Liberation has finally arrived in Kharkiv, Ukraine. But the traces of Russia’s brutal occupation remain

Heavy damage is visible on almost every building. A giant billboard with an image of a waving Russian flag stands next to a bridge crossing the Oskil River in the city center, with the words, “We are one people with Russia!”

for now, Ukrainian army Russian forces on the bridge are pursuing and building up some momentum on the eastern bank of the river towards Luhansk, a major separatist area controlled by Moscow. CNN saw Ukrainian infantry returning on foot from the eastern side.

Yet inside this city, one of many liberated in the eastern region of Kharkiv, are telltale signs of hellish occupation. A former police building used by the Russians as a huge detention center, where 400 prisoners were held at one time in its cramped and dark cells, containing eight or nine prisoners per room, Ukrainian officials told CNN. told. A brightly painted mural with a “Z” of a Russian soldier standing next to an elderly woman waving the flag of the former Soviet Empire is still visible on a wall.

Before CNN was allowed to enter, a prisoner was tied with his hands tied in bright blue tape, quickly taken out, placed in a vehicle and driven away.

It was probably a Russian soldier, according to the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), who think he either abandoned his troops or was left behind. The prisoner claimed to be a local, the SBU said.

Just outside the building’s entrance, two Russian flags tied to wooden poles were scattered on the floor, one of which had burn marks. Inside, the floor of the damp spot was littered with rubbish. On each side through the narrow hallway were small rooms where the Russians kept their prisoners.

Some saw small mattresses and tables in a small closet, others had just a table and two chairs, which could have been an interrogation room.

The small rooms where eight to nine prisoners were held by the Russian army in a former police building in Kupiyansk.

Officials told CNN that not all rooms were cleared of potential explosives. A grenade booby trap sat on a bench inside a cell held up by a half-eaten food tin.

As CNN walked through the center, an SBU officer saw the trap and wrote “Grenade!!!” On the wall outside the cell with a black marker and an arrow to show exactly which room investigators should enter. The door was closed.

As the investigation continues, Ukrainian authorities are also searching for other traces, such as those from alleged torture.

A former prisoner who was introduced to CNN by Ukraine’s security services said he was imprisoned in the building about a month ago. Walking down the aisle, he showed CNN the room where he said the Russians had interrogated him.

“He made me sit in this chair,” the former prisoner – whom CNN has not named for his own safety – said, pointing. “There was the investigator sitting there, and there was the guy with the telephone and another who helped.”

The telephone was an older wind-up model that it used to send electric shocks. He thinks his interrogator had experience in this method from his time in the Russian security services, the FSB.

The occupants asked him who he had been in contact with the Ukrainian army, and told them he had once been a cook in the army, they said.

“He told me, ‘You think you’re tough. Let’s find out how tough,'” he said. “They also shot me with some kind of pistol. Here and in the leg,” he told CNN, pointing to his chest and leg.

“They promised that I would only see the sun and the sky again if they forced me into a mine,” he said. “The main thing is to survive and survive. When I got out, it took me a week and a half to recover.”

Two Russian flags are visible outside the detention center, one of which has burn marks.

The man is not alone in dealing with the scars of brutal assault, detention and alleged torture.

As authorities continue to investigate and clean up liberated cities in the Kharkiv region, they are finding more and more evidence of detention centers and cells used for torture.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Saturday that “more than 10 torture chambers” used by the occupying forces so far have been found in the region. “As the captors fled, they also dropped the torture devices,” he said.

CNN has contacted the Russian government for comment but has not received a response.

Kupinsk may have been liberated recently but the city is a ghost town, surrounded by destruction and rubble.

Very few local people who lurk in its empty husk.

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