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Svitlana secretly sewed Ukrainian flags in occupied Kherson

The Armed Forces of Ukraine liberated Kherson on November 11. The Ukrainian military entered the city, which had been under occupation for eight months, since March 1, and actively opposed Russians. Over the next few days, local residents greeted the soldiers and asked them to sign their clothes or Ukrainian flags. The latter was surprising: Ukrainian symbols were, in fact, banned by the occupiers. If Russians found a Ukrainian flag in someone’s house, they could have faced persecution. There were cases when locals hid the national flags in jars and buried them in their gardens.

Many locals managed to preserve flags dear to their hearts. And some were even brave enough to make more of them.

More than fifty people in Kherson squares and streets had big and small flags from Svitlana and Oleh Yablokov. In the spring, they closed their atelier and the woman secretly sewed Ukrainian flags from the remaining fabric. Here is the story of her quiet resistance, told in the already liberated Kherson.

Photo: Stas Kozliuk / Babel

Svitlana says goodbye to Oleh and leaves the apartment. She holds a bag in her hands, descends from the third floor. The New Year decorations on the neighbors’ doors haven’t yet been removed, and on the windowsills there are flower pots that Svitlana placed during the occupation.

“Can I feed your dog?” she asks the drunken men on the bench at the entrance. They nod, and Svitlana takes out a bag of food.

After feeding the dog and saying goodbye to the surprised men, Svitlana walks through the yard. The street is empty, but a lone passer-by walks straight towards the woman. She waves at the stranger, opens her purse, takes out a blue and yellow bow and says:

“Come on, take it!”

Surprised, the boy takes the ribbon and immediately tries to tie it to his jacket. Svitlana slowly crosses the yard. It’s a routine for her now: she has been doing this since the de-occupation ― for 10 days already.

Svitlana has been sewing for 35 years. She started in Kharkiv, then moved several times, tried trading, and returned to sewing again. For several years she worked in a studio, and then her husband Oleh and she opened a joint business. She was engaged in sewing, while he was dealing with finances and documents.

Photo: Stas Kozliuk / Babel

They had three employees in Kherson. When the full-scale Russian invasion began, two of them left the city. Another woman and her husband began helping the local territorial defense and the wounded. Through them, Svitlana transferred pastry to the hospital. She was ready to volunteer more, but the city was soon occupied entirely.

“We decided not to leave Kherson. Oleh has been disabled since childhood: he has only one eye,” explains Svitlana. “And we are tired of moving.”

In the spring, Svitlana and Oleh’s studio worked with old orders. On May 6, they officially closed the business: they had nothing to pay taxes from. The equipment had to be moved from the atelier as soon as possible: the officers of FSB (the Russian secret and repression service, formerly known as KGB) had already taken up residence in the hotel where the studio located. Oleh moved almost all sewing machines to the garage. Only three of them were left in the family’s apartment: one for knitwear, the other for embroidery, which Oleh gave to his wife as a present on March 8. And on the third, Svitlana secretly sewed flags.

Photo: Stas Kozliuk / Babel
Photo: Stas Kozliuk / Babel

The machine worked quietly. Neighbors didn’t hear anything. Svitlana collected remnants of various shades of blue and yellow fabric, spools of blue and yellow threads. Some of the flags she made were large enough to get wrapped in them, some could be held comfortably in the hands, and others were very small. Afraid of searches, she hid everything in cloth bags on the balcony. In a few months, Svitlana sewed 65 flags ― there were just not enough fabric for more. Neither fabrics nor threads were brought to Kherson, the shops were empty. Oleh, as usual, jokingly grumbled that he would not become rich with her.

“I told only three acquaintances from Kherson that I sew flags,” says Svitlana. “Some were afraid to have a flag during the occupation, but two families took them. One family is our neighbors from the 5th floor, so they just came and took two flags. For others, I brought flags myself ― I pinned them between the layers of clothes and carried them through the city.

Svitlana was sure that Kherson would be liberated ― especially after a successful counteroffensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the Kharkiv region. However, Oleh and she expected de-occupation to happen at the end of November.

And then, on November 11, she was told that Ukrainian flags were already in the city center. Svitlana didn’t believe this at first ― she thought it was the partisans who hanged them at night, and the Russians actually didn’t leave the city. She went out into the street, and there was a convoy of honking cars.

Someone shouted to Svitlana: “Kherson is free!” ― and she rushed home to get the flags safely hidden on the balcony.

“I stood by the road and started handing them out,” recalls Svitlana, and tears well up in her eyes, a common case for many Kherson locals during such conversations. “I didn’t expect that they would be taken so quickly! My heart was pounding ― I even drank a sedative so it wouldn’t jump out because of joy.”

The next day, Svitlana carried the flags to the city’s main square. All of them were taken. People offered her money, wanted to order more flags ― but there is nothing to sew with, and there is no electricity for machines. The last, largest flag that Svitlana sewed for herself was taken away by strangers on November 13. Now all she has left is the small flag on her bicycle.

Photo: Stas Kozliuk / Babel

As of now, Svitlana has no fabric. Everything that is left in sewing warehouses is now many times more expensive ― for example, a spool of yellow threads is no longer 8 hryvnias, but 50. Machines don’t work without electricity. So Svitlana sews ribbons by hand ― though there are no pins for them either. She gives them out on her walks.

Svitlana’s whole family experienced the occupation ― mother in the Kharkiv region, relatives in the Sumy region, niece is still in the temporarily occupied part of the Luhansk region. And for Svitlana and her husband, this is the second time: the machine on which Svitlana sewed flags they took from Crimea.

Svitlana and Oleh left Sevastopol in 2016. They waited for the liberation of the peninsula, but in the end they left the city, where they had lived for four years. The couple closed the atelier there, found other jobs for their six seamstresses and left. They were choosing between Kherson, Odesa and Mykolaiv.

“We chose Kherson to be closer to Sevastopol when it is liberated. And the occupation caught us here too,” says Oleh, taking out an old magazine with their Sevastopol advertisement from a drawer.

“I didn’t want to leave,” says Svitlana, “it was one of the most beautiful places in my life. I love Khreson as well, but when Crimea is returned, we will go back. This will probably the last time I move.”

In Sevastopol, before the Russian occupation, Svitlana and her workers often sewed military uniforms. She did the same in Kherson. And also she sewed for free for grannies and large families, donated fabric for weaving camouflage nets.

Their home still feels like “a little Crimea”. On the wall, there is a painting of local Kishka mountain, brought from Sevastopol. By the window — bicycles bought long ago in Crimea. Somewhere in the apartment, there is a thoroughly hidden Ukrainian flag, which was saved from the first occupation.

Neither Svitlana nor Oleg know whether their business will recover, whether the family will remain in Kherson or whether there will be clients. Water and electricity supply have to be returned in the city, and only then will the cloth with threads will be available again. Then Svitlana will sew a large flag, collect the signatures of Kherson citizens on it and take it to Mykolaiv ― with thanks for the defended South.