Lwearing eaflets the names of those missing hang from trees in Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine that has been occupied by Russia since March. The city’s largest mall is in ruins. Local banks closed and businesses started paying salaries in Russian rubles. Ukrainians can open accounts in one of two new Russian banks, but only if they get a Russian passport.
Ukrainian mobile numbers no longer work. Instead, people with internet at home sometimes place their routers near their windows, so passers-by can connect. Schools are preparing to start teaching the Russian curriculum; staff who oppose the occupation have been fired. “Russia is here forever,” proclaims a billboard. Yulia Gladkaya, a local blogger, says: “We have gone back 30 years.
These snapshots of life in Kherson are provided by residents who have left the city, and some who remain. In September, Russian officials plan to hold mock referendums that they hope will cement their rule over Kherson province and other parts of southern Ukraine. But Ukraine is pounding Russian bases and supply routes with artillery, hoping to force a withdrawal. Meanwhile, civilians stream out of the area. Tens of thousands of people have left since the start of the war.
In a supermarket outside Zaporizhia, a town about 300 km northeast of Kherson, refugees who have been on the road for up to four days are catching their breath. Volunteers tend to an elderly woman who passed out from exhaustion. Aleksandra – a woman traveling with her husband, daughter and grandchildren – says the Russians began shelling Ukrainian positions just as their convoy began crossing Ukrainian-held territory. At home in Kherson, Russians are reportedly moving into apartments vacated by fleeing Ukrainians.
Locals say Russian soldiers, secret service agents and police loyal to the invaders rounded up former Ukrainian soldiers and suspected saboteurs in Kherson. Some are herded in front of television cameras and forced to admit to extravagant crimes. Ms Gladkaya says she saw one of her neighbors on a Russian news channel. He said that nato the armed forces and the Ukrainian government had trained him to “eliminate” peace-loving citizens.
Things can be even worse in the countryside. Vera, from a village in Kherson province, says troops raided her house looking for her husband, a former soldier. They threatened to kill her and her children if she did not say where he was. She told them she didn’t know and they believed her. In early August, when Ukrainian shells started falling near the village, she decided to flee with her elderly mother and two children. “There are bombings every day,” she said, “and it’s going to get worse.”
Memories of the occupation are fresh in the northern parts of Kherson province which were taken over by Ukraine. In Natalyne, a village reached by muddy roads lined with fields of sunflowers, Russian troops rounded up local men and subjected them to mock executions. “They asked if they had served in the Ukrainian army and fired over their heads,” says Alina (pseudonym). Nearby is a green van that Russian troops stole from Alina’s neighbor, still daubed with z symbols. Seashells land somewhere nearby.
Hanna Shostak-Kuchmiak, who heads a commune comprising several villages in the region, claims that at least 20 residents were taken away by the Russians during the occupation and have not been heard from since. At least 600 people from Kherson province are said to have disappeared in this way, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, a ngo. Others suffered torture. “Everyone knows what happened in Bucha,” says Oleksandr Vilkul, an official from Kryvyi Rih, a Ukrainian-controlled southern city (he is referring to the Kyiv suburb where Russian forces executed hundreds of people). “I think when we liberate Kherson we will hear many stories like Bucha, or even worse.”
It could be some time before Ukrainian forces are able to retake Kherson. Meanwhile, partisan attacks are on the rise. Since late July, rockets have blown up a train carrying Russian weapons and troops from Crimea; a roadside bomb killed two police officers loyal to the invaders; the head of the puppet administration of the province of Kherson is said to have fallen into a coma after being poisoned; and an official from Nova Kakhovka, another town in the province, was shot dead. Ukrainian officials say resistance fighters played a role in each incident.
Locals help the Ukrainian army in many other ways, sometimes at great expense. “Mast,” a Ukrainian soldier fighting near Kherson, said people living behind enemy lines frequently send his men information about Russian positions, using their cell phones. Sometimes these observers are arrested by Russian troops, says “Mast”. He thinks at least one of them was killed. ■
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