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  • Українці розповідають про пережите під час війни з росією

    Ukrainians talk about their experiences during the war with russia

    Yulia Ivanova

    “When they are called collaborators, they start thinking that Ukraine abandoned them”: how Melitopol residents survive in occupation


    АвторAuthor: Iryna Hyliuk | Translation: Valentyna Mykhailova

    21 October 2022

    Yulia Ivanova lived in occupied Melitopol for six months. She witnessed that armed Russians robbed her hometown, covered it with foreign flags, humiliated the dignity of its inhabitants, intimidated and threatened them. During this time, Melitopol residents experienced suffering from hunger, cold, death and betrayal. Yulia Ivanova told the project “War Monologues” how the citizens survive under the pressure of the occupiers, about Russian humanitarian aid and sky-high prices, patriots and collaborators, hope and despair.

    I remember this day well, because I was sick with COVID, and I was scheduled for testing on February 25. I had to go to the hospital in the morning. I had a fever. Sometimes I slept, sometimes I didn’t. At 5:30 I woke up from the explosion. It was a strike on Melitopol airfield. We live very close to it. It was not clear what was happening, so we started looking for information and saw Putin’s speech about the special operation. We learned that there were also explosions in other cities. I immediately called my parents, because they have a habit of walking in the morning. So I warned them not to go anywhere – the war had started.

    On February 24, huge queues grew near pharmacies. People were buying all the medicines. I saw the same queues near grocery stores.

    We could hear explosions. And in the afternoon there were more of them. There was smoke above the airfield and automatic gunfire. There was no information, only in the evening the mayor Ivan Fedorov spoke, he said something, but there were rumors that Russian troops were already near the city. People at the southern entrance saw both equipment and soldiers.

    No one knew what was happening: whether the city was still ours or had already been captured by the Russians. And on February 25, a tank was burning in the city on Lomonosov Street. People saw columns of Russian equipment. In the evening, Russian patrols were already on our streets. 

    Yulia Ivanova before the war

    Before the full-scale war, Yulia Ivanova worked as a journalist in one of the local publications, raised her son and took care of her parents

    I remember the mayor saying that our military did not want the city to be destroyed. It is difficult to defend it, so they retreated to the borders where there are defensive structures, and there will be battles there. That’s what we were told.

    “It was clear that people were forced to cooperate with the occupiers”

    We did not think that we would leave the city, because I have parents who immediately said that they would not leave anywhere: “Even if they kill us, we will not leave”. I did not want to leave them, I persuaded them and argued, but they said: “This is our home and we will not go anywhere”.

    We also hoped that we could wait for our troops to return. You saw that people came to the meetings, defended their views. But the longer it was, everything became harder. With each new month it became clear that nothing would change in the near future. 

    Many activists and journalists left in early March, when Russians began to come home to those who were known in the city at that time, to talk to them. It was clear that people were forced to cooperate with the occupiers, or they would face bad consequences.

    “During the first days, bread and medicines were the most lacking”

    On February 25, Russians entered Melitopol and immediately started rioting shops. We had a shopping center in the center of the city, so they opened it, and there was a jewelry store, Apple equipment, and clothes – everything was completely robbed. 

    They also opened a shop with meat products. They took out the loot in whole packages. And then people started looting: since the war began, then it was necessary to stock up. 

    On the 26th of February, we went out in the morning to get water, because the electricity was cut off and they said that it would be a problem. We saw Russian soldiers in full ammunition, armed, guarding the “ATB” they had destroyed. And the next day they began the so-called “organized looting”: they controlled that people entered the store one by one, that only one package was taken out, and what you take there is your business.

    Then, only a few supermarkets and small grocery stores were open in the city, which worked only until 14:00, because from 16:00 the curfew began, and Russian patrols walked the streets. Those who still did not have time to return home were warned: no sudden movements, do everything slowly, stop, show your belongings, because they would be shot.

    My familiar told how she was late and was met by a patrol. They began to warn that she could meet the Nazis and suffer from them. We were shocked. What Nazis? And in general, there are 120 nationalities living in Melitopol! So it sounded somehow wild. 

    In March it was very difficult. Companies stopped working. ATMs were empty. Bank departments were working sometimes, sometimes not, and at the end of March they closed altogether, so there was a big problem with money, and prices were extremely high.

    The queue to Privatbank

    Queue at the Privatbank branch. People do not know yet that it is his last working day

    There was no food. Everything was emptied, and nothing new was brought in: there was no possibility from the Ukrainian side, and the Russian side had not started yet. And no one made such stocks that would be enough for a long time.

    In the first days, bread and medicines were most lacking. Pharmacies sold out in a day or two. When it became clear that there would be no fighting in the city, bakeries quickly returned to work. A car came to the yards and bread was sold directly from the wheels. We also started baking. 

    Prices skyrocketed, but people bought because they understood that it was unlikely that anything would change in the near future. They were even buying things that no one had looked at before. 

    We knew that they were selling stolen goods from ATB, because there are specific goods there. Everyone understood it, saw it, but what could they do? By the way, people said that the goods were stolen from stores by those who wanted to profit from it. Their own locals came on the night of the 25th to the 26th, took everything and then sold it to people who could not find anything. 

    Yes, it is illegal, but it happened. The police were gone on the first day. The only law left was the Russian military. And so to this day.

    “Pensioners take everything that is given. They have no other way to survive”

    I was not on the square when Russians were distributing humanitarian aid, but I know that pensioners came and stood in line for it. And when Easter cakes were delivered in April, so many people gathered there!

    You see, pensioners did not know what to do. My parents were not able to get their pension until June. Cards were not accepted anywhere, we started to pay with them only in April-June. 

    I gave money to my parents so that they did not go anywhere, so that they did not take anything. But they had me. And what about those who had no one and nothing? We tried to help those who lived next to us, but they were very few. 

    Therefore, pensioners take everything that is given. They have no other way to survive. If in March they were told “Take what they give, the main thing is to survive”, are they bad people now? Are they collaborators? And how do they survive?

    Russian banners in Melitopol

    Russian and Soviet flags, banners with Russian slogans, and George ribbons hang all over the city

    There are no medicines or they are sold extremely expensive… Russian medicines are of low quality, and Ukrainian medicines do not all arrive. We ordered medicines for pensioners in our building, a month has passed, and they still have not arrived. Well, they can not deliver them! I have a friend whose daughter suffers from cystic fibrosis. Three times they were given medicines and three times the Russian military took them away. And we are talking about human life… 

    Therefore, when they are called collaborators, they think that Ukraine has abandoned them. That Ukraine will not return and is trying to justify its actions. This really outrages people. They did not want to be in such a situation. 

    I have heard this from them more than once. 

    “Most of them are just trying to somehow adapt to this life”

    Yes, there are those who are pro-Russian and are trying to make themselves useful. But there are also those who survive. Entrepreneurs were put in such conditions that they either re-register business under Russian laws, or no one will work. Some agreed to this. Someone forced the employees to get Russian passports. People came directly to the enterprises and forced everyone to do it, otherwise – go home. 

    And you are the only one in the family who still has a job. You have children. And they put forward a condition: either you get Russian documents or quit your job. And you start to think whether your beliefs are worth starving your family?

    People who needed specialized medical care, for example, surgery. If there is no possibility to go to Zaporizhzhia, then only to Crimea. And this also requires Russian documents. 

    Most of them are just trying to somehow adapt to this life. 

    “The largest flow of Russian passports was in the summer months, when people began to lose faith that something would change.”

    Pensioners, in order to have money, are ready to apply for anything to receive a pension and buy basic necessities. Again – to survive. And for this you need a Russian passport…

    My volunteer friend keeps stray animals at home – 9 cats and 8 dogs. She said: “Well, how can I take them all out?”. We left, took two cats with us and it was not easy. And here there are 17! And there are a lot of abandoned animals in Melitopol. Just a lot of them. British cats walk the streets, Siamese cats. A lot of sheepdogs, huskies. There are owners who give animals to good hands. And there are those who abandoned an alabai, people are afraid to approach him, and his ribs are already sticking out from hunger. Volunteers try to help them as much as possible.

    There are people who have old relatives left. Or a friend has a daughter with disabilities. And there is no way to take her out. She says: “I will come to Zaporizhzhia, I need to rent an apartment, buy food, medicine. Maybe I will get some help, maybe not. I simply will not survive. And here I at least have my own place. I may die, but I will die here”.

    “The military started moving their families to Melitopol”

    In Melitopol, there were 150 thousand people, we knew almost everyone by sight, because you see them all the time. Therefore, new people are visible immediately. Who knows where they come from, but they are definitely not local. And there are a lot of them. 

    I was told that the military started to bring their families to Melitopol. I saw some families, you can see them. They buy products and do not know that “Molochna Rika” butter is a Melitopol product. 

    We heard one wife asking her husband: “Where have you brought me, here are such prices! How will we live here?”

    I heard that there were centers where volunteers were recruited for the referendum. There were announcements hanging around the city. But no one was waiting for it. It will be, it will be. And why go there? Everyone understands that everything is already decided there. The occupiers do not need our decision that we do not want to join Russia. 

    They started collecting personal data long ago: when SIM-cards were issued, and 10 thousand rubles in the form of assistance were provided. 

    “When residents betray their own, there is no explanation…”

    Nobody believes in partisans in Melitopol, they believe in subversive and reconnaissance groups. I heard how a man rode a bicycle past a Russian military vehicle near russian military machine, threw a grenade under it and rode on. He was caught at the next intersection. This is what people saw and heard. And what about the explosions? Yes, there are explosions. But who does it, how is it done? People believe that it is the subversive and reconnaissance groups. 

    In April, we were sitting with my child in the kitchen and saw 9 cars arrive at the neighboring house. It was a tented vehicle with soldiers and an APC. The last car blocked the road and the military rushed to the entrance. 9 cars came to arrest one man, a veteran of the ATO(Antiterrorist operation in eastern Ukraine). They had information that he had a cache with explosives. Then the Russians said that they had found a lot of things, but no one knows how it really is. 

    We tried not to talk to anyone. You communicate with a person, he seems to be neutral, though not patriotic, but who knows what will happen tomorrow. 

    Galina Danylchenko (local deputy from the “Opposition bloc”, collaborator – ed.) gathered the elders of the house and suggested to inform about their patriotic neighbors, to report the location of other soldiers, ATO veterans, and participants of the meetings. They will be given apartments for that.  The elder of our house, although she was pro-Russian, refused, and arrests began in other houses. That is, people are trying to take advantage of the situation and earn something from it. 

    Russian flags in Melitopol

    Russian flags are flying all over Melitopol. Occupants assure that Russia is here forever

    My friend, an entrepreneur, told me that the goods were stored at her home. When she left, the elder of the house told the Russians about it, they broke down the door and took everything. 

    On my cousin’s floor, the occupants broke down the door to the apartment where an ATO soldier lived. Everyone knew that there was no one there, that he had left… This is how they take away people’s apartments and settle their own. And you do not know who moved into your house: whether it is the renters or those who came to the city. Here we have three such families in our building, which I have never seen before. 

    I can understand everything, but when they “knock”, residents betray other, sending them to death, it can not be explained 

    “They said that it was not an occupation. That we just returned to russia”

    I left with my son and cats. My parents stayed behind. I did everything I could for them – bought an electric stove, gave them money. It will be enough for some time, and then together with friends we will help them somehow.

    To let us through on the second day, we paid the military. And we are also very, very lucky, because people stand for a week waiting for permission. People are waiting in terrible conditions! The roadside is a solid garbage, the smells are as if someone died, because the heat is up to 38 degrees. Whether the sun is shining or raining – there is no place to hide… In Vasylivka, where the checkpoint is, 11 elderly people have already died. If you stand for several days in the middle of the highway in the open air, not only the old but also the young will get sick. 

    Read also: “If it happened again, I would still do the same”. The story of a nurse from Makariv

    What I would like to say. Negotiating with Putin is not a method, it does not affect anything. Russians will still do what they want. Melitopol is a key city for them. But we really do not want to stay under occupation. And they said that it is not an occupation. That we just returned to russia. 

    We want a peaceful life. Of course, it will not be the same as before February 24. We want peace, but not through concessions. I knew a man from school. He died the day before yesterday. What concessions? How can this be compensated? What truce? Only victory, I suppose. How can we compensate for the children who died and remained disabled? What money can compensate for this? We need only victory in this war. 

    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: Iryna Hyliuk | Translation: Valentyna Mykhailova


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