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“I was scared every second” – A Ukrainian woman remembers life under Russian occupation

Anastasiia.
Anastasiia. Copyright Photo provided by Anastasiia.
Copyright Photo provided by Anastasiia.
By Johanna Urbancik
Published on
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Anastasiia lived in Kherson and was preparing for the birth of her second child when Russia started its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. She didn't want to live under occupation, so she decided to take the risk and leave.

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Anastasiia remembers waking up in shock and disbelief at five in the morning on the 24th of February 2022. “I woke up because our friends called us, telling us Russian tanks were rolling in from occupied Crimea”, she remembered, adding that she only really grasped the severity of the situation when her daughter’s kindergarten informed them a couple of hours later that they wouldn’t open. “They’re usually always open, even during the holidays”, she explains.

“We didn’t know if Kyiv was occupied”

Anastasiia thought the Russian forces would turn around. After a few days, Kherson, where she lived, was occupied and Anastasiia, who was pregnant, her husband and little daughter found themselves living under Russian occupation. She remembers that in the first few weeks, Ukrainian supplies couldn't reach the city, food became scarce, and people were scared of starving. 

Russian soldiers in front of protesters in Kherson.
Russian soldiers in front of protesters in Kherson.Anastasiia

“It was chaos. People were trying to rob supermarkets and no one could blame them”, she recalled. “It wasn’t safe to leave the house,” she says, adding that staying inside, however, wasn’t any safer. Around a month later, the Russian supplies came from occupied Crimea and the situation somewhat stabilised. 

Besides limited access to food in the first month, Anastasiia remembers that their Ukrainian SIM cards didn’t work any more, implying they had no idea what was going on in the rest of the country. “We didn’t know if Kyiv was occupied,” she said. 

“Kherson is Ukraine”

Residents took to the streets to protest just a few weeks into Russia’s occupation of Kherson They carried Ukrainian flags and signs such as “Kherson is in Ukraine”. Anastasiia remembers the protest with awe.

“We had two revolutions in the last two decades, when we’re unhappy with something, we protest”, says Anastasiia. In the end, the protest in March 2022 was dispersed by Russian soldiers with force, using gunfire, stun grenades and rubber bullets. Several people were reportedly injured. 

Protesters in Kherson.
Protesters in Kherson.Photo provided by Anastasiia.
We had two revolutions in the last two decades. When we’re unhappy with something, we protest.
Anastasiia

Based on an allegedly leaked letter from an FSB whistleblower, there were plans to implement a ‘great terror’ to suppress protests in Kherson, stating that residents would be "taken from their homes in the middle of the night”, as reported by The Times.

The acts of protests didn’t stop, though. “There is a movement called ‘Yellow Ribbon’. Some people put little yellow ribbons [or Ukrainian flags] on the street, on trees or railings, and when you see it, it was a sign of resistance, and you knew, you weren’t alone”, says Anastasiia. The movement’s founder Ivan said in an interview with the Kyiv Independent that the concept behind 'Yellow Ribbon' was to ensure that acts of resistance were simple, safe, and accessible for everyday people. According to the Kyiv Independent, the movement now has 12 coordinators in major occupied cities.

People caught participating in the 'Yellow Ribbon'-movement face severe repercussions from Russian-controlled authorities, including secretive and likely fabricated charges leading to imprisonment. This suppression is part of Russia's broader effort to stifle Ukrainian grassroots opposition to its occupation of Ukrainian territory. 

According to the organisation Human Rights in Ukraine, 35-year-old Mykola Onuk was sentenced last month to five years in prison on "secretive, and almost certainly fabricated, charges initiated several months after his detention, likely for pro-Ukrainian graffiti associated with the 'Yellow Ribbon' peaceful resistance movement."

A couple of weeks later, the residents of Kherson were offered Russian SIM cards, which many accepted out of desperation. It was then that she was able to catch up with everything that had been happening so far, such as the siege of Mariupol.

Bomb shelter in the maternity hospital.
Bomb shelter in the maternity hospital.Anastasiia

Anastasiia gives birth while living under occupation

On the 9th of March 2022, Russian forces bombed a hospital serving as a children’s hospital and maternity ward in Mariupol. At least four people were killed, 16 were injured, and the attack led to at least one stillbirth. Anastasiia, who was pregnant at the time Kherson was under Russian occupation, was due to give birth soon. Seeing photos and reading what happened in Mariupol terrified her.

“I was really scared. Leaving the house during nighttime was dangerous, so my doctor and I decided to have a C-Section instead of waiting for labour”, she recalls. “It was absolutely terrifying. I felt I wasn’t only risking my own life, but also the life of my baby”, Anastasiia says.

I felt I wasn’t only risking my own life, but also the life of my baby.
Anastasiia

Luckily, the birth of her second child went well and Anastasiia and her son were healthy. Due to Russian forces burning down the regional office of the State Migration Service of Ukraine, she couldn’t get her son’s documents issued. 

Anastasiia and her husband after she has given birth to her son.
Anastasiia and her husband after she has given birth to her son.Anastasiia

ISW: Hospitals are threatening to take newborns from mothers if neither parent can prove Russian citizenship

In the temporary-occupied territories of Luhansk and Donetsk, possession of a Russian passport is essential for proving property ownership and retaining access to healthcare and retirement benefits. Failure to obtain the forced new passport by July 1st 2023, as mandated by a new Russian law in occupied territories, may lead to imprisonment as a ‘foreign citizen’, risking custody loss, imprisonment, or worse.

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The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) reported recently that in the Russian-occupied Luhansk Oblast, hospitals are threatening to take newborns from mothers if neither parent can prove Russian citizenship, according to Artem Lysohor of the Luhansk Regional Military Administration. 

Starting May 6th 2024, proof of Russian citizenship is required for parents to be discharged with their newborns. The ISW reports this action violates the Convention on Genocide, which prohibits measures to prevent births within a group.

“I was scared every day”

Whilst living under occupation in Kherson, Anastasiia remembers being terrified every day. Life was uncertain and dangerous. Even something normal, such as texting, turned into something that could endanger your life. “Phones were checked regularly. They checked messages, which Telegram channels one subscribed to and even photos”, adds Anastasiia. “We had to delete everything. Anything pro-Ukrainian was dangerous. If they found anything that connects you to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, you were brought to a filtration camp.”

Anything pro-Ukrainian was dangerous.
Anastasiia

Ukrainians living under Russian occupation now can face up to 20 years in prison for expressing pro-Ukrainian views, additionally, there have been reports of homes being raided and children and adults being kidnapped and deported to the Russian Federation.

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In a speech at this year’s Lviv Media Forum conference, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and human rights lawyer Oleksandra Matviichuk said: “Occupation doesn’t reduce human suffering, it simply makes it invisible.”

“Culture can be a tool of resistance”

“I think they wanted to use Kherson as a ‘model’”, says Anastasiia. Compared to occupied Donetsk, occupied Luhansk and occupied Crimea, there was no active fighting and shelling in the city while she was there, she remembers. 

Russians looting museums, such as the Contemporary Art Museum of Kherson and destroying Ukrainian books has been well documented. Artists, such as Viacheslav Mashnytskyi, who mysteriously disappeared during the occupation of Kherson. Currently, there is no information on his whereabouts or fate.

“Culture can be a tool of resistance, a carrier of memory and self-determination, freedom and independent thinking. It can also be a tool of expansion, displacement of another culture, a tool of power. Therefore, in the occupied territories, cultural agents become priority targets for Russian soldiers”, says curator Natalia Matsenko

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Culture can be a tool of resistance, a carrier of memory and self-determination, freedom and independent thinking.
Natalia Matsenko

“The occupiers often try to pull people from the creative sphere over to their side, forcing them to collaborate. And in case of refusal, they destroy or imprison, deprive them of their voice in any way. This is not a new tradition: in Soviet times, especially under Stalin repressions, it was precisely cultural figures who disagreed with the authorities who were exterminated as the greatest threat to the stability of the regime. Thousands of writers, artists, theatre artists, musicians were shot, imprisoned or sent into exile”, she adds.

Natalia Matsenko.
Natalia Matsenko.Daniel Sadrowski

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's (PACE) Committee for Culture has recently recognised that the erasure of Ukrainian cultural identity is being used by Russia as a weapon in its war against Ukraine. This act is considered a facet of a genocidal policy aimed at annihilating the Ukrainian nation.

Taking the risk: Leaving occupied Kherson

Living under such conditions and constant fear for her and her family’s life, Anastasiia wanted to leave Kherson. “I had a two-year-old toddler and a newborn, I didn’t want them to grow up under these circumstances under occupation”, she says. 

There are humanitarian corridors that should allow Ukrainians to leave the Russian-occupied territory or city, however, these aren’t safe. “These corridors are frequently bombed or soldiers just shoot the people trying to leave in their cars”, says Anastasiia. There was no guarantee of safety and survival for Ukrainians trying to reach freedom. It shows therefore how desperate people are who are trying to leave the occupied territories, such as a 98-year-old woman, who walked almost 10 kilometres to reach Ukrainian-controlled territory. 

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Despite the risk, Anastasiia decided to organise her family’s journey to escape occupation in the summer of 2022. Her husband was unsure in the beginning, considering the risks of being killed by Russian forces on their way. In the end, they decided to leave their home and embarked on a dangerous journey that forced them to cross around 40 Russian checkpoints. Finally making it to the last checkpoint to close to safety, they were met by a long row of hundreds of cars.

Russian military vehicles in Kherson.
Russian military vehicles in Kherson.Anastasiia

“We have two little children, please let us go”

“At the last checkpoint, nearly 700 cars were waiting to reach safety in Ukraine. They processed around 100 cars a day. We were number 690”, remembers Anastasiia. Out of desperation, she asked a soldier if they could somehow open another line since they had a toddler and a newborn with them. “I pleaded with them: We have two little children, please let us go.” Anastasiia was lucky and a second lane for people with children under one year was opened. They only had to wait one day to reach the final checkpoint. 

I pleaded with them: We have two little children, please let us go.
Anastasiia

There, their car was checked. “They took our phones, laptops and all other electronics to another guard who screened them”, she recalled. “Other soldiers checked everything in our car, every single shoe.” Terrified that they would be sent back or worse, killed, Anastasiia felt a massive weight off her shoulders when she and her family were allowed to pass. 

On 23rd September 2022, Russia initiated ‘referendums’ to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine. Ukrainian officials reported that people were prevented from leaving some occupied areas during the four-day vote, armed groups entered homes, and employees were threatened with job loss if they didn't participate.

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Less than a month later, Kherson was liberated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces on the 11th of November 2022. Parts of the Kherson Oblast, namely the territory on the left bank of the Dnieper River, is still under Russian control.

Russian military vehicle in Kherson.
Russian military vehicle in Kherson.Anatasiia

“Russian terror relies on unpredictability”

Anastasiia and her family ended up moving to Kyiv. There, Anastasiia had to finally get her son’s documents issued, which took her around a month of proving with scans and other documents that she was his mother. Not living under occupation hasn’t taken away her constant fear, though. 

“I’m scared every day. Russian terror relies on unpredictability, and I know my chances of being killed are much lower than in a car accident. But it feels like I can influence my safety in a car by being cautious. Meanwhile, the source of danger now remains unpredictable and scary”, Anastasiia says.

Moving to Kyiv wasn’t the only change in her life. Russian is her mother tongue, but since the full-scale invasion, she doesn’t want to speak it any more. “Since the full-scale invasion, I’ve read up on Ukrainian history and how Ukrainian identity and culture was suppressed by the Russians throughout the centuries. I speak Ukrainian now, my children’s mother tongue is Ukrainian. I feel like I’ve finally reclaimed my Ukrainian identity”, says Anastasiia. 

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Freezing the war

Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, there have been calls for negotiations and appeasements with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In March, Pope Francis ‘advised’ Ukraine to have the courage to raise the ‘white flag’ and negotiate an end to the war with Russia.

For Ukrainians, ‘freezing the war’ means living under occupation. Living under Russian occupation means living in constant fear, facing threats of violence, and enduring profound hardships, as shown by harrowing accounts of rape and other war crimes. 

Anastasiia doesn’t understand the calls to freeze the war. “Freezing the war in the occupied territories would lead to a mass exodus of those who can afford to leave. Only the elderly, the sick, and those without the means to start anew would remain, eventually obtaining Russian passports. The most alarming aspect is the Russians taking over schools and using Russian textbooks, effectively rewriting history for children”, explains Anastasiia.

Freezing the war in the occupied territories would lead to a mass exodus of those who can afford to leave.
Anastasiia

On the 8th of May 2024, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree establishing the state policy on historical education, emphasising the dissemination of reliable historical knowledge and fostering patriotism. The policy aims to counteract foreign attempts to distort Russian history and includes measures such as updating educational programs, creating unified history textbooks, and promoting historical and cultural heritage. The decree also plans to develop digital platforms for educational materials, support non-state historical museums, and regulate media to "prevent historical falsifications".

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