WARSAW — Anhelina sat and prayed in the basement of her home in Bucha after Russian forces overran her small town north of Kyiv this month after fierce fighting. “There was no light, water, or gas. It was impossible to go out because they shoot. People were being shot around the house, which is a terrible sound, even scarier than the bombs,” said the mother of a three-year-old daughter.
That day Russian soldiers had broken into her home and inspecting the mobile phones of her father and husband found text messages to the local Ukrainian territorial defense forces. “They were taken away for interrogation. And I just sat and prayed in the dark for their return,” she told VOA in a text message.
Anhelina was lucky. The men were returned and a Russian commander who “loves children” told his men not to scare the toddler. “They brought food, water and candy for the little one,” she says. That was the only glimmer of hope in the terrifying days she spent under Russian occupation.
Chechen fighters “miraculously passed our house” one day. The friendly commander told her if they had entered, they probably would have killed her in revenge for the deaths of many of their men in a Ukrainian ambush.
Her story isn’t dissimilar to the testimony of others trapped in occupied towns and villages. Ukrainians disparagingly refer to their invaders as “orcs,” a reference to the malevolent goblin-like beasts' author JRR Tolkien portrayed in his trilogy Lord of the Rings.
Abductions, shots, threats
It wasn’t how Russian soldiers expected to be greeted. Russian POWs have told their Ukrainian captors their commanders told them they’d be welcomed as liberators. But they’re being met with civilian protests and surliness, even in predominantly Russian-speaking regions, to the surprise of the shunned intruders.
And the occupying forces are responding harshly — with threats, intimidation, shootings. At checkpoints men are brusquely examined to see if their chests or backs display signs of chaffing caused by wearing flak jackets. There have been allegations of torture, and so far, unverified reports of rapes. Last week Ukrainian lawmaker Lesia Vasylenko said women in some occupied towns near Kyiv had been subjected to barbaric sexual assaults.
Russian soldiers, many dispirited and demoralized, are looting, say locals.
“Orcs are hungry,” a woman in the southern town of Kherson told VOA. “At first they would go house to house and ask for food, now they just take it, and they steal food from passers-by and stores,” she said. “They also take cars, trucks, and daub Z on them,” she added, in reference to the Russian army invasion marking that’s become a pro-war Russian symbol.
Locals are split on the reasons for the looting. Some say it is a tactic of terror aimed at breaking their will to resist; others suspect it is plain hooliganism by ill-disciplined and hungry troops.
In Bucha, Veronika, who managed to flee the town after living under Russian occupation for three days, told VOA: “They use people’s houses like their own. Eat and charge up their walkie-talkies and clean their guns. And when they leave, they steal a lot of things also, they steal everything, even food blenders, do you understand? Even blenders, carpets, everything. They're taking everything from our houses and sometimes they burn houses for no reason.”
She added: “Sometimes they kill people. I don't know why. At the house of a friend, when the husband went to the outhouse they killed him with three shots, one to the back, another one to the stomach. I don't remember where the third one was. They never gave a reason.”
Veronika said it got worse with the second wave of soldiers who entered Bucha. The first wave seemed to be more professional, more disciplined, but the soldiers who came later, many of whom were from Chechnya, “really were beasts.”
“The Russians disperse peaceful protests with their guns. When people stand up to them, they often shoot,” the woman in Kherson said. “One time they fired at the ground, causing ricochet injuries. About five people were wounded,” she added. “A blogger, a girl, was broadcasting live near them. She was stuffed into a car. Until now, nothing is known about this girl,” she added.
Kherson was encircled on February 27 and endured a brief siege before Russia captured it on March 3, the first major Ukrainian town to fall to Russian forces. The mayor, Igor Kolykhaiev, urged troops who stormed a town hall meeting not to shoot civilians; he counseled residents to heed the rules he managed to negotiate with the Russians. He managed to persuade the invaders to allow the Ukrainian flag to remain flying above the town hall.
The Russians may have seized Kherson, but the town has not kowtowed. There is still episodic peaceful civil resistance in the form of protests, which the Russians respond to stony-faced or with shots, threats and abductions.
And that is how it is playing out in other Ukrainian towns as the Russians install new political knyaz, or masters, and puppet administrations, according to locals in occupied towns in southern and eastern Ukraine. On Sunday thousands of protesters rallied in Kherson and in occupied Enerhodar, where they demanded the release of the town’s deputy mayor, who has been abducted. Video posted on social-media sites show Russian soldiers in Berdyansk, a port town on the Sea of Azov, beating protesters as they lay on the ground.
The mayor of Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov, was abducted on March 11 by Russian troops. Local residents protested. He was released last week in exchange for nine Russian POWs. Fedorov told Current Time TV, a Russian-language television channel overseen by Radio Free Europe and VOA: “It is a rather difficult ordeal when they take you for seven hours with a bag on your head, not knowing where, and you don't trust the people who took you.”
His interrogators didn’t manhandle him — they didn’t need to as there was a constant air of menace. “Or there was someone being tortured in the next cell over — and you could hear the screams, which absolutely pressured you, psychologically, so that it could definitely be compared with intimidation, with torture, and so on. So all of these six days were quite difficult,” he said. The mayor of the small southern Ukrainian town of Dniprorudne, was also abducted last week, according to Ukrainian authorities. His fate is unknown.
Kherson’s mayor hasn’t been dragged off. But on Thursday the Russians announced a new governing authority for the town, using the same name as used for other puppet administrations, the Rescue Committee for Peace and Order. In Kherson the new knyaz are pro-Russian politicians with links to the party of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in 2014 by the Maidan uprising. Most of the town’s residents remain uncooperative. “Kherson's attitude to the Russian world had been neutral before the war,” said a local woman, who asked not to be named.
“But after the events of February 24, it changed. Numerous demonstrations show this. People show remarkable courage and bravery during these protests,” she said. “The city is full of [pro-Russian] separatists. These separatists are despised. Most are corrupt officials from previous city administrations. They try to cajole people. They promise benefits; they blackmail; they intimidate,” she added. Another said: “You can’t complain, or they’ll put you on an enemies list.”
Homes of suspected political activists are raided. There are checkpoints across Kherson and frequent Russian patrols stop, search and interrogate residents, checking mobile phones. “We are seeing it a lot,” a Kherson resident said. “A lot of people have deleted their social-media accounts or they clean up their messages in Viber or Telegram before leaving home,” they added.
Igor Kolykhaiev, Kherson’s legal mayor, has been trying to oversee emergency repairs and get some rudimentary basic services functioning. The new knyaz are at a loss and issue half-baked orders, locals say. That is reminiscent of what happened eight years ago in Donetsk, one of the two eastern Ukrainian oblasts seized in 2014 by pro-Moscow separatists, as this correspondent witnessed when reporting from the city.
The Moscow-backed insurrectionists who seized control of Donetsk were ignorant of the basic mechanics of practical politics. When they stormed the local city treasury to seize money, the treasurer had to explain that tax proceeds were not stored in actual cash in the building.
According to locals, pharmacies are almost empty, and so. too, food stores. Despite shortages, most people won’t accept Russian humanitarian aid that’s trucked in. “The Russians just wanted a pretty propaganda picture,” said a local. Ukrainian humanitarian aid conveys have been rebuffed by the Russians.
Trying to escape from occupation isn’t easy. On March 10 Anhelina and her family heard a humanitarian corridor was being opened up for Bucha. On the journey out, she spent a night with her relatives and others in another basement, where a sewer broke. “and so in the stench, cold, sitting, we waited for the morning.”
“Wheelchair, white flag, a minimum of things and we set off. We walked past the corpses of civilians [how many of them there were]. I didn’t explain anything to the child, because I didn’t know what to say,” she says.
“Every few meters Russians ordered us to stop and put our hands up. Later we noticed my three-year-old was also raising her hands,” she says. At a checkpoint a civilian car sped by and hit a mine. “There was almost nothing left,” she says.
Anhelina then explained what happened next: “You can't go back, only forward, men in front, I’m with the wheelchair behind. Passed mines, corpses, shattered military equipment, we made our way to freedom.”
“We are safe now, but nothing will be the same. We try to talk normally, even joke a little, but when I close my eyes, I see a road of dead people, and how we stood with our hands up, waiting for the Russians to decide about us.”