade.
The station's basement revealed a maze of damp makeshift cells with dirty cloths and empty bottles strewn across the floor, where survivors say they were kept before being transferred to other torture chambers in larger cities – Vovchansk and Kupiansk.
Serhiy, a 37-year-old local emergency service worker who declined to provide his last name in fear of Russia's renewed occupation, told the Kyiv Independent that his brother was among those arrested and transferred to Vovchansk.
"He was brought (to the police station) with a bag on his head, he stayed here for several hours and was taken to Vovchansk," Serhiy said.
"Some were released, and nothing happened; no traces (of torture) were left on them, and some were released, and they were in a terrible shape," he added about those detained by the Russians.
The fate of many people kept in the Velykyi Burluk police station remains unknown. "We couldn't even approach (the station), they wouldn't let us," Serhiy said.
He added that it was easy for Russians to round up Ukrainian war veterans because collaborators provided the Russian soldiers with lists.
"You could see that (some) people cooperated with Russians from how they behaved."
He said everybody was checked at checkpoints surrounding the city, making it impossible to escape if your name appeared on a list.
"Of course, we know who the collaborators are," he said, adding most of them left with the Russians when Ukraine liberated the village.
"Some stayed there, but the police will find them," he added. "Everything will be fine, people will get their due."
Russian forces arrested a handful of people, all Ukrainian veterans, in Velykyi Burluk, including Chepurnyi and Serhiy's brothers.
They took them to Vovchansk, three kilometers south of the Russian border.
There, an old factory was turned into a detention center where civilians, including war veterans, were tortured. Serhiy's brother was kept there for 21 days, and Chepurnyi for over a month.
It was visibly painful for Chepurnyi to recall his time in Vovchansk. "The first interrogation took place at night," he said.
Chepurnyi showed the Kyiv Independent his arms on which he said Russians put electric wires to electrocute him. Russian soldiers were wearing masks, he said.
"They tortured me with electricity, a very high voltage, and beat me hard," he said. "The faster they turned (the crank), the higher the voltage," he said.
"It hurt a lot," Chepurnyi recalled. Russian soldiers also poured water on his wounds while electrocuting him to make him talk.
Ukrainian officials have accused Russian forces of using old mobile radio telephones as a power source to electrocute prisoners during interrogations.
The Kyiv Independent spotted a burned Soviet-era radio phone with an apparent wire protruding from its carcass on one of the first-floor rooms in Velykyi Burluk.
"There was a moment when they said in Russian: "Serhii, your whole life is in your hands. We know where your parents live. Do you understand?" Chepurnyi said.
Little did he know this first day would become his weekly routine for over a month.
"They had a rotation there about once a week, and also every Sunday, there were similar interrogations, all the same: electric current, beatings," he said.
"When they torture you with electricity, you feel no pain from beatings. You only wish your heart doesn't stop, and that's it," he added.
Chepurnyi was adamant his tormentors were Russians and not from Kremlin proxies in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.
"It was the FSB (Russia's Federal Security Service)," he said. "Their accents were very Russian."
He said some prisoners surrendered to torture, citing the example of one man who was released after four or five days. He said he thinks this man revealed the position of Ukrainian troops, but Chepurnyi couldn't confirm this information.
Other Ukrainian soldiers confirmed that war veterans had been tortured in Vovchansk, an account also established by locals to Ukrainian media outlet Hromadske, saying "young guys had been tortured with electric shocks for weeks."
One of the medics in Vovchansk, who declined to disclose her name, fearing Russia would renew its offensive, concurred. "They tortured a lot of people," she told the Kyiv Independent, "but we couldn't approach the victims (to help)."
She said that the Russians had brought their own medical teams that were "taking care" of the tortured and that the Russian military had set up their own system to handle their victims.
Chepurnyi said that there were around 40 people in his cell, including three war veterans, civilian women, and the six workers from Sri Lanka held captive by Russian forces for months.
"(Russians) served us food by tossing it where we went to the toilet," he said. "When they got drunk, they would say: "Where are your Armed Forces? We want to destroy them because we are the strong Russian army."
But on Sept. 10, Russians began to flee. They brought the prisoners back into their cells and opened the doors at the last minute.
Chepurnyi, along with other inmates, went to where Russians had kept prisoners’ personal documents, and left on foot from Vovchansk, following the signs to Velykyi Burluk before being picked up on the side of the road leading to their hometown.
'Reeducation' in Kupiansk
Another Russian torture chamber was established in occupied Kupiansk's police station on the city's main street. Russian forces had their main headquarters across the road.
Both sites were largely destroyed by heavy fighting during Ukraine's counteroffensive.
The smell of sweat mixed with human excrement inside the detention site is still strong. Mattresses covered in dry blood are still present on the floors and benches.
A massive Z and simplistic paintings glorifying Russian soldiers surrounded with the communist hammer and sickles were painted on the walls in a long corridor of doors to the cells where inmates were kept.
Russians packed up to 400 people at once in small cells designed for 140 people in total, according to Ukraine's Security Service (SBU). Russian forces put mattresses under low benches, forcing inmates to crawl under them to sleep. Some inmates were forced to stand.
According to Ukraine's Armed Forces that liberated the town, Russians used the police station as a so-called "reeducation" center, forcing prisoners to sing the Russian national anthem daily. The torture chamber had papers taped to the doors with the lyrics.
The uncle of Vladyslav Kaptannyi, a 15-year-old teenager living in Velykyi Burluk, was taken to Kupiansk presumably because he had served in Ukraine's Armed Forces, Kaptannyi told the Kyiv Independent.
"They kidnapped war veterans, took them to Kupiansk, and tortured them there," he said.
The Kyiv Independent couldn't directly contact Kaptannyi's uncle and couldn't independently verify the claim.
Many Kupiansk residents, who refused to give their names to the Kyiv Independent out of fear of Russian soldiers returning, claimed they didn't know what happened in the police station.
Some recalled Ukrainian veterans being brought there but said they didn't know anything about the accusations of torture and mistreatment.
One of the locals, a retiree, admitted to the Kyiv Independent that she was afraid to talk. "We don't know if they will return, of course, we're afraid," she said.
In Velykyi Burluk, Chepurnyi said there is no place for fear in his heart. He wants to recover, go to work, hug his 18 years-old daughter and rebuild his life.
"This torture was tough to survive," he said. "I tell you, guys, that they are not humans, they have no pity — they are orcs (a term used in Ukraine for Russian soldiers)."
"I don't feel anything now, only hate," he said.
Molfar, a Ukrainian open-source intelligence (OSINT) group, contributed to this report by identifying the Russian units that are the alleged perpetrators of Russia's war crimes in formerly occupied territories. Vitalii Poberezhnyi contributed to this report by helping find witnesses of Russia’s war crimes.
Note from the author:
Hello, I'm Alexander Query, and I traveled to Ukraine's liberated territories in Kharkiv Oblast to document Russia’s methodic cruelty against Ukrainians. Thanks to survivors of Russia's war crime, such as Serhyi Cherpunyi and the relatives of those tortured and killed by the Kremlin’s genocidal intent who dare speak out, we can show the world what Russia does every day to Ukraine. Your support can make a difference in holding the Kremlin accountable for its crimes. Please support our reporting to keep telling the world the truth about Russia's brutal war.