Geolocation of a torture chamber in Balakliya, Ukraine

Warning: Please be aware that, as the title indicate, this blog entry will cover the topic of torture. The focus will be on the geolocation of the building but I felt a warning was necessary. I will share a photo of the alleged torture chamber, and a video which will include an interview with a victim. The person appears to be safe and visibly unharmed at the time of the interview but proceed with caution if you find this type of content distressing.


Introduction

With the retreat of the Russian troops from Kharkiv Oblast in the second week of September, several occupied towns and villages were liberated. Similarly to what happened in Bucha, this resulted in the discovery of evidence left behind of the atrocities committed at the hands of the occupiers. According to a statement by Zelensky, the Ukrainian President, published on September 17, “more than ten torture chambers have already been found in the liberated areas of Kharkiv region”.
Balakliya (Балаклія), a town located between Izyum and Kharkiv, that had been conquered by the Russian forces on March 3, and retaken by the Ukrainian military on September 9, was amongst them.


The Torture Chamber

On September 13, a photo of the inside of the alleged torture chamber in Balakliya was shared on Twitter. The image shows some text carved on the wall, and what it looks like a structure with two beds in a dark lit room.
In case Twitter goes down and the image below doesn’t show up, here is a screenshot and the archived tweet.

The Ukrainian Minister of Defence claimed on the following day that the text on the wall was a prayer but, as always, it is important to double check everything. As I can’t read Cyrillic I used Google Lens to help me out. I quickly screenshot the text from the tweet and dragged it to Google Images. Afterwards Google Lens just kicks in and you are given a few options underneath the image. You can either select “Text” to read the writings in the original language, or you can select “Translate” to have it translated to a language you understand. As you can see from the translation below, it struggled a bit but managed to do a pretty good job.

Google Lens translation of the writings on the wall of the alleged torture chamber in Balakliya.

Although it seems clear that this is the Lord’s Prayer, we can quickly do a triple check. For that you can click the “Text” option, then the “select all text”, and check the Google search results. The first result leads to a bible website with the prayer in Russian. It claims this passage is from Matthew 6:9-13 which is, as predicted, the Lord’s Prayer.
It is not clear whether or not the text was there before the invasion, however, it is claimed by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence that it was “carved on the wall by Ukrainian prisoners“.


Gathering Additional Information

As you may guess, geolocating a dark room would be a pretty hard task. In such cases you will need to dig for more information to get additional evidence that can help with the task at hand.
For that I went to Google Images and searched for “Balakliya torture chamber”. I was hoping to spot images of the same room from a different angle and, with a bit of luck, more information about the location. I immediately noticed a similar photo with much better lighting where you can see the same wall with the prayer. The link leads to an article by The Guardian published on September 14, entitled “Ukraine’s officials claim to have discovered ‘torture chamber’ used by Russian troops“. We are on the right track!

Google image results for “Balakliya torture chamber”.

The news article mentioned how one of the town’s resident talked to the BBC about this torture chamber. The text contained a link to the BBC article, as seen below, so I followed it.

Excerpt of the Guardian article entitled “Ukraine’s officials claim to have discovered ‘torture chamber’ used by Russian troops”.

The BBC article itself did not have any useful images that could help me geolocate this torture chamber however, it had enough information for me to keep digging. The article provided some extra keywords and details that, until now, I did not have. For example, now I had the name of the news correspondent that went to the town of Balakliya and talked to the people.

Excerpt of the BBC News article entitled “Ukraine war: Accounts of Russian torture emerge in liberated areas”. Highlighted the name of the news reporter.

I also know that, quite often, reporters will provide some little bit of extra information on their personal accounts and, most of them, will have a Twitter account. Time to test that theory. It was actually pretty straightforward to find the Twitter account of Orla Guerin as it is just her name, as seen below.

Twitter search result when searching for “Orla Guerin”.

At this point there are several ways to find out if she shared any tweets with information about this news story. You can either scroll through her tweets until you end up at around the date you know she was in Balakliya, you can use Twitter advanced search to narrow down your options by imputing her account name with either the date range or relevant keywords, or you can just Google it.
I am a big fan of just googling everything. In order to find out if Orla Guerin mentioned the town of Balakliya in her tweets, I simply wrote ” balakliya site:https://twitter.com/OrlaGuerin “. This search string will give me all the results containing the word “Balakliya” from Orla’s twitter account.

Google search result when using the string “balakliya site:https://twitter.com/OrlaGuerin”.

The first result immediately takes me to a BBC News video at the liberated town of Balakliya. Within the first seconds of the footage the narrator says: “Ukrainian police lead us to a crime scene. It is inside their own former police station“. Great find!
If the tweet below is not longer available, here is the archived video.

We can confirm that we are, indeed, in the correct location, as Orla Guerin shows the viewers the wall with the Lord’s Prayer at the 0:49 min mark, as seen in the screenshot below.

Screenshot at the 0:49 min mark of the BBC News footage inside the Balakliya police station.

At this point we have very important information to help us geolocate this torture chamber. We know that it was located in the town of Balakliya and, according to this new found piece of evidence, it was inside the former police station.


Verification

Although we have enough to start looking at a map, we still need more because, what we have so far, is footage of the inside of the police station. There is some chance that, if we find the location of the police station on Google Maps, there won’t be any pictures of the inside of the building. And, even if there are, it is likely that the rooms would have looked very different prior to their conversion into a torture chamber. As much as I would love for the Russian soldiers to submit evidence of war crimes to Google Maps, chances are they are not that stupid (one can still hope though).
So we need to keep watching the video and see if we can spot an image of the outside of the building that could help us visually confirm the location on a map. And at the 1:43 min mark this is the frame we see below. The presence of a war crimes prosecutor (left) is seen near the alleged Police Station building (right) where a large group of people are gathering.

Screenshot of the BBC News video at the 1L43 min mark showing the outside of the Balakliya Police Station.

The group of people are in the same location seen in the footage starting at the 1:04 min mark where investigators and the media are gathering near one of the torture victims. I will not share the screenshot of that time frame as there are many faces visible and people are entitled to their privacy but you are free to check for yourself that it is the same location in both time frames.
Now that we know how (part of) the building looks like we can finally jump to Google Maps and search for the local police station.

I tested and both “Balakliya Police Station” and “Балаклійське відділення міліції” (Ukrainian translation) leads to the same location so it seems that Google Maps is quite certain on this being the correct place.

Google Maps result when searching for “Балаклійське відділення міліції”.

Unfortunately, as expected, there are no photos of the inside or outside of the building. However, if you grab the pegman (the little yellow figure) and drag it around you will see that there is an available panoramic photo around 76 metres from the police station, as seen below. It could be too far but it is always worth giving it a go.

Red arrow pointing at the location of the panoramic photo, around 76 metres from the Balakliya Police Department building.

And as you can see from the screenshot below of the panoramic photo, it is not too far. The building can be spotted in the distance, if you are facing South-West.

Screenshot of the panoramic photo on Google Maps on the street that leads to the Balakliya Police Department building.

At first glance it looks like the same building but let’s compare it to the one we saw in one of the frames of the BBC News footage. Below, on the left, a screenshot of the BBC News video (archived) at the 1:43 min mark, and on the right the zoomed in image of a panoramic photo near the building. It is a clear match. The design at the top of the police station building, highlighted in light green below, is exactly the same in both images. In addition to that we can also spot the presence of the two trees, one inside the gate, highlighted in pink, and a bigger one, highlighted in dark blue, on the right hand side of the building.

Comparison between a frame of the BBC News (left), and the Google Maps panoramic photo (right) near the Balakliya Police Department building.

We have therefore established that this is the correct place and the torture chamber in Balakliya was located in the former police station building at the 49.452032, 36.843793 coordinates. If we want to be even more specific, we can try to figure out, based on the BBC News footage, which part of the building the people were going in / coming out for the exact location of the torture rooms. At this point it is not necessary but if you want an extra challenge go for it, there are a few clues around.


Conclusion

Relying on just a photo is sometimes not enough to geolocate a piece of evidence. Often you will need to gather more data to establish a possible location and, later on, justify your findings. Without verification you don’t have a geolocation, you only have a guess.
I hope this blog entry gave you some ideas on how to find that extra bit of information needed to prove, without any doubt, that you have the correct location.
Thank you for reading.

~Sofia.

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