Odesa, Ukraine – It was late August, more than six months after Russian forces rolled into the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson.
A Russian investigator told Liliya Pshenichnaya, a single mother to a teenage girl, to sign a protocol stating that she was charged with “espionage”.
She faced up to 20 years in jail and would serve her sentence 500km (310 miles) northeast of her hometown of Kherson, in separatist-held Donetsk, the investigator said.
“I told him, ‘How can I sign it? I don’t consider myself guilty,’” Pshenichnaya, a bespectacled 58-year-old tailor hair told Al Jazeera.
The investigator asked her to simply write down that she “read the protocol”.
Four months earlier, Pshenichnaya managed to send her 15-year-old daughter Alina to the Kyiv-controlled Black Sea port of Odesa.
In mid-July, four gun-toting Russian soldiers blindfolded and took Pshenichnaya to a pre-trial detention centre following a search at an evangelical church near her 16-storey apartment building.
At the church, Pshenichnaya said she helped distribute parcels with medical drugs delivered from Kyiv-controlled areas and looked after children from an orphanage displaced by the invasion.
She never got any explanation as to why she had been detained, nor did she see any evidence detailing the alleged “espionage”.
She said the longest interrogation was “about nothing”. Two Russian officers asked about her hairstyle and were curious whether female parishioners in her church had to wear long skirts and cover their hair.
They assured her she would be released “within days”.
She was not.
Just like most of the women Pshenichnaya bunked with in the detention centre, she was not a political activist, public servant, servicewoman or a law enforcement officer.
She did not send Google-pins with the whereabouts of Russian garrisons or arms depots to Ukrainian forces. Nor did she take part in the assassination of Moscow-appointed officials.
Most of the women she shared the cell with were rounded up randomly and faced charges that observers have said could not hold water even within the judicial standards Moscow transplanted to occupied Ukrainian areas.
Some were released soon – a realtor who kept having panic attacks, and an apolitical woman rounded up in a restaurant, Pshenichnaya said.
Some also faced “espionage charges” – like a frightened 16-year-old girl who was rounded up while taking selfies on a park bench.
Another woman was driving her cancer-stricken mother from a hospital and stopped the car next to a train carrying tanks and ammunition.
Drunken Russian soldiers asked her to buy them mineral water. She did not have cash – and they reported her as a “spy”, Pshenichnaya said.
A 72-year-old shepherd taking cattle home was reportedly accused of planting trackers on Russian vehicles.
“They can jail you and forget,” Pshenichnaya said in Odesa, where she relocated after Kherson’s liberation last November. “I didn’t know how to behave, how to remind them about me.”
A Kyiv-based analyst said that “99 percent” of detained Ukrainians were held arbitrarily.
“Russians didn’t have primary information and never managed to create their own law enforcement network,” Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.
He compared the practice to the Oprichniki, an unbridled militia established by Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible that grabbed people at whim to extract confessions in the wrongdoings they had never committed.
“If someone incriminates themselves under torture, then they are potentially guilty,” Kushch said.
The practice dates back to 2014, when Moscow-backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk herded hundreds of people to makeshift concentration camps known as “basements”.
“Detained for minor or imaginary transgressions, they were kept for months and used for forced labour or sexual violence,” Nikolay Mitrokhin, historian with Germany’s Bremen University, told Al Jazeera.
The separatists forced the detainees to dig trenches near the front lines – and tried to “sell” them to relatives or friends for a ransom.
The detainees had no access to lawyers, were held incommunicado, tortured and electrocuted, survivors said.
The torture “goes on for hours, you lose the sense of time, and the most horrible thing is that you can’t stop it,” Ihor Kozlovsky, a religious scholar accused of “espionage, told Al Jazeera in 2021.
Many were sentenced to death in accordance with the Stalinist-era “constitution” adopted by the separatist statelets.
The practice was imported to the Ukrainian areas Russia occupied last year, Mitrokhin said.
The occupants were rightfully afraid of underground Ukrainian agents, but cast their nets too wide.
Media Initiative for Human Rights, a Ukrainian rights group, said in mid-April that it identified almost a thousand civilians that are held in more than 100 locations in the occupied areas and Russia.
The real number is much higher, it said.
Threats and torture
During her 60-day-long detention, Pshenichnaya often felt desperate and forgotten.
The pastor and parishioners from her church were too scared to look for her, let alone petition for her release.
Her neighbour sent her a parcel with freshly fried pies, cutlets, nail clippers, and a mirror, but the guards took everything, she said.
Even though all the women jailed with Pshenichnaya were pro-Ukrainian, very few had done something truly detrimental to the occupants.
They were frequently interrogated, threatened and tortured.
There was a school head teacher who refused to teach according to a Russian curriculum and a police officer who kept her service weapon after refusing to collaborate with the Russian-appointed “administration”.
Another police officer was covered in bruises and kept fainting after each interrogation, Pschenichnya said.
The interrogators told the officer they would “dismember” her eight-year-old daughter and hand the mother “a piece a day”.
Fortunately, the child’s grandmother managed to get her out of Kherson, Pshenichnaya said.
But after Russians retreated from the city in November, they took many detainees with them, including the officer.
Captured civilians are routinely relocated to annexed Crimea or Russia, as far as the eastern Siberian city of Irkutsk, according to Media Initiative for Human Rights.
It said Moscow refuses to provide information about these civilians and grants no access to them to rights groups or international monitors.
And while Ukrainian prisoners of war are listed and regularly swapped, getting captured civilians returned has been much harder than, the group said.
“We really doubt that Russia will return the civilians,” the group’s Anastasiya Panteleyeva of told a news conference in mid-April.
Pshenichnaya thought of herself as lucky.
A Russian intelligence officer who interrogated her in April took a shine to her and secured her release in mid-October.
Once in her apartment, she was afraid to leave. She did not get her phone back and lost touch with most of the people she knew.
Only after Kherson’s liberation in November did she leave for Odesa, with a sewing machine and Feya [Fairy], a cat her daughter had rescued.
She longed to return home, but the city has been constantly shelled amid blackouts and shortages.
She felt powerless about changing her fortunes.
“You have to passively wait for something to be sorted out, and you can’t take part in it,” she said.
But despite frequent shelling, Odesa felt safe.
“Here, it’s just a shame to complain,” Pshenichnaya said, before returning home to her daughter who is getting ready to graduate from high school and take university exams.
She wants to study web design.
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