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AP’s on-the-ground investigation in Ukraine uncovers Russia’s torture sites — and survivors

Andriy Kotsar, who was captured and tortured three times by Russian soldiers, sits at a table after a service at Pishchanskyi church in the recently liberated town of Izium, Ukraine, Sept. 21, 2022. An AP investigation found that Russian torture in Izium was arbitrary, widespread and absolutely routine, extending to both civilians and soldiers throughout the city. (AP Photo / Evgeniy Maloletka)

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The signs of torture were everywhere. But AP’s team had no idea exactly what they would find when a relative of video journalist Vasilisa Stepanenko recommended a visit to a monastery in recently liberated Izium, Ukraine.

There, Stepanenko and colleagues — Paris-based investigative correspondent Lori Hinnant and Ukraine photographer Evgeniy Maloletka — found a former Ukrainian soldier in hiding after being tortured three times by occupying Russian forces. His disturbing tale supplied the narrative for an exclusive investigation that uncovered 10 torture sites — including one in a kindergarten.

The journalists spoke to 15 survivors of Russian torture in the Kharkiv region and two families whose loved ones had disappeared, and confirmed eight men — all but one civilians — were killed under torture in Russian custody. At a mass grave site in the Izium woods,at least 30 of more than 440 bodies bore visible evidence of torture and some of the exhumed had bound wrists.

The reporting revealed arbitrary,widespread,routine torture of civilians and soldiers alike in Izium, which served as a hub for Russian soldiers for nearly seven months. Ukraine recaptured the city in mid-September.

Along with locating the torture sites,the AP gained access to five, arriving before even war crimes investigators. One was viscerally described in the reporting as a deep sunless pit in a residential compound with dates carved in the brick wall; another as a clammy underground jail that reeked of urine and rotting food.

The all-formats package immediately resonated,used widely by AP members and customers. The video,edited by multiformat journalist Allen Breed,had 145,000 views on Twitter alone,while the striking presentation by photo editor Alyssa Goodman kept readers riveted. Readers called the coverage harrowing, and U.S. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio called it horrifying.

But the biggest impact was likely on Andriy Kotsar.

Kotsar,the former soldier staying among monks he credits with saving him,was thought dead. The Russians had confiscated the 26-year-old’s identity documents and he was accordingly terrified to go anywhere,with no way to contact loved ones. The AP verified his identity,contacted Ukrainian officials to get him new identity papers and was there when he made his first phone call to tell friends and family he was indeed “alive and in one piece.” For the first time in days,he had a real smile on his face.

For a gritty,deeply reported all-formats investigation that made an impact,exposing evidence of Russian war crimes and the human consequences,Hinnant, Stepanenko and Maloletka earn AP’s Best of the Week — First Winner honors.

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