Occupational therapy

Locals from both Russian-occupied and liberated areas of Ukraine’s Kherson region tell us their stories of daily survival in the shadow of the frontline

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Occupational therapy

Kherson residents clearing rubble of a destroyed house, October 2023. Photo: Ihor Pedchenko / Suspilne Ukraine / JSC "UA:PBC" / Global Images Ukraine / Getty Images

‘I sleep with headphones on, otherwise I’ll get no sleep because of the noise’

Andriy, 45, unemployed, living in Oleshky, Russian-occupied territory

“After the flood caused by the sabotage of the Kakhovka dam, the town hasn’t had electricity or running water. The first floor of the house where I live was completely flooded, the water stopped rising just before it reached the second one. Thank God it did. The stench in the flooded flats is horrible.”

“The water receded from the town in August, by July in some areas. Some low-lying parts of the town are still flooded. The water also drained from my garage. My car was inside.”

“It’s not a car anymore, of course, it’s a wreck after such a long time underwater. I hope I can sell it for scrap if anything can be salvaged.”

“When the water receded, the occupying forces wouldn’t allow anyone to rescue people, volunteers were threatened with execution, some had their boats strafed. Many people drowned, but I don’t know the exact number. When the water receded, bodies were recovered and handed over to their families or neighbours. If the families had left, the neighbours organised burials, and the families sent them money to pay for it. Or the locals clubbed together. Anyone who drowned has their cause of death noted as heart attack or cardiac arrest on their death certificates. Anyone aged over 60 is just deemed to have ‘died of old age’.”

“The occupation authorities officially mentioned about 50 deaths but their certificates all showed heart issues. In reality, the number of people who died is far larger.”

“I don’t know how many people chose to stay in Oleshky. I see a lot of Russians. I don’t really know why our military bloggers conclude that the Russians are retreating as we see looting, troop rotation, then looting again, shooting. During the daytime they are in hiding, but then it all starts up again at night… There are many of them around the town, they have enough logistical support. They obviously have the same day-to-day restrictions as the locals. But they still are at an advantage; they have generators and power. While we can only hope for the sun and solar panels.”

“As far as I see, the situation won’t change for the better until we are liberated.”

“Maybe we’ll be freed soon. But no one knows for sure. There is no news, but we are all waiting. But for now it is what it is, we are getting ready for winter.”

“We have a centralised gas supply system on our street. Many had newer boilers installed but they don’t work without electricity. I have an old one, so I’m fortunate to live with gas. We are getting the basement ready to cook food with firewood if the gas supply is cut. Everyone around us is stockpiling wood. There is a lot of it in the streets now after the flood brought it in, it’s mainly the remains of fences, roofs and small buildings.”

Photo: Ihor Pedchenko / Suspilne Ukraine / JSC "UA:PBC" / Global Images Ukraine / Getty Images

Photo: Ihor Pedchenko / Suspilne Ukraine / JSC "UA:PBC" / Global Images Ukraine / Getty Images

“I am not working currently. I refused to work for the Russians, and so I now live on my savings. Modestly, generally, by limiting myself in a lot of things, but we continue living. The market is working, shops that re-registered with the Russian tax office as well. We even have pharmacies, but I think they often sell fakes.”

“For the last four months, every morning has been starting with me putting up solar panels on the balcony and charging my phones and power banks. While the devices are charging, I hurry to get water: grey water first and then drinking water. They bring the grey water in cisterns from somewhere in the countryside, while bottled water is allowed into the town from nearby villages. But it doesn’t happen often, so we often have to get it from an outside water station. I can say for certain that standing in the same queue with Russians who are in a hurry is quite a challenge. Normally, there’s around 50 people waiting in the water line.”

“If the Russians aren’t in a rush, they wait just like everyone else. If they are not in the mood, they push their way in front of all the seniors and jump the queue.”

“Once we’ve finally got the water, we have to drag it home. We always boil it first.”

“If the town is quiet, we then head to the market for food. We usually get groceries for the day, as the fridge has been broken for a long time. It’s got colder now, so you can store food on the balcony. I didn’t go to the market today as the shelling was quite bad. Yesterday, the Russians themselves started a shootout in the market. I have no idea what the issue was. Basically, the locals only rush to get food either when there is no shelling or when they’ve run out of things to eat. Although the explosions have become a constant background to our lives, if it goes quiet, it means it’s dangerous.”

“The Russians shoot dogs in the city. Because they act as alarms: if dogs start to bark, it means the military are heading to their posts.”

“Our main task after 11 PM is to sit at home and listen to our Ukrainian army guys shelling Russian positions: it’s either drones or projectiles. All the while we pray that the trajectory doesn’t bring them to the house where we live.”

“The shelling is at its most intense at night, communications are jammed at the same time. The first round lasts until midnight, and then the next shift opens fire after 3 AM. I generally sleep with my headphones in. Otherwise, I won’t get any sleep due to the noise.”



“At the start of last year, everyone was recording the enemy movements of military equipment on their phones and sending the videos to the Ukrainian army. They then started taking people away one by one with black plastic bags over their heads. Some are now in Russian prisons serving sentences as terrorists, some were tortured to death. Some are in custody in horrific conditions in Simferopol without being charged with any crime or even an official confirmation of their detention being issued.”

“I know people who were tortured, taken to an execution site and then given a choice: either you record a video with apologies or you die … Some indeed managed to survive after making these awful videos. The Russians just love showing them to us. I never judge the people in them, as I understand what they have been through.”

‘We survived last winter and we will survive this one’

Vera, 67, retiree, living in Hola Prystan, Russian-occupied territory

“I am staying in my town. I have nowhere to go and no money to move. The shelling seems to have died down since the flood. But it still happens.”

“I was recently issued my Russian passport. Without it, I wouldn’t be eligible for my pension of 10,000 rubles (€100) or for humanitarian aid.”

“I didn’t want to accept this passport but who knew that this war would go on for so long and that we would be forced to suffer such humiliation in order to have enough food and to buy medicine.”

“We thought the Russians would abandon the town after the flood. Indeed, they were nowhere to be seen at first. They’ve now come back and again live in the neighbouring houses. They immediately confiscated my neighbour’s car. He had managed to fix it after the flood. We once even managed to drive to the market for food. Now, the soldiers drive around in it.”



“We don’t have electricity but we do have it sometimes. We go to the shops when they are giving out humanitarian aid for free: five-litre bottles of water. However, no one has been delivering water for free lately. Our district only gets food deliveries once a week.”

“They say a pharmacy is working on the other side of the town but it barely has anything. If medicine is needed, people travel to Skadovsk, 60 km away from Hola Prystan, they have shops, pharmacies, hospitals and local government there. They even have cafes where music is playing, people are walking around. It’s hard to imagine because life is totally different just an hour away by car. Although, to be honest, the happiness and carefree spirits of the people walking around along the river banks of Skadovsk seem fake to me.”

“All the retirees stay in their homes, there are just no children or grandchildren. All the younger people left the occupied town.”

“I don’t know how we will survive the winter. I hope the gas supply will return, it was interrupted after the flood. Electricity is our saviour. Even though it is not always on, when it’s working you can manage to warm up one room with a heater.”

“I don’t know what we’ll do if there’s no power. We’ll heat up water on bonfires, pour it into bottles and put them under duvets. That’s what we did last year. We survived last winter and we’ll survive this one.”

‘We try to save money on food by making lots of porridge’

Nadezhda, 70, retiree, Kherson city, in Ukrainian controlled Kherson

“I tried to leave Kherson last month. I went to Vinnytsia, to recuperate there a little and then I came back home. I wanted to stay there with my daughter and granddaughter but renting in the part of Ukraine that’s not usually targeted by shelling is so expensive now that we can’t manage it financially. We decided to return home because at least we don’t have to pay rent here.”



“We live in what was once our summer residence. All our neighbours have left because shells constantly land all around, but our house remains unaffected for now.”

“My apartment is also ok as far as I know. My relatives came to take me away when the flooding began. Our apartment building has been flooded, but only the first floor. The water has receded now. Although it is constantly hit by shells.”

“My daughter still does the same job that she did before the war. She says when she walks around the city, she barely sees anyone. Every other building in the city shows traces of damage, you get tearful just looking at it.”

“My teenage granddaughter is a volunteer. She goes somewhere every day and transports supplies around. She now wears a cumbersome bulletproof vest as volunteers are also targeted in shelling. Shells hit as soon as a crowd gathers for handouts of humanitarian aid. She gets completely exhausted but still doesn’t sleep well even if she’s so tired that she can’t stand anymore.”

“Prices have skyrocketed. We try to save money on food. Just like many others, we make porridge most of the time.”

“A friend of mine who I worked with many years ago visits me sometimes. He says: ‘Nadya, you cannot imagine how much I’m craving a piece of barbecued meat. I just want to tear into it with my teeth and bite off a huge chunk’.”

“The flood washed away his house, he used to live close to the river. Nothing was left. He is now living in an apartment belonging to friends of his that left Kherson. The city administration gave him a fridge and a TV. He laughs: ‘I wish I had somewhere to put these treasures’. They are also promising to provide him with money and building materials to rebuild his home once the war ends. He wants to build a new house on his plot of land. He is attached to the place as not only his parents lived there but also his grandparents and great-grandparents.”

“I kept waiting for a quick advance by the Ukrainian army to liberate the right bank of the Dnipro so that the hourly shelling would stop. But things have stalled. Our officials are busy stealing while we ordinary Ukrainians donate money to the Ukrainian army every day. I don’t understand why we have to purchase thermal imagers for them, for example, when our army gets these enormous funds. I have been thinking lately that we Kherson residents were discounted right at the beginning of the war. We were under occupation for a long time, then we were liberated, but liberty still feels some way off.”

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