Olga Kuts: “The investigator read morals to me while the men in the next cell were screaming in pain”
I have lived all my life in Kherson, worked with children, taught them to play musical instruments. The day before the invasion, we were going to go to work live after quarantine. It felt like normal life was back. But in the morning a close friend called me and said that the war had begun. No one before that knew what Grads or rockets were. Only when the Russian military entered the city did we gradually begin to realize what horror was happening around.
There are many people of different nationalities in Kherson: Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, Armenians. The war helped to understand that Ukraine is our home, we became one. People began to go to mass rallies, and the Russian military did not understand why they were not greeted with joy. The protests went on throughout March and April - we tried to prove that no one invited them here.
Closer to the summer, the invaders began to inspire us with their views and rebuild everything in their own way. In May, I often began to hear stories from acquaintances who saw how men were pulled out of minibuses, beaten and taken away in an unknown direction. Initially, no one touched ordinary people: the warriors went and looked for them according to their lists. They were more interested in deputies, volunteers and former police officers.
As the “referendum” approached, the situation became aggravated: the occupiers began to set up roadblocks and check the phones of people on the streets. When they found something suspicious, they were taken away for interrogation, which in most cases meant beatings and torture in the basements. At the end of the summer, the hunt for activists began, and I understood that as a blogger I was at risk.
I started TikTok, where I sought moral support from other Ukrainians. At that time, the country was in a difficult situation. Kherson residents began to think that everyone had forgotten about them - the invaders were pressing, and the Ukrainian authorities seemed to be inactive. By shooting a video on TikTok, I tried not only to show the whole of Ukraine that Kherson is fighting for its freedom, but also to prove to my subscribers that we are not alone. I began to broadcast live and thus gained a significant audience, but this attracted the attention of the occupation authorities.
On the eve of Independence Day on August 24, I received a call from school and offered to return to work, but under the auspices of the Russian authorities. I categorically refused, and a couple of days later 15 people with machine guns broke into our house and took us away. I spent ten days in the basement, my husband two months.
All this time we were kept in cells located opposite each other. We learned that Elena Naumova, another well-known blogger from Kherson, is being held in the same place. There were no girls besides us - Lena and I were the first ones they took.
When they brought us, they immediately sent me for interrogation - they asked who I was, where I came from, how I became such an ardent patriot. At that time, my husband was beaten in the next cell. Men were treated particularly harshly. I heard the inhuman cries of my husband, which also interfered with the cries of other men - they just squealed in pain. Against this background, they continued to read morals to me, and then they sent me to “think” in a cell where there was only bare concrete, shabby walls, dampness, cold and two chairs.
While I was being interrogated, I heard my husband's inhuman cries
Cameras were installed in every room, filming us around the clock. It was impossible to sleep - it was forbidden, we could only take a little nap when they left, that is, after about two in the morning.
If someone from the military came in, I had to immediately put a bag on my head and not take it off. Sometimes they burst in, immediately striking on the head and arms. They beat me with everything they could find - police batons, bottles. They just hit and left. Once I dared to ask why they do this, and the answer was simple: because I am Ukrainian and we all oppress the Russian-speaking population in Kherson. In our city, 70% speak Russian, even if you take my family - my mother is Russian and has never felt any discrimination. But it is useless to prove something here: they do not understand and do not hear anything. Perhaps they are jealous because they saw that I was happy enough: I have a family, close friends and a loved one who takes all the blame so that no one touches me.
I was more fortunate than my husband: no electric shock was applied to me. Unfortunately, my husband also had an electric shock, sawing off his back teeth, and broken ribs from frequent beatings. I saw how he lost consciousness, and the military literally had to drag his body into the cell. He could be left there for four days, and for a week without food and water. In the first month, he was injured only physically, and when there was not a single living place left on her husband, they began to put pressure on him mentally. He was told that I was not a blogger, but an agent and worked for the SBU, and Kyiv was writing a script for me.
They told my husband that I am not a blogger, but an agent and I work for the SBU, and Kyiv writes a script for me
On the second day, I realized that I just needed to go to the toilet. I heard that someone was walking outside the door - new people were brought in and taken away all the time, and there was always an attendant in the room. I knocked and said that I needed to go to the toilet, to which they answered: “You are Ukrainian scum and you don’t deserve it! Walk under you like an animal." And so they kept it for a couple of days - I had to defecate in one of the corners of the cell. Then they gave me at least a bucket. Maybe it was just luck, because the attendants alternated, and someone was tougher, and someone was kinder.
You are Ukrainian scum, go under yourself, you don't deserve a toilet
We were fed once a day, most often with spoiled food. For the first two days, I refused to eat, they brought us Moscow stew, covered with fat from top to bottom. My protests were always answered by throwing food in my face. And, of course, we didn’t have any soul.
Then they began to give Kherson products, however, also expired. When I opened the container with something like porridge, it smelled terrible. We were given 30-40 seconds to eat. Because of this, I lost 12 kilograms, everyone who is in captivity lose weight instantly. The water situation was no better. At first they gave me half a liter for three days, and realizing that I was a Ukrainian Nazi and scum, they began to carry rusty water with cereal from the toilet. Before that, I already had sick kidneys, but during captivity it got worse - stones appeared, and it became unbearable to relieve myself.
They brought rusty water with cereal from the toilet, and it aggravated my kidney disease
It seems to me that I survived only due to the fact that one of the investigators who conducted the interrogations felt some kind of individual sympathy for me. He never touched me or called me names like the others. If there was his duty, then, in addition to porridge, they could bring me a roll.
During interrogations, we discussed my TikTok videos. I was asked why Kherson is Ukraine and why I speak badly about the Russian military in my videos, why I hate them so much. But why should I love them? They came and ruined my life, invaded my home. I was forced to watch my students flee the city under fire. After that, how can I smile and tell [the occupiers] that they are cool? They are used to the fact that someone always commands them, but in Kherson there is no such thing - we have a free country, and everyone says and does what he wants.
Until recently, I was offered to work for the Russian government. When they realized that my family was a sore spot for me, they began to blackmail me and threatened that they would kill all my loved ones. This is not an easy situation: if I agreed, in Ukraine they would give me 15 years in prison for cooperation, and if I refused, they could take me to Russia. But I decided that if they kill me, then so be it, but I will never agree to cooperate with these people. My husband was in the same position.
On the tenth day I developed a mouth infection (we were all fed from the same spoon and the water bottles were dirty with rust). My throat was very swollen, because of which I often began to choke and asked to call a doctor. I was taken to the interrogation room. After they made sure that I was really in a bad condition, they sent me back to the cell. After a while, they came to me and told me to get ready for execution, but I had nothing but a package. When I was loaded into the car, I had already accepted the fact that I could die, but I was reassured by the thought that I had done everything in good conscience.
In fact, I was brought home and put under house arrest. They took away all my documents so that I couldn’t leave the city, and they gave me a set of rules: don’t contact anyone, don’t go outside, and let my parents tell my friends and other Kherson residents that I either died or left.
When I entered the house, I was in a state of mute shock: the invaders took everything, even my personalized lighter - a gift from my husband.
All this time, they came to me with checks to make sure that I was behaving quietly and really did not go out anywhere. I was told to forget about my husband and, of course, they did not give me any information about him. We were forbidden any kind of contact, because in their eyes we were two terrorists. My husband was told that if they let him go, he should not contact me under any circumstances. They were sure that Kherson would forever remain in their power and that the city would not be able to exist in any other way.
One day they arrived and ordered to collect my things, my husband and mine, for evacuation to Ukraine, according to them, the terrorists had nothing to do in Kherson. But due to health reasons, evacuation was impossible for me, I paid them for my freedom and gave the suitcase with my husband's things. It was very difficult to deal with this morally: I did not know where he was and in what condition. He could have been taken to the Crimea for trial, or he could have been killed long ago.
Two days before his return, I resigned myself to the fact that I would never see him again.
Lyudmila Vovchuk: “People with a bag on their heads were constantly taken out of the entrance”
After the occupation, at first it was scary, many fake news caused panic. Prices quadrupled, so we bought everything from cars on the market. Someone went to the Crimea to buy food and medicines, someone brought them from Zaporozhye, but soon any Ukrainian products were banned. There were also those who bought in Russian stores, usually they were people who cooperated with the occupation authorities and received a salary in rubles or some kind of benefits. We basically did not take rubles and paid only in hryvnia.
They did not immediately learn about the liberation of Kherson - there was neither light nor communication. It began to be jammed in May, and this continued until the end of the occupation. We did not buy Russian SIM cards and did not use mobile Internet, because it was impossible to access any Ukrainian site through it, it was possible to open something only through VPN.
The phone was not needed, and few people took it to the city - there could be problems at checkpoints if the military discovered something related to support for Ukraine. For this, they could bring a person to a special base, after which he was cut off the opportunity to leave the city.
Psychologically, it was difficult: the occupiers took away cars right at the post, took them from the parking lots of residential buildings, and also knocked out the doors of apartments and took out everything they could. Our friends have a private house, where the occupiers broke in and, looking into their faces, said: “You only have a day to leave, now we will live here.”
After six in the evening, the locals tried not to go out into the streets, so as not to stumble upon the invaders driving around in stolen cars around the city. But it happened that Kherson residents also looted - they broke shop windows, helping the invaders to take out equipment and expensive things from the shopping center. In such cases, there was no one to turn to for help - the police no longer functioned, and the Terodefense was forbidden to enter the city.
From the windows of the apartment it was often possible to observe how people with a bag on their heads were being taken out of the entrance. When the military vehicles were just driving into the yard, it was impossible to predict which of the neighbors would break down the door today. Many deputies left with forged documents, since only one road was always open. On it, the invaders delivered their equipment, for example, to Nikolaev, hiding in parallel with a column of civilians. Then this road was closed and another one was opened - to Krivoy Rog, and after the explosion of the bridge, a direction to Zaporozhye was opened.
Leaving Kherson without money or a car was almost impossible. Buses took 5-8 thousand per person. The most difficult way is to leave through the Crimea, because there were filtration camps there, after which you could be returned back to Kherson or taken away.
They tried to take the children to the camps, away from the fighting. Our neighbors sent theirs to the Crimea, but faced the fact that they could not return them back - as a result, they and their children were taken somewhere to the Krasnodar Territory. Almost all orphans from boarding schools were taken to the territory of Russia, and the rest were tried to attach at least to distant relatives.
Our neighbors sent their children to Crimea, but could not bring them back
During the occupation, my husband worked in a garage and repaired cars, and soon the locals reported on him. The invaders came to my husband with machine guns and demanded to cooperate with them. He, of course, refused, then they beat him and threatened that if he was going to leave the city, then he and his family would be shot at the first checkpoint. My husband's friend was less fortunate: he was kidnapped and kept for three months in Naked Pristan. At the same time, two cars were taken from him.
But people didn't always die or suffer because of their volunteer work. My husband's friend was killed when he was with his family at a dacha outside the city. The occupiers simply did not like his behavior. Later, this death was declared as a drunken brawl with a fatal outcome.
At the water canal, people were forcibly issued Russian passports, and after that the men were sent to fight on the side of the invaders. Nothing is known about them yet. Those who refused were sent to the Kherson pre-trial detention center. It's all incredibly scary, but we waited until the last moment for the Armed Forces of Ukraine, we even sewed flags to order. Then the joy was replaced by another stress. Two weeks after liberation, flights to residential buildings resumed, and we decided to leave for our own safety. Again it became scary to walk around the city, because you never know where they can walk in disguise.
Maria (name changed): “They walked around our apartment and took everything they liked”
Once, my mother and I were in a pharmacy and talked to the pharmacist in Ukrainian. Then a man in civilian clothes came in and said, addressing the pharmacist: “Are you forced to speak Ukrainian here?” My mother turned to him and said that in her country she would speak the language she wanted. And he looked at her and replied that for such conversations he would take her to the basement and there they would decide who would speak and what language. Mother understood that there was nothing to argue about. We bought medicines and left, then we walked and cried quietly on the way home.
A man in civilian clothes threatened that he would take his mother to the basement for speaking Ukrainian
But you can adapt to this. Hell happened when the invaders took my brother away. They came at six in the morning - about 10 people with machine guns, in armor, helmets and shields. Dad opened the door. Seeing him, they immediately began to shout: “Get out into the entrance!” He went barefoot, followed by his mother, and the invaders began to enter the apartment one at a time, his sister had to run out in a blanket.
They interrogated mom and dad right in the entrance, trying to find out where their brother was. In this case, we had a legend ready: my brother went to Poland, we do not communicate with him. Then they began to look at contacts on their phones, the gallery, asking if we had a "Signal", but we deleted all correspondence a long time ago, so they did not find anything suspicious.
But no matter how we tried to save my brother, in July they still tracked him down and took him away. He was at the house of his friend, who was also taken away. They probably knew where to look, although we did our best to be discreet - always looking for someone following us when we went outside, not letting the guys stick out of the house.
On the day the brother was taken away, both the sister and his fiancee were searched. The most cynical thing was that they showed her the keys to the apartment, which were taken from her brother when he was taken away. Two days later we found him, he was kept in a pre-trial detention center - a kind of local torture facility. We carried parcels to him, asked to meet with the investigators, but no one allowed us to do this. Once they told us to come the next day, supposedly then there should have been an investigator, but when we came and knocked on the door, we were told: “Go home, there are no investigators here and never have been, one of the military men was joking with you ". Then a car drove up, and the invader got out of it, went to the door, rang the bell and said: “This is a falcon. I came to work." A man opened the door to him, and his brother's fiancee pointed her finger at him and said, "Is this the investigator?" They nodded to us, but still closed the door in our faces. This went on all summer.
Every time we came, the invaders standing at the door taunted us, saying: "We will correct your repeat offenders and let you go home." Then they took away two more of our friends, we also carried parcels for them. And the one who received them told us: “Are all your friends in Kherson recidivists?”
He called us "Three Musketeers" because there were always three of us. Once we came again, and he said to us: “Maybe we should pick you up too? How long can you walk and wear these gears? They put the food - and went, and you stand and ask everything here. He was infuriated that we were trying to find out what state his brother was in. He always answered: “We don’t have anyone complaining here.”
While we were standing in line, different things happened - someone was beaten, someone was taken out and not returned. I remember there was one man who was approached by the military and said: "Give us your car, we need it." He answers them: "No." And they: “We’ll beat you now, hold you in the cellars, and then we’ll see what you say.” And the man says: “Today is a car, and tomorrow is a wife or what?” On one of the gears was written "Irina". As it turned out, the man brought the parcel to his wife.
If you do not return the car, we will beat you and send you to the basement
A month and a half after my brother was detained, the invaders came to one of the apartments where he was hiding. The camera with the motion sensor worked. The girl of the owner of the apartment is a medical worker, and the invaders took out a box of thermometers, a pulse oximeter, a blood pressure monitor, power banks, a laptop, flash drives. When we watched this video, we were shocked. They calmly walked around the apartment and looted, because for the first seven minutes they did not notice the camera. They took away all the jewelry, turned things over in the cabinets, while asking each other: “Do you need this? And this? Guys, who needs this? I'm shaking when I remember.
In September, we came with another parcel for my brother, but he was no longer in the isolation ward. We were told that he would be tried in Crimea for causing damage to Russia, adding that we should not be upset because he could have been killed, otherwise they would just be condemned. Then we bought Russian SIM-cards and started calling the government agencies of Crimea, where we were constantly told that this could not be. “Maybe your brother was detained by the Ukrainian military in Russian uniform?” Those words broke my heart.
Now we only have a response from the FSB with the wording that "this person is being held in conditions that exclude the possibility of a threat to life and health," and this person is "under investigation." We appealed to the SBU, the police, and the Red Cross. In the end, we managed to have my brother included in the exchange lists - we were told that he was on the national search list, where he was listed as a person who was being held by the Russian authorities.
When our soldiers entered the city, we did not even know about it - there was no connection at all, and this was a pleasant surprise. And the fact that we have been living without water, light and heat for the last 20 days has lost its meaning. We collected drinking water in the church, and when it rained, we collected rainwater - technical water. It was cold in the bathroom, steam was coming out of my mouth. Therefore, they bathed very quickly, heated water in saucepans, and dried their hair over gas. We were also lucky that there was gas, because someone had electric stoves. In the evening we read with a candle, but after the arrival of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, this did not bother us anymore - the main thing was that we were free.
We collected drinking water in the church, and when it rained, we collected rainwater, and dried our hair over gas
Anya (name changed): “The ransom was prohibitive, 5 thousand dollars”
I am from the Kherson region, I lived near Genichesk. She came to Kherson to study back in 2012 and met her future husband here. Now my family is scattered both on the left and on the right bank. The last time I saw my relatives before the war was at the beginning of February.
I am a makeup artist by trade. Almost all of my clients left at the beginning of the invasion, but I continued to receive the rest at home. Word of mouth worked well, and by early September I had more new clients than old ones. At the end of September, almost all the clients left, and the work turned into a hobby.
For a while, Wi-Fi was still working in the house, and I could correspond with friends, which was distracting and soothing. Later, we forgot what the Internet is, and the phone was used only to take pictures. Communication in the city took place only through paper leaflets on poles near bus stops and markets, as in the old days.
People from my native village often came to me. They managed to visit relatives who remained there. My husband and I were afraid to drive through the steppes and pass twenty-two checkpoints - we had enough information from fellow villagers, and after the referendum we especially tried not to risk it again. My husband is a young guy, and we understood what could happen to him on the streets of the city. At first, I was not afraid to go out, but it was because of stupidity and a feeling of suppressed aggression, hatred for the occupiers, which could be found even in the store. It was just unpleasant to see them here. I realized that I tried to avoid them so as not to say something superfluous. I learned the routes where the risk of running into the military or the checkpoint was minimal. But I had a regular client who lived on the Island - this is an area where it was impossible to bypass the checkpoint. And every time she went to another part of the city, she was asked to hand over the phone for verification.
With men it was even more difficult - sometimes they were not only taken out of the transport, their phones were checked, but they were completely undressed right on the street, trying to find nationalist tattoos. There was a case when our friend, who worked in the Kherson self-government even before the occupation, found an old working chat. There, his departed colleagues discussed what was happening. The military recorded the acquaintance's passport details, thoroughly searched him and put him on the list with a note that he was in an unfavorable chat room. Therefore, going out into the street, everyone tried to delete chats and photos on the phone as much as possible.
After the search, an acquaintance was added to the list with a note that he was in an unfavorable chat
Unfortunately, among our friends there are many volunteers who were taken to the basements. One of them said that those for whom they could not pay were there the longest, and the ransom amounts were prohibitive - about five thousand dollars. But after three or four months of torture, the prisoners ceased to be of interest to them, and they were released. It also happened that a person was taken away not because he was an activist or a volunteer, but because his face was not liked.
Our guys were caught on one of the outings on the Antonovsky bridge. They said that the worst thing was when the FSB officers, and not ordinary soldiers, came to the cell - they exerted quite strong psychological pressure. One of our friends, who was actively broadcasting live, was very lucky: when the military broke into him, he was not at home - the neighbors managed to warn him when they saw the invaders entering the courtyard. He hid for a long time, but then he was able to return. The doors were broken, and the letter Z was on the wall. In addition, the invaders took away his car and equipment.
After the Russian military, everything was turned upside down in a friend's house, the doors were broken, and on the wall - Z
Guys and girls were often found because of the neighbors - many denounced. It happened that a person was not active, but simply did not like the neighbors, and they called the military for a search and detention. One day we watched as a 70-year-old man was taken to the basement. His son served in the Armed Forces of Ukraine since the beginning of the war, and neighbors gave a tip to the house where he lived with his father. The invaders arrived there, found grenades in the house and took my father away, and then tortured and interrogated him.
But most of all, oddly enough, it was not this that shocked me, but what happened after the release - the arrivals. The blows are so powerful that it blurs all previous impressions. Recently, it flew near the pier where we were taking in water, when everything was cut off, and the blow was so powerful and loud that I involuntarily burst into tears, although I saw rockets fly out during the occupation period - then Nikolaev was being shelled.
Marina Martinenko: “When we tore down billboards, Kherson residents cried, and then they burned them themselves”
I arrived in Kherson the next day after the de-occupation - from the State Emergency Service of Ukraine. At first it was very hard both physically and mentally. There was absolutely nothing in the Kherson fire departments - the invaders took out all the equipment and machinery, and destroyed what they could not take out. We had to rebuild everything in just 1-2 days. It was necessary to restore the damaged infrastructure - there was no electricity, communications and water in the city. We often could not find each other even among the rescuers, because it was impossible to contact anyone. It got easier when they started installing Starlink.
I was especially struck by the reaction of Kherson residents. When they met us, they cried, hugged, laughed. A large number of people came running with flags, who carried everything they had to feed us - sandwiches, vegetables, fruits, despite the fact that we ourselves were preparing to help them. They wanted to show how much they expected us.
On our own initiative, we took fire engines and ladders and drove around the city, tearing off billboards that said: "Russia is here forever." We simply could not look at these signs, and other utilities helped us with this. I wish people didn't see it or read it. When we tore down billboards, Kherson residents came, cried, applauded, even burned them themselves. Incredibly angry if they found portraits of Putin or Russian flags in the premises. When we found chevrons from the Russian uniform in one of the boxes of the fire department, we wanted to burn them all.
I was very struck by how one woman said in a conversation with me: “We understand that we will be fired upon, but I am not afraid. Better shelling than life under occupation.”