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In a retaken border village, Ukrainians point to signs of Russian abuse of civilians

Luda Toryanyk, 58, walks across the railroad tracks in Kozacha Lopan, Ukraine, on Sunday. The village was retaken by Ukrainian troops on Sept. 11 after being occupied by Russian forces for more than six months. Toryanyk carries home bags of food that Ukrainian volunteers were distributing in the center of the village.
Jason Beaubien
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NPR
Luda Toryanyk, 58, walks across the railroad tracks in Kozacha Lopan, Ukraine, on Sunday. The village was retaken by Ukrainian troops on Sept. 11 after being occupied by Russian forces for more than six months. Toryanyk carries home bags of food that Ukrainian volunteers were distributing in the center of the village.

KOZACHA LOPAN, Ukraine — This village used to be the last railway stop in northeastern Ukraine's Kharkiv region before crossing into Russia.

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

Now, the customs post is blown apart. The high-ceilinged train station is pock-marked with bullet holes. The steel tracks in front of the platform are twisted from explosions. And Ukrainian police say they found a torture chamber in the station's basement where Russians interrogated residents.

Bedding and sleeping bags in a basement where Ukrainian authorities say they found a torture cell used during the Russian occupation, in the retaken village of Kozacha Lopan on Saturday.
Leo Correa / AP
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AP
Bedding and sleeping bags in a basement where Ukrainian authorities say they found a torture cell used during the Russian occupation, in the retaken village of Kozacha Lopan on Saturday.

Fifty-eight-year-old Luda Toryanyk, who's lived her entire life in Kozacha Lopan, says one local man was interrogated in the back of the post office for several days after trying to cross into Ukrainian-controlled territory to visit his hospitalized mother. And she says she saw him when he was released.

"He lifted up his shirt and his back was black and blue with bruises," she says. "He was beaten there for nothing."

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

Her son was detained

Toryanyk says she watched her own son being marched to the train station by three Russian soldiers with guns 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 says, insisting to his mother that he had simply been questioned about some looting. They made him sit in a chair, he told her, with his hands bound with tape and a hood over his head.

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

"Later at night, when he screamed because of the nightmares, then I realized that he didn't want to upset me and that's why he hadn't told me that he was beaten," she says.

She stayed looking after neighbors' 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'd agreed to look after her neighbor's cats, dogs, flocks of chickens and geese. She says she couldn't abandon them. Toryanyk also planted flowers to make it clear that she had no intention of leaving.

A building that was destroyed during the initial offensive by Russian troops in February on the main street in Kozacha Lopan on Sunday. Residents say Russian soldiers used the building as a base during the occupation of the border town.
Jason Beaubien / NPR
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NPR
A building that was destroyed during the initial offensive by Russian troops in February on the main street in Kozacha Lopan on Sunday. Residents say Russian soldiers used the building as a base during the occupation of the border town.

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

Toryanyk says residents lived off produce from their gardens and food packets handed out by the Russians.

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

Servicemen deliver boxes with humanitarian aid to the village council in Kozacha Lopan on Sept. 16.
Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy / Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images
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Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images
Servicemen deliver boxes with humanitarian aid to the village council in Kozacha Lopan on Sept. 16.

Krasnikov says the needs here are huge. People need medical supplies and drinking water, he says. Gas lines for heating and cooking were damaged in the early days of the fighting and never repaired. Power lines dangle in the streets. "Now in this village they don't have electricity at all," Krasnikov says. "It's a very big problem."

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

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

Scenes from a mass grave site in Izium on Friday.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Scenes from a mass grave site in Izium on Friday.

Farther south, in the city of Izium, Ukrainian investigators are exhuming hundreds of bodies from a burial site in a forest believed to be civilians killed during the Russian occupation. People are living in high-rise apartments without any windows, the glass blown out by explosions. Residents cook over open wood fires. They're concerned about facing the oncoming winter without gas heating.

But back in Kozacha Lopan, Toryanyk declares 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 land, with our own authorities, as Ukrainians," not Russians she says. "We will rebuild. It's not a big problem. We will restore everything. But we will stay here."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The train tracks at the railway station in Kozacha Lopan, looking north towards the Russian border, on Sunday.
Jason Beaubien / NPR
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NPR
The train tracks at the railway station in Kozacha Lopan, looking north towards the Russian border, on Sunday.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.
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