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Survivors of Russia’s occupation of parts of Ukraine told the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the atrocities they had endured — including torture, mock execution and the forced separation of children — in powerful detail on Wednesday, at a hearing intended to keep the spotlight on Russian war crimes.
“In January of this year, they came for me,” recounted a 57-year-old accountant from the Kherson region, who said she survived five days in a Russian torture chamber in which she was physically and psychologically abused.
The woman’s full name was not disclosed for her safety, and her face was not shown on camera. As she told her story with the help of an interpreter, some members of the House committee grew visibly emotional.
While in the torture chamber, she said she was made to undress, was cut with a knife, endured beatings and faced threats of rape and death, as well as a mock execution.
Russian soldiers “forced me to dig my own grave,” the woman recalled. They took her to a field, beat her, and fired a handgun next to her head, “as if executing me,” she said.
The woman said she was eventually able to escape into Ukrainian-held territory, and later to the United States, where her daughter is a citizen.
The testimony of a second survivor, a 16-year-old boy named Roman, was delivered by a Ukrainian lawyer while he remained in an adjacent room to protect his identity.
Roman, an orphan, was attending a vocational boarding school in the Donetsk region of Ukraine’s east when Russia invaded on Feb. 24, 2022, the lawyer, Kateryna Bobrovska, said.
Roman and other students faced repeated intimidation by Russian troops. At one point, the turret of an armored vehicle was pointed at them, Ms. Bobrovska said. Roman “understood he could not exist in those conditions,” she said.
He walked 37 miles in the winter conditions to his hometown, she said, at times sleeping outdoors and begging for food from local residents.
But the Russian occupation had reached Roman’s hometown by the time he arrived. Despite his pleas to stay with his siblings, Roman was issued a new birth certificate, and in May was sent to Russia. Ms. Bobrovska said he and other Ukrainian children were visited by Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, who informed them that they would be adopted.
“They tried to reshape his mind,” Ms. Bobrovska told the House committee, saying the boy was forcibly featured in Russian propaganda on television and made to say he liked his new family and his new life, she said.
Roman eventually managed to return to Ukraine with the help of volunteers, Ms. Bobrovska said, but she did not detail how, citing safety concerns.
Russia’s forcible relocation of thousands of Ukrainian children like Roman was the basis for arrest warrants issued by the International Criminal Court last month for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Ms. Lvova-Belova on accusations of war crimes. The Kremlin has claimed the relocations were for humanitarian reasons.
The prosecutor general of Ukraine, Andriy Kostin, addressed the Republican-led House committee after the survivors’ testimony to urge increased international pressure on Russia to return the children.
He argued that the consequences of Russia’s aggression went far beyond Ukraine, saying, “It is a global war.” And he called out “countries of the global South and others who still try to be neutral or still try to shake hands with Putin and his regime,” referring to nations like India, South Africa and Brazil that have tried to walk a diplomatic tightrope between Russia and the West.
Mr. Kostin met with several U.S. officials in Washington this week, including Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, who announced on Monday that the Justice Department would appoint a prosecutor and legal adviser to help Ukraine prosecute potential Russian war crimes.
“We will do everything we can to help Ukraine achieve justice for its people,” Mr. Garland said.