Mock executions in the street, families kidnapped never to return and escape routes peppered with mines… IAN GALLAGHER reveals life in a courageous city under the control of Putin’s goons
Mock executions in the street. Families kidnapped never to return. Escape routes peppered with mines… life in courageous city under the control of Putin’s goons…
The protesters passing below his third-floor office window cry out ‘Glory to Ukraine!’ and the Mayor of Kherson feels a tingling of pride.
How Igor Kolykhaev wishes he could publicly address them, his people, and acknowledge their bravery as they dodge tear gas canisters in nearby Freedom Square.
And he would dearly love to emulate President Volodymyr Zelensky by issuing a defiant rallying cry. Yet his is the only major Ukrainian city to fall to the Russians and it has rendered Mr Kolykhaev, if not powerless, then severely weakened. ‘It hurts,’ he admits.
The military and police left soon after Vladimir Putin’s tanks rolled into town a month ago. In their absence, Mr Kolykhaev has become the peg upon which Kherson’s 250,000 remaining residents hang their dwindling hopes of salvation.
Demonstrators react to stun grenades thrown by Russian troops as they protest the Russian invasion, along Ushakova Avenue in Kherson, Ukraine
A Ukrainian man lays face-down on the ground as a Russian soldier fires his weapon aiming next to him watch from a room in Kherson, Ukraine
Russian troops with their ‘Z’ marked vehicles standing in the distance as Ukrainian civilians stage a protest amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in Kherson
Acknowledging his burden, the 50-year-old father-of-two tells The Mail on Sunday: ‘I am on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week trying to fix things.’
With nightly shelling in the suburbs, kidnap gangs roaming the streets and chronic food and medicine shortages, Mr Kolykhaev concedes that Kherson’s future is, to put it mildly, uncertain.
‘There is a 50/50 chance that it will go the way of Mariupol,’ he says, referring to the near-obliterated port city further east along the Black Sea coast in southern Ukraine. ‘The prospect is horrifying.’
In addition to Mr Kolykhaev, The Mail on Sunday has talked to a lawyer, doctor, teacher and business leader who describe the realities of life under Russian rule, portraying Kherson as a city teetering on a cliff edge, facing a humanitarian disaster and presided over by dread-inducing occupiers who grow ever more brutal as Putin fails to achieve expected victories elsewhere.
Mr Kolykhaev reveals that with each passing day this is becoming an increasingly dirty war. He says more than 100 activists in Kherson, and in some cases their families, have been ‘disappeared’ – snatched from their homes in the middle of the night, their fate unknown. ‘We are doing all we can to try to find them, so far without much success,’ he says.
Daria, a lawyer, says she knows of two families who were taken away after Russians wearing civilian clothes burst into their homes. She says: ‘If they do not open the doors they smash them down. In the cases I know of they were looking for documents, I suppose incriminating evidence of some kind.
Ukrainian soldiers are pictured in their tanks, amid Russia’s invasion on Ukraine in Bucha, in Kyiv region, Ukraine April 2, 20022. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
A Ukrainian soldier passes by destroyed Russian tanks in the village of Dmytrivka close to Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, April 2, 2022. At least ten Russian tanks were destroyed in the fighting two days ago in Dmytrivka. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Destroyed cars are seen on a highway 20km from Kyiv, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, in Kyiv region, Ukraine, April 2, 2022. REUTERS/Mikhail Palinchak
Ukrainian servicemen climb on a fighting vehicle outside Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, April 2, 2022. As Russian forces pull back from Ukraine’s capital region, retreating troops are creating a ‘catastrophic’ situation for civilians by leaving mines around homes, abandoned equipment and ‘even the bodies of those killed,’ President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned Saturday. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
A Ukrainian soldier passes by destroyed Russian tanks in the village of Dmytrivka close to Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Apr. 2, 2022. As Russian forces pull back from Ukraine’s capital region, retreating troops are creating a ‘catastrophic’ situation for civilians by leaving mines around homes, abandoned equipment and ‘even the bodies of those killed,’ President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned Saturday. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Despite successful counter attacks, the country still faces no reprieve from more than five weeks of war or that the more than 4 million refugees who have fled Ukraine will return soon. Pictured: A destroyed Russian personnel transport
‘They put a bag on the head of the man they were looking for and then did the same to his family, including the two children. We have heard nothing since. They are lost.
‘We tried to get some information but the Russians wouldn’t reveal anything.’
We learn of another disturbing case: five sports coaches abducted on the same day.
‘I heard that those taken, from one club in the city, had some possible connection to the military,’ says businessman Alexey. ‘Four of the men were eventually returned two weeks ago, having been severely tortured.’
But he said a fifth man, in his 60s, who teaches the Japanese martial art akido, never returned, and his friends and family fear the worst.
Russian troops and tanks moved into Kherson, strategically located on the Dnieper River, after days of intense fighting that left more than 300 Ukrainian civilians and fighters dead.
Bodies were left strewn about the city streets as the battles raged. Utility workers tried to fix damaged pipes and downed lines but came under fire from snipers.
Fabrika, a shopping, cinema and bowling complex at the entrance to the city, was once a symbol of its growing prosperity. Maxym, a doctor living nearby, shares pictures of what it looks like now: a disfigured, burnt-out husk.
‘There was a series of explosions and a huge fire and then the Russians began shelling the firemen to stop them putting it out,’ he says.
Around this time, a group of armed Russian officers, including the commander of forces attacking the city, entered the mayor’s office and announced plans to set up a military administration.
A proud man, Mr Kolykhaev is reluctant to discuss his dealings with the occupiers, beyond saying they follow rules laid down by the Geneva Convention. Which is more than can be said for the occupiers’ dealings with residents.
The Kremlin hoped Kherson could clear the way for its forces to push westward toward Odessa – a much bigger prize.
But the advance has been slow, the resistance fierce, and, say Kherson residents, this has made the occupiers jittery and aggressive.
In the past fortnight there have been reports of a dreadful new tactic used by Russians to intimidate the population.
Daria shares some footage taken from a friend’s apartment balcony. It shows Russian gunmen standing over a group of people face down on the ground. One of the soldiers fires his weapon inches from a man’s head, the bullet kicking up dust.
A Ukrainian soldier inspects a damaged Russian tank depicting the ‘V’ sign as their armed forces continue to share photographs of heavy Russian losses
Pictured: Destroyed Russian machinery in the village of Dmitrivka, near Kyiv on Saturday afternoon
A damaged BMP-2 armoured personal carrier is pictured in Bucha, a town of 28,000 on the outskirts of Kyiv
A Ukrainian policeman inspects destroyed Russian heavy vehicles after Zelenskyy’s forces regained control of the village of Dmitrivka near Kyiv on Saturday
As Ukrainian units advance, they’re met with burned-out armoured tanks and troop transport vehicles that line the roads once populated by commuters heading in or out of the capital. Pictured: Destroyed Russian tanks outside Kyiv
Local residents in the village of Dmitrivka, near Kyiv, emerge from their homes and begin clearing away the burned remains of Russian tanks after a string of successful Ukrainian counterattacks
Pictured: Dozens of burned out Russian armoured vehicles line the roads out of Kyiv
A damaged APS is pictured in the recaptured by the Ukrainian army Nova Basan village of Kyiv in Ukraine on Friday
A Ukrainian soldier is seen among the ruins of a burned vehicle in Irpin, Ukraine, on Friday. It came as Ukrainian soldiers regained control in the region that is one of the conflict areas where the most intense battles have taken place
Burned-out tanks and heavily-armoured personnel transport vehicles that line the roads once populated by commuters
UK defence sources revealed last night that Kremlin forces have run out of vital weapons and cannot now replenish their stocks
A local residence examines destroyed Russian tanks in the village of Dmytrivka close to Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, April 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
‘Terrifying,’ says Daria. ‘And horrible. This is their new thing.’
She recalls the early days of the occupation when a Chechen army unit struck terror while passing through on its way to Kyiv.
‘I witnessed one of their Tigr armoured vehicles turn its guns on an apartment block near my home on the edge of the city,’ she says.
‘Some people were shouting ‘Glory Ukraine’ from their balcony and that is why they were hit. Four people died.’
Escape from the city is a perilous undertaking. The mayor warns: ‘There is no humanitarian corridor and residents are risking their lives by trying to leave the city.
‘There are no safe roads; the Russians have mined the roads on the routes out of the city.’
Thus far, 50,000 have left. In the city itself, there are four checkpoints, a mile or so apart, and each progressively more dangerous than the previous. Residents must drive with their windows wound down – so the occupants are visible – or expect gunfire.
A Ukrainian soldier examines a destroyed Russian tank in the village of Dmytrivka close to Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, April 2, 2022. At least ten Russian tanks were destroyed in the fighting two days ago in Dmytrivka. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
A local residence rides a bike by destroyed Russian tanks, in the village of Dmytrivka close to Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, April 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
A car passes a destroyed tank after Ukrainian troops retook the village of Dmitrivka near Kyiv today. The village and its surroundings have recently been recaptured by Ukrainian forces amid the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine
Ukrainian servicemen inspect destroyed Russian machinery after they retook the village of Dmitrivka near Kyiv, April 2
Sometimes they are hit anyway. Anastasia, 34, a university lecturer, said a friend was trying to take her 15-year-old son and 65-year-old disabled father out of the city when – ‘for no reason whatsoever’ – soldiers riddled their car with bullets.
‘Her son died, so did her father and my friend was injured,’ says Anastasia. ‘Why would they do that? It was clear there weren’t military people inside the car. It was a random attack on people who posed no threat.’
Even if the fourth checkpoint is successfully cleared, residents are immediately plunged into the middle of near-constant battles in the countryside.
‘There is nothing left of the village of Oleksandrivka, north of here, for instance,’ says Mr Kolykhaev. ‘It doesn’t exist.’
Those we interviewed all recounted incidents in which soldiers painstakingly searched the occupants of cars, systematically checking clothes and bags – then helped themselves to jewellery and money.
‘A woman, a relative of mine, was travelling with her twin seven-year-old girls, heading for western Ukraine,’ says Anastasia.
‘But soldiers at a checkpoint took all their money – 5,000 euros. When my relative complained and said she had nothing left, one of them laughed and threw a 100-euro note on the ground. They are animals.’
Days are characterised by the search for food, with hours spent queuing outside shops. Soldiers, though, simply help themselves.
‘They just take what they want and don’t pay for anything. At first they took mobile phones and now it’s food,’ says Anastasia. ‘The city is running out of the Ukrainian currency, hryvnia, and the Russians are trying to get us to use roubles only but there is much resistance. They are also trying to force us to speak only Russian.’
‘They are everywhere, checking papers, boarding buses to search for people and at night their armoured vehicles prowl the streets and the soldiers shine lights in people’s faces.’
Nothing gets into the city, so the mayor has been instrumental in helping mills reopen to ensure a supply of flour.
‘Now we have the bakeries up and running and making bread,’ he says. ‘And factories producing dairy items are also working again. People from outlying areas are bringing vegetables and fruit into the city.’
Another woman we spoke to, a teacher, said many of her students were ‘obviously very emotionally damaged by war’.
‘There has not been a single day without shelling or bombing or shooting. We have online learning and I see the children crying on screen, though they mostly try very hard to be strong. The everyday stress is enormous.
‘Some of the students went to stay with relatives near to the city, but in the countryside it is often worse.
‘When a pupil, aged 15, stopped attending lessons, I made inquiries and found out that he was staying in a village with his mother and father, sister, and grandmother when soldiers came round and said they had three minutes to leave.
‘The mother was told she was lucky, because if it hadn’t been for the children she and her husband and the grandmother would have been shot.’
Now the protests are becoming less frequent, the people more fearful. There are still pockets of defiance, though. And little victories.
One of the few Ukrainian flags still flying in the city centre hangs from the mayor’s HQ. And someone – a brave soul – has recently taken pot shots at the Russian flags draped over the main police station and other buildings requisitioned by the invaders, leaving them peppered with holes.
‘The city is still Ukrainian,’ insists the mayor.
And what would he say to his people if he was given the chance to address them?
‘We will win,’ he snaps back.
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