Olena Yahupova was first taken by the Russian occupiers in the Ukrainian city of Enerhodar last October. Neighbours she knew had informed on her, telling the FSB secret police that her husband was a Ukrainian military officer.
What followed, she says, was two days of torture with the secret police – which turned out to be only a prelude to a nightmare of five months of detention and forced labour, during which she also had to act in faked news clips.
“There was a complete absence of any source of law, they did whatever they want,” Yahupova says, now speaking in Ukraine, describing the situation in a town after Russia “gradually built up this repression machine” aimed at liquidating opposition and trying to force locals to collaborate.
Enerhodar was a city of 53,000 before the war, best known as being the site of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe. A key target for the Russian invaders, it was captured in early March 2022.
Dmytro Orlov, its mayor in exile, now based in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, says only 15,000 people are left, a third of whom work at the vast site, and describes a Russian reign of terror unleashed not just on Ukrainian leaders and nuclear plant workers, but also ordinary citizens such as Yahupova.
Five hundred people or more, he estimates, have been subject to kidnapping and torture, and electrocuting, he says, is commonplace. Orlov feels he has heard “just too many stories” of violence meted out to Ukrainians. “In the beginning, I felt shock and despair. But now the time has made me feel tougher and rougher.”
At first, Yahupova was far from a target. A local government worker, she says she didn’t participate in any anti-Russian protests. But she made the mistake of being slow to leave, concerned about her pets, and one autumn day she was taken by FSB officers to the local police station.
“They tied my hands to my ankles,” she begins, demonstrating by bending forward, before she describes being hit around the head with a full plastic bottle. Strangulation was regular – “one guy holding your neck, another pinching your nose” – while they demanded unsuccessfully that she reveal her husband’s location or inform on others with military connections in the town.
A wire flex was wrapped around her neck, a gun was placed against her forehead – “Imagine the condition I was in,” she says, speaking quickly – and she says she, too, was electrocuted, although it is something she is understandably reluctant to detail. “Before doing this, they would announce it,” adding to the torture.
Yahupova says the violence was the work of a team of five or six FSB officers – “One by one, they would do these things. They enjoyed this” – and recounts being in a state of shock and pain. “I wouldn’t even have time to yell … there was no time to think … often, I was just looking. It was so shocking,” she continues.
After two days the torture stopped, but Yahupova was not released. Brought before a senior officer, she was told, “I don’t see any crime here”, but she was detained in a crowded cell, with up to 15 people at a time. Inmates slept on the floor during the winter and on some days no food was provided. She languished in jail until January: “Basically, they forgot about me.”
There was one exception. An FSB officer demanded that Yahupova appear on Russian news to complain about alleged Ukrainian shelling. “He threatened to shoot me”, she says, if she didn’t comply. An item was filmed last October, and is still up on RIA Novosti’s Telegram channel, with the strain clearly showing in her eyes. The shelling, she says now, was conducted by Russian forces.
Finally, it was decided she would be expelled from the jails, because she was “impossible to re-educate”, and she was relocated close to the front line, near Russian-held Vasylivka, with two employees of the nuclear power plant. Again, she was forced to participate in a faked video, purporting to show her being expelled to Ukraine through a checkpoint, which again appeared on RIA Novosti.
But Yahupova was not expelled. “They gave us to the military and left, we were told it was time to work for the Russian Federation. We were made to dig trenches for two months in freezing weather,” she added. “They would bring us before the sunrise and make us leave after the sunset.” Their efforts were monitored by armed guards; it was “kind of a modern gulag”.
A release came after another prisoner managed to persuade a soldier to lend them a phone so they could call relatives who were able to trigger an intervention. A squad turned up and took them to Melitopol, where senior Russian police officers said she could go, appearing to recognise that her forced labour was illegal, and presented her “with a business card with three phone numbers on it” in case she had problems.
Yahupova had finally been released and returned to Enerhodar. It was March and when she got back “there was nothing in my house”, she says, accusing local police, people she once knew, of stealing her possessions. Almost immediately on her return, the same local police arrived, terrifying her, but they backed off after calling the numbers on the business card, finally allowing her the time to raise money and leave.
Compared with what happened before, the final stage of Yahupova’s story was relatively simple. Perhaps because of the police intervention, her name was not listed at any checkpoints, and she was able to pass through one of Moscow’s filtration camps at Berdyansk into Russia proper without being questioned, although other Ukrainians were removed from the bus. After that, she crossed the border to Estonia and freedom.
“I was ready to kiss the soil,” she says, when she left the filtration camp. After reaching Estonia, she finally dared to call her husband to tell him she was alive.
“My family told me I should stay in Europe”, after what had happened; but she returned to Zaporizhzhia, “where I signed up to be conscripted to the army”, and to celebrate by renewing her wedding vows in church with her lifelong partner.
Prior to the war, western intelligence officials warned that the FSB had been tasked with eliminating opposition in captured or surrounded cities, a prediction that appears to have been grimly borne out in Enerhodar. Although she is back in Ukraine safely, Yahupova says she believes, like the mayor, that her case is one of many war crimes: “I think there are other people digging those trenches now, and as for the nuclear power plant workers I was with in January, I fear the worst.”