АвторAuthor: Olha Verkalets | Translation: Nadiia Shovkoplias
30 May 2022
Tattoo artist Kateryna Oleksandrova spent 42 days in occupied Kherson with her husband and three children. She managed to escape, leaving her home and business there. Now Kateryna actively shares what is really going on in the Kherson region on her Instagram blog.
I’m a tattoo artist. All my life I’ve been engaged in creative work. My mother is a teacher; she has an award “Excellence in Education of Ukraine”, and my father is an Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) officer. He has been on the front line since the first days of the war. I have my own studio, and I’ve been doing tattoos for more than 12 years. I traveled all over the world and worked in Europe. I have three daughters. We had big life plans. Our house and business are in Kherson. In a word, we lived wonderfully.
On February 24, I woke up from my youngest daughter climbing into bed. At that moment I heard an explosion. Being asleep, I thought it wasn’t real. We tried to continue sleeping but I heard a knock on the door. It was our upstairs neighbor. This knock was very loud and disturbing. Older children also woke up from it. My husband opened the door, and the neighbor shouted: “The war has begun!”. Children started to panic and cry. We did too, but with restraint. We didn’t understand what to do, what was happening. To go or not to go? And where to go? Then we decided to stay at home and monitor the situation.
On the first day, fighter jets were flying over us. It was deafening; then it became clear that the Russian troops were advancing on Kherson. I remember a fighter jet flying over us. We were sitting in the kid’s room, and the eldest daughter was crying desperately. I tried to calm her down, and at that moment, I heard a sound as if a shell was flying into our windows. I will never forget this sound. That feeling when your legs are entirely paralized. Having a deep breath, you say goodbye to life. A split second. This sound flies on.
From that moment, having been in occupied Kherson for 42 days, we no longer cried. Our goal was to survive and keep our spirit up.
I found out about the occupation of Kherson from local telegram groups. I also keep in touch with many people. I was constantly aware of the situation in the occupied Oleshky in the Kherson region, on the outskirts of the city, in the center. And I knew the overall picture. Then the Kherson Regional State Administration wrote that Russians entered the city and surrounded the administration.
On March 15, I left home for the first time to go to work in the city center. At that time, I already saw the Regional State Administration surrounded by Russian soldiers and military equipment.
In the first week and a half, we didn’t understand what was happening and whether it was possible to go outside for groceries. The shops were open for only a few hours a day and at different times. My husband went shopping, and I checked which store was open on the Internet and let him know. He bought bread in one store, milk in the other, and flour somewhere else.
Later we realized that the Russians kept the city alive. Stores remained open more and more often. But they didn’t allow Ukrainian humanitarian aid and all trucks to enter the Kherson region. They blocked the way. While the warehouses in the region were filled with goods, it was still possible to sell the products. But there was a problem with cash. Many stores have stopped accepting card payments. The retired and socially vulnerable groups suffered from a lack of finances and food.
There was a time when the situation with the products became terrible. Fortunately, the market worked, and our farmers were allowed to sell fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat and fish.
“Russian goods are already on the markets. Gasoline is imported from Crimea. And the shops are all closed because the goods from the warehouses are completely sold”.
Eventually, the situation with the goods went horrible. Fortunately, the market worked and our farmers could sell fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat and fish. Now only Russian products are on the market. Gasoline is imported from Crimea. And the shops are all closed because the goods from the warehouses are completely sold out.
Medicine was sold out in the first two weeks. Volunteers organized the delivery of medicines from Kryvyi Rih. The drivers had to go around a huge distance. But there is still a terrible problem with medications. It is tough for those who have to take the drugs regularly.
Volunteers can somehow distribute aid to Kherson and Oleshky, but it’s a disaster for the villages. Almost no aid gets there. For example, there are about 20 Russian checkpoints from Kherson to Kakhovka, with Russian soldiers completely checking the cars, drivers and their mobile phones. If they don’t like you – they can take you or your gadget away. People from villages survive off their vegetable gardens.
Now occupiers in Kherson are already planning to rename ATB supermarkets and introduce a new currency. Teachers are being forced to switch to the Russian side. In Kakhovka, teachers have already written letters for dismissal. My mother is also a teacher. And if necessary, she will quit. Kherson has become quiet. People’s tension grows every day. Kherson has become empty. People try to stay positive, but they feel the pressure.
There is no work; the Russians burned down the biggest shopping center “Fabryka”. They’re already fighting with each other, for they cannot share the stolen goods. Kherson has changed; it is hard to look at it.
They catch rally organizers, people with a pro-Ukrainian stance, and the military. They break into people’s apartments searching for ATO members, Territorial Defense Forces soldiers, and deputies. People are being held hostage. If you’re an ordinary civilian, doing an ordinary job and only going out to buy groceries in your neighborhood, you’ll be safe. But if you have anything to do with administrative work, if you’re a blogger, you have a straightforward attitude – the invaders will arrest and torture you. For example, volunteers have been beaten, had their groceries taken away, and threatened. My kids’ godfather also does volunteer work. Russians put a sack over his head and held him in the SSU (Security Service of Ukraine) building. The KGB people talked to him.
The occupiers are trying to oppress people who support Ukraine. But at the same, time they want to deceive others and pretend to be friendly. They go to pharmacies and buy medicines for hryvnias. They go to the hospital and ask if they need anything to treat patients. But they steal these hryvnias by breaking into someone’s house.
“When we were leaving Kherson, the orcs (the way Ukrainians call Russian occupiers) at the checkpoint were also friendly to us and didn’t understand why we were leaving the city. They thought we were waiting for them”.
I was only passing by orcs. It was not a very pleasant feeling. Since I am the daughter of a military man and a local blogger with a clear pro-Ukrainian stance, it was dangerous for me to face them. So I tried to avoid them. I drove to work on streets known only by locals.
The decision to leave Kherson was hard. The longer I was here, the more dangerous it was for my children. I couldn’t keep quiet about the events in the city. I wanted more people to understand the situation in Kherson. Yes, you can live there. But only if you put up with it. And I didn’t. They could break into your apartment at any moment.
Our journey began around 5 a.m. The road went through villages, mined fields, Russian checkpoints, and past a lot of broken equipment. Usually, the road to Mykolaiv takes 55 minutes on the highway. It took us 12.5 hours to get to the city. It was hard, dangerous. People who were leaving at different times got under shelling. If you want to leave the Kherson region and live in free Ukraine, there are great risks that your car can be shooted at.
At different checkpoints, the occupiers examined you differently. The main goal was to check the trunk and find military men. They checked documents, phones, and tattoos. At one of the checkpoints, special forces interrogated my husband, who works as a sailor. Russians didn’t understand how he could work as a sailor and not serve in the army. That’s why they interrogated him.
They took food and money from the car. Our departure went rather quietly. But it’s so unpleasant when you are examined by people who have no relation to you and your country. So I wanted to ask, “What right do you have for it?”. But there were three children in the car and great threats to life.
I won’t forget the day when Kherson was cut off from communication with the outside world. A terrible feeling. You are in a vacuum. You and your home have been stolen. They shamelessly stole you in front of the whole world and forced you to live under a government you didn’t want. It’s a terrible feeling.
We had to leave our home. They threw us out of our own house.
I remember when we passed their checkpoints and got into ‘the gray zone’. Then we saw an APC with the letter Z on it but with a Ukrainian flag. Our guys were standing nearby. I was crying in the territory of free Ukraine. These moments will be in my memory for the rest of my life.
We haven’t left Ukraine. We’re waiting for Kherson to be liberated. I opened my own tattoo studio in another city. I give a percentage of my income to volunteers who are in Kherson. They feed people who have no money for food.
I have several tasks at the moment. To give my children an opportunity to have a normal life and earn money to help people in Kherson. And to talk about my city. Not so that people wouldn’t forget it but so that they understand how difficult the situation is there. While you’re in Kherson it is impossible to talk about it. And when I am free, I’ll do it.
Чому важливо поширити цю історію?
Якщо українці не розповідатимуть свій погляд на війну в Україні, світ поступово забуватиме про нас. Натомість цим обов’язково скористаються росіяни. Тому не даймо їм жодного шансу.
Why is it important to share this story?
If Ukrainians do not share their views on the war in Ukraine, the world will gradually forget about us. Instead, the Russians will definitely take advantage of this. So let's not give them a chance.
АвторAuthor: Olha Verkalets | Translation: Nadiia Shovkoplias