Illustrated by Lidiia Holosko
For more than four months 22-year-old Tetiana and 29-year-old Ivan have been living under occupation. The Russian troops entered Berdiansk, a city on the shore of the Sea of Azov, on February 27, a few days after the start of the full-scale invasion. And already on February 28 the authorities of the Zaporizhzhia Regional State Administration, to which the city belongs, announced the establishment of the occupation regime there.
Since then the couple has not dared to leave the city, they rarely go even to the city center — in Ivan’s biography there is service in the “Azov” regiment, although he worked there as a financier, and on his body there is a tattoo in the form of the amulet “Valkyrie”, which the invaders can mistake for the “nationalistic” one. The occupation troops can stop passers-by anytime, primarily men, to check documents, information in the phone and to undress them in search of just such tattoos.
During the spring the situation in the city predictably changed. In the first weeks after the capture local people resisted: they went to rallies, holding Ukrainian flags and singing the national anthem. However, at the end of March the invaders began brutally dispersing rallies, detaining and torturing activists. Since then the pro-Ukrainian population has increasingly been leaving the city, and the rest have gone underground.
Attacks on Russian patrols happened. There are people who paint flags on the walls of houses, write “Slava Ukraini” (“Glory to Ukraine”), “Het rosii” (“Away with russia”). At night many people were attaching Ukrainian flags even on the electric poles above the road,” Tetiana says. “And a Ukrainian flag is currently hanging on one school. The invaders do not know about it, but the locals do, and this heartens us”.
The hunt for Ukrainian military servicemen and servicewomen began almost from the first days of the occupation. Ivan’s father served in “Azov”. He was detained on March 28 in his own house.
“At 7 a.m. about 15 armed military servicemen entered the yard,” Ivan recalls. “They surrounded it from everywhere. Neighbors said that three days before the detention they had occasionally seen a suspicious car near the house, the same one that had arrived half an hour before the detention”.
Within the three months that have passed since then Ivan has heard his father only once. His wife was allowed to pass a parcel to the Berdiansk prison, where her husband was being held. In it the woman hid a note with a phone number. Ivan’s father called on his birthday, April 9. However, he could not tell about the conditions he was in.
“When we were talking, my father was on speakerphone, and we could not discuss such issues; only the most banal and superficial topics.”
On April 10 the Security Service of Ukraine informed the family that the man was on the lists for exchange. Ivan has not received any new information since then. He says that since the occupation authorities changed the commandant of the city at the end of April the repression against the locals has become tougher, all communication with the detainees has been cut off, parcels have been forbidden to be passed.
There is no official information on the number of captured Ukrainians. Only from time to time news about the kidnapping of activists comes in. Some of them are taken to the local police station, some to prison and some to an unknown destination.
According to Ivan, total propaganda reigns in the city. Since the beginning of the occupation only Russian TV channels and radio have been broadcast. On May 9, when Russia traditionally celebrates Victory Day, actors were brought to Berdiansk with posters of the Russian propaganda non-governmental organization “Bezsmertnyi polk” (“The Immortal Regiment”) — they were creating a picture for TV. The actors were walking with posters of the fallen servicemen who had taken part in the Second World War. Soviet symbols were placed on the billboards.
For Russia Day, which falls on June 12, the entire city was curtained over with tricolors. On the “holiday” the invaders were luring people to the city center with free ice cream, shashlyk and a concert of the National Guard of the Russian Federation. However, most of the locals ignored the event, Tetiana and Ivan say. Because of explosions at an electrical substation and several plants, a part of the city was left without electricity and the Internet on that day.
In order to deprive people of communication with Ukraine, the invaders jam the signal of Ukrainian operators and distribute Russian SIM cards. The locals accept them, but they are forced to give passport data in exchange. It is assumed that personal data will be needed by the invaders for possible pseudo-referendums.
Tetiana and Ivan do not take Russian SIM cards and communicate exclusively on the Internet. They use VPN services to read Ukrainian online resources. There are two providers left in the city. One of them started cooperating with the invaders. The connection of the second is worse.
Those entrepreneurs who remained are forced to import goods from Crimea. And for this, they have to sign up for the convoy security. Such registration helps local collaborators gather information about who returns with goods and from whom a “tribute” can be collected. Price tags are in UAH and RUB.
Farmers sell out their products at local markets. It is impossible to export something for sale to Ukraine. For example, in mid-June farmers were forced to throw away 2 tons of tomatoes at a Russian checkpoint near the village of Vasylivka. The goods were being transported from Melitopol to Zaporizhzhia for sale, but the invaders blocked the trucks.
At the same time Russians steal Ukrainian grain. Tetiana says: almost every day she sees as it is taken out of the port by trucks in the direction of occupied Melitopol, Kherson, Crimea.
Most of the police and medical workers have left the city. Medicines are hardly delivered.
“Medical facilities work. But there is a shortage not only of medicines. Blood can be drawn, but there are very few reagents to determine the group or Rh factor. When medicines are brought in, long queues form. A blister of validolum used to cost 10 UAH, but now it costs at least 50 UAH.”
There are few young people and children left. Among the pro-Ukrainian ones only one friend of the couple has stayed. Kindergartens and schools are closed. In the first weeks of the war there were humanitarian centers there. Ivan and Tetiana were delivering food products and humanitarian aid to the locals. Since the occupation they have been banned. Instead, Russian “humanitarian aid” began being brought into the city. In the first weeks very few people were taking it, Ivan says.
At first, when humanitarian aid was brought in, people were gathering in front of these convoys and were criticizing those who chose it.”
But later pensioners started coming for free food products.
Tetiana and Ivan themselves are not working anywhere now. Before the occupation Ivan was a trade representative. The store where Tetiana worked as an administrator sold out its stocks in March and closed. The girl studies remotely at the medical college that has moved to Zaporizhzhia.
They confess: they do not want to work for the invaders. Therefore, they are still “eating away” the stock. Why do they stay? Ivan has elderly grandparents who need help. Ivan’s mother stays in the city. Tetiana’s mother lives 30 kilometers from Donetsk. Her city is under constant shelling from the Russian military. From there Tetiana moved to Berdiansk to study five years ago. She met Ivan. They planned to get married in the fall, wanted to have a child.
At present they live in a private house. They garden, walk the dog and sometimes go to the sea. They do not go to the center in order not to run into an occupation patrol.
A curfew starts at eight p.m. Ivan recalls a case when the invaders caught a local man who did not manage to return home.
“The man was taken to Manhush, which is near Mariupol, to clean the city. He was forced to clean up the remains of bodies. People were buried like garbage. The local man came back a week later and started talking to himself.”
The most difficult thing under occupation, Tetiana says, is to put up with the fact that they cannot do anything and have to endure it with gritted teeth. The successes of the Ukrainian military and the resistance of the local underground motivate them.
However, both of them do not exclude the option: if the war and occupation drag on, they will try to leave for Zaporizhzhia, not far from home. It is expensive: on the first days bus tickets to Dnipro cost 500 UAH, but now they are ten times more expensive.
At the same time Ivan, a native of Berdiansk, does not know whether he will be able to live in the city after the occupation.
My city was raped. I do not want to live here. Although the city is very convenient and comfortable. We wanted to start a family life here. And now I feel disgust. There are collaborators here, there are those who accept Russian humanitarian aid. It is forced but still disgusting”.
When the Armed Forces of Ukraine liberate Berdiansk, Tetiana dreams of celebrating the victory in the city and then going on a trip around Ukraine.
“When all the occupied territories are liberated, I will go home to my mother. It used to be possible through Mariupol, now I do not know how. And then we will start traveling around Ukraine, because we missed the charm. We will go to Zakarpattia — we were going to visit it before the war.”
Author: Daryna Trunova
Editor: Oksana Mamchenkova
Illustrator: Lidiia Holosko
Translated by Khrystyna Mykhailiuk