In occupied southern Ukraine, a life of abuse, looting, collaboration and resistance

“For two months we lived under the occupation. We suffered, suffered and suffered.” Like Igor Kydryavtsev, a dozen Ukrainians told AFP about their life in the south of the country controlled by Russian forces, amidst abuse, looting, collaboration and resistance.

At 35, this father fled Novotroitske in the Kherson region with his wife and daughter last week. “If you say a single word in Ukrainian and someone hears you and signals it to him, he comes to your house and takes you away,” he said. “Some come back, some don’t. We can’t live like this.”

Igor Kydryavtsev stopped in Zaporijia, a large industrial city in the south still under Ukrainian control. The fighting is a few tens of kilometers away, on this southern front where the Russians are gradually devouring land, as in the east of the country.

If bombing is sometimes heard in the distance and a Russian rocket hit homes for the first time last week, Zaporizhia remains a gateway to liberating Ukraine. Hundreds of people arrive every day from the occupied territories, some are just passing through, others remain.

Like Natasha Borch, who with her two and six-year-old children left the Orikhiv region, south of Zaporijjia. The Russians partially control it and terror reigns there, she says.

“They were constantly drunk. They walked the streets pointing the lights at the windows, sometimes they fired,” he recalls.

– Systematic thefts –

Natacha Bortch claims that some of her acquaintances found themselves imprisoned in their cellars, “hands and legs tied”, and that the mother of one of her friends was “kidnapped”. “Nobody knows what happened to him.”

He also describes systematic thefts: “They wanted the money and the cars. And if someone wasn’t ready to give up their car, they would have shot them in the legs.”

Several people interviewed by the AFP asked to be identified only with fake names. But the allegations of theft committed by the Russians are on everyone’s lips.

Some allegations recall the testimony of residents of the suburbs of Kyiv, occupied by the Russians in March, although none of the people interviewed by the AFP mentioned executions such as those in Boutcha.

“We had a quiet life, work. Then they came and destroyed everything,” says Igor Kydryavtsev indignantly. “They take your equipment, your machines. They take the grain from the farmers.”

The land issue is particularly sensitive in Ukraine, an agricultural giant that exports all over the world. At the end of April, the Zaporizhia Prosecutor General accused Russian soldiers of stealing “61 tons of wheat” in the region.

Olexii (not his real name), a farmer who regularly comes to Zaporizhzhia to sell his fruit and vegetables there, tells how a large company in the region was robbed of tons of cucumbers by the Russians, who wanted to sell them “in Crimea. “.

But for most Ukrainians, it is above all at checkpoints that the arbitrariness of the occupier is exercised.

Leo – another fake name – claims he lost a cousin in the early days of the invasion, shot dead for refusing to stop at a checkpoint in Nova Kakhovka, a town near Kherson.

“Maybe he wanted to protest? He died in the car anyway, protecting our grandmother with his body,” said the 33-year-old driver.

– Humiliation –

It tells of the daily humiliations inflicted on roadblocks. The Russians “ask you: + Could you ‘share’ this or that with us? + And you understand that if you don’t share you will stay at the checkpoint for a long time. So share.”

The farmer Olexiï tells him that he found himself “three times in his underwear” on the street. Pro-Russian elements in the Donbass ordered him to undress “to verify that (he) did not (have) pro-Ukrainian tattoos.”

An almost standard procedure, according to Serguiï Pochinok, who fled with his wife and their four children Tokmak, a town south of Zaporijjia that fell to Russian hands at the start of the Russian invasion. “We saw people in underwear at every checkpoint,” he recalls.

However, not all Ukrainians are subject to the same treatment. Because those who say occupation say resistance for some, collaboration for others.

In Tokmak, 30,000 inhabitants before the war, “a large number of people collaborate with the Russians,” says Olessya Potchinok, particularly furious after a Ukrainian officer, tasked with recruiting new recruits, according to her turned his back in just two days.

“The criminals are now working with the Russians,” he complains. “The city is under their protection, they distribute humanitarian aid”, taking care to leave it piled up, in a disorganized way, “so that people fight for food”.

Natacha Bortch remembers a Russian tank parked on the corner of her street. “People have borne fruit for the soldiers,” she complains. “There were girls who gave themselves to them.”

In Energodar, home to the largest nuclear power plant in Europe now under Moscow’s control, “many entrepreneurs are collaborating with the Russians to continue doing business”, also complains Tetiana, a 44-year-old Ukrainian teacher, in transit in Zaporizhia. “They buy Crimean products, which they resell at exorbitant prices.”

– “Beware of yourself”

All the witnesses interviewed by the AFP describe empty shops and pharmacies in the territories under Russian control, with goods becoming inaccessible to small wallets.

The price of sugar in particular has tripled, notes the farmer Olexiï, according to him the fault of the collaborators “who are trying to make a profit”.

Of Pologuy’s 20,000 inhabitants, about 500 have made a pact with the new owners, he says. “We have a group on the Viber application. Sometimes there is a message, with a last name, that says: + We know who you are.

But the resistance is establishing itself, which, according to him, is already “disappearing” the pro-Russian soldiers who have come south from the Donbass. And to add: “We all have our front line. People are doing what they can.”

Tetiana also evokes the presence of “partisans” in the countryside near Energodar. And she is delighted to say that Ukrainians who support Russia are “evaporating” there.

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