Europe | Rob, rape, retreat

Fresh evidence shows how grim life is under Russian occupation in Ukraine

Military police reports from Izyum describe everyday acts of brutality

RAISA (NOT HER real name) appears from behind a tall wooden fence to confirm the details of the police report. The 73-year-old clutches the lace of her white dress as she recounts the events of a night in mid-June. She woke to the sound of Russian soldiers in her home, she said. One of them gestured to the others to leave and introduced himself as Alexander, a 22 year-old from Vladivostok. He had been drinking. Would she let him buy her house? Russia paid him well, and if not “I’ll kill you and the house will be mine anyway.” Suddenly, he grabbed her and forced himself on top of her. After ten minutes of what he appeared to think was intercourse (but was not, Raisa says), the soldier got up and asked where he could find younger women. On his way out he said he would booby-trap the door with grenades.

The incident may be the most shocking detailed in a stack of crime reports from Izyum obtained by The Economist. The reports, written by Russian military police, relate to a few separate periods, numbering several days each, in April, May and June. They therefore describe only crimes reported to the occupying authorities, which many victims may have been too scared to do. Yet they offer a horrifying glimpse of life under occupation. The papers detail two violent rapes; dozens of robberies; and reports of missing people, some snatched from the street. They also include a letter from a Russian mother begging military authorities to discharge her son because he suffers from piles.

Many of the documents relate to reports of money missing after door-to-door searches. In at least one case, the police followed up on the complaint. In a handwritten note, Sergei Bebin, a 34-year-old soldier from Russia’s 39th Motor Rifle Brigade, based on Sakhalin island, agrees to return 3,500 hryvnia ($95)—money that a local reported he had stolen at gunpoint. Another letter, from the local morgue, asks the military police to investigate the death of a woman whose corpse arrived riddled with bullet wounds.

The morgue, a forlorn brick hut at the back of Izyum’s bomb-damaged central hospital, was not open when The Economist visited the town on September 18th. Doctors and ambulance workers said five months of Russian occupation had taken their toll on the chief pathologist, who had gone home early. At one point during the spring, the bodies had been piled up so high that the mortician called a retired former colleague named Fyodor to help. He was not there long. On his first day back at the morgue, occupying soldiers had demanded that Fyodor, an amputee, give them his specially adapted car. What use would they get out of his modified car, he asked? The soldiers shot him dead. A doctor at the hospital, who asked to remain anonymous, said the Russians took Fyodor’s body to Belgorod, a town inside Russia. The man’s disappearance was confirmed by two other locals.

It is impossible to say how many of the 445 bodies found in a makeshift cemetery on the edge of town were killed in similar fashion. On September 18th, rescue workers were still removing body bags from the scene—some with names, most with only numbers. Sweating under white hazmat suits, they smoked hungrily during breaks to fill their nostrils with something other than the putrid stench of death. Oleksandr Martysh, their boss and head of Kharkiv police’s serious crimes unit, suggested it was “too early” to draw firm conclusions. But there were signs that some of the dead had been tortured. Several had been found with their hands tied together, he said; though he added that this was sometimes a feature of local burial custom. Most suspicious were instances where the dead’s hands had been tied behind their backs. He would not specify how many such cases there were.

During the occupation from late March to September, the Russians kept a military base and arms dump around the makeshift cemetery, so for security reasons it was off-limits to all but a few cemetery workers. As a result, most locals are only now learning about it from news reports. Some think relatively few of the buried were atrocity victims. Serhiy Botsman, head of the local ambulance service, said he thought most had probably died from “shrapnel, shelling and Russian aerial bombs” in the first weeks of the war. In the darkest days, locals hunkered down and hoped for the best, burying friends and relatives only when it was safe to do so. He had counted 16 bodies, littering the streets, on his way to work one day in the spring. “I saw one body without a leg, another without an arm, and dogs were getting to work on both of them.” The occupation authorities later buried all the bodies in one place, he said.

Other locals say forensics will show that scores of Ukrainians were killed in cold blood. Alina Skibyna, a market worker, said Russian security officers went door to door hunting down a list of Ukrainian sympathisers. Many of those arrested, including her neighbour Oleh, never returned. She assumes Oleh was shot. Wiser townsfolk kept their heads down and avoided contact with the occupiers, she said. But it is a Ukrainian trait to seek justice: “If we don’t like something, we say it—whatever the risk.” Raisa says that is why she reported her attempted rape to the Russians. Doing so achieved little, however. The investigators did come back to her house with some soldiers and asked her to pick out her assailant from among them. One of the young men even looked familiar. But with the officers glowering at her intimidatingly, she was reluctant to press her case. “It was none of them,” she said.

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