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“To put it mildly, it is unpleasant when they walk around the house with automatic rifles.”: Stories of people who fled the occupation in the south of Ukraine

By Anna Hakman

February 24, 2022, is a day that changed the lives of all Ukrainians and the world. February 24 became a fateful historical milestone that divided life into “before” and “after”.

On February 24, from four to five in the morning, the territory of Ukraine was subjected to rocket fire from the Russian Federation. Explosions were heard in the Kharkiv, Dnipro, Chernihiv, Mykolaiv, Odesa, Kherson, Mariupol, Kramatorsk, Volnovakha, Lutsk, Khmelnytskyi, Sumy, and Vinnytsia regions, as well as in Kyiv and Kyiv oblast.

The war had begun.

The first siren sounded. The first night had to be spent in a bomb shelter with strangers.

The first affected house in the neighbourhood. The first close acquaintance died from Russian missile strikes. The first attempt to fit the most necessary and important things in one backpack. The first trip abroad, not as a tourist, but as a refugee.

A groundless, invasive, bloody, merciless, cruel war is happening in our land.

Every human story is worthy of attention. But now, we would like to share the stories of people who lived in the temporarily occupied territories.

Radion, 25 years old, a resident of Kherson, was forced to leave his hometown, his house, and his job. He lived in two places under occupation, the first time in the village of Tomyna Balka and the second time in Kherson.

“I heard an explosion, immediately went to read the news – the war had begun.

I was in Kherson when the war started, but I decided to go to the village of Tomyna Balka. 7-10 days later, the town came under occupation.

We understood that the village was occupied immediately. You go outside and see a bunch of Z-marked tanks coming from Kherson. Clearly, something terrible was already happening because there weren’t any of our troops in Kherson. And then everyone started saying that the Russians had entered the village.

They went inside our houses and checked documents and cell phones. They went to my grandmother’s house and checked everything, including the basement. To put it mildly, it is unpleasant when they walk around the house with automatic rifles.

Going outside was scary, especially in the first days. But going to the store for bread was necessary, so we started venturing outside. Many were afraid, but there was no choice. Most of the shops were closed; only one was working,” Radion says.

“We are not giving up. We are part of Ukraine!”

This phrase sounds daily on the streets of cities and villages of the Kherson region. People peacefully protested the presence of Russian troops, saying that no one wanted them here and that they should leave.

“Once, I went into a store and saw Russian occupiers buying food there. They wanted to pay in rubles, and the saleswoman could do anything about it. They reeked of alcohol, looked dirty, and took out crumpled money. The saleswoman looked at them and said: “I don’t accept rubles,” and they responded: “Well, let’s imagine that the exchange rate is 1 to 3.” And she had to take the rubles.

We lived in the occupied Tomyna Balka for about two weeks and then returned to Kherson. First, there were many soldiers in the village, and explosions became frequent. And it got so bad that the windows and doors in the house kept rattling.

The Russians dug trenches around the village. And I heard a rumour that there was a house on the outskirts of the village where they charged phones, but I cannot tell for sure.

There were about four checkpoints before Kherson. Only men’s passports were checked there. We lived in Kherson for about a month. The city became empty. Very few people and cars were on the streets, but the lines in shops were monstrous.

Finding regular products was challenging: there was no meat, pasta, buckwheat or sausage. I almost forgot what it looked like.

The Russian military was driving through the streets, and several times I saw two burly men in black uniforms with the Russian flag walking down the streets, probably patrolling.

It was psychologically hard. Then I heard rumours that people were kidnapped right from the streets, pushed into cars, and taken to an unknown destination – this was alarming.

We decided to leave in two cars. I was driving one, and my father was the driver for the other, both cars with women and children. We went through Snihurivka. I definitely remember that the last checkpoint of the occupiers was in Snihurivka. It was good that there were only women in the cars as passengers. They checked only my passport, and I said I was driving them out of town. The drivers usually had to pay Russians off to transport the residents without questions, but we were lucky; we passed free of charge. They also asked about the trip’s purpose and when we would return.

When we stood in line at the last checkpoint, we saw how 300 meters from us, they launched rockets. It was terrifying. We didn’t know where those rockets aimed – in our direction or further.

I have friends in Kherson, they say that there is no work, the prices have gone up a lot, the only thing is that vegetables are cheap, but they have always been cheap there.

Also, phones were always checked at checkpoints and asked if we had any tattoos. I don’t know why they check for tattoos,” Radion says.

“We spent 18 hours driving from Kherson to the controlled territory of Ukraine.

Do you know what was the most difficult? You get up every morning and don’t know what to expect or what will happen next. You understand that you need to buy something to eat. The meat for sale was not cleaned, not chopped, 250-300 hryvnias/kg for pork. There is no work, but we need to eat something. We went to the shops at 8-9 in the morning and returned at 12:00-13:00. After 15:00, the city died out. No one walked or drove; everyone was afraid. We had a curfew from 20:00.

But it was worse in Tomyna Balka. We heard rockets launch and land there.

Russian soldiers do not understand that they came to kill us for no reason, that we did not wait for them and did not ask them here. There was a case when I was walking with my mother to the store, and the “Z” cars were driving towards us, they stopped near us, we walked on, we did not look at them, a military man got out of the car, probably the one in charge, and asked us:

– Good afternoon. May I have a few words with you?

– Yes.

– Does someone bother you here? Any nationalists around?

– Everything is fine with us.

– We have come to protect you.

– “Everything was fine with us,” we repeat.

There were a lot of Russians, and they went back and forth around the village all day.

When we got to the Ukrainian checkpoints, our soldiers asked where the occupiers’ checkpoints were to strike them,” Radion says.

In occupied Kherson, the new reality is high prices, shops filled with Russian products, rubles, an absence of education, and doctors being forced to work in military hospitals.

Next, we talked with people who lived in occupied Snihurivka.

The occupiers began shelling Snihurivka a week after the start of the full-scale war, and on March 19, they entered the city. The occupiers searched the residents, and the drivers of the humanitarian transport travelling from Mykolaiv were detained and taken prisoners.

Anastasia, 24 years old, is a resident of Snihurivka. She lived in the occupation for a week.

“The first week was quiet at home. Then, from March 10-12, planes began to fly overhead, and residential streets were bombed. Many houses were damaged. On March 19, they entered the city. We didn’t believe it immediately, but my dad’s colleague came in and said Russians were already spotted in the town. Their soldiers entered the houses – looking for the members of territorial defence, war veterans, etc.

They also came to our house and searched it. Once I managed to hide with the neighbours because no one knew what was on their minds. The second time they came, I was at home, they entered the house, looked at us, and asked us to show our cell phones to them, but the phones were dead because there had been no electricity for a week already. I know that they took away things, vehicles, and weapons from many.

We had some food saved, but not much, like everyone in the village. There were problems with water. Mom managed to save a whole tub of water, but it ran out in a week because our family was not small. We had to figure out what to do about it. We also ran out of drinking water, and our store was not working, but thank God, some people had wells that saved us.

Some occupiers firmly believed that we needed to be saved from Banderites. They said they were sent to help us and establish a new government, although we told them we did not need it and were doing well.

I managed to leave the city. There was a checkpoint – they checked the documents and the car. They had a list, and they looked for my name there. I think that the list included members of territorial defence; they tried to capture these people. And then the Russians barred the exit altogether. No one could enter or leave the city.

Of course, in 3.5 months, people somehow got used to living without electricity and water. The market is working, you can buy at least some products, but the prices are very high, because the goods are brought from Kherson, and they cheat us here too. But you can still buy something. I know, a pack of coffee costs UAH 500. But at least we can purchase some products. Of course, people are afraid. I’m waiting for at least some good news,” the girl says.

Sofia, 21 years old, is a resident of Snihurivka. She lived in the occupation for a week.

“I was really looking forward to spring. It’s my favourite time of year, but plans have changed…

I was sleeping. My sister woke me up, she was petrified and said the war had started. I didn’t immediately believe it.

Russian troops entered our city. They started searching the houses, and then we got scared because my mother was in the military, and I know that the Russians mistreated the people who were somehow related to this. We were primarily afraid for my mother… That’s why we hid everything that looked even remotely related to the military.

When they entered our house, there were eight of them, then five stayed behind, some went to inspect our home, and the rest came with power banks and started charging our phones. We already had no electricity for a week.

I had a piano, and the soldiers asked who played the instrument. I said that I did. One soldier asked: “Can we come later and listen to you play in the evening?” After that, we didn’t spend the night at home because they saw only women in the house (we were four girls – me, my mother, my sister, and my friend). They started offering to “exchange the power bank for a musical evening”, and it scared us, and we decided not to sleep there. We spent the night with neighbours.

We had it easier because we had a private house: we could warm the rooms with a stove, and there was a well, so our friends came to us to draw water. We ate everything we had stored in the freezer. It was scary at night, and we slept on the floor beside a wall.

I know that the occupiers took away our belongings in sacks. But stealing is not the worst that could happen. The main thing is that the house was intact.

The only bomb shelters were in the school basements, and that’s it.

We lived in the occupation for a week and then managed to leave. We sat at the door with all our things packed for five days, searching for a way to leave the city. We were lucky to find an acquaintance who was taking his daughter away. He agreed to take us, too. At checkpoints, they checked our phones and belongings.

They know they have come to kill us, to seize the territory, but some told us: “It is your military who are bombing you.” I have few acquaintances left in Snihurivka. Cell service and light are still missing, so it is tough to keep in touch,” says Sofia.

We must always scream, speak and write about the pain the occupiers have brought us. They crippled our fates and lives and even took some of them. We will never forget it, but we will persevere. We will win. Ukraine will definitely win!