A reportage from Kherson: young artist Daria and her family lived in the city for four months during the unlawful Russian occupation. Kherson has only just been liberated – but the happy ending is not yet on sight for Ukraine.
Hope and pride filled the hearts of many Ukrainians as their city was liberated by the Ukrainian army from Russian occupation on November 12. Among them was Daria, who is an artist and creative – be it by making music or performing as an actress. Daria is from Kherson city, and had returned to her hometown a year ago to work as a TV host for a local channel. While Daria and her family are now safe and sound abroad, they experienced the occupation first-hand for four months until they decided to escape by crossing into Crimea, travelling to Georgia from there, to eventually leave the region altogether.
Like many other Ukrainians, Daria and her partner were woken up on the morning of February 24 by a friend’s phone call informing them that the war had started. They spend the next few hours scrolling through the news, shocked and in disbelief. Unprepared as they were, they packed quickly and moved in with Daria’s partner’s parents, who at the time were living nearby. “I remember this awful feeling of fear in the streets and hysteria. Everybody was running, the cars moving fast, everybody trying to withdraw money from the banks. I remember packing my things and trying to think about what I need and what I don’t need, if I’m going to die in this minute or the next 10 minutes or hours. I was staring out of the window to see the soldiers or the rockets, but nothing was outside, nothing happened other than bombing our airport, no fighting in the streets or anything like that”.
Calm was only temporary:Daria and the people around her spend the next few days in anxiety, unable to sleep.They could hear bombs dropping nearby on the site of the Antonovskiy bridge, where a small battalion of the Ukrainian army was trying to hold the enemy soldiers from advancing into the city. Beyond the bridge lies a village settlement named Dachi:most residing families evacuated the area because of the intense fighting, as their houses were bombed. People from Dachi came into Kherson city, in a dire situation: they had nothing, as they had to leave in a state of panic without time to collect their belongings. Given the increasing humanitarian needs of people pouring into the city, Daria and her partner started volunteering right away on the 25th of February.
Daria used her social media to inform people that she was volunteering and could drive a car. She used her account to ask if any of her followers knew where people from Dachi were sheltering, because she could help bring supplies to them. “I started connecting with other people who were volunteering and organising activities. For several days we were volunteering non-stop from 7 am to 8 pm just before the military curfew. We were helping out even as the bombs were falling, and this is something that you can’t get used to. I remember my hands shaking while driving with a lot of people and supplies in the car”, she said.
Daria was overwhelmed by the engagement she received through social media, with many people around Ukraine and from all over the world sending donations that enabled her and the small collective of citizen volunteers she was part of to buy medication, food and other essentials. The movement they initiated grew quickly and on the 5th day after she started posting about their activities, people were calling Daria to ask her to get involved. “pharmacy owners were offering supplies and friends who had cafes or bars were offering food. Many others helped with collecting supplies. We were driving all over Kherson to deliver aid to refugee and volunteer centres, to hospitals and we even connected with the hospital director to know what kind of meds they needed to buy as I was fundraising online and keeping receipts to show to my followers what we were using the money for”.
Eventually, the Russian military managed to cross the Antonovskiy bridge and on the second day of March Kherson came under Russian occupation. When the forces entered the city Daria was still living near Antonskiy bridge and could see their vehicles as they were passing by. This set the scene for how life with the occupying forces was going to be. “When you live for four months with them, you learn to recognise the sound of Russian military cars:they make a very specific noise and every time we would head out and hear this sound we knew they were coming and we needed to be ready to face what might happen in the next minutes”.
Eventually, when they settled down they started to repaint all the streets, ruining Ukrainian symbols displayed in public. Blue and yellow became white, blue and red”. Their presence left a heavy imprint on the daily lives of civilians under occupation. “They were everywhere, in markets, driving around in stolen cars with the Z sign, down the same streets, breathing the same air, eating the same food”.
After the occupiers came, the city started to feel like a cage, as Daria put it. However, their presence in the city wasn’t met with flowers but with resistance, which to them was ‘surprising’ as they thought they were coming as liberators. Daria said that many people, including her, took out Ukrainian flags and signs to displaytheir position. People were organising meetings to discuss what to do about the situation. In the aftermath of these meetings, spies started frequenting them and the authorities started kidnapping or detaining people. The occupiers had taken over several administrative buildings and they were using their infamous basements as torture chambers, similarly to the ones found in the liberated areas of Kharkiv.
The occupying forces did dedicate some of their efforts to capture “hearts and minds” beyond intimidation practices. “They were trying to tell us that the Ukrainian government abandoned us, that Kherson now is forever Russia, that Kherson is a Russian city”, said Daria. However, Kherson residents benefited by being able to maintain a thread of communication with the rest of Ukraine even under occupation, unlike other annexed territories where telecommunications were completely cut off. One day, the Russian army completely blocked Ukrainian networks and for quite a while Ukrainian citizens couldn’t use the internet or make calls. “We were not as cut-off from the rest of Ukraine; we had opportunities to order supplies such as meds and food. They took a long time to arrive, people were sending them from Kyiv and Odessa, but they helped a lot. This communication with the rest of the country kept us thinking, kept us believing and brought us hope”.
Importantly, the Russian occupants started targeting those volunteering, such as Daria, and after a while they had to operate in secret and significantly downscale their operations. “We were trying to help locally, help neighbours, old people, children ”. Brutal policing for any sign of dissidence continued. Daria recounted incidents where Russian soldiers were coming to her friend’s houses and inspecting their phones to see if they were helping the Ukrainian army, calling them ‘Ukrainian Nazis’. Some were forcibly disappeared or detained. “One was tortured for five days straight, one was taken and I don’t even know where he is – or if he is still alive”, she said. Daria also recounts how they went to her mom’s friend’s house simply because, before the occupation, she was working for the local government. The Russians threatened her that she either work for them or they would kill her children. Her mom’s friend packed her stuff the other day and just left Kherson. Apartments and houses left empty were occupied and looted by the soldiers. Despite the examples of solidarity Daria experienced, relations among people also became strained because there were locals in the occupied territories who were snitching or collaborating with the Russian authorities and reporting on neighbours accusing them of being pro-Ukrainian or Nazis.
Under the brutal reality of the occupation, Daria and her friends were trying to maintain a sense of ‘normalcy’ in defiance of the circumstances, and keep their spirits up. “We were riding bicycles a lot because it was springtime and we were trying to escape the city and go to the Dachas in the nearby villages.We were going to nature, just not to be in the city and see their faces every time. We needed a break from the military cars with the Z”. Daria started noticing the differences in people after the occupation: many were scared and depressed, but many in her close circle were on the positive side and hope that Kherson will soon be liberated kept them going. “We thought our army was near, that we would withstand the occupation until we were liberated. It is a real strange time to meet with your friends for a barbecue when bombs are falling nearby”.
Resistance had an immense impact on occupying forces:as much as it sent a clear message to them that they are ‘unwelcome’, it also incentivised them to take revenge on the local population. “When the Ukrainian army started winning, Russian occupants started lying, and they became really angry. They would torture people harder, they would attack civilians more because they were angry, because we were resisting”.
Each day was becoming more and more dangerous for Daria and her friends, and eventually she and her family had to make the hard decision to leave after staying in the city until May. “Russians were launching rockets from inside the city, you could see flying rockets each day above your head. You never knew where the next missile would land, it could be at your house”. Trauma has followed many Ukrainians even as they escape from danger. “They can’t return people’s lives, the long term effects of occupation are trauma. Each day I have dreams that I am in Kherson, the Z letter is a trigger. My younger brother is Ukrainian-speaking and after the war started, my mom would tell himhim that he should speak Russian in public despite his resistance. She had to explain to him why he can’t speak Ukrainian in public, and he would only whisper instead of talking. The first few days he kept whispering and he is terrified of speaking out loud because he is afraid that the Russians are going to get him”.
As a last act of resistance, a few days before leaving Kherson, Daria filmed a music video for a song she and her friend made. The song is called Чари ночі or “The charms of the night”, named after the poem of seminal Ukrainian writer Oleksandr Oles. She left this message: “The parting hugs turned out to be quite warm. But I believe that we will see each other again soon. I dedicate this video to all those who are tired of the pressure of the occupier and have left their homes. To those who are waiting for the liberation of the South. To those who miss Kherson so much. To all my friends, whom I don’t know when I’ll see them at my favourite locations in the city.”
All pictures in this article are by Daria, unless otherwise stated. Most of Daria’s images depicting activism and community volunteering had to be removed from social media for safety reason once the city was put under Russian occupation. All rights reserved.