Kateryna Alexandrova, 32, is a tattoo artist and Instagram blogger who spent 43 days with her three daughters and husband in occupied Kherson. Thanks to her activity on social networks, the woman knows many people in the city who still tell her about what is happening there under the occupation.
Kateryna saw the shooting of pro-Ukrainian rallies committed by the Russian military, the corpses of people from whom the invaders took away the cars that run on diesel. Before going out for groceries, she had to delete photos and correspondence from her phone. The woman told Slidstvo.Info about her experience of surviving in occupied Kherson.
“YOUR LEGS ARE NUMB AND YOU SAY GOODBYE TO LIFE ON THE BREATH”
Early in the morning of February 24, I woke up because my youngest daughter had climbed into my bed after she had heard an explosion. And about 10 minutes later my neighbor knocked on our door and shouted: “The war has begun!”.
The older children got scared and started crying. We did not understand what was happening. We did not know whether it was possible to leave the city, what the situation was on the roads. So we decided to stay in our apartment and monitor the situation.
On the first night of the war, many fighters and missiles flew over the city. Russian military equipment was advancing from Crimea, and continuous fighting was taking place near Kherson. Our army drove them back, then the orcs moved forward.
There was a moment I will never forget. I am with the children in the nursery, the older one sleeps and the younger one cries lying at my feet. I calm her down, try to explain the situation and support her somehow. At that moment we heard some sounds. It seemed that a rocket was heading to our house.
The faster the sound approached us, the brighter that feeling was. Your legs are numb and you say goodbye to life on your breath. You are preparing to be blown into a billion pieces. A second later it became clear that the sound got quieter. It was a fighter jet, not a rocket.
This moment became decisive. We realized that nothing depended on us. We are ordinary people who just need to try to go on with their lives while we can.
“YOU CAN ONLY BUY RUSSIAN PRODUCTS”
On about March 8–10, clients started booking their tattoo appointments. I decided to open the studio because the money would be needed. People got patriotic tattoos and then lined up for bread.
Even then, it was clear that the Russians had occupied the city and people were slowly going out to buy some food. But it was very scary. Kherson is a big but at the same time small city. On the telegram channels, local bloggers wrote where the stores were opened and what can be bought there. I followed Instagram, where and what opens, and shared that information with my husband who went for groceries.
Initially, the stores had regular work hours, opening for a couple of hours while there were some goods. There were huge queues, and some shops stopped accepting card payments on the first day of the occupation.
People were left without money and without the opportunity to withdraw cash. There is a baby store in the city, where diapers began to cost 600 hryvnias, which was twice as much as before the war. They sold goods for a fortune and then bought all the dollars in the city. Due to the fact that they collected a large amount of cash, others were left without cash.
One young man had two Privatbank terminals in the store. He called the hotline and asked permission to open them, but to charge his card the equivalent amount of money. He took that cash to “Nova Poshta” so that people could get their pensions.
As far as I know, as of the beginning of May, only 10% of pensions were delivered. So, 90% of pensioners did not receive money. These people are starving.
A catastrophic humanitarian and financial situation takes place in the city as of now. Orcs blocked off all the routes for the Ukrainian humanitarian aid supposed to be delivered to our oblast, and now all the shelves are empty. You can buy only Russian products.
“SOMEONE WAS TORTURED AND BEATEN. SOMEONE WAS KILLED”
In mid-March, life in the city slowly receded, but it is not the life we are used to. It is impossible to state one’s position, although people went to rallies. The first rally was more or less peaceful, but the Russians started firing into the air. That rally gathered about 5,000 Kherson residents – it was a huge crowd of people with flags, and posters. They were wearing embroidered shirts. And the orcs were shocked. Our people were not afraid.
Subsequent rallies were smaller because they were no longer so safe. The orcs opened fire at people, threw light grenades into the crowd, and injured civilians. At the moment, rallies are not possible at all.
There were many Russian servicemen in the city. They occupied government buildings. They settled in boarding schools, in the buildings of the Security Service of Ukraine and the regional state administration. They kicked all the representatives of our government out of there.
At first, they appeared in one of the buildings, seized it, and interrogated people there. Then they shelled a car with the civilians inside. It was all happening gradually.
Entering the city, orcs burned down several houses to intimidate people. They fired a cannon at the 9th floor and set fire to the largest shopping mall in the oblast Fabrika Mall. And when the fire truck came there, they just shelled it.
They also set fire to two five-story buildings on Perekopska Street. There were some people. There was even a pregnant girl on the third floor. A friend of mine was next door and said that they (Russians – ed.) did not let firefighters in. They stood at the section entrance and did not even let people save themselves.
The Russians started catching volunteers, beating them, threatening them, and taking away all the food they had. Some volunteers simply stopped doing this, and some left the city immediately.
My friend had his own business – a burger cafe. From the first days of the war, he made this burger cafe a volunteer headquarters. About ten people with machine guns entered it, beat up a boy-volunteer, and took away the phones of the girls-volunteers and everything in that headquarters.
They said that the next day at 10 a.m. my friend should come to the building of the Security Service of Ukraine. He came, they put a sack on his head and took him down to the basement. According to him, some KGB officers talked to him. Then he was released and very soon he was forced to leave the city.
They were looking for the families of ATO officers who were in the city and the oblast. They were looking for the families of the military, police workers, territorial defense officers, opinion leaders, bloggers, and activists – those who have a clear pro-Ukrainian position. Some were held for 4–8 days, some people were held captive for three weeks. Someone was tortured and beaten. Someone was killed. A person can be caught in front of you, and there is nothing you can do about it.
I am in touch with a woman who heard her neighbor being raped every night. They (Russians – ed.) do the same as in Bucha and Irpin, but not on such a scale. They are trying to make it look like we wanted to be there (in Russia – ed.) and they are “saving” us.
“THE CORPSES OF PEOPLE WHOSE CARS WERE TAKEN AWAY”
The Russians did not allow food to be brought so that people would go hungry and then come to get the Russian humanitarian aid. When the Internet was shut down and there was no connection with the outside world in Kherson, they filmed a “movie”. They brought four trucks of Russian humanitarian aid, mostly canned food. They put it all on the square and brought some people from Crimea to shoot a video about helping hungry Kherson.
After they had filmed that “movie”, the Internet appeared. There was no Internet for a day and a half. And as there was such disconnection of the Internet in the city and oblast, we already understood that “movies” were being filmed. Or they made a rotation (of the military – ed.) so that we can not send some information to the Armed Forces or the media.
It felt like your house was stolen along with you. You are staying in your house on your land but you have been taken and forcibly connected to another country.
Flags were removed in Kherson and the oblast. In Kakhovka, teachers were forced to write statements to become Russian teachers. Almost everyone there wrote a resignation letter. My mother is a teacher who stays in the oblast – they secretly continue distance learning in Ukrainian. But recently, about three days ago, they entered our school in Oleshky, took down the Ukrainian flag, and hung the Russian one. They are also trying to bring teachers from Crimea there.
From the beginning of the war, the Russians confiscated cars running on diesel because there was diesel in the city. Then you could see the shelled cars or just the corpses of people whose cars were taken away in the city. They entered private houses and demanded car keys. If it is a private house, it is easier to find an owner than in a high-rise building.
Phones were taken away. Before we went outside, even for groceries, we had to delete photos and videos on our phones.
“THEY WERE LOOKING FOR TATTOOS AND BRUISES LEFT BY STOCKS”
When we were leaving the oblast, the Russians asked us at the checkpoints, “Why are you leaving?” And you can’t answer anything, because it’s dangerous.
We left on the 43rd day of the occupation. When they got to my friend, I realized that we had to go. If he was taken away, they could find me using his phone.
My father is a military man, an ATO officer, he has been serving for a long time, so the risks were very high. I have three children, I didn’t even want to imagine what would happen when the military with machine guns broke into our apartment.
From the first day of the war it was possible to leave via the main route “Kherson-Mykolaiv”, it took 55 minutes. Then this route was closed and people began to leave via the Grand Canyon “Stanislav” (a canyon 50 kilometers east of Kherson – ed.) – we have such a landmark.
Then, when our military began to move closer to Kherson, it was no longer possible to cross that road. Because we interfered with the military and there were villages where the Russian military shelled the cars of civilians passing by.
The fields were mined there, and this was the second road that has become impossible to be used to leave. It was a little longer than the previous one.
Then came the next road via Snihurivka and Bashtanka – through fields and broken Russian military equipment. We left using it.
There were about eight Russian blockpost along the way. They conducted a full inspection of the car, documents, and phones. If a person has a correspondence on his or her phone that they don’t like, they can detain that person.
Men were stripped to the waist and examined for some military or patriotic tattoos, they also looked for bruises left by stocks.
Our road from Kherson to Mykolaiv which took about an hour before the war, lasted 12,5 hours.
My acquaintances know the guides who take people out for money. These guides charge from $150 for the safe relocation of a person from Kherson. On the way back, they bring medicines. But they also charge money for the delivery of medicines. Then it became clear that they share this money at Russian checkpoints.
Many people leave with such guides, hoping that it is safer. Well, if the guide pays the orcs at the checkpoint, then this car is most likely not to be shot.