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“People feel strange when the city is completely silent.” The story of a partisan who remains in the temporarily occupied Kherson

A week ago, the Russians announced an “evacuation” from Kherson. The Kherson region is divided by the Dnipro River: the regional capital is on the right bank, while most of the region’s territory is on the left. The Armed Forces of Ukraine continue to advance there, so the invaders are either preparing for a protracted defense of the city, or plan to retreat to more advantageous positions on the left bank. 

A car drives over the Antonivsky Bridge near Kherson, damaged by the Ukrainian army, on July 21, 2022. In August, the bridge was closed to all types of transport. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Due to recent military failures, after attempted annexation of the region, the occupiers introduced martial law and mass “evacuation” from Kherson. Or rather forcible deportation that affected dozens of thousands of Ukrainians. Collaborators are also leaving Kherson with their families, and the occupation administration has removed monuments to Russian generals Fyodor Ushakov and Alexander Suvorov, as well as to Prince Grigory Potemkin. Due to problems with logistics in Kherson, there is a severe shortage of products and medicines, cellular communication and the Internet are almost non-functional.  

Journalist Yuliana Skibitska spoke with a Kherson partisan who has been staying in the city since the beginning of the occupation in the first days of March. For security reasons, we are withholding his name and profession, but we have every confirmation that he is a real person. Here is his monologue.

Kherson residents protest against the Russian occupation. March 5, 2022.
Photo: Olexandr Chornyi / AP Photo

The occupation seems very cyclical: what is happening now is very similar to the events in March. Back then, everything was vague and unclear in many aspects, primarily due to the information vacuum. At first, the Russians clearly didn’t expect to meet resistance. There was a lot of it, but grassroots and poorly coordinated. On March 1, the Russians launched an unprovoked shelling of residential buildings. It was a so-called warning to stop any attempt to rebel.

But this shelling hardly found any support among peaceful citizens. And if at first there were still people who doubted the intentions of the Russians, after March 1 number of them significantly decreased.

Now there are just people willing to fight the occupiers, but not so openly. For a long time, the occupiers tried to work with the locals through political technologists, but they couldn’t convince the people to switch to their side.

Now both the collaborators from the Military-Civil Administration and the Russian military understand that the civilians are against them. The military also noticed that the accuracy of strikes against them had increased, and realized that this was because of the locals helping the army and sending the enemy’s coordinates.

I myself am one of those. If we go back a long way, to the end of February and March, we will see that there wasn’t enough official information for the residents from the Ukrainian authorities in Kherson. So I created a Telegram channel just to inform people about current events or points of humanitarian help distribution. I didnʼt want to feel completely useless, I also understood that, most likely, there are many people like me. In addition, I understand that the less equipment will reach the front, the better it will be for the Ukrainian army. So I keep doing what Iʼm doing now.

It feels like about 120 thousand people remain in the city. Many residents left Kherson, specifically in summer, and most of those who stay are over 40 years old. After the “referendums”, it became more difficult to leave Kherson. In the last two weeks, almost no one is released, especially men under 35 years old. One military commandant may pass the people through the checkpoint, the other turns them back. From October 1, applications for departure were introduced: one should get a pass. the Russians are trying to bureaucratize this process as much as possible in order not to let people go. And if you are on the lists of FSB (ex-KGB, Russia’s secret service), it is better to stay silent and invisible.

I am also on this list. I know that when the occupiers searched locals at checkpoints and found their correspondence with me, they were interrogated and turned back to the city.

Only collaborators and privileged Russians left Kherson. There is no retreat of the Russian military: they just take positions not in the city, but in the region. There are many freshly mobilized soldiers, and the occupiers are now hoping on them. Collaborators are those former losers who stood up for the “new government”. In most cases, they cooperate with the Military-Civil Administration set up by the occupiers. By the way, the “vice-governor” set by Russians, Kirill Stremousov also left Kherson — he moved to the left bank of the Dnipro River, closer to the main lines of Russia’s defense, and just rarely comes to the city.

The atmosphere in Kherson right now is rather depressing. People are confused and start to feel strange when the city is completely silent. In addition, now there is almost no communication — neither cellular nor Internet. After 3 p.m. the streets are already empty. Sellers do not want to take Russian rubles, and because of this scandals with collaborators arise.

But the worst thing is that there is already a severe shortage of products and medicines. Many shops closed, only small ones remained, but there is almost nothing in them.

Logistics is now very complicated: if earlier products were transported from the occupied Crimea, now due to broken bridges it’s impossible to do this. And when there is a shortage of products, prices begin to rise. Eggs, for example, already cost up to 90 hryvnias for ten (about six times more comparing to the last year), and it’s still hard to find them. Meat and vegetables are also constantly jumping in price, only the supply of bread is more or less adequate.

Residents of Kherson are trying to “catch” mobile communications.
Photo: Kostyantyn Ryzhenko

The Russians are getting into the apartments of locals who left the city. The occupiers offer money for information about pro-Ukrainain residents, but as far as I know, they pay much less than what they offer or don’t pay at all. There are fools who still do it. In the last week, the Russian military began to actively “mingle” with the local population: they change into civilian clothes and move into vacant housing. Officers, by the way, choose housing closer to the water — so that they can quickly escape to the left bank in case of danger.