“They cut our hands with their bayonets, broke our ribs with their boots and shot next to our heads as we lay face down on a cold floor,” recalls Anton (whose name has been changed for security reasons), a 23-year-old resistance organizer who was held in captivity by Russian soldiers. Four days after the war started, his territorial defense unit was overrun by Russian troops as they stormed into the city of Kherson from their bases on the Crimean Peninsula.
As they beat Anton, Russian troops told him, “Our soldiers are being killed for scum like you.” They said that they had already started digging their victims’ graves. “They said they already had dead bodies in it, including civilians. But we were the lucky ones who were let go after hours of torture. … I would strongly advise against falling into their hands.”
Rather than lay down his weapons, Anton went underground to join a resistance movement that distributes aid and hunts for looters and saboteurs.
Ukrainian officials say they plan to organize guerrilla resistance movements modeled on the partisan movements in occupied Nazi territory during World War II. Anton says he promises to resist until he is dead or Kherson is liberated.
Kherson was the first and so far remains the only major city in Ukraine to fall since the Russian invasion on Feb. 24. After scenes of massacres in formerly Russian-occupied areas in Bucha and Borodyanka, many Ukrainians fear that similar scenes will emerge in other parts of Ukraine that are still controlled by Russia. While Kherson has avoided the horrors seen in the Kyiv region, Russian soldiers are increasingly cracking down on protests, journalism and any expression of dissent toward the occupation forces.
As access to Russian-occupied territories is virtually impossible for the foreign press at this time, New Lines investigated the situation in Kherson through interviews with former residents who have fled to relatively safe cities such as Odesa or through secure communications with those who remain there.
Daria Kravchenko, a 24-year-old psychologist who escaped Kherson two weeks ago for the safety of Odesa, described a route full of danger. “The day after I left it became impossible. The only way to leave Kherson is through the Antonivskyy Bridge, but Russian soldiers have mined the road. There are four Russian checkpoints, and no one knows what is in their heads. If a car doesn’t stop, if they make a sign with their hands — if you didn’t notice it — they start shooting at you right away.”
The only safe route is into Russian-controlled territory. One Kherson resident fled the war to stay with family in Sevastopol, in occupied Crimea. This resident said that the border crossings were working as normal and that life on the peninsula was continuing as normal. But back in Kherson, the situation continues to deteriorate.
On the first day of the invasion, 29-year-old teacher Denis Fedko received a phone call in which he was told that his parents were killed while trying to escape Kherson, along with his brother’s wife and their two children. Since then, he has dedicated his time to organizing aid efforts and raising awareness about the situation in the occupied territories. “The situation in the Kherson oblast is terrible right now,” he says. “There are problems with food and medicine, cruel treatment of people, and murders! We see violence and rape directed at women!”
Ukrainians have made repeated attempts to get humanitarian aid inside the city, but Russian authorities haven’t let trucks with food or medicine pass through checkpoints. At the few shops that are open, people must wait in line for hours, and there are severe shortages of essentials like grain and canned food. Kravchenko describes the medical situation as “awful — there is no medicine.” There are people, for example, who have cancer and their drugs cannot be found in the city. The Russians have attempted to stage videos of them handing out “humanitarian aid” but locals dismiss this as an insult. “They robbed all the shops in my town. … Now those dickheads are just handing out that which they stole in our own shops!” Anton says. Others however, mainly the elderly and those with few resources, have started to take Russia’s “humanitarian aid.”
Russian authorities apparently planned to hold a sham referendum and declare a “Kherson People’s Republic” and install a puppet government but shelved this idea because it was impossible to fake popular support. Kravchenko tells me, “On 13 March, we held a huge peaceful protest in Freedom Square, where they planned to declare this ‘people’s republic’ circus government on the embankment a few kilometers away. The Russians set up film crews and brought in paid actors from Crimea to stage a ceremony, but our protest disrupted it. It was very funny because the Russians quickly wrapped up, took all their actors with them and just left! We haven’t heard anything more about a ‘people’s republic’ since then.”
After the Russians first occupied the town in early March, there were large and widespread protests every day, while Russian soldiers looked unfocused and unsure of what to do. But on March 20, Kravchenko says, “The Russians wrote an inscription saying, ‘the Armed Forces of Ukraine are child killers.’ When a crowd of locals gathered to try and wipe it off, the Russians started shooting into the crowd, wounding several people. They also throw tear gas and smoke grenades. Since then, the protest levels have died down.”
After this, they started stepping up their raids. “They came to my friend’s grandmother’s house recently,” Kravchenko explains. “They come in with machine guns, walk around the house looking into every cupboard and garage, checking for weapons and to see if you are hiding anyone. They also steal anything they want.”
“In my home village of Bilozerka we had an activist who at the very beginning blocked the road by standing in front of tanks, and he also frequently organized and spoke at rallies. At some point, he got kidnapped from his own house. On the next day, they threw him away in the field with his ribs broken. He is still in hospital.”
Meanwhile, Russian propaganda has gone into overdrive. Local television stations play only Russian state TV channels, which claim they are preventing a “genocide” of Russian speakers. They also say that the Ukrainian army will destroy the city if it recaptures it. Anton told me, “I hadn’t watched TV since 2014, and then I thought, ‘Let me check out what they are broadcasting.’ They are telling us such fucking bullshit that I had to throw my TV through the window. I wish I let that box carry on gathering dust.”
People are very wary of trusting what they have seen on social media because of Russian disinformation tactics. “They kidnap people and use their phones to post online to form a particular attitude in the community,” Fedko tells me. “They also create fake accounts and post from them and threaten real people to post what they want.” Because of this information war, he says, people are slowly going mad and panicking, saying “we’ve been forgotten” and “we can’t get out.” “We are afraid that we will be another Bucha,” Fedko says.
Despite the terror increasingly inflicted on the local population, Kravchenko says that Kherson will continue to resist Russian efforts to bring it to heel. “Right now, I’m really worried about many relatives, friends and my mother, who are still in Kherson,” she says. “But Kherson is still [part of] Ukraine. The fact that they put their Russian flags on the buildings they destroyed doesn’t mean anything!”
Fedko now finds solace in his humanitarian aid work. Before he hangs up, he says: “I’m having a busy workday until late at night. It helps me not to think about the fact that my family doesn’t exist anymore, about the fact that the people most dear to me have been killed. How can such a terror happen in our time? … How in our time, when there is the internet and lots of social media? … People in Russia get brainwashed so that they support this war to exterminate us!”
Additional reporting and translation by Lelia Katalnikova