ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — Alone in his apartment in the Russian-occupied town of Enerhodar in southeastern Ukraine, nuclear power plant security guard Serhiy Shvets stared out the window of his kitchen in late May and saw armed men approaching in the street below. When his buzzer rang, he was sure he was about to die.

Shvets, a former Ukrainian army soldier loyal to Kyiv, knew the gunmen would kill him or kidnap and torture him. He briefly considered recording a farewell to his family, who had fled overseas, but instead lit a cigarette and grabbed his gun.

Six Russian soldiers broke down his door and opened fire, which he returned. Wounded in the hand, thigh, ear and stomach, Shvets began to lose consciousness. Before doing so, he heard the group commander tell his men to cease fire and call for an ambulance.

Shvets, who survived the shooting, is among the workers at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant recounting their fears of being kidnapped and tortured or killed by Russian forces occupying the facility and the town of Enerhodar. Ukrainian officials say the Russians sought to intimidate staff into keeping the plant running, through beatings and other abuses. but also to punish those who express support for Kyiv.

On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia was taking ownership of the plant. With his decree, he ordered the creation of a state company to manage the facility and said that all workers now needed Russian permission to work there.

Ukraine condemned Russia’s “illegal” takeover attempt and called on the West to impose sanctions on Russian state nuclear operator Rosatom and all countries to limit civilian nuclear cooperation with Russia.

Ukraine’s state nuclear operator, Energoatom, said it viewed Putin’s decree as “worthless” and “absurd”. He said the plant will continue to be operated by Energoatom as part of Ukraine’s energy system.

A GOOD LIFE BEFORE THE WAR

Life was good for employees of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant before the February 24 Russian invasion. They were guaranteed a financially secure and stable life for their families.

And although Ukraine still bears the psychological scars of the world’s worst atomic accident at Chernobyl in 1986, the Zaporizhzhia power plant – Europe’s largest nuclear facility with its six reactors – provided jobs for around 11,000 people, making Enerhodar, with its pre-war population of 53,000, one of the wealthiest towns in the region.

But after Russia occupied the city at the start of the war, this once-comfortable life turned into a nightmare.

The invaders overran the ZNPP, about 6 kilometers (nearly 4 miles) from Enerhodar, but kept Ukrainian personnel in place to operate it. Both sides accused the other of bombing the plant, damaging the power lines connecting it to the grid and setting off international alarm for its safety. Ukrainian officials said the Russians were using the plant as a shield as they bombarded nearby towns.

Reports of staff intimidation and kidnappings began to spread over the summer. Rafael Mariano Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s atomic watchdog, told The Associated Press about reports of violence between Russian and Ukrainian personnel.

Grossi traveled to Kyiv on Wednesday and will later be in Russia to hold consultations on Moscow’s intention to take over the plant and continue its efforts to establish a safe zone around it, said the IAEA in a press release.

About 4,000 ZNPP workers fled. Those who remained cited threats of kidnapping and torture – underscored by Friday’s kidnapping of factory manager Ihor Murashov, who was arrested and blindfolded by Russian forces as he returned home after work.

He was released on Monday after being forced to make false statements on camera, according to Energoatom boss Petro Kotin. He told AP Murashov he was released at the edge of Russian-held territory and walked about 15 kilometers (9 miles) to a Ukrainian-held area.

“I would say it was mental torture,” Kotin said of what Murashov went through. “He must have said that all the bombings of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant were carried out by Ukrainian forces and that he is a Ukrainian spy … in contact with Ukrainian special forces.”

Exiled Enerhodar mayor Dmytro Orlov, who spoke with Murashov after his release, said the factory manager told him he spent two days “in solitary confinement in the basement, in handcuffs and a bag over his head. His condition can hardly be called normal.”

President Volodymyr Zelensky described Murashov’s kidnapping as “another manifestation of absolutely uncovered Russian terror”.

“TERRIBLE THINGS HAPPENING THERE”

More than 1,000 people, including factory workers, were abducted from Enerhodar, although some were released, Orlov estimated. He fled to Zaporizhzhia, the nearest town under Ukrainian control, after refusing to cooperate with the Russians. Kotin estimated that 100 to 200 of those abducted are still being held.

Orlov said the first kidnapping took place on March 19, when the Russians captured his deputy, Ivan Samoidiuk, whose whereabouts are unknown. The kidnappings then accelerated, he said.

“Most of the time they took people with a pro-Ukrainian stance, who were actively involved in the resistance movement,” he said.

Orlov alleged that they were tortured at various locations in Enerhodar, including at the town’s police station, in basements elsewhere, and even in the ZNPP itself.

“Terrible things are happening there,” he said. “People who managed to get out say there was torture with electric currents, beatings, rapes, gunshots. … Some people did not survive.

Similar sites were seen by AP journalists in parts of the Kharkiv region abandoned by Russian troops after a Ukrainian counteroffensive. In the city of Izium, an AP investigation uncovered 10 separate torture sites.

Factory worker Andriy Honcharuk died in a hospital on July 3 shortly after the Russians released him, beaten and unconscious, for refusing to follow their orders at the facility, Orlov said.

Oleksii, a worker who said he was responsible for controlling the plant’s turbines and reactor compartment, fled Enerhodar in June when he learned Russian troops were looking for him. He asked not to be identified by his full name for fear of reprisals.

“It was psychologically difficult,” Oleksii told the AP in Kyiv. “You go to the station and see the occupants there. You arrive at your workplace already depressed.

Many factory workers “visited the basements” and were tortured there, he said.

“Graves have appeared in the forest surrounding the city. In other words, everyone understands that something horrible is going on,” he said. “They kidnap people for their pro-Ukrainian stance, or if they find Telegram groups on their phone. That’s enough for them to take one person.

Another employee who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety said he was not afraid to work at the plant despite the shelling but decided to flee in September after the arrest of colleagues. He said Russians came to his house twice while he was away and the possibility of being tortured was too great for him.

The plant’s last reactor was shut down in September to guard against disaster from constant bombardment, which cut off reliable external power supplies needed for cooling and other safety systems. Kotin said the company could restart two of the reactors within days to protect safety facilities as winter approaches and temperatures drop.

But the power station is in one of four regions Russia says it has annexed, making its future uncertain.

Kotin on Tuesday renewed his call for a “demilitarized zone” around the plant, where two IAEA experts are based.

‘FREE OR DEATH’

For Serhiy Shvets, whose apartment was raided on May 23, it was only a matter of time before the Russians came for him during the Enerhodar occupation, he said. He had signed up to serve in the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces shortly after the invasion and had sent his wife and other relatives abroad for security reasons.

He said the Russian forces who shot him called the ambulance “so that I could die in the hospital”.

Doctors initially gave him a 5% chance of survival after losing nearly two-thirds of his blood. But after several operations, he recovered enough to leave Enerhodar in July and lives in Zaporizhzhia.

Shvets, whose right hand is in a metal splint, silently exhaled in pain as he moved it and said the only thing he regrets now is that he is too disabled to fight.

“I am a descendant of the Zaporozhian Cossacks,” he said, referring to his ancestors who lived on the territory of Ukraine from the 15th to the 18th centuries and defended it from invaders. “There was no surrender for them – just freedom or death.”

He added, “Why would I want such a life if I don’t have my freedom?”

___

Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed.

___

Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine