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In the first month of the occupation, the Russians did not allow to bury anyone
Olga and Denis, organic food chain store owners
Kherson Regional State Administration building after Russian shelling

Source: Kherson Regional State Administration
Denis. On the first day of the war, I still did not believe that was happening. We came to work as usual and opened the store. There was some noise, but outside the city, in Chernobaevka. We thought that this would be it.

The next day it became clear that the Russians had almost entered Kherson, and we had been cut off from Ukraine. That came as a shock. All the same, we kept on working until March 1, when the Russian troops actually occupied the city. Only then did we realize that all this was for real, not some background noise in the media.

First of all, we rushed to take a shower

Olga. My memories are different. I woke up at 5.30, and my husband said: "The war has started, the airport has been blown up." First of all, we rushed to take a shower, because we expected the water to be cut off. Then we decided to refuel the car, and I went to do it with my hair still wet. I started driving and saw a huge column of black smoke — like a scene from a disaster movie. And people, running somewhere with bags. That was around 7 am. I drove up to the gas station, saw a huge line, and I understood that it was useless to wait in it.

Denis. The panic began. But since we run our store, we did not stay in queues: on the contrary, we served people in our stores. On Friday, February 25, I even sent requests for the next delivery, as usual. Only on Monday I found out that I would not receive anything. Most of the products in our stores have a short shelf life: we either had to sell them or to give them away.

Kherson, fire in the premises of the Red Cross

Source: National Police of Ukraine
Olga. When the plane flew right overhead with a very loud sound, our children, 3 and 7 years old, got scared. We equipped a place in the basement right away, I collected water, food, documents, and children's things. We went down there, but it was so cold that we could not stand it for more than two hours. We spent the night at home, there were no sirens, or rather, we did not hear them. It became really scary when the looting began — on March 1, the first day of the occupation.

Denis. It was the scariest day. We did not leave the house, as did the majority of Kherson residents. People filmed from their windows as columns of the Russian military marched through the streets. It was unclear what to expect of them.

Olga. It turned out that at night the militia engaged in a desperate battle with them. The militia did not even have weapons, only Molotov cocktails. Everyone was killed, dozens of corpses.

The city was cut off, there were neither medicines nor food

Denis. On March 2, I took my backpack, got on my bike, and went to the store. It was not looted, although both Russians and locals have already begun robbing supermarkets. They smashed the glass and took the goods.

Olga. We were afraid that first they would loot the shops, and then they would start breaking into houses. We have two children and no weapons, and the security red button didn’t work. You feel completely defenseless. You have to explain to the children that if something happens, they need to hide in the room and not leave it. And call our neighbor who has a gun. But it is very difficult to explain this to a seven-year-old child, and it’s impossible to explain it to a three-year-old.

Denis. We found only a fire extinguisher and a shovel and started building a multi-level defense from the front door to the bedroom.

Olga. We filled jars with water so that we could throw them if they came in from below. Now it sounds like Home Alone, but then it was scary: you were defenseless, and there was no one to call.

Aftermath of Russian shelling of the center of Kherson
Source: Kherson regional state administration
Everything was swept up, and the shelves were empty... it can drive one mad when there’s nothing to feed the children
Denis. Nevertheless, on March 3, I opened the store and stood behind the counter myself. A huge crowd gathered. Eventually, we managed to establish a more or less normal work mode. We live and work in the center of the city, and the Russian checkpoints at the time were only at the exit from Kherson. In the city itself, the checkpoints appeared much later. This was one of the reasons that prompted us to evacuate: it became difficult to get around without checks.

Olga. The city was cut off, there were neither medicines nor food. Denis drove around the supply depots and saw that everything was running low: there were no supplies, and they were not being delivered. March was very cold, vegetables and milk disappeared, and the prices skyrocketed. Meat cost 600-800 hryvnia per kilogram instead of 100 as it used to be. In general, the prices went up by 8-10 times. There was panic, and at the same time, people swept away everything. And there was absolute horror: what then? The bread disappeared. We never really ate it, but those days, we craved it.

We sold groceries for people with dietary restrictions: gluten-free, lactose-free. Many bought for their children. They came, but there was nothing, everything was swept up, and the shelves were empty ... it can drive one mad when there’s nothing to feed the children.

It was impossible to let everyone into the store, people would crush each other. It's horrible when people queue on the street and you can't sell them anything. We had to ration: half a kilo per customer. People would ask for more, saying they needed to feed their children, but we couldn’t do anything, because behind them there were people too. It was all so hard. I recall this time as never-ending dismal, gray, cold, and sticky days.

The attitude towards death has changed

Denis. There were no medicines. People we knew began to die from diseases and lack of medicines, sometimes from heart failure. Now and then you heard: died from stress. Moreover, in the first month, it was forbidden to bury the dead.

Olga. The cemetery is outside the city. On the first day of the occupation, a hearse went there and was shot at by the Russians. After that, no one wanted to go there. The coffins were closed, so the Russians were afraid something might happen, and for the first month they did not allow to bury anyone.

Denis. All that time, they would constantly say on the TV: "Kherson is Ukraine." But you went out in the street and saw that it was not true. The city was cut off, there were no green corridors. There were rumors that someone managed to break through the fields, through Stanislav, but not everyone arrived. Passed – well done, did not pass – too bad. The attitude towards death has changed. Well, he died. Unfortunately. Blown up. Three cars were shot. Happens.

Passed – well done, did not pass – too bad. The attitude towards death has changed. Well, he died. Unfortunately. Blown up. Three cars were shot. Happens
Olga. We were feeling thrown away. When the evacuation routes were outlined, the Russians started hiding behind the refugee columns. When the columns were formed, they opened the way for the civilian cars and drove side by side in their vehicles so that the Armed Forces of Ukraine could not fire.

Denis. But they still fired.

Olga. Since mid-March, people started protesting and picketing for Ukraine. At first, the Russians did not respond, so it seemed that all this would not last long. Something like a thaw began: the trade revived, and the cars with vegetables from the countryside started coming. The prices, though, remained sky-high: shampoo for 700 hryvnia, beer for 80. Counterfeit products from Crimea appeared, for instance, rye beer: a fake label is visible, the salt content is not right, impossible to drink.

Moreover, all Ukrainian shops closed. A few local chains were left, to which products were brought centrally. Everything else was sold like in the 1990s: the markets turned into one big street where you could buy everything, and vodka and cognac were sold on tap. Perhaps someone liked it, someone recalled their youth. All this put the clock back 30 years, and you had to live with it.

As for the “thaw”, it ended in April. Then they started kidnapping people. They’d invite someone “to talk”, and then…

FSB officers worked very efficiently

Denis. For a couple of weeks, they collected information about the most outstanding protesters. After that, they would come at night and take away the activists. No one saw them again. The next time, fewer people came out to rallies. Again, all the activists were detained. No, they did not kill on the streets.

Olga. The FSB worked very efficiently. No one was executed on the street, but for two months messages constantly appeared in different chats: this one disappeared, that one disappeared, another left home and did not come back. Then it stopped.

Once a friend asked my father for help (he is the head of a charity foundation). Her son was taken away and nothing has been heard of him since. Dad tried to find out something about him. Then a message came from this guy: I am all right. But he hasn’t come back still. And a week later, in early April, they began to “talk” with my father, persuading him to cooperate and asking how were the children. It was clear what would happen next, so we packed and left the next day.

My father had to come with us, although he did not want to, but this was a reasonable alternative to the basement. He could evacuate earlier, but Dad did not want to leave people without help. Anyway, now we are in Germany, and he is in Odesa, where he is trying with all his might to take care of people who remained in Kherson.

Kherson Children's Regional Clinical Hospital after shelling on January 1, 2023
Source: State Emergency Service of Ukraine
They began to “talk” with my father, persuading him to cooperate and asking how were the children. It was clear what would happen next, so we packed and left the next day
Denis. Everyone who could leave, left. But not everyone was able to do it. You had to spend at least five days on the road. People were just dying. Also, where to go? It is not easy in Europe, and in Ukraine, it is also hard to get a job.

The situation was changing weekly. We left through Snegirevka and Bashtanka: all the main roads were already mined, and we had to go around the fields. Every kilometer, there is a Russian checkpoint – we passed 26 of them, then a gray zone, and about 20 more checkpoints of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. But the problem is not only in checkpoints. The road was practically non-existent: wheels were falling off some cars and lying on the side of the road.

Usually, the journey from Kherson to Odesa takes 3 hours, we drove 14. God forbid the car breaks down — you’d remain in the fields.

Olga. We were driving with the children, Denis would open the trunk, and the potty would immediately fall out, everything was clear about us. Whoever had a better car, was searched and had to pay.

We went to Odessa for two or three weeks

Denis. We were lucky, but many others got under fire, cars burned down, people were killed, or people ran into snipers. One column went through Davydov Ford: 30 people were killed. One projectile and that's it. These were all unofficial corridors: volunteers find and share the route, and within a week, thousands of cars drive through that road, then it gets closed. The volunteers find a new one, and so on.

Do we communicate with friends in Russia? With those who, back in 2014, said that “Crimea is theirs”, we severed relations right then.

Olga. My mother had a university friend; they lost contact but found each other again after many years thanks to the TV program "Wait for me." We visited her in St. Petersburg about 11 years ago. But after Crimea happened, she let us know her views in no uncertain terms, and my mother no longer talked to her. After the war started, she did not even call my mother ...

My mother had a classmate who went to live in Moscow. She looked after his mother, one could say they were friends. When the war started, he also hadn’t even called. It pained my mother so much.

Kherson TV tower blown up by the Russian army as it left the city
Source: Kherson Oblast Police
One column went through Davydov Ford: 30 people were killed. One projectile and that's it
Denis. Previously, the war seemed far away from us: Crimea, Donbas. But now it touched us personally …

Olga. I just moved to Kyiv at that time, and there were a lot of people from Donetsk in the city. The locals tried to avoid them. It was obvious and unpleasant.

Denis. Kyiv believed that Donetsk had it coming. I'm afraid that now they will say the same about Kherson. “You wore a short skirt, that's why you got raped.” Or, for instance, because we speak Russian. Although the whole of Kyiv speaks Russian.

Olga. When you watch Ukrainian news in Kherson, you realize that they do not reflect reality at all. Even now (in September 2022): they report that the Antonovsky Bridge has been destroyed. And it hasn’t. Yes, it was damaged, but the cars can pass.

On the day the war started, not a single police car remained in Kherson and Kakhovka. The same goes for the army. And they are telling tales about their valiant defense. I feel fear and pain and do not understand why this happened.

Where did Arestovich’s famous “two or three weeks” come from? He said in April: “In two or three weeks, Kherson will be free”. So we went to Odessa for two or three weeks, thinking to return in May. Then in July, then in August. Now (September 2022), no one believes anymore.

It’s very sad when you recall what happened to Donbas. And Kyiv will say the same: that we brought it on ourselves, that everyone who wanted to, left, and those who remained support the invaders. But they — we — do not support them!

Have we struggled so long to break free from the USSR just to return there?

Denis. If you didn’t have a car, you needed to buy a ticket: $300 per person, with almost no luggage. That makes $1200 for a family. Not everyone has such money, and it’s impossible to sell anything. Then you need money again, and plenty, to settle in a new place. Whoever had spare five thousand dollars, left.

Olga. Everything we had is left behind. And we don’t even know what’s going on there, there are Russians with machine guns and tanks. On the other hand, why would we want to go there? So that the children could study in the Russian school, that’s been thrown out of the Bologna system?

Denis. Of course, people do live in Donetsk, but there is no future there. The Russian passport has become a “black spot”, and they force you to take Russian passports. We struggled to break free from the USSR for so long, then we waited for visa-free travel, and now we have to return to the Soviet Union. To the prison?

There are some people who deliberately stayed in Kherson. They don't want to start over. Property, business — it's hard to give up everything that you’ve been building for so long.

Olga. These people have never supported Russia. But, as my teacher wrote, when our army started attacking the bridge: “These days, we live in hope that the de-occupation won’t be fatal for us all.”

Here in Germany, we spent three weeks in a refugee camp, and some could not stand it - I know a family that returned to Mariupol! Everyone deals with this in their own way.

Representatives of the occupation Kherson military-civil administration in Genichesk, the new Russian-controlled provisional capital of "Kherson Oblast"
Source: Wikipedia
Instead of an afterword. February 2023

Olga. I cried with joy when Kherson was liberated in November. There was even a hope of returning home, but the Russians destroy this hope with their bombs every day. The last acquaintances who remained in Kherson left. The city is free, but it is impossible to live in it. (According to British intelligence, as of February 2023, Kherson was the most shelled city in Ukraine outside Donbas.)
The testimony was chronicled on March 31, 2022

Translation: Maya Milova