‘The whole family will move into one room and breathe’

4 November. A diary from Kherson. What’s happening on both banks of the Dnipro today — through the eyes of the locals themselves

‘The whole family will move into one room and breathe’
Illustration: Alisa Krasnikova

‘Kherson has become deserted and silent’

Lydia, 75 years old. Kherson, right bank of the Dnipro River.

Doctors — my colleagues who agreed to work for the occupiers — are now complaining that they were forced to abandon their jobs and leave Kherson. Not everyone agreed to this — [those that didn’t] are now hiding from the Russians all over the city. The Russians have taken all the equipment out of the hospitals.

The beautiful Oleksiy Shovkunenko Art Museum isn’t too far from where I live. For three days now, Russian looters have been taking out all the paintings. They’re loading them into their huge trucks [Ural army trucks — editor’s note]. Without any protection, without any packaging, as if they were rubbish… I cried the whole evening when I saw that. We had many good paintings there: Aivazovsky, Shovkunenko, and many others. The occupants are more careful about stolen washing machines than they are about world art heritage.

The children who left under the “rehabilitation” programme still haven’t returned. And this is a great tragedy for those who waited for the children in Kherson, having believed the Russian authorities.

Now there is no possibility to move to the left bank and go in search of their children in the direction of Crimea.

My life is very strange now, I don’t trust anyone anymore: someone you don’t expect at all, like an old acquaintance, can turn out to be an informer. That’s how many people live: Kherson has become deserted and silent. All you can hear now are explosions.

There were three cars at the market yesterday: farmers had brought something from nearby villages. Not a single customer was there. Shops around the city were closed. I know there’s a tiny pharmacy in the Central Department Store, but it doesn’t sell anything.

A friend of mine fell ill a couple of days ago with a high fever. She was taken to the regional hospital, and the next day all the patients were already kicked out on the street, as the Russians had taken away the equipment and furniture. The hospital of the Department of Internal Affairs was also completely evacuated.

As for the Tropinka hospital, they closed the outpatient department and physiotherapy. But the in-patient department is still functioning. The occupants are making a hospital for themselves there. The doctors will work until Monday, and then their fate is unclear.

Yesterday, the occupants sank two of our barges near the Fregat Hotel. Apparently, they’re afraid that the Ukrainian military will force the Dnipro. It’s also impossible to get to the dachas [summer cottages — translator’s note] now, as the Russians took all the boats. Those who managed to keep their boats are charging people 600 hryvnias (€16) to cross the river between Kherson and Oleshky.

‘The indirect losses of this goddamn war’

Alexander, 44. Kherson, right bank of the Dnipro River

My family and I are staying at home. Nothing works in Kherson: no hospitals, no shops, no pharmacies, no police. Checkpoints have disappeared all over the city. Yesterday I drove around the centre and the outskirts: there’s no one there. There are hardly any soldiers in sight. They’re probably still among us, but in civilian clothes. The city is empty, only at the market some movement of people can still be seen once in a while.

My friends have gone to their relatives in the Volgograd region. They have three children. The wife is now pregnant — let’s say the Russians had something to do with that. They tortured her husband, constantly dragged him down to the basement, regularly beat and abused him. He couldn’t leave his children, they’re very young. That’s why they’re still together. When the war started, his wife yelled that she would never say another word in Russian, and then she started watching TV. In two months, she changed beyond recognition — it was like she was a different person. Such are the indirect losses of this goddamn war.

In our city, they don’t force people out of their homes, but on the left bank, in the villages, they kick them out at gunpoint. They threaten to flood them, among other things. I think they want to settle along the defence line, along the coast. 30 to 40 thousand [partially mobilised draftees] arrived — they have to be accommodated somewhere. So, they came up with the idea of an evacuation.

In general, the grey masses of Russians have little choice. If you don’t want to get called up, you go to prison, and there you’ll be taken in by the Wagner PMC that doesn’t observe any law known to man. And you’ll find yourself at the front. Russia is a prison. In the village where my mother lives, the occupants came and immediately asked: “Who’s your boss?” The locals were confused, and replied that the head of the village council was absent. And they said: "What head? We need the boss; the guy is in charge of the obshchak (the obshchak is a collective mafia fund intended for use in the interests of a criminal group — translator’s note).” They were really looking for him, although the villagers live a normal life — they don’t live by criminal honour codes or prison rules.

It’s somehow easier to get over the stress at home. I hope we don’t get shelled. I have renewable sources of energy ready. If there’s sun and wind, we’ll be fine.

I was expecting a total breakdown and collapse in Kherson when we started losing power. But no. The people are keeping themselves together. They stay at home; I haven’t heard of anyone looting houses and flats apart from the Russians. Locals help each other, they keep an eye on other people’s homes. I personally have a bundle of keys to houses and flats — it weighs a ton. We have to help each other — it’s almost an intuitive feeling. We’re all in a difficult situation, we have to survive somehow.

I haven’t worked since the start of the war. I read books, do repairs. I gave my children some equipment so they could assemble and disassemble it. They sit around all day, rummaging through spare parts.

I built a stove a long time ago, back in the summer. I drove around town, cut a lot of twigs, and picked up some planks. I’m ready for anything. We have water in a huge barrel, and there’s a well in the yard, but it runs on electricity. Anyway, if we go without electricity and heat, we’ll still be more or less comfortable for a while. After all, there are public wells around town, you pump them and water pours out, so we’ll be able to manage.

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‘I felt like I was in the movie Apocalypto’

Victoria, 43. Hola Prystan, left bank of the Dnipro River

I’ve been sick for the last couple of weeks with an acute respiratory infection, very similar to COVID-19. It’s difficult to get medical help when you’re in a warzone, but an ambulance did come to me once, when I had a fever of about 40 [°C, or 104 °F]. They did a quick test: they opened a bottle of perfume, asked: “Can you smell it? It’s not COVID then.” There was no medicine in the city, so I treated myself with whatever I could get. Many of my friends who had left the city called to say they still had medication at home and said: “Come and get it from us. I felt like I was in the movie Apocalypto. You go to someone else’s empty house and scoop out all the medicine. I’ve only seen that in movies: “Oh, look, they’ve still got Strepsils!” We found cough pills, antibiotics.

There’s an unbelievable panic in the city today. There are dozens of theories as to why the Russians announced the evacuation. They’re coming up with all sorts of things, but, of course, we can’t get a clear picture of what’s actually going on from the occupants.

It’s a pity about our embankment, which took so long to repair. It used to be really beautiful. Now Russians have turned it around, they uprooted the roses, as well as the blue spruces, they destroyed the monuments — all to keep digging their trenches. I don’t understand why. The water’s close there, any hole fills up with water straight away. They’re sitting in their trenches, waiting to be washed away by the waves.

We’ve got food for now. There is medicine too, but the queues at the drugstores are huge, people are standing in the street. The occupants are promising to close everything. I don’t know… I suspect that even if they close the market, a makeshift bazaar will pop up somewhere soon enough.

I heard a banging sound three times during the night. We woke up in the morning: it turned out that the city administration took a direct hit. The roof was lying on the road and the emergency services were sorting out the rubble. I don’t yet know if there were any Russians inside.

‘The city’s dying out’

Sergey, 35. Hola Prystan, left bank of the Dnipro River

The cell coverage is bad, as well as the Internet. There was shelling in the night, I don’t know where the rockets fell yet. Things have escalated now, both with the occupiers and just between people. I don’t know what to expect, but it’s very unsettling.

I have a small cellar in my yard — for groceries, like many people. I don’t know if it’ll save me in case of danger or become a mass grave for my family.

Evacuation has now been announced, people are being evacuated from the city. I’ve read that [the occupants] are “saving us” due to the upcoming shelling by the Ukrainian army. We don’t know how to react yet. The worst thing is that there is no clarity. We don’t know what’s happening and what’ll happen in the city. They’re evacuating the whole town and the neighbouring villages. I’m afraid they’ll start a forced evacuation, they’ll drive [the locals] out by force. In theory, they want the houses by the river, where they’re digging trenches.

It still blows my mind that we’re at war now, that we’re being killed and that no one can stop it and influence [the aggressor].

During the war my wife gave birth to a daughter. It was lucky that the hospital was still working. Just across the river something was exploding, there was rumbling, someone must have died… And my daughter came into our world in those moments — a child of war. So, life goes on.

I have started building a stove, it’s still in the works. There’s still gas and light, but I’m preparing myself for the winter period, in case there’s no heat. The baby needs warmth for sure.

I see what happens to people who watch TV — there are only Russian channels now. I don’t watch TV at all, it’s been switched off since the spring, when Kherson’s TV tower was taken over.

Things are bad with education, there’s practically no Internet, so there’s no real opportunity to study remotely. All the schools are closed and the occupants have no plans to reopen them, although there weren’t that many people in the city who wanted to study the Russian curriculum.

The crossing with Kherson was closed yesterday. Boats no longer go over the river. They’re closing the market, pharmacies and shops. You can’t buy food and medicine.

The Russians took all the cars, equipment and medicine from the city hospital. They say they left one ambulance, but I haven’t seen it. The city’s dying out.

Everything can be endured, as long as they don’t shoot at us civilians. I can’t get rid of the feeling that what the Russians are doing to us is genocide.

Words cannot describe what it’s like to live in constant fear, to react to every sound and every rustle.

‘I don’t know how we’re going to stay warm’

Iryna, 53. Hola Prystan, left bank of the Dnipro River

There’s one doctor and one nurse left in our large hospital. All the equipment has been taken away and the staff has been moved to a hospital in Skadovsk. Our outpatient clinic is also closed.

We receive messages on our phones, on our Russian numbers, telling us to leave town in case the hydropower plant is blown up. We’re not going anywhere. We’ll leave our things on the floor above and maybe we’ll go to the village and stay with some friends for a couple of days until the water comes down.

A missile hit the city administration building at night, but the Russian authorities had left it for Skadovsk two weeks before. The building stood empty. I don’t know why the Ukrainians are doing this. Do they just want to destroy our city?

We’re now looking for a place to fill our gas tank. If there isn’t any gas — like at the beginning of the war, when the pipeline was bombed — we can at least work the cooker. And if the electricity is cut off, I don’t even know how we’re going to stay warm and heat up the flat. Probably, the whole family will move into one room and breathe. If it gets very cold, we’ll go to our friends who have a detached house and a stove. But I see that all our retired neighbours haven’t gone anywhere, they’re all at home.

We’re well-stocked with food — every month we receive food parcels from the Russian authorities. Now we have to go to Skadovsk for rations, benefits, pensions and salaries. Promsvyazbank, where we opened accounts to receive our salaries, also left for Skadovsk, along with its ATMs, so we can’t withdraw cash from our cards, not even Russian ones.

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