Liberation finally came to Ukraine’s Kharkiv. But the scars of Russia’s brutal occupation remain

Heavy damage was visible on most of the buildings. A giant billboard with the Russian flag waving next to the bridge over the Oskil River in the city center reads: “We are one people with Russia!”

Present, Ukrainian Army drove Russian forces across the bridge and appeared to be building some momentum to push across the east bank of the river toward Luhansk, an important breakaway territory controlled by Moscow. CNN witnessed Ukrainian infantry walking back from the east.

However, inside this city, one of several in the eastern Kharkiv region that has been liberated, are signs that tell of a hellish occupation. Ukrainian authorities told CNN, a police building formerly used by Russia as a vast detention center, where up to 400 prisoners were at one time held in cramped and dark cells, with 8 or 9 prisoners per room. The brightly painted mural of a Russian soldier with a “Z” on his armband standing next to an elderly woman waving the flag of the former Soviet empire is still visible on one wall.

Before CNN was allowed in, an inmate whose hands were tied with glossy blue duct tape was quickly led out, put in a car, and driven away.

This person could be a Russian soldier, according to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), who believe he deserted or was left behind. According to the SBU, the prisoner identified himself as a local.

Just outside the building’s entrance, two Russian flags tied to wooden stakes lay sprawled on the floor, one showing signs of being burned. Inside, garbage littered the floor, making the space damp. Through the narrow corridor are small rooms on each side where the Russians used to keep their prisoners.

Several small mattresses and tables were seen in some of the small cells, others containing only a table and two chairs, remnants of what may have been an interrogation room.

Small rooms where eight to nine prisoners were held by the Russians in an old police building in Kupiansk.

Officials told CNN that not all rooms had been cleared of explosives. A grenade trap was placed on a bench inside the cell, held in place by a container of half-eaten food.

As CNN passed the center, an SBU officer noticed the trap and wrote “Grenade!!!” on the outside wall of the cell with a black marker and an arrow to show exactly which room the investigator should enter. The door is closed.

As the investigation continues, Ukrainian officials are also uncovering other scars, like those caused by alleged torture.

A former prisoner introduced to CNN by the Ukrainian Security Service said he was held in the building about a month ago. Walking through the hallway, he showed CNN the room where he said the Russians interrogated him.

“They put me on this chair,” said the former inmate – who was unnamed by CNN for his safety – and pointed. “The investigator sat there, and there was one person with the phone and another who helped.”

The phone was an old model that he said was used to give him electric shocks. He assumed that his interrogator had experience with this method from their time at the Russian Security Service, the FSB.

The occupiers asked him who he had contact with from the Ukrainian military, and told them he had been a cook in the army, he said.

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

“They promised that I would only see the sun and the sky again if they forced me into a minefield,” he said. “The main thing is to survive and fight. It took me a week and a half to recover when I was out.”

Two Russian flags, one showing signs of being burned, are seen outside the prison.

The man isn’t the only one facing scars from a brutal invasion, being held captive and accused of torture.

As authorities continued to investigate and wipe out liberated towns in the Kharkiv region, they found more and more evidence of detention centers and cells being used for torture.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Saturday that “more than 10 torture chambers” used by occupying forces have so far been found in the area. “When the occupiers fled, they also dropped the torture devices,” he said.

CNN has reached out to the Russian government for comment but has not received a response.

Kupiansk may have been liberated recently but the city is a ghost town, riddled with devastation and debris.

Few locals still gather in its empty shell.

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