Torture, deportation and death: The stories bearing witness to the horrors of Mariupol

The Ukrainian port city of Mariupol is unrecognisable after weeks of endless bombardment, with thousands of civilians killed or injured as a result of Vladimir Putin's brutal invasion, reports ITV News Global Security Editor Rohit Kachroo. ITV News has spoken to three survivors who barely made it out alive and recounted the brutality they and their loved ones faced.

By Jonathan Wald, Jenny Klochko and Allegra Goodwin

In Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, no battle has been as destructive as the siege of Mariupol.

The southern port city has become a symbol of the horrors of Russia’s aggression, with at least 20,000 civilians believed to have died there as of April 14, a number that is expected to have risen significantly.

What began as a city of more than 400,000 has been hollowed out since the invasion began on February 24, when Russian forces launched their assault, obliterating its infrastructure and leaving its residents without water, food, heating, electricity, or ways to communicate to the outside world.

After the last international journalists were forced to flee Mariupol, and with patchy communications limited to those trapped in the Azovstal Steelworks, information about the true scale of the terrors unleashed in the city has been slow to emerge.

ITV News has spoken to three people about their experiences of trying to leave Mariupol: those who were tortured, those whose loved ones were killed, and those deported to Russia itself.

They represent the Mariupol diaspora - those who have spread out far and wide into different countries as the shock waves of the siege continue to reverberate.

Tortured: Hussein Abdullayev from Azerbaijan

For Hussein Abdullayev, the darkest days of the invasion came when Russian forces tortured him with electric shocks, refusing to stop until he fainted.

Hussein Abdullayev now has heart issues, doctors have told him, because of the electric shocks.

The 20-year-old from Azerbaijan is a third-year medical student at Mariupol State University. He is one of the 76,548 international students from 155 nations enrolled at universities across Ukraine.

When the war broke out, he stayed behind in the city to help civilians, moving hundreds of people to a shelter in a drama theatre that was later bombed on March 16, killing an estimated 600 people.

But on March 17, Hussein was taken prisoner by the Russian military.

The student was trying to leave the city when the car he was travelling in was stopped by Russian servicemen.

“They told us to undress to look for tattoos. My friend and I were ‘clean’, but our driver had a scorpion tattoo on his leg, and they shouted at him,” he said.

Hussein stood in his underwear in the freezing cold while the soldiers demanded to know who he was.

“I showed them my student ID, but they didn’t believe me.”

A group of Russian soldiers wearing black masks then appeared in a truck. Hussein’s hands were tied together, and he was blindfolded and pushed inside the truck, which drove to a detention centre in Berdyansk.

He said he was arrested because the soldiers believed the men were part of the Azov regiment of Ukrainian soldiers, who are known for their identifying tattoos.

Chechen soldiers were waiting at the detention centre when Hussein arrived. He said they took him to a “torture room.”

Hussein Abdullayev recounts his ordeal in the torture chamber

“They again told me to undress, then they sat me naked on a chair. They tied my hands from behind. They asked me again the same accusations like, ‘you are a soldier, you are from Azov.’ I showed again my student ID but they never believed I was a student.

“There was a Russian soldier on one side and a Chechen soldier on the other side. Suddenly the Russian soldier hit my chest with his foot. They started to beat me brutally.

“They said ‘tell the truth.’ I said, ‘I’m telling the truth I am a student.’”

Then, Hussein says, they began to give him electric shocks.

“They kept asking me if I was going to tell the truth, beating me all over my body at the same time. I was persistent enough to keep saying I was a student, but then they started to raise the current level and I fainted.

“They told me they would set me free if I confessed I was a soldier.”

Hussein felt like he had no choice. He told his captors what they wanted to hear.

“I said I was fighting because I believed they would let me go. I wish I hadn’t them told that. They went on to beat me with all their force.

“I was nearly unconscious when a Russian soldier put a gun to my head and said, ‘you are going to die.’”

The soldier didn’t murder Hussein, but the student said Azov fighters in the detention centre were killed in the torture room.

“I know that because I heard a dreadful screaming, and then I heard three gunshots, bang, bang, bang.”

The 20-year-old was released after 25 days, an act of charity from his Chechen captor towards a fellow Muslim, who told Hussein’s friend over the phone: “Now is Ramadan. That’s why I want to let him go.”

He was tortured on 15 of those 25 days. Doctors have told him he has a heart problem as a result of the electric shocks.

Hussein is now back home in Azerbaijan. The fates of most of his friends from the university are unknown.

Despite everything, the medical student says he wants to go back to Mariupol to complete his studies.

But there is nothing left.

Deported to Russia: Victor Soroka

When Victor Soroka boarded a bus to be evacuated from Mariupol on March 18, he hoped it would be to safety.

The 26-year-old ear, nose and throat doctor had spent weeks working at a hospital, helping the wounded and the dying as Russian troops razed the city to the ground around him.

Victor Soroka is needed more than ever.

Russian fighters seized the hospital on March 12, and the doctor had to treat his patients, including injured Russian soldiers themselves, “under the barrel of a gun.”

Soon after the Russians took over, the situation became so perilous that Victor and his mother felt compelled to leave.

But he was only given one realistic way out of Ukraine: Russia. Victor is one of 500,000 Ukrainians estimated to have been forcibly deported to Russian soil since the bombardment began on February 24.

Victor is from a Mariupol district called the Left Bank. It was one of the first to be shelled by Russian forces.

He sheltered in the basement with his mother, also an ear, nose and throat doctor. But as soon as there was a gap in the relentless bombardment, they left for the hospital where Victor worked.

“I couldn’t stay in the shelter anymore knowing there could be someone who needs help and we just sat there,” he said.

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Among those patients in the hospital were pregnant women and new mothers brought from the maternity hospital that was bombed on March 9, killing at least three people, a mother and her unborn baby among them.

“There was a whole corridor of small babies and women with those big bellies. On that day there were three deliveries, two boys and one girl were born. On the next day, there were more,” Victor said.

“In the next room, there were women after delivery with newborns and they were constantly crying and it was so terrible, really. It was cold, no water, no food,” he said, adding a lot of the mothers were unable to produce breast milk after their ordeal.

The hospital ward where Dr Soroka worked.

Once Victor and his mother fled the hospital, they were taken to a ‘filtration centre’ in Volodarsk, a settlement controlled by Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk People’s Republic.

There they were given three choices: stay there under the threat of death from Russian soldiers, pay around 20,000 Ukrainian hryvnia (around £535) to travel to Zaporizhzhia in the east, where the soldiers implied certain death awaited them, or to go to Russia, where they were promised a job, a passport, and 10,000 roubles (around £116).

This was no choice at all, and Victor and his mother boarded the bus to Russia with around 60 other people fleeing Mariupol.

At the other side of the border, a train was waiting to take the busloads of Ukrainians deeper into Russia. They were handed Russian flags by cheering volunteers, but nobody would tell them what was going to happen to them.

Then on the train, a member of staff chillingly told them: “We have been waiting for you.”

“We thought you would be coming here much earlier,” they said.

Victor realised everything had been part of a sinister plan - the buses, the train, the staff tasked with accompanying the people who would be taken from Ukraine to Russia had all been premeditated.

Victor Soroka talks about life in the Russian camp

When they got off the train in the city of Tula, the doctor and his mother were taken to a camp, where their passports were taken away.

Russian soldiers interrogated them about the maternity hospital and drama theatre bombings and tried to get them to confirm it was Ukraine that had carried out the attacks.

Those in the camp were offered low-paid jobs in a chemical factory earning £400 a month. Some accepted as they had no other choice – the only way Ukrainians were allowed to leave the camp was if they had relatives from Russia or neighbouring Belarus who could come to collect them.

Victor and his mother were extremely fortunate to have family in Belarus who were able to come to the camp and bring them to Minsk after four days.

On April 1, after their month-long ordeal, they travelled on to Poland, where Victor is now treating patients again at a hospital in the city of Szczecin.

He is planning to return to Ukraine when he can.

Killed: Dima and Timur Plotnikov, father and son

Iryna Plotnikova was forced to watch her 14-year-old son Timur burn to death in front of her as they escaped Mariupol.

She was hiding in a freezing basement in the besieged city until mid-March with Timur, her ex-husband Dima and his parents.

The last photo taken of Dima Plotnikov and his 14 year old son Timur together

As unrelenting shelling destroyed the city’s infrastructure, the family, cut off from the water supply, had to melt snow for drinking and cooking.

As soon as an evacuation corridor opened on March 21, they got into their car and fled.

But the car got stuck.

What happened next is unclear. At first the family thought a car which was moving in the opposite direction had driven over a landmine. Now, they believe civilians fleeing Mariupol were the victims of a deliberate shelling by Russians.

What is known is that one of the cars exploded, bursting into flames.

Timur and his 41-year-old father Dima were pinned down under that car. Dima died instantly, but Timur was burning alive.

“He was on fire, he was screaming, he was trying to reach me,” Iryna recalled.

“I grabbed his arm to pull him out, but he was pinned down. That’s when I realised I couldn’t get him out, and even if I could, he would be condemned to a life of suffering.

“I stopped and watched as he was screaming. I was praying to the Lord, so my son could go to sleep faster, so he would not have to feel what he was feeling.”

Iryna Plotnikova prayed her son's pain would end

Iryna said she hopes the people who caused Timur and Dima’s deaths will be punished.

“With my whole heart, I hope that the people that are responsible are punished in the cruellest way, if not by justice, then by God.

“For our suffering, for the suffering our son had to experience in the last moments of his life. He did not get to fulfil his plans in life, as it was cut short, so I believe they will be punished.”

Dima’s mother, Lyudmyla, said of her son and grandson: “They loved each other so much. They could not live without each other. Maybe that’s why they left us together.”

The family does not know where Timur and Dima are buried. Iryna walked the halls of the local morgue trying to find them, eventually learning they were mistakenly identified as the children of a man in a different car who also died in the explosion.

She was told unofficially that they are buried in a graveyard in the village of Manhush, just outside the city.

“When the war is over, when it is safe, we will need to go to the local morgue and give our DNA to confirm the relationship, so we can properly give them to the ground,” she said.

Russian soldiers took the family to a hospital in Russian-controlled territory after the tragedy unfolded. Iryna had severe burns on her hands and face from trying to save her son, and Dima’s father, Victor, needed an operation as he was seriously injured.

When they were discharged, they fled to Lithuania. They say they will go home as soon as the war is over, though it won’t be to Mariupol.

“We do not care about the city really, but it has to be Ukrainian land,” Iryna said.

“I was born in the east of the country, but I don’t care which part I live in now. It just has to be Ukraine.”