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Patriotic tattoos become a liability for Ukrainians amid reports of Russian torture


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, some Ukrainians got tattoos to show support for their country. But as the war drags on, those patriotic symbols have become a liability.

Special correspondent Simon Ostrovsky reports.

Simon Ostrovsky: Olha Chumachenko is a customer support agent for a bank in Ukraine. When Russian forces swept through her hometown of Kherson five months ago, she wanted to show her support for her country.

Olha Chumachenko, Kherson Resident (through translator): I just wanted something that said, I'm Ukrainian, and I'm proud of that, on my body.

Simon Ostrovsky: Her housemate, Alina Avie, was a tattoo artist, so Olha asked her to ink the word Ukrainian on her chest.

She was not the only one. In the initial weeks of the Russian occupation of her city, Alina, who has since relocated to Germany, did dozens of Ukraine-themed tattoos for locals inspired by the war.

Alina Avie, Tattoo Artist: The Ghost of Kyiv was tattooed, a Kherson watermelon on the hand of my friend, a tattoo with sunflower, because sunflower is one of the symbol of Kherson. It was tattoos about Ukraine.

Simon Ostrovsky: Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine five months ago awakened a sense of patriotism and pride in many Ukrainians, stirring some to commemorate those sentiments permanently in ink.

Olha Chumachenko (through translator): A lot of people came to get specifically patriotic tattoos. Some would get ears of wheat. Some would get maps of Ukraine. Some would get the colors of the Ukrainian flag. There were a lot of different things.

Simon Ostrovsky: Olha even got a second tattoo on her wrist, the word "home" with the letter O made out in the shape of her homeland, Ukraine.

Olha Chumachenko (through translator): We thought it would be over in a month, two max. We wanted to remember that moment.

The emotions were so positive. It was like a gulp of normal life during occupation.

Simon Ostrovsky: But hope that the Russians would leave quickly began to fade. And Olha realized that her new tattoos were putting her in danger.

Olha Chumachenko (through translator): I needed to go to the store. You go out for five or six hours, not one. You spend the whole time in long lines. And the whole time, you are thinking, lord, I hope nothing is showing or sticking out, so they don't stop me and search me.

Simon Ostrovsky: Valeriia Solonets is a tattoo artist who is also from Kherson. She described hiding at home with her parents as Russian soldiers raided the apartment of her neighbor, a Ukrainian border guard.

Valeriia Solonets, Tattoo Artist (through translator): They took out the computer processor and, of course, the household appliances. They had an electric cooker and a microwave, obviously. We saw them stealing the appliances with our own eyes.

Simon Ostrovsky: But, for some people, tattoos had become a liability, a mark they wanted to get rid of. Valeriia received an unusual request from a client.

Valeriia Solonets (through translator): He was afraid to talk about it on the phone. He just said: "I need a not-good tattoo covered up."

Simon Ostrovsky: Were you surprised when he came to you to ask to have his tattoo covered up?

Valeriia Solonets (through translator): I understood that it was a military tattoo. There are still partisans in the underground in the city. And they are being hunted. They are looking for them, as well as journalists. I didn't have any questions about the tattoo because it was military and he could simply be killed.

Simon Ostrovsky: Many of Alina's customers wanted to get out of the city and also worried that passing through multiple Russian checkpoints with tattoos that identified them as supporters of Ukraine would be dangerous.

Olha Chumachenko (through translator): The men were scared and wanted to get them covered up as quickly as possible because they understood that they were searched most often. And, if you want to leave, you need to cover it up with something.

Simon Ostrovsky: How did you feel when you were covering up your own tattoo artwork?

Alina Avie: I was very angry about that, not to that person. I was very angry to Russians.

Simon Ostrovsky: Olha, fearing for her own life, made the painful decision to alter her tattoos too.

Olha Chumachenko (through translator): It was tough mentally. I felt that I didn't want to do it, but I had to. There were tears. It's really painful, and it looks like a fresh scar to me. But it will always remain in my heart and soul.

Volodymyr (Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces): We tell our friends in the Ukrainian military and the security service the number and location of Russian vehicles, so they know where to direct their fire.

Simon Ostrovsky: Volodymyr, whose name we have changed, is part of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces in hiding in Kherson. He switches apartments frequently in order to avoid detection by the Russian military.

Volodymyr (through translator): There are a lot of searches. They need to show Nazis. They need to feed their audience and tell them that everyone here is a card-carrying member. If they find a person who has that has the kind of tattoo, they will say, golly, lookie here, we got another Nazi. Aren't they great?

So you have to be really careful with tattoos, cover them up or ink them over. It's a real problem. There have been cases where people have been killed over tattoos in Kherson.

Simon Ostrovsky: Human Rights Watch documented the torture of three members of the Kherson Territorial Defense Forces who were POWs in a report published last month. Two of them died.

The report also documented 42 cases in which Russian occupation forces either forcibly disappeared civilians or held them arbitrarily, torturing many of them.

Valeriia felt it was time to escape the city, but she feared rape, or worse, if she was outed as a supporter of Ukraine.

Valeriia Solonets (through translator): When we decided to leave, I had to take a deep breath. I tried to dress as badly as possible. I gathered my hair into a bun and put on several shirts. No one paid any attention to me. A lot of people are getting raped.

Olha Chumachenko (through translator): It was scary when we were leaving because they undressed the men down to their underwear. With women, they would occasionally check their phones.

When we were in line at one of the many checkpoints, some people got off the bus because it was hot and they wanted some fresh air. And they just started shooting their machine guns to force the people back on the bus.

Simon Ostrovsky: Both Olha and Valeriia managed to get out of Kherson and now live in cities that are still under Ukrainian control. But tens of thousands of Ukrainians remain in the city, too scared to leave or lacking the means to do so.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Simon Ostrovsky in Pervomaisk, Ukraine.

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