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«Soldiers drive around, abducting and beating locals, and you can’t even turn the light on»: Confessions from occupied Kherson

Kherson has been occupied by Russian forces since early March. Half of its residents have left their homes, and so has one in five Kherson Region residents. Those who remained walked out in pro-Ukrainian protests until the occupation forces unleashed their policy of terror. Locals have shared with The Insider the details of mass abductions, torture, robbery, and rape.

  • Olga: «Mum opened the gate, and they put the muzzle of a rifle against her head»

  • Anastasia: «The men were taken into the basement one by one and beaten»

  • Ekaterina: «My uncle went to the market at ten in the morning, and we have not seen him since»

  • Sergey: «A heavy truck full of soldiers would drive up. They would force the family out of their home and take their household appliances»

Olga: «Mum opened the gate, and they put the muzzle of a rifle against her head»

My dad was at the market, trying to find supplies because food is scarce in Kherson. My mum was at home alone with my younger brother Sasha. We live in a detached house and have two fences, one of which a couple of Russian soldiers easily broke. They came up to the window of my parents’ bedroom and knocked. My mum heard the knocking and went out to find out what happened.

Once she opened the gate, they put the muzzle of a rifle against her head: “Hands up!” They asked where my father was. Mum said he’d gone to the market. Then they asked who else was at home. My younger brother joined my mum outside. According to mum, they used the ‘bad cop - good cop’ tactic: one shouted and threatened them, while the other one maintained a polite conversation. “What do you do for a living? And you, where do you study? Do you sell handmade dolls?”

Then they went through my family’s phones. All this time our dog Bonya (a medium-sized mongrel) kept barking. One of the soldiers turned to my brother. “Can you see this fellow with an assault rifle? He really loves hurting them doggies. Calm your dog down.” My brother left and locked our dog in the backyard.

Can you see this fellow with an assault rifle? He really loves hurting them doggies. Calm your dog down!

The soldiers called my father and asked how long it would take him to get back home. They set the timer for ten minutes and started to wait. As it turned out, six more soldiers were standing in the street. That is, eight soldiers had come to arrest one civilian! While they were waiting and talking to my family, they didn't let anyone into our alley, making them take a detour. When my father arrived, they took him inside and searched the premises: drawers, shelves, bags, computers, and so on. Around seven years ago, when I was still at school, I was a European Club member. The soldiers found a tiny EU flag in my room, tore it to shreds, and scattered them all over the room. It was ridiculous, and I might even have laughed, had it not been for what happened next.

Leaving, they took my father with them. “We’ll have a chat and bring him right back.” It was at half-past one on May 7. We haven't heard from him since. We don’t know where they took him and what for. My father is an ordinary man who has always stayed out of political activity and has spent his life working hard and providing for us.

They took my father. We haven't heard from him since May 7

Later, I’ve heard dozens of stories like ours. It was on May 7 that they “mopped up” the men in the city. Who did this? Whatever for? What are they trying to achieve? And the main question, which sends us into tears every day: is my father even alive?

Anastasia: «The men were taken into the basement one by one and beaten»

The first blasts shook Kherson in the first days of the war. My grandmother lives near Chornobaivka, and her walls never stopped shaking. In early March, Russian troops already made themselves at home in Kherson, sporting the Z-sign on all their vehicles, military and civilian alike.

Locals kept walking out in protest until the occupants cracked down on them. For a while, they shot into the air, but people continued to rally, so they switched to tear gas and flash-bang grenades. They tried giving out humanitarian aid, but locals demonstratively told them to shove it, refusing to take anything. Then the city was hit with shortages because the occupants blocked the road for all vehicles, including Ukrainian humanitarian aid and food suppliers.

Empty shelves in a supermarket in Kherson
Empty shelves in a supermarket in Kherson

Ten days later, shelves in supermarkets were empty, and panic started to spread. Today, an average supermarket sells pasta, tea, and coffee. For anything else, you need to go to the market, where small private shops sell everything they can bring to the city at the risk of their lives. When shortages were the most severe, some were forced to accept Russian humanitarian aid, while others drove past them and made videos, expressing their outrage.

In the beginning, the occupants employed the tactic of “quiet terror”: Russian troops everywhere, their emblems on every corner, and people felt helpless and defenseless. If you get shot or beaten in the street, no one would bat an eye. The police couldn't do anything.

My mum only goes out to get water, which is brought to special kiosks. When they brought water for the first time, mum stood in line for four hours, despite the hostilities. No one left because one can't live without water. Since the first days of the war, we have been blacking out windows. Keeping the lights on was prohibited, so people still live with their lights off, covering their windows as tightly as possible and using small nightlights. Armed soldiers drive around the city in armored vehicles, feeling themselves at home, bullying, abducting, and beating up locals. Meanwhile, you can’t even switch the light on, have no cash, and have nowhere to buy decent food.

They drive around in armored vehicles, while you can’t even switch the light on

At some point, the communications went down for a while: we had no network coverage or Internet service for three days running. It was terrifying. I talk to my mum for an hour every evening: we discuss the news and everyday life and support each other. My grandmother lives outside the city, and whenever there are shelling strikes in Chornobaivka, she calls my mum to let her know she is all right. So staying out of touch for three days was scary.

Afraid of being alone with no one to talk to, my mum decided to spend the night at her friend's. As she was coming back at around eight in the morning, she saw two large vehicles outside her apartment block and many armed Russian soldiers standing near the entrance door like guards. Our apartment block has two entrances, so she walked up the other one, where a neighbor told her: “Turn back quietly and walk down the street.” My mum turned around, her legs like jelly, and went back to her friend's place, terrified that they might notice her.

They check our phones and move checkpoints to new locations throughout the city every day. They don’t normally stop public transport, but private cars get a lot of attention. Most of those against the Russian invasion have plenty of compromising content in their phones. This is absurd: Ukrainians can’t be pro-Ukrainian for fear of repression.

This is absurd: Ukrainians can’t be pro-Ukrainian for fear of repression

When mum returned home a few hours later, the cars were already gone. The neighbors sitting in front of the house told her someone had provided the occupants with a list of pro-Ukrainian residents with surnames and apartment numbers. The soldiers took the warden's husband. The men were taken into the basement one by one and beaten. The warden begged them, in tears, to spare her husband because he’d had a heart surgery recently – but in vain. He was shaking all over when he returned, but they spared his face. A few men were taken.

As far as we’ve heard, no one has come back yet. They’ve unleashed full-on terror, abducting people in broad daylight: town mayors, their deputies, and even the director of Kherson Drama Theater. They are rounding up almost everyone from the education directorate.

Recently, we hit a span of fine weather, and mum went for a walk in the park. As she was heading for the park, some sort of armored vehicle drove past, so closely that the soldiers’ boots almost touched her head. It scared her to death, so she doesn’t go for walks anymore.

On May 8 [the eve of Victory Day in Russia], they started building a stage in the main square, put up their flag, installed a speaker, and started playing Russian Victory Day songs. It was appalling. City residents wanted to hold a “Kherson is Ukraine” rally but failed, intimidated by the numbers of Russian troops.

On May 8, they put up their flag, installed a speaker, and started playing Russian Victory Day songs

It was a weird sight: people stuck in their homes, afraid to go out, while this kind of music was being played in the main square. On May 9, they threw some kind of performance, with a local politician waving a red flag from the stage. They also brought some Crimeans with St. George’s ribbons [Russia’s version of the Remembrance Poppy], who roamed around the city, congratulating each other on the anniversary. Victory Day was always a meaningful occasion in Kherson. We brought flowers to memorials but never turned it into such a festival.

Victory Day parade in occupied Kherson, May 9, 2022
Victory Day parade in occupied Kherson, May 9, 2022

Ekaterina: «My uncle went to the market at ten in the morning, and we have not seen him since»

I have a granny and two uncles living in the center of Kherson, all with disabilities. My granny had trouble walking, and her elder son is bedridden. Her other son, uncle Valera, was their lifeline. He shopped for food and withdrew money from the ATM. He also has health challenges: he can't walk fast and has hand tremors, so he needs special medication to sustain him.

When the war broke out, I stayed in touch with Uncle Valera on Telegram. I also spoke to my granny on his phone every week to find out what assistance they needed. In March and April, I managed to find medicine for them through volunteers; their friends in Kyiv sent them money to help them get by. My granny never got her April pension. She also said the shops were closed, so they had to get their food from the market, where prices had grown threefold. To withdraw money from the ATM (no one accepts cards anymore), Uncle Valera would go to the bank at five in the morning to stand in line.

On May 1, mobile networks and the Internet went down. On May 4, Uncle Valera went online at 1:55 a.m., and in the morning I asked them how they were. The last I heard from him was at 9:52 a.m.: “Hi, we're fine.” According to my granny, he left for the market at around ten. She started worrying at around two p.m., but he wouldn’t pick up. We haven't heard from him since.

I have no proof that the Russians took him; only circumstantial evidence. His Telegram account was deleted around the time he disappeared. I also looked him up on social media: his user pic features a Ukrainian flag and a caption “Putin khuilo” [The Russian for “Putin is a d***head”]. I’m in touch with a friend of my granny's, so I asked her what might have caused them to take him. She said they were checking everyone indiscriminately, even in public transport, mostly men, going through their phones. She said in no uncertain terms: “Telegram has been outlawed in Kherson. Whenever we go outside, we delete everything.”

Telegram has been outlawed in Kherson. Whenever we go outside, we delete everything

I have forwarded all his details to charity foundations, volunteers, and Telegram chats where people look for persons missing in Ukraine... My granny even went to the Russians – to the so-called administration. There are no records of him at the morgue, the hospital, or the police.

I have words to say about the Russian administration too. No one knows anything; they told her to come on the following day with my uncle’s passport. When she asked what time they opened, they said: “Same time as yesterday.” “So when would that be?” “Same time as the day before.” Can you imagine such callousness and rudeness? How can you talk to someone looking for their loved one in such a tone?

My granny never had an easy life, and most people in a difficult life situation are easier to pit against Ukraine, but not her. Whenever she calls me, she says the Russians are no better than the Nazis were in her childhood, and no amount of Russian TV can make her change her mind.

Sergey: «A heavy truck full of soldiers would drive up. They would force the family out of their home and take their household appliances»

I’m a volunteer in Kherson. We get many reports of theft from city residents. In one of the communities, Russian troops seized the locals’ vehicles. Some of them were later returned, but others weren’t. There were occasions when a heavy truck full of soldiers would drive up. They’d force the family out of their home, take their household appliances (washing machines, vacuum cleaners, hairdryers, even kitchen hoods), load them into the truck, and drive off. Then they started beating up locals. Two teenage girls were raped in a village northeast of Kherson – one was eleven years old, the other fourteen. The family’s neighbors say it was Kadyrov's fighters who did it. Meanwhile, men and women were being beaten in basements. They weren't tortured or interrogated; they were beaten for the sake of beating, as an act of pointless aggression.

They weren't tortured or interrogated; they were beaten for the sake of beating, as an act of pointless aggression

Such brutality forced the locals to flee from their homes at night, leaving behind everything the occupants had not taken. The occupation authorities have prohibited moving around in occupied cities and villages, but people decided to leave anyway, risking their lives in the process. I know a family that escaped like this: elderly people crawled across fields with their children and grandchildren to stay out of occupants’ sight. They could only stand up and walk among the trees. And then they crawled on their bellies again, up to Ukrainian checkpoints, where they were welcomed, warmed, and given clean clothes so they could travel further to reunite with relatives and friends.

Elderly people crawled across fields with their with children and grandchildren to stay out of occupants’ sight

A week ago, a Kherson resident got stopped at a Russian checkpoint on his way out of the city, and the guards started inspecting him. Among other things, they went through his backpack and bags and found a pair of gloves he hadn't worn since winter and a Ukrainian flag. It was very careless of him. He simply forgot to check a single pocket. That flag was like blood in the water for them. They started searching the car, almost picking it apart in the process, stripped the passengers down to their underwear, and kept beating them up, mostly going for the kidneys. They asked provocative questions, like “How do you feel about the Russian Federation?” Any answer that wasn't to their liking was punished with heavier blows.

Sometime in the first half of March, a pregnant woman was stopped in the street by a Russian patrol. As she said, there was a female officer among them. They went through her pockets and her phone and found a chat with a friend who is serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Because of her connection to the Ukrainian military, they pushed her into the vehicle, put a bag on her head, and took her to some facility, where she was interrogated and tortured for a long time. Astonishingly, it was the female officer who beat and tortured her. Meanwhile, the men threatened to rape her. Then they drove her elsewhere and threw her out of the vehicle saying: “You should be grateful we didn't kill you.”

A pregnant woman was tortured and beaten by a female officer

On May 9, a fake Victory Day rally took place in the Park of Glory in Kherson. Some locals joined the rally, wearing yellow ribbons on their chests as an anti-occupation emblem. All of them were rounded up and taken to an unknown location. Some are still missing.

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