‘I was born here and I will die here’: liberated Ukrainians recount life under occupation | Ukraine


youUntil last week, a portrait of Vladimir Putin hung on the wall of the mayor’s office in the city of Shevchenkove, in the Kharkiv region. There was a Russian flag. Around a cabinet table, a pro-Kremlin “leader”, Andrey Strezhko, held meetings with colleagues. There was a lot to discuss. One subject: a referendum on joining Russia. Another: a new fall program for the two schools in Shevchenkove, minus everything related to Ukrainian.

Strezhko’s ambitious plans were never realized. On September 8, the Ukrainian Armed Forces launched a surprise counter-offensive. They quickly took over a strip of territory in the northeastern region of Kharkiv, including Shevchenkove. Most locals greeted the soldiers with hugs and kisses. Strezhko has disappeared. It is believed that he crossed the Russian border with other collaborators.

Shevchenkove’s acting military administrator Andrii Konashavych pointed to the chair where the pseudo-mayor had sat in the council building. On the wall was a portrait of Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian national poet after whom the city is named. What happened to Putin’s photo? “We tore it up,” Konashavych said. Why was there no photo of President Zelenskiy? “Presidents come and go. Shevchenko is forever,” he replied.

Andrii Konashavych, Shevchenkove’s acting military administrator. Photography: Daniel Carde/The Guardian

Konashavych described Strezhko as someone who made no secret of his pro-Moscow views. The Russians arrived in Shevchenkove – population 7,000 – on February 25, at the start of the invasion. Strezhko got the job after ripping off a Ukrainian trident and stomping on it with his foot. A memorial to Ukrainian soldiers who fought in 2014 against Russia in Donetsk was also demolished.

The Russians promised the locals that they would stay in the city forever. They also told them – wrongly – that the city of Kharkiv had fallen. Over time, their presence has become discreet. A couple of young soldiers patrolled the park, sometimes sleeping drunk on their benches. During six months of occupation, troops moved back and forth. They came from all over Russia, including distant Siberia and Buryatia, residents said.

A propaganda newspaper was distributed along with humanitarian supplies labeled as aid from Moscow. There were pro-Kremlin Telegram channels and a radio station, Kharkiv-Z, named after the letter that became the symbol of Putin’s takeover of Ukraine. It was difficult to assess what constituted support for the occupation. A small minority actively collaborated. Others were simply trying to survive.

The place where a plaque displaying a Ukrainian trident was demolished during the Russian occupation in Shevchenkove.
The place where a plaque displaying a Ukrainian trident was demolished during the Russian occupation of Shevchenkove. Photography: Daniel Carde/The Guardian

Not far from the city’s Shevchenko bust, two pensioners had a heated discussion about the quality of food donated by Russia. One, Luda, said the can of beef she accepted was “tasty”. Anatoly Sukhomlyn, a 72-year-old retired train conductor, vehemently disagreed. “It was disgusting, swimming in grease,” he said. The difference of opinion seemed to indicate closed political sympathies.

Sukhomlyn said the Russians checked all residents for Ukrainian patriotic tattoos and came twice to inspect his garage. If the owners were away, they kicked down the doors. They also examined computers and USB keys. Putin’s FSB spy agency arrested several people, he said. The detainees were interrogated in Kupiansk, the regional center 35 km away, today the scene of heavy fighting.

Map of northeastern Ukraine.

Twelve days ago, Sukhomlyn said he saw a Russian soldier on the street wearing civilian clothes. He had thrown away his gun in a panic and was carrying his belongings in a backpack. The soldier slipped into a civilian car with six other people and fled north. A few hours later, the pensioner applauded the liberating Ukrainian military. “This is my country. I was born here and I will die here,” he said.

The retreating occupants took some prisoners with them. One was a local historian, Andrii Bulyaga. He was arrested two weeks ago along with several others as he went to take a picture of a burning oil refinery. “They put a bag over his head and took him away,” his son Misha said. “There are rumors that he is being held somewhere in the Donetsk region. But we don’t know.

On Monday, investigators were busy trying to find residents accused of treason. So far, they had arrested three people. More than 100 police officers from the area have defected, deputy prosecutor Roman Yerokhin said. Those who have committed serious crimes against the state could expect long prison terms, under Article 111 of Ukraine’s criminal code, he said.

Cushions placed on crates on which Russian troops can sleep can be seen in the rooms of the prosecutor's office in Shevchenkove,
A room where Russian military police slept in the Shevchenkove prosecutor’s office. Photography: Daniel Carde/The Guardian

Yerokhin pointed to a room next to his office where Russian military police had lived. They left behind mattresses and a sleeping bag; his staff had thrown green Russian rations and a military jacket into a garbage can in the yard. Yerokhin said he first worked as a prosecutor in Luhansk, now the capital of the self-declared republic of Luhansk. He left in 2014, when Russia and its proxies took over.

In the barricaded conscription office at the end of the street, a sign read: “Mined. Do not enter.” Ammunition crates had been stacked outside and fashioned into a makeshift screening barrier. Yerokhin entered the building through a back door and descended brick steps into a cool basement. n the darkness were a series of white metal cages, welded together by Russian guards and installed during the occupation.

Deputy Prosecutor Roman Yerokhin at his desk in Prosecutor's Office Shevchenkove.
Deputy Prosecutor Roman Yerokhin at his desk in Prosecutor’s Office Shevchenkove. Photography: Daniel Carde/The Guardian

There were narrow wooden benches, toilet buckets and water bottles. A small punishment cell contained a chair, with no space to lie down. The occupants had installed a surveillance camera suspended from the roof and placed an Orthodox icon on the wall. “Russians treat people like animals. We believe they locked up their own deserters here,” Yerokhin said, adding, “There may have been Ukrainian prisoners.

The Kremlin, it seemed, was determined to impose its own harsh rules and sanctions on the territories it occupied. Similar chambers have been found in other newly liberated towns, including Izium, the site of a mass grave with 443 bodies. Survivors described how their interrogators tortured them with a military field phone attached to an alligator clip, or beat them with wooden sticks.

Map of Ukraine.

Over the weekend, refugees from Kupyansk arrived by bus in the central square of Shevchenkove. They lined up outside his police station to register. Officials checked their documents against a list of wanted collaborators. The city had been doubly lucky. It was quickly occupied and now lies just out of range of the Russian guns, which are set up in a new position on the east bank of the Oskil River.

The road to the front line passes through fields and verges strewn with destroyed Russian military equipment. It included a T-80 tank, hit by a missile. A depression showed where the tank gun had dug into the earth at the time of impact. There were burned infantry fighting vehicles and a Lada car painted orange and marked with a Z. The letter had also been daubed at several bus stops.

A destroyed Russian amphibious infantry fighting vehicle lies in ruins along a road between Kupiansk and Shevchenkove.
A destroyed Russian amphibious infantry fighting vehicle lies in ruins along a road between Kupiansk and Shevchenkove. Photography: Daniel Carde/The Guardian

On the outskirts of Kupyansk, the occupation soldiers had repainted the regional sign in Russian colors. They had also removed the soft sign – “ь” – which distinguishes Ukrainian spelling from Russian spelling. Ukrainian soldiers had painted the sign blue and yellow. The 2-foot-tall soft sign letter was propped up next to a checkpoint and a sandbagged fight pit. On the other side of the road, someone had left behind a pair of Russian army boots.

Konashavych said he was confident the Ukrainian armed forces would retake other territories from Russia, including Donbass, made up of neighboring Luhansk and Donetsk provinces.

“Our army is very successful. Of course we will continue.” Konashavych said his small town witnessed invasion and liberation in a few extraordinary months. he added.

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