Experience

Two Months of Kherson’s Occupation: a Local Recounts Her Experience in the City

On the 30th of April, cell service was disrupted in Kherson for several days. By then, the city had been occupied for two months, and rumours were circulating among the locals that the Russians could hold a “referendum” to establish a so-called “KhPR”. Ksenia, a business owner from Kherson, evacuated from the city in end-April. She told Bird in Flight what the city was like at that time: what the shops offered, how locals went on rallies, and how children studied.

— I live in a dormitory suburb, in a high-rise with a beautiful view of Chornobaivka. So I heard and saw the shelling very well. My husband and I even started discerning whether we were bombed or our soldiers were shelling the enemy.

In the first days of occupation, the Russians divided city districts, putting their checkpoints at the exits of each. Later they removed those, though. Our day lasted from 10 AM to 2 PM—the rest of the time, everyone stayed at home. The Russians also checked documents and phones in the streets. We wore black or grey clothes without lettering outdoors not to attract their attention. Women did not wear makeup or jewellery and made their hair into buns. Everyone kept their heads down. Locks were installed on the doors to communal entrances in blocks of flats, but it didn’t stop the Ruscists. Their psychological pressure was palpable. There were no atrocities of the likes of Irpin or Bucha, but the Russians made every effort to show who was in charge in the city. It remains so to this day.

There were no atrocities of the likes of Irpin or Bucha, but the Russians made every effort to show who was in charge in the city.

The Russian puppet authorities are mostly locals — their head is Volodymyr Saldo, a local oligarch and generally despicable person. He was Kherson’s mayor from 2002 to 2012, so he knows the city well. Our last mayor Ihor Kolykhaev refuses to collaborate with the Russian forces, and locals support him for this. I don’t know how he does it, but he coordinates running water and electricity supply and waste removal remotely.

We didn’t leave for a long time, believing we had to support Kherson. However, the information about Russian mobilization started spreading in the city. We have three sons, and one of them is of conscription age. If the rumours are anything to go by, they don’t arm Ukrainian conscripts, making them do the dirty work, like digging trenches or building dugout shelters, instead.

Therefore, we went to Kropyvnytskyi on the 22nd of April and later to Ivano-Frankivsk. The Russians returned us three times before letting us out. That day, a few thousand cars queued up at the checkpoint, and we moved forward only when someone gave up and returned to the city. It took us an entire day to cover the 300 kilometres to Kropyvnytskyi.

At checkpoints, the Russians tried to set us against one another. For one, they said that the entire queue was stalled because of those who brought food with them or some Armenian family. And people did start bickering. Also, the soldiers wrote down passengers’ names and checked them against some kinds of lists, probably, looking for someone.

The Russian television had already been broadcast in the city by then. The propaganda said Kherson was already a part of Russia, but in reality, everyone there wants to live in Ukraine, and collaborators are only about five per cent of the people. So, if you see on mass media that people of Kherson go to pro-Russian rallies or to a referendum, know that those are actors.

When we tried to leave for the first time, five or six buses entered the Kherson Region, bringing some of them to one such rally. It took place in some back street in the industrial area — locals would have never come there to protest.

My husband and I went to pro-Ukrainian rallies. The latest one was dispersed in just ten minutes. First, a vehicle with a loudspeaker appeared. The operator said everyone was recommended to go home and repeated it twice. The first shots followed a few minutes later, and soldiers started throwing flashbangs and tear gas grenades. Experienced activists advised us to cover our eyes with scarves and close our ears to avoid damage to our eardrums. I was coughing for a day after that, and my husband for three. A boy near me took a rubber bullet in the chest — the protesters picked him up and brought him to a car. We couldn’t go to hospitals anymore because the Russians were looking for activists there.

Over the first few weeks, there was no food in supermarkets. And when it appeared, the prices went through the roof. A kilogram of sugar was priced at UAH 150, a dozen eggs — at UAH 80, and flour — at UAH 60. The prices eventually subsided, but the stocks were low. It felt like we returned to the 1990s when people sold produce right from the boots of their cars at marketplaces. Many shops were looted by Russian troops. I own two stalls — one of them came under fire, and the Russians took all the food there. Also, a CCTV camera installed in my husband’s warehouse showed people breaking in there.

They set up checkpoints on the Kherson Region border and didn’t let through the people who brought food with them. There was little Ukrainian food left in the city, and whatever was there kept dwindling day by day. At first, we refused to take Russian humanitarian aid out of disgust. However, we realized later that, sadly, nothing was coming from Ukraine. I didn’t notice any roubles in circulation while in the city.

At first, we refused to take Russian humanitarian aid out of disgust. However, we realized later that, sadly, nothing was coming from Ukraine.

Five Russian men are living at my friend’s place already. Nobody talks to them, and no one knows how they ended up there.

The school year ended for my son and the children of the people I know in April. The principals of our schools put their keys on the table and told occupiers that they refused to teach in Russian schools.

We helped one orphanage, bringing medications, nappies, and food to them. Recently, we have learned that 50 children from there were taken somewhere in the direction of Crimea. We worry about them because those are kids without parents, and there is nobody to take care of them.
The worst thing about living in the occupied city was that we didn’t know how to behave. What should we do? Should we work? Should we pay taxes? Should we stay or leave? Should we wait?

I recommended my friends who stayed in Kherson to stockpile food and water in the basements. Basically, it’s my advice to everyone remaining in Kherson: leave the high-rise buildings and flock to those with basements; outfit those basements and bring water, medications, food, and buckets there.


Photo: AFP / THIS IMAGE IS PROVIDED BY RUSSIAN STATE-OWNED AGENCY SPUTNIK

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