In late February 2022, convoys of Russian military vehicles crossed into Ukraine from temporarily occupied Crimea and spread like a malignant tumour across the Kherson region. The city of Kherson – capital of sailors and farmers – was occupied by the Russian invaders in early March.
Some Khersonites held protests, demanding that their land be returned to Ukraine. Others became partisans and made life unbearable for the invaders.
On 11 November, the Armed Forces of Ukraine liberated the entire right-bank part of Kherson Oblast, forcing the Russians to make a "goodwill gesture" and retreat to the left bank of the Dnipro River. The humiliated Russian army has been shelling Kherson with Grad multiple-rocket launchers and mortars almost every day since then, deliberately destroying homes and taking lives.
The Kherson partisans
When journalists were finally permitted to visit Kherson after the city's liberation, I felt an urge to go there and find local partisans and make a documentary about them.
Because it's one thing being a patriot and working to bring victory closer somewhere in Kyiv or Lviv, where rockets are flying and hitting: it's loud, it’s scary – but still, you're in the rear. But to be a patriot and resist the enemy in the occupied cities, you need to have balls of steel.
Just graffitiing "Glory to the Armed Forces of Ukraine!" on a fence exposes you to danger and torture. Your Russian-sympathising neighbour might see you doing it and hand you over to the occupiers. That would mean captivity, torture, and possibly even death. And yet people consciously choose to do this... So I was eager to meet such people. How I personally would act in that situation, and whether I would risk my life, is a big question.
The only person we found who was willing to be interviewed was a young woman in Berdiansk who, at the beginning of the full-scale invasion, had thrown a "Bandera smoothie" (Molotov cocktail) at a Russian armoured personnel carrier that made it burst into flames. A cool story, but of course, we needed more.
So, to track down some partisans, I decided to travel to the heartland of their resistance – the city of Kherson, which was occupied for almost a year.
An incoming strike and... a decapitated body
Lilacs bloom abundantly alongside the railway track, and a grey hare peers timidly out of the grass. Men are covering the roofs of ruined buildings with blue tarpaulins as the train cautiously approaches a city that is still under constant fire from the Russian military – Kherson.
I’ve booked an apartment in advance on Tyraspilska Street, a quiet location in the city centre of Kherson.
"But that’s one of the most dangerous places in Kherson!" says Dmytro, a volunteer who meets me at the railway station.
"Really? The estate agent said it was safe there."
"Yeah. He'd tell you anything to make money! There’s not a lot of money coming in these days. Few people visit here. On the contrary, everyone’s leaving."
Indeed, when I’d bought my train tickets, almost all the seats had sold out. But people started getting off the train even before we reached Mykolaiv, and most passengers got off at Mykolaiv. Only a handful of people carried on to Kherson.
"But maybe it will be OK, and the Russian military won't target that building."
"Come on, you've only just got here and you're acting like you're a Kherson local. The Ruscists shell the city constantly. And people go shopping and do up their homes. And they die because of their arrogance."
"All right. I'll be careful."
I hear a grim laugh in response.
Siava, another volunteer, has agreed to give me a lift. The car is dented all over, and there’s a folded wheelchair on the back seat. The lock on the boot is broken, so my suitcase is at risk of falling out onto the battered asphalt the whole way. It’s just as well I changed my mind at the last minute about packing my laptop for the trip.
I’d been to Kherson several times before the war. It used to be a beautiful, bustling, green city. Now it looks like a post-apocalyptic movie. The buildings stare at me through empty slits of broken windows. It’s as if they are asking, "What do you want to find out here? Do you think we have the time for you now?"
The asphalt, peppered with potholes made by rocket and mortar shrapnel, is deliberately slowing down our car. The car seems surprised that it can still go. There are almost no people out and about. I hear an explosion somewhere nearby and instinctively shrink down into the seat. I try to remain calm, but my face betrays me and turns pale.
"It's an outgoing one," Siava says, smiling at my reaction.
"You hear sounds like that in Kyiv too from time to time. But that one was... very close."
"Well, we hear them almost every day. You haven't picked a good time to come. The last few months have been relatively calm. But these days, the orcs [Russians] seem to have gone crazy – they’re pounding and pounding us everywhere... Here we are. This is your home. Yep, this isn’t the safest place. But there are no safe places left in Kherson."
"Thanks, that makes me feel a lot better," I reply, attempting a joke.
Siava leaves to get on with his volunteering. And I’m left alone with my pink suitcase. I look around the old five-storey building where I will be living in the coming days. On the street side, the windows on the first two floors are completely smashed, and the windows on the upper floors are damaged in places. There’s a pothole on the kerb, caused by a strike. My heart begins to race again. I have a bad feeling about this.
|The building where the journalist stayed|
"That was a mortar," says a woman in her 70s who is walking a ginger pug. "I see you're looking at the crater from that hit. It happened a couple of months ago. A car pulled up, the driver stopped for five minutes to pick someone up. And at that exact moment, it hit. His head was blown off. It took them a long time to scrape the remains of him off..."
"How awful. I’m planning to stay in this building for a couple of days. I'm getting to know the area." I try to speak calmly, but my voice trembles, giving me away.
"Where are you from? And why have you come here? Are you here to spy on us?" The woman looks suspiciously at my pink suitcase, as if an explosive device were hidden inside.
"I'm from Kyiv. I'm a journalist." I decided not to mention anything about looking for partisans, just in case.
My accreditation from the Armed Forces of Ukraine finally dispels the vigilant grandma’s doubts.
"Oh, so you're in luck. I've lived here for a long time and I know everyone. What would you like to know? My name is Zinaida Ivanivna. Natalia… what's your patronymic?" The grandma instantly turns into a formal lady.
My apartment turns out to be on the fourth floor. If the situation had been different, I would have been annoyed about having to walk upstairs with the suitcase. Now, having seen what’s happened to the lower floors, I sigh with relief. However, if there is a strike to the roof, the fourth floor is not the safest option… [It's a five-storey building.]
The apartment itself turns out to be a cosy modern studio. It’s neat and tidy, everything done to a high standard. The only not-so-pleasant thing is the smell of cigarettes that has seeped into the walls.
Under different circumstances, that would have really irritated me. But now I just shrug it off. I leave my things and quickly go back down to the street, where an important witness to what has happened and is happening in Kherson is waiting for me, eager to tell her story. It’s an incredible stroke of luck.
|Local resident Zinaida Ivanivna|
Zinaida Sherstobitova is actually already over 80. Her husband died long ago. Her son and daughter-in-law have stayed in Kherson – they did not go elsewhere, probably because of her. Her grandson has been living and working in Switzerland for a long time. Zinaida Ivanivna is from Russia. She has relatives there.
"As soon as the war started, my niece called me and said: ‘Auntie Zina, it’s not us who are fighting with you – you’re fighting with us.’ And then it was ‘We’re not at war with you, but with America.’ I said, ‘On our territory? And you are killing us.’ She didn’t reply. They’ve been told that it’s our fault – we are on their territory. Putin can do no wrong as far as they’re concerned. And the fact that they are killing us every day – they just don't want to know."
"Zinaida Ivanivna, have many of your neighbours and acquaintances left? I can see there are very few people on the streets."
"Oh, almost everyone’s left. Take our building, for example. It has four sections – 80 apartments. And there are only seven people left. The rest are empty. And it’s the same in almost every building. We try to keep things in order so that homeless people don’t loot it."
"Why didn't you leave? Aren’t you afraid?"
As if to confirm my words, some blasts of mortar fire resound somewhere nearby. I instinctively duck, but Zinaida Ivanivna pays no attention to the loud noises.
"Where would I go? Kyiv? Well, we could live there for two or three months. Even if it was free, although nothing is free any more. And then what? My pension is 3,000 hryvnias ($75) a month. How could I live on that? Here, at least I’m at home. Larik [her funny ginger pug] and I walk every day to our favourite places..."
"What if there’s an air strike? After all, there already has been a strike right below your building. Where do you hide? Is there a shelter nearby?"
"There is nowhere to hide. And more to the point, the way things are in this city, you just don't have time. Lately, four o'clock in the morning, I’m asleep, it’s all nice and quiet, and then boom! Where am I supposed to run to when it’s already exploded? You just don't have time to hide anywhere. We are always anxious. Outgoing fire in the daytime and incoming at night – they’re out for revenge."
Outgoing fire is when our soldiers are shooting, and incoming is when it’s the Russians. Everyone in Kherson, from the youngest to the oldest, clearly understands when fire is outgoing and when it’s incoming.
Alla Leonidivna, a friend of Zinaida Ivanivna's, comes over to us. A young woman, only a little over 50. She’s brought food: pumpkin, onions, milk...
"Oh, why are we standing out here on the street? Come up to my place, I’ll make you some coffee." Zinaida Ivanivna starts bustling about.
Her two-room apartment on the first floor is small, but cosy and comfortable. We go into the small kitchen, and Zinaida Ivanivna begins to briskly set the table: preserved mushrooms, brisket, fresh radishes. A bottle of vodka appears from somewhere.
"It's nice and cosy here," I say, trying to compliment the hostess.
"I don’t think so! There was almost no heating. They gave us a blanket and one heater. But it didn’t really help. A fungus appeared on my walls, I’ve just about got rid of it..."
No sooner have we sat down than the doorbell rings. A man is at the door with a package of humanitarian aid. He immediately hands Zinaida Ivanivna a bottle of condensed milk and takes a picture of her with it, so that there is documentary confirmation that he isn’t doing anything dodgy with the goodies on the side. Then he’s off. Zinaida Ivanivna begins to unpack the bag. The cabbage is rotten, but that doesn’t upset her.
"I’ll braise it, and it’ll be fine. So-o. Tinned food of some kind. Carrots, beetroot for borshch, onions, potatoes. Oil, millet, rice, noodles, peas. We’re not forgotten. They bring it about once every two weeks. It’s enough to live on."
We decide to take a walk around the area while it is quiet.
Spring has painted everything around us in a bright green colour and added a pleasant smell of lilac. The sun’s warmth makes you feel that a peaceful life is already here. Only the children's playgrounds, their swings abundantly overgrown with weeds, and the ruined buildings and mountains of rubbish remind us of the war.
"Don't the refuse collectors do their work?"
"They do, but not every area is visited by the trucks – for example, this building here has been destroyed, which means that no one lives there and there’s no rubbish. But in reality, homeless people have taken over – they live there and create rubbish..."
A man looks out from a neighbouring five-storey building.
"Oh, where are these beautiful ladies off to? And where’s your dog?"
It’s a neighbour – Vitalii, a hairdresser, who has no one to talk to again. When I ask him why he doesn't leave, he says adamantly: "I'm staying here until we win! Everyone ran away like… rats. And I'm sitting here drinking Jack Daniels – a client I saved from a heart attack gave it to me [he shows us the bottle]. Don't go for a long walk, because the orcs won’t rest for long."
It’s sound advice, so we get a move on. Several people are playing volleyball at the stadium. That’s strange. I ask if they aren’t afraid of coming under fire.
"We’re just tired of being afraid now. We need to warm up at least a little. We came here from the Korabelnyi district."
We continue on our way, walking through the central park and looking at the television tower that the Russians blew up on their last day in Kherson. The splendid 250-metre-tall giant lies there helplessly, blocking almost the entire park. And then it starts...
|The blown-up TV tower|
A shell flies overhead, whistling, and lands somewhere very close. All of us instinctively drop to the ground. A few seconds later the whistling sound is heard again, and a projectile explodes somewhere behind the trees.
Bent over, we run home. And shells keep whistling and exploding nearby. And we can hear the earth shaking. It’s as if they’re firing at us, and the next one is going to hit the target.
"These are mortars. We need to get a move on." My new friends, the grandmas, move from tree to tree, from house to house, like real ninjas. Businesslike and focused.
And I have never been so scared as I am now. Even when shells were exploding in the early days of the war and when the Russians were launching drones with missiles at Kyiv. Mortar bombs have never whizzed over my head until today.
So we make our way home in short bursts.
I see a woman calmly mowing the grass, with whistling and explosions going on all around. My God, how is that possible? She must be wearing headphones. We start shouting to warn her of the danger. But she just smiles at us, says "It’s OK, they’ll stop soon," and carries on with her work. This is what people who are used to war and shelling look like.
After about 15 minutes, which feels like an eternity, the shelling stops. Back at our apartment block, I say goodbye to the brave ladies.
|A woman mowing grass under shelling|
Finally, I ask them about the partisans – do they know any? They shake their heads – the war isn't over yet; it's too soon to talk about partisans... I'm about to go and get some rest in my cosy studio apartment on the fourth floor when I remember that I need to buy water. Because drinking from the tap is not an option.
Surprisingly, the shop on the ground floor of the same building is open. The assistant, a young woman of about 25, is calmly selling things to people who are just as calmly doing their food shopping in the midst of the shelling.
The prices here are slightly higher than in Kyiv – milk costs about US$1.50; 1% fat kefir, US$1.20; 20% fat soured cream, US$1.80; a loaf of bread, 75 cents. One woman spends about US$40 on food: three pieces of luncheon meat, bread, cookies, milk...
"Wow, what do you need all that for?"
"The curfew is coming up – we have to stay at home for three days."
"Why? And why don't you shop at the supermarket? It's cheaper there..."
"Can’t you see what’s happening? Today they targeted ATB [a supermarket] – a lot of people were killed. The orcs are raging. They want to wipe Kherson off the face of the earth. Where are you from that you don't know anything?"
"Oh! Tell them in Kyiv that Kherson should not be forgotten. We’ve organised boycotts against the orcs here, become partisans, given our lives, and now they’re killing us again. What has Kyiv done?"
"Well, I think they are doing what they can there. Maybe it would be better for you to evacuate?"
"We’ve got a smart one here! Everyone has left. There’s less than 50,000 people still in the city, when before the war there were more than half a million! And what have we got here now? Homeless people break into our apartments, rummage around and sell everything. They started when the metal collection centres were opened. They steal everything! And some of them adjust the fire for the orcs too. If everyone leaves, what will happen to the city?"
"How do you combat the fire adjusters?"
"This is how we do it: we stay, we protect this place and drive them away! The police say, ‘There’s no evidence, we can’t arrest them.’ There’s no work; there’s nothing! All the government does is give out humanitarian aid, they don’t pay any money to anyone."
The woman's impassioned narrative is interrupted by a powerful blast. She quickly packs up her things and runs out of the shop.
"Don't take any notice," the shop assistant says. "Things are really hard for us right now. Today, three guys from our district were killed. They were electricians repairing the network. There was a strike, and they all died... I don’t think the Russians will rest until they’ve killed us all."
"How did they treat you when they were here?"
"Different ways. Mostly they were afraid, because the partisan movement was very strong. They saw a partisan in every man. They caught young men and tortured them. They treated the women OK. But some terrible things happened in the villages – rapes, anything you can imagine..."
A loud and hellish Kherson night
The evening begins with me counting the explosions. When I reach 58, I ring my neighbours’ doorbell.
"Tell me, how do you survive these attacks? This is the fourth floor. Maybe we should go down to the basement?"
"That won't help. It’s better to follow the two-walls rule [a safety rule whereby a person keeps two walls without windows between them and the street during attacks – ed.]. Get a blanket and a pillow, lie down on the floor, and try to go to sleep. It seems scary, but they aren’t actually firing on our building."
The woman’s confident, commanding tone (she turned out to be a biology teacher who now works online) has a calming effect on me. But after I go back home and hear more explosions, my panic returns. I turn on the TV, hoping that at least that would calm me down. But the beautiful, self-assured presenters on the 24-hour newscast just annoy me. I turn it off and carry on counting the explosions. I lose count at 120. Fatigue and sleep come at dawn. And at seven in the morning, I’m woken up by explosions again.
The trip was supposed to last another day but, exhausted after my sleepless night, I’ve decided I won’t survive another night like this here. I decide to go to the bus station and head for Mykolaiv, as I haven’t found what I was looking for here. On the way I run into some local partisans, and instead of the bus station, I end up in Chornobaivka. But that’s another story...
Natalka Kruzhylina, specially for Ukrainska Pravda. Zhyttia
Translation: Yelyzaveta Khodatska, Violetta Yurkiv, Oxana Hart
Editing: Teresa Pearce