The Barchuks case: the story of a family that spent 13 months in prison in the occupied part of Kherson region

The Barchuks case: the story of a family that spent 13 months in prison in the occupied part of Kherson region

the story of Barchuks family in occupation
In the first months of the Russian invasion, pro-Ukrainian rallies were still held in the already occupied Kherson. The attitude of the occupiers towards the locals changed when they realized that the Kherson people were not happy with the "liberators". In the spring of 2022, the whole Barchuk family went to the rallies. Illustration by Inga Levi

This story began in 2022. When Russia attacked Kherson, Serhii Barchuk, who worked at the Pension Fund, decided not to leave the city and stay in his job. After the occupation of the city, he was detained and later disappeared. Serhii’s father and wife, as well as his uncle and a close friend started looking for him. Finally, they all ended up in prison.

On the one hand, the story of the Barchuk family is unique as the occupiers held four family members and a close family friend hostage for a year and threatened them with prison terms. On the other hand, this is a typical story. Hundreds of such stories took place during the occupation.

Tetiana Katrychenko, the human rights activist and executive director of the Media Initiative for Human Rights, explains, "Mostly people are detained for behaving differently than the occupation authorities expect. For example, a person writes something on social networks, then this person is accused of terrorism or sabotage and detained in order, first, to isolate, and second, to intimidate others.

The majority of such detainees are transported through the occupied Crimea to the Russian Federation. Alternatively, they are kept in Crimea. For example, several dozen Ukrainians are now being kept in Simferopol pre-trial detention centers No. 1 and No. 2.

A person can be released then, but already intimidated after torture. There were cases when people were detained for 30 days, and then taken to the demarcation line and "deported" with the prohibition of the entry to the territory of the Russian Federation for 50 years. There is also a practice of extrajudicial executions.

The case of the Barchuk family falls under the definition of political prisoners. In this way, it is typical for the occupied territories."

Artem Barchuk, "We are a big family, and we always help each other"

We met with 62-year-old Artem Barchuk in one of the Kyiv bowling clubs where he trains several times a week. Before the full-scale invasion, Artem headed the Sports Bowling Federation in Kherson. "This is a strong sports family," he says. "While we were in prison, they helped us, including with money." At the same time, the man adds, in one of the places of detention there was a man among the guards, whom Artem recognized as a player from Kherson. "He was from the amateur league, that collaborator," Barchuk smiles.

In Kherson, Artem had a family business — the Barchuks were selling tableware for restaurants and cafes. However, after the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the family had to quit the business. "The Russians came to Kherson just in a few days after the start of the great war, so we did not even have time to think what to do," the man says. "We bought food, medicines and moved with Lidia (Lidia Podozerska is Artem’s wife — ed.) to a country house on the bank of the Dnieper, it was quieter there."

Artem recalls how the people of Kherson went to rallies against the occupiers, "The Russians had confused faces because they came to liberate the local population and met such a resistance!" He says that at first, Russians behaved more or less normally, but then it changed. They began to disperse rallies, searched houses. People began to disappear in the city. Female and male screams could be heard from "Stekliashka" (an improvised detention center at the wholesale base in the northeast of the city), where the occupiers organized a torture chamber.

"After one of the rallies, the Russians arrested our friend, a veteran of the anti-terrorist operation, and took him somewhere. A few days later, he returned crippled and demoralized. The man was broken. He had experienced terrible torture," says Artem.

Before talking about the year in captivity, the man clarifies, "We are a large and friendly family. In addition, we have friends with whom we have been in touch for 40 years and they are already part of our family. Without their support, it would have been more difficult for us to survive imprisonment."

Serhii Barchuk, "They were strangling me with the shoelace of my own sneaker"

35-year-old Serhii Barchuk worked as the deputy head of the Main Branch of the Pension Fund in Kherson region. After the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the majority of the office workers managed to leave the city. Serhii stayed, joined the Territorial Defense, and got a gun.

"Soon, the Territorial Defense was dismissed, I asked my father to hide my gun and returned to work, because it gave me the feeling that I was in control of something. At that time, our office was functioning due to the people who had left. However, I found what to do. I helped the people of Kherson with issues regarding the Ukrainian pension. We decided with the management that I would try to hide the computers so that the Russians would not reach them," says Serhii.

He decided to hide the computers in the apartment of his father’s wife. Lidia approved the idea: no one lived in the apartment, and it was 300 meters from Serhii’s office so it was convenient to carry the computers there.

"The Russians captured the first building of our office on June 30, and the second one was taken on July 15. By that time, I had already removed some of the equipment, some of it had even been taken out of the occupation by people who were leaving,” says Serhii. "I realized that I was taking a risk. In the streets, armed people did whatever they wanted to do. They robbed, took Kherson residents to the torture chambers. We all knew what they were doing to people there."

On July 17, Serhii was ambushed in the office, "Two men in khaki civilian clothes jumped at me. I tried to run away, but one of them pointed a gun at me. They twisted my arms, took me into the building and threw me on the floor."

The Barchuks case: the story of a family that spent 13 months in prison in the occupied part of Kherson region
35-year-old Serhii Barchuk was arrested by the Russians near the Pension Fund building. The man worked as the deputy head of the Main Branch of the Pension Fund in Kherson region. He helped local people to receive the Ukrainian pension, removed computers from the office and deleted data. Illustration by Inga Levi

Then Serhii was taken to the police department of the Kherson Dnipro district. "Three people interrogated me there; two were in masks and military uniforms and one in civilian clothes and with an open face. They asked who I was, what my job was, what I was doing in the Pension Fund building, where I had hid the equipment. Then one of the men began to strangle me with the shoelace of my own sneaker. They asked a question and immediately beat me, then strangled me with the shoelace until it tore, then strangled me with hands. They strangled me about ten times and landed a hundred punches," Barchuk recalls. He says that they put a gun to his knees, and then said that they would torture his mother in front of him. Then he told them where the equipment was.

Serhii was put in a cell for one person, but there were several people there. "I was not afraid for myself; I just hoped that the family would not do anything risky. However, they already started helping me," the man sighs.

Lidia Podozerska, "I heard a groan from the car trunk, Serhii was there"

On July 18, Artem Barchuk received a message from his ex-wife Nelia, Serhii’s mother, "Our son has disappeared." He went to Lidia’s apartment. Everything was in place on the balcony — there were 20-30 computers in boxes there. Personal things were also in their places. However, they could not get in touch with Serhii.

The Barchuks case: the story of a family that spent 13 months in prison in the occupied part of Kherson region
Artem got to know about the disappearance of his son from his ex-wife’s message. Serhii had not been in touch for two days. Illustration by Inga Levi

Artem realized that the Russians had captured his son. Together with Lidia, his brother Oleksii and family friend Oleh Samotoi, they decided to move the computers to another place. They drove the car to the building and started loading the boxes. Artem left earlier to continue the search for his son. When Lidia, Oleksii and Oleh went to the apartment to collect the remains of the equipment, armed men ran down from the upper floor. "They pushed us into the apartment," Lidia tells. "Two more men from the FSB came. They took us to the balcony one by one and asked us various questions. Then they brought Serhii into the apartment and put him face to the wall, he was handcuffed. He was also interrogated."

After that, Lidia was put in the car with a driver and an armed man. She managed to write a message to Artem that they had been arrested. Oleksii and Oleh were taken away in another car.

"I wrote to my husband to be careful, to delete data from the phone, and asked to save my dog ​​Tiavka because I was afraid that the dog would be shot [by Russians] in case of a search," Lidia recalls. “Then I heard a groan from the car trunk. Serhii was there."

The Barchuks case: the story of a family that spent 13 months in prison in the occupied part of Kherson region
Lidia, who was arrested in her own apartment and taken to the Dnipro district police department, secretly sent a message to her husband Artem Barchuk. Illustration by Inga Levi

Meanwhile, the occupiers came to the Barchuks’ country house to arrest Artem. "They put on handcuffs, and hit me on my ribs with the rifle butt. I could not breathe for a moment and fell down. They intimidated me, shouted. They provoked me. They asked me if I knew that they were at war with America here. I kept silent. Then they searched the house and the outbuilding. Serhii’s gun was hidden there. Miraculously, they did not find it. During the next search a few months later, they did not find it either. We were just lucky," says Artem.

Kherson: two months in the corridor, kitten Lidochka, and secret notes in the salad

Finally, Artem, Oleksii, Oleh, and Lidia were brought to the same Dnipro district police department where Serhii had been brought earlier. Artem was put in solitary confinement. "There was no water there, there was a terrible stench of urine, heat, and it was stuffy there," he recalls. Later, Oleksii and Oleh were brought to Artem. Serhii was kept in the next cell, and they could communicate.

Lidia spent two months in the corridor between the cells and the guard’s post. Sometimes she was allowed to go out to take some water and give it to the prisoners in their cells. In the evening, the woman was given a mattress. "For the first three months, we were not fed. Natalia, Oleksii’s wife, brought us food," Lidia says.

Natalia Barchuk also brought news in secret notes, which she twisted into small balls, wrapped in plastic and hid in salads. So that relatives knew exactly where to look for the notes, they agreed that they would be in dishes with greens. Artem says that they used to convey news from the prison in the same way — they hid twisted notes in the plastic bags in which they gave dishes back. "Natalia was our guardian angel, she always found us when we were transferred to other places, she found an opportunity to hand over things and food, then she even moved to the occupied Left Bank when we were brought there," recalls Artem.

The man was worried about his wife and tried to support her even in those conditions. He wrote short funny poems about Lidochka, the kitten, and pushed them under the door to his wife. "He also wrote about love," Lidia smiles. "He wrote a poem for my anniversary, I celebrated my 60th birthday in prison. Natalia managed to bring me a box of candies; I hid it to give to my husband on his birthday. However, it was taken from me [by Russians]."

Later, the Barchuks and Oleh Samotoi were informed that they were being prosecuted under Article 158 Part 4 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation — "larceny committed by an organized group on a particularly large scale". They faced up to 10 years in prison. However, when the district police department began to prepare for evacuation because the Ukrainian army was approaching Kherson, they hoped that they would be released. Instead, the occupiers transported the prisoners to the left bank of the Dnipro.

The Barchuks case: the story of a family that spent 13 months in prison in the occupied part of Kherson region
Artem was kept in a cell, and his wife Lidia was kept in the corridor on a chair. The man was worried about his wife and tried to support her even in those conditions. He wrote short funny poems about Lidochka, the kitten, and pushed them under the door to his wife. Illustration by Inga Levi

"Why do you need pensioners?"

Serhii Barchuk was transferred to the detention center on Perekopska Street. He was immediately beaten there, with the explanation that was just "in case". Then he was taken to Crimea to pre-trial detention center No. 2. The rest of the Barchuk family and Oleh Samotoi were first transported to the town of Perekopsk, and then to the left bank of Kherson region. "I was shocked," says Artem. "Why do you need pensioners? Why are you taking us across the Dnipro along with the army personnel? It would have been easier to let us go. But they did not."

Lidia recalls that they were transported by ferry, because the Antonivskyi bridge over the Dnipro, which connects Kherson with the left bank, had already been damaged, "We were in cages, I kept thinking that something would suddenly hit the ferry, and we would not be able to escape."

First, they were taken to the detention center in Oleshky. Then, Lidia was sent to the police department in Chaplynka, and the men were sent to Kalanchak. "They forced us to learn the Russian national anthem there. They gave us three days. Those who did not sing were beaten and hit with electro shock," says Artem.

The Barchuks case: the story of a family that spent 13 months in prison in the occupied part of Kherson region
In the detention center in Kalanchak, where all the men of the Barchuk family were brought, they were forced to learn the Russian national anthem. Those who sang it “badly” were hit with electro shock. Illustration by Inga Levi

Later, they were all transferred to the Chonhar pre-trial detention center, which the Russians built after the occupation of part of Kherson region, so the Barchuks were among the first to get there. "That was a concentration camp," recalls Artem. "They used us to develop the technique of dealing with detainees."

People, who were brought there, were forced to undress, ordered to run and squat, some of their belongings were taken away. The Barchuks heard how other detainees were being beaten and they were screaming. The Barchuks were not beaten though. "Probably because we are pensioners," Artem believes. "And we did not resist."

In the Chonhar pre-trial detention center, there was a list of prohibitions, which was updated daily. For example, it was not allowed to lie on the bunks during the day. Then, it was forbidden to sit leaning against the wall, then — to sit on the bunks with the legs — the legs had to be hanging down. "We were not allowed to exercise, we were not allowed to laugh; there was video surveillance and eavesdropping in the cells. Once a man was beaten because the guards thought he was talking too loudly. He was beaten so hard that at night, white liquid came out of his mouth; he lost consciousness and they had to call for an ambulance. Another person was beaten for solving the crossword out loud," Artem tells.

The man also recalls other cases when, for example, a towel was dried in the cell "in the wrong way" or "in the wrong place" or the guards saw on a prisoner’s sweater a string that "should not be there". "Then the punitive team broke in, took out the prisoner with punches into the corridor, put him in the "shot fighter pose" — with arms stretched back, spread legs and facing the wall. If someone did not spread his legs wide enough, he was beaten. It was difficult to stand because the floor was slippery. When we returned to the cell, we were beaten with sticks."

The Barchuks case: the story of a family that spent 13 months in prison in the occupied part of Kherson region
The Russians tortured detained civilians in various ways. One of them was electro shock. Illustration by Inga Levi

Oleh Samotoi, "They stole a year of our lives"

Lidia also says that the pre-trial detention center in Chonhar was the worst place from those where they were kept. Different women were kept there, she says, some were detained because their husband or son served in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, some were accused of pinpointing fire or sabotage. "Mostly these were women from local villages." In addition to talking to each other, Lidia says, the prisoners could read — there were two books in the cell: the Gospel and Dale Carnegie’s book on making friends.

"It was difficult for me to bear the fact that it was not known when we would be released," says Lidia. "I had a notebook, in which I drew squares and crossed one out every day. It was easier that way."

Later, Natalia found them in Chonhar. She started bringing things and medicines. At that time, the Barchuks and Oleh Samotoi already had an advocate, and then their friends hired another one – Vitaliy Geraskin, who had just received the position of the president of the "Bar Association of the Russian Federation" in the occupied part of Kherson region. He managed to negotiate with the occupiers’ "prosecutor general" to have the prisoners’ article changed to "appropriation of someone else’s property entrusted to the guilty". That article allowed closing the case by the agreement of the parties. The "prosecutor general" announced the price — 2.5 million rubles (about 750 thousand hryvnias).

The Barchuks case: the story of a family that spent 13 months in prison in the occupied part of Kherson region
Lidia drew a calendar in the notebook and crossed out each day of captivity. The Barchuk family was held in different detention centers for more than a year. Illustration by Inga Levi

"We borrowed the money from relatives and friends,” Artem recalls. First, they released Lidia, Oleh, and me under house arrest. Natalia rented a house in Chonhar; we were waiting for Serhii and Oleksii there. When we all finally met, we had to wait for the documents to be returned to us. And then we left."

Serhii came back to the Ukraine-controlled territory via the "Kolotylivka – Pokrovka" checkpoint; he immediately went to Kherson and returned to work. Others left for Europe. Later, Artem and Lidia returned to Ukraine.

In total, the Barchuk family and Oleh Samotoi spent a year in prison (while Serhii and Oleksii spent 13 months each). "They stole a year of our lives," says Oleh.

"This is a colossal life experience, because internal transformation occurs only when we pass ordeals. We passed them with dignity. We came out even stronger and now we understand life and freedom even better. And we also understand how lucky we are to have such a family and friends," Artem says.

The Barchuks case: the story of a family that spent 13 months in prison in the occupied part of Kherson region
Serhii, his father Artem with his wife Lidia, uncle Oleksii and family friend Oleh in the house in Chonhar, which Oleksii’s wife rented for them. The family gathered there after the release from the captivity. Illustration by Inga Levi

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