Ukrainians who managed to escape from Kherson say that living conditions in the Russian-occupied city are getting worse.
A few weeks ago, family man Volodymyr Zhdanov felt that he had had enough. Rockets hit Ukrainian troops outside his home in Kherson, terrifying his eight-year-old daughter. Terrified, I ran downstairs. It was two in the morning.
– She was really afraid, says Zhdanov, who decided to take his family and flee the city on the Black Sea.
Located just north of Crimea, Kherson was the first Ukrainian city to be occupied by Russian forces after the invasion on February 24. The city’s port is extremely important in Ukraine’s battle to maintain the country’s access to the Black Sea.
For the Russians, Kherson also plays an important role because it is an important part of the land corridor established by Russian forces on Ukrainian soil to connect Russia with Russia-occupied Crimea.
Abandoned streets and disappearances
Zhdanov and others who made the dangerous journey outside Kherson say that conditions in the Russian-occupied city are getting worse.
Before the war, the city had a population of about 300,000. Now the streets are largely deserted, with rumors circulating of armed resistance and local leaders suddenly disappearing for refusing to cooperate with the Russian occupying forces.
Russia is working hard to establish permanent control over the city. Russian soldiers patrolling the city’s markets. Those trying to use the Ukrainian currency will receive a warning. Now only Russian rubles are applied.
Pro-Russian officials are sitting in public positions, and the police have also noticed changes. Municipal employees are under pressure to cooperate with Russian presidents, and most schools are closed.
The supply of essential goods is unstable, and almost all commercial activities have stopped. There is a shortage of medicines and high prices for other commodities.
Waiting for a counterattack
Many residents tried to hold out as long as possible while waiting for a Ukrainian counterattack. But it has not yet arrived, and now more and more people are giving up.
Being in the city was physically dangerous because there were a lot of soldiers, says Zhdanov, who is being interviewed after he and his family lived for three weeks in the capital, Kyiv.
The authorities, entrusted by Russia with responsibility for Kherson, announced a referendum on whether the region should become part of Russia, but a date has not yet been set. Meanwhile, the remaining residents are under pressure to become Russian citizens.
The Zhdanov family was engaged in selling flowers, but the income disappeared after the currency change.
It’s hard to live without money and food. Who would want a Russian government if it took your life, your work, and your children’s education from you? He says everything is gone.
When Zhdanov left Kherson with his family, he risked arrest because he hid a Ukrainian flag in the bottom of his bags. He received the flag during a demonstration against the Russian occupation forces.
Journalist Yvenja Verlich also stayed in Kherson until this summer. She continued to work and wrote about people who allegedly collaborated with the Russians.
But she worked in secret and feared for her safety. To avoid arrest, she moved to different apartments and posted pictures from Poland on social media so that people would think she had escaped.
– They’ve tied a knot around Kherson and it’s getting tighter, says Ferlits.
She says residents are under pressure to accept Russian passports.
– Russia entered under the banner of liberation, but they came to torture and took us prisoners. How can anyone live like this? she asks
In July, she finally fled to Kyiv with her husband.
Hazard purification camp
To get out of the city, people have to cross a series of Russian roadblocks. There baggage checks and identification papers and cell phones are checked. Anyone suspected of supporting the resistance against the Russians is interrogated and sent to so-called liquidation camps.
When Kherson plunges into poverty, it becomes increasingly difficult to leave the city. A bus ticket to Zaporizhzhya, which is 30 miles northeast of Kherson, costs about 1,500 NOK. Before the war, the ticket cost less than a hundred Swedish kronor.
Verlich says she admires the courage of those who remained in the city and who risked their lives by participating in anti-Russian protests at the start of the occupation.
She remembers a demonstration that brought together more than 7,000 people. It was March 5th, a few days after the Russians arrived.
– I’ve never seen people do something like this before, she says.
Shoot the protesters
In April, protests stopped after Russian soldiers began firing live ammunition at protesters. Many were injured, according to Verlett.
Russia wants to keep control of Kherson. The city is also strategically located on the North Crimean Canal, which supplies water to Crimea. Ukraine closed the canal after Russia annexed Crimea eight years ago, but the Russians reopened it after taking control of the region.
Zhdanov and Verlich still hope that the Ukrainian counterattack will lead to Ukraine’s restoration of the region.
– I believe only in God and the Ukrainian Armed Forces. I no longer believe in anything else, says Jevhenja Virlytj.
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