АвторAuthor: Olha Verkalets | Translation: Mariia Moskaliuk
28 August 2022
47-year-old Olga Zhukova lived with her family in Kherson and worked in the “New Generation” public center. When her hometown was occupied, women went to pro-Ukrainian rallies to remind once again that Kherson is Ukraine. However, peaceful local protests did not last long, and it was dangerous to stay in the city. Olga, together with her daughter and a colleague, managed to leave Kherson on the second of May. What the woman had to see during more than two months of occupation – “Monologues of the War” found out.
My life was active, rich, and full of events. I lived in Kherson, but as a public figure I worked all over Ukraine. I had many business trips, I loved to travel. Unfortunately, everything ended on February 24.
In recent months, I felt anxious. My colleagues and I talked a lot about the war, and internally I seemed to have to prepare for these events, but as a result, I didn’t even pack my suitcase. On the morning of the 24th, my mother woke me up and said: “Olga, the war has started. Explosions in Chornobayivka. They bombed our airfield.” This news shocked me.
It was on this day that we were supposed to hold an event for our organization. People came to the seminar from other regions, and we had the task of sending them home. At seven in the morning we were already at the hotel and were doing it until lunch. Then they packed their suitcases and stocked up on food. On the evening of February 24, the occupiers were near Kherson, so we could not leave. I did not expect that the russians would approach the city so quickly.
We spent the first night of the war in the basement of our house, because Kherson was being shelled. From February 24 to March 1, there were fierce battles near Kherson, precisely on the Antonivsky Bridge. Gradually, the russians surrounded the city. On the night of February 28 to March 1, they actually took Kherson into a ring. On the first of March, they entered the city itself.
The outermost neighborhoods were badly affected. Local authorities were able to connect communications to residents only at the beginning of March.
On February 24, we were cut off from Ukrainian products and medicines. In the first days of the invasion, everyone rushed to buy supplies. There were also incidents of looting by the local population. At the beginning of March, there were almost no products in the city. Standing in line for three to four hours has become the norm. I also stood in line for half-rotten carrots or cabbage, because there were no other options. Now the situation has improved, it is possible to import vegetables and flour from neighboring villages.
This is a humanitarian crisis. Products came later, but people lost their jobs because of the occupation. Prices are high. For example, pork costs 250-300 hryvnias per kilogram, sugar – 100 hryvnias.
“Kherson is under remote occupation, without the possibility of safely leaving the city. No official green corridor, no humanitarian cargo.”
My colleagues and I joked that the day in Kherson turned into Groundhog Day. I lost my job: in the conditions of the occupation, I could not carry out the activities that I used to do before. It was dangerous. The day became monotonous, gray. You do the same things—wake up in the morning and go grocery hunting at 6:00 a.m. You stand in lines for three or four hours for one product, then for another.
By noon, all the shops stop working, so you have to go home quickly, because at 20:00 there is a curfew. There is also a curfew in other cities of Ukraine, but there is no sense of danger. You can be shot or taken to the commandant’s office. The occupying forces arrange their orders.
Until mid-March, there was a cash problem. Once I stood in line at an ATM from 6:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. There were thousands of people. We just stood and waited. At 12:00, bank employees came, refueled the ATM, and the line began to move.
I first saw the occupiers from my window on the first of March, when they entered the city on armored personnel carriers. They drove along my street for 10-15 meters. And my apartment is on the first floor. I did not have time to close the curtains and it so happened that the armored personnel carrier stopped in front of my window. The soldiers sat and looked at me. And I look at them. Then I was afraid to move, so that I wouldn’t be shot when I moved. We stood like that for several minutes. After that, they dispersed along the street and began combing the neighborhood, knocking on people’s windows. This is how the occupation began for me. Every day they ride in armored personnel carriers, trucks, and are always armed. And this has become a familiar picture, since I live in the center.
The city was not ready for a military invasion. Territorial defense (hereinafter – TD) was formed, but people were not given weapons. On the 25th, the boys came to the Military Commissariat for weapons, but they were not given them. Then all our regional governments disappeared somewhere. And TD remained in the city and took the first battle in Lilac Park. They went out on the tanks with Molotov cocktails. Unfortunately, many of ours died then.
The local population resisted the invaders. I saw how a woman approached the soldiers in the bazaar and shouted: “Why did you come here? You no one called! Go to your russia!”. When the first trucks drove in with humanitarian aid, activists went to Freedom Square, smashed it and demonstratively threw it away.
On March 5, pro-Ukrainian rallies began in Kherson. Every day people expressed their disagreement. This lasted until the end of March. The rallies usually started at 12:00, and at 9:00 the rosguard motorcades arrived. They were located near the regional administration; we were separated by metal structures – anti-tank hedgehogs. They watched, and we shouted at them, stopping the trucks.
For the first two weeks, the occupiers simply watched, although it annoyed them. They pretended to be indifferent and danced to the national anthem of Ukraine. After March 15, they lost their nerve. They played russian songs on the whole square and tried to silence us. In response, we brought our speakers.
The last peaceful rally was held on March 20. The next day, the occupiers began to disperse us. They worked according to a standard scheme: first they called on people to disperse, because the mythical commandant forbids peaceful gatherings, after that they formed a chain and attacked people. We were pelted with tear gas and stun grenades. Then they came closer and shot into the air. If people did not disperse, they shot in the legs. After each crackdown, 5-7 people were hospitalized with injuries, poisoning, and beatings.
The invaders entered the city prepared. They had all the lists of pro-Ukrainian activists, ATO participants, law enforcement officers and SSU (Security service of Ukraine). The Rosgvardiya and the FSB searched addresses, robbed and arrested people. My colleague’s husband is a member of the ATO. They came to her twice. They tried to find out the truth about her husband’s whereabouts.
I closed my social networks, purged friends, and put away photos. I made masking measures. I understand that it was childish. But it gave a sense of security, as if I were hiding.
At some point, I came up with an action. Every morning I went out to Freedom Square and looked to see if there was a Ukrainian flag on the building of the Regional State Administration. And I posted a photo on social media so that friends could see that the flag was in place. After all, public transport stopped running, and people from other neighborhoods did not know what was happening in the center. I did not expect such a reaction from people. It was important for them to look at our flag. Then I joined the rallies and fixed the flag every day.
At the beginning of March, I removed my disguise. If they want to find out, they will find it anyway. And I am me. However, I did not feel like such a heroine for a long time. In April, it was difficult to endure everything psychologically. The city was deserted. Anxiety and pressure increased.
I expected that Kherson would be liberated by the end of March, then by the end of April. I dreamed of seeing our military enter the city. Unfortunately, the hunt for participants in pro-Ukrainian rallies has begun. Sooner or later they could come for me. Besides, I was unemployed. In April, my friends and colleagues were taken prisoner. Sensation as if the circle is constricting. You may not have time to hide. And my daughter graduated from school. And in order to pass the multitest and enter the university, she needs to be in the territory controlled by Ukraine.
“The people of Kherson are hostages. They are subjected to physical, psychological, economic and sexual violence. There is a silent terror. And we will be able to learn about its scale when the Kherson region is liberated.”
My colleague and I decided to leave Kherson at the end of April. Twice our departure was interrupted. One road was closed by the occupiers. They were able to leave by a longer route. Every departure from Kherson is like a lottery. And my colleague and I were lucky. We left at 5 in the morning and at 7 in the evening we were already in Kropyvnytskyi. We passed more than thirty russian checkpoints. We left in the gap when there was no internet connection. Our phones and laptops were not checked.
My colleague and I decided to stay in Ukraine; we stopped in Ivano-Frankivsk. We are trying to help the people of Kherson. It is important that people know the truth about my city.
As soon as Kherson Region is liberated, we will return home. We will rebuild and restore people. I really want Ukraine to win. In my own experience, I felt what it is like to be under occupation. In order to cross the front line, I had to remove all signs of Ukrainian. They came to kill us because we are Ukrainians.
I dream that we will become a fortress to protect our southern borders.
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: Mariia Moskaliuk