Halyna (fictitious name given to protect her identity) is trapped in a Russian-occupied town in the Ukrainian region of Zaporizhzhia. She has two children, one of whom has a disability, and she lives with her father. She has considered leaving her hometown many times but says she doesn’t have the strength to attempt the long and perilous trip into Ukrainian-held territory with her family. The Russian army knows that one of her relatives served in the Ukrainian forces, and she’s convinced she would be stopped at checkpoints and sent to a filtration camp. She refused to be interviewed on the record because she’s terrified of Russian retaliation if she is recognized.
Since the occupation of her city in the spring of 2022, she has regularly exchanged messages with a journalist from Ukrainian public service broadcaster UA:PBC, who first met her years ago when working on a story about the healthcare system in Ukraine.
The quotes in this story are extracted from those messages, which she sent in fear of being discovered, scared of even having a Ukrainian number registered in her phone. Edited for brevity, they are a first-hand account of the different aspects of life under the occupation of those she refers to as “the rashists”, a blend word used in Ukrainian circles to describe Russian troops. This neologism combines the words “Russian,” “racist” and “fascist”.
Russian soldiers take Halyna’s town. They remove Ukrainian flags and symbols from public buildings, and in the House of Culture they show a concert by Russian patriotic band Lyube, said to be Putin’s favourite and a soundtrack of choice in Russian cells while dissidents are tortured.
“They intimidate people by saying that Ukraine has abandoned us and no one will receive Ukrainian salaries and benefits. Pensioners at the post office have not been able to receive their pensions, stores have empty shelves and pharmacies have no medicines. For several days, there have been long queues at the administration office. One man shouted at people to not sell out to the “rashists”. The military quickly grabbed him, threw him into their car and took him away. The rashists also offer to exchange personal data for 10,000 rubles. Many people agreed.”
Halyna considers paying smugglers to evacuate her family to Ukrainian-held territory, but is scared.
“It is dangerous. At checkpoints they search, rob and sometimes take you to Crimea. We were warned about this, to be careful, as these couriers may work for the rashists. People are divided into those who are for Ukraine, and those who say that there is already a new government and it will not be like before.”
Halyna holds out hope that Ukrainian forces will retake the town, and imagines how they will celebrate the victory.
“We will take Ukrainian flags and go celebrate in the city. And at home, let there be cake and grilled chicken, and salad, olives, and gifts. Well, like the New Year. We hold on and pray for all those who support us, who protect us, who give their lives so that we may live. We pray to God for help and blessings. We believe that Ukraine will win.”
Halyna has prepared everything to leave, but she isn't sure she has the strength to survive the trip.
“I can't leave my father here. And I also think, who needs us with three cats, I'm sick, my son is sick. And I'm afraid of coming under fire or living in a car for a week with my entire troupe. I feel that I can't cope, I can't stand it. My things have been collected and ready for a long time. But I'm afraid I won't be able to do it. My psyche can't stand it.”
Poverty and mistrust take over the town. Food is expensive, and only those with Rubles or high salaries can afford to buy the basics. Halyna is scared of speaking in Ukrainian in public.
“I am already afraid to trust neighbours and acquaintances. It was not easy for ordinary people before, but now it is very difficult. My father walked among them and begged for one radish from each. Nobody gave anything. They turned away and laughed. We sometimes buy scraps from the butcher’s. Scraps of skin, lard and bones, thrown in the garbage. We wash it and cook broth. All these traders are not city residents, they are from neighbouring villages. And of course, they demand cash. These are Ukrainians, not Russians. Very sad.”
The social subsidies Halyna and her family relied on have stopped.
“There was no social assistance for children with disabilities this month. There was no pension at the post office, and they say there won't be. It is impossible to pay for utilities. The terminal at the post office does not work, banks are closed, Internet apps do not work.”
Russian officers come looking for Halyna’s relative, who served in the Ukrainian army.
“In the evening, two rashists came to our house. Dressed as civilians. They said that they were inspecting the houses and getting to know the residents. But the survey took place only in our apartment. I cannot sleep. I'm afraid I won't hear the door open. I'm afraid to wake up at gunpoint. I am constantly listening.”
Days later, Russian soldiers come back to search Halyna’s house. They interrogate the family about her relative's whereabouts. She tells them she doesn't know where he is, but they find his uniform.
“They shouted at me: "Gather the children, we will be taking you. Grandfather to one place, you to another, and the children to the orphanage!" I begged them not to touch the innocent children, told them that my son has a disability and a sick heart. One of them screamed that he would take the children, cut them into pieces and give me back one piece every day until I confessed. I made them believe that my relative hasn’t been in touch with me for years, I told them that he would be happy if they killed us. They also shouted at my father...he started to vomit.”
As the anniversary of the invasion approaches, Halyna says she’s tired of the war, and the stress is playing tricks with their minds.
“Sometimes it seems that it is summer and hot outside, that we will go to the park, to the swings. And sometimes it feels like winter is over and spring has come. It's as if all the seasons are mixed up. My son has a nervous cough, treated only with a sedative. My other son constantly imagines hearing animal sounds. Sometimes he shakes all over, then laughs, thinks about beating his head against the wall. He beats the walls with his hands and feet and screams for these devils to die. I am in tears, tears. It will pass. We will live.”
The Ruble becomes the only currency accepted in the town, with the Hryvnia banned in shops and even exchange offices. Any money received from Ukraine is now useless. Only those with Russian papers can access Rubles.
“Many people cannot even buy bread. Terminals were confiscated in stores. Both shops and exchange offices were fined. Some shops were forbidden to open. What can we do? We can no longer buy anything, because they don't accept Ukrainian cards. We receive funds only from Ukraine. We don't want to be traitors. This is kind of a rape of people! Why does the president not tell us anything? How can we live? “
Halyna despairs. She yearns for guidance from the Ukrainian leadership.
“Our backpacks have been standing in the corridor since March 2022. What can our president tell us? How will he support us? I have already heard in the news that all those who remained in the city are those who were waiting for the Russians. I have already read that we are physically gone. What happens next? Who is shooting at us: Russia or Ukraine? Forgive me, I have a strong panic. I have a constant feeling that they are still walking around our apartment, that they are still interrogating us, sometimes I feel as if I am still talking to them. The psychological state is terrible. Let Zelenskyy give us some advice. We want to be Ukrainians.”
The Russian authorities ramp up the pressure on passportisation. Halyna has resisted taking Russian documents, but sees the advantages they bring to others.
“My cousin came from Crimea with her sons. She received a Russian passport and got a job. They announced that we can get passports until the end of March, and those who don’t comply will be deported, and their children will be sent to orphanages. Deportees seem to be left on the road near Vasylivka or Kamianskyi. But those people disappear, or they are found shot, or forced to dig trenches. I strongly feel that the war will end this spring. The Russian Federation will surrender.”
There’s an opportunity to evacuate, through an organisation of volunteers who help people in the occupied territories. But Halyna is too scared, and wants to believe that the war will end soon.
“Those on their lists are not let through the checkpoints. They have the names of Ukrainian soldiers. Relatives are also included in these lists. I may not be let through. We are all on their lists and under surveillance. I have nightmares at night. Twice I dreamed that my son fell from the balcony and died, how it happened before my eyes. I am very afraid of getting caught at road checkpoints. I am scared of every decision. I don't know what is right and what is wrong, and I am very afraid.”
Some of the local population sign up for evacuation with the Russian authorities. Halyna stays.
“People were evacuated voluntarily, upon prior registration with Russian passports, children were registered with their parents' statements based on their parents' Russian passports and a birth certificate with a mark of the child's Russian citizenship. Boarding the buses in the yard of the school. All the wounded soldiers were taken out of the hospital the night before last. The city is quiet. There are armed patrols of 4 soldiers each.”
The start of the school year approaches. Halyna sees the schools being renovated, and her resolve to refuse Russian documents falters.
“To enrol a child in school, you need to provide the Russian passport of one of the parents, the child's birth certificate and a translation into Russian, SNILS
(Russian identification number), and a medical examination. Then they fill out the application "I request that my child is accepted as a citizen of Russia", and issue a piece of paper with the seal "accepted the citizenship of the Russian Federation". Fingerprints are also taken from children (from 6 to 14 years old).”
Halyna has taken the Russian passport, and her children start school under the Russian curriculum.
“A set of school uniforms was issued for free. The teacher deals with my son individually in all subjects in the second period. She told him that Ukraine is small, really small, and Russia is big, really big, and you can even become a millionaire. My son calls their textbooks poop. He says that almost all the children in his class support Ukraine.”
Local elections are held across Russia, including the occupied territories. Halyna describes how people are encouraged to vote.
“They went around again with assault rifles, only hiding from the video cameras in the entrances. Women with ballots rang at the apartment doors, and a soldier watched from the stairs. Pensioners were told that their pensions would be cancelled if they did not vote. Voting took place in apartments. They were told not to go to the booths at the polling stations. Special people came and did everything for us. In the school, near the entrance, two soldiers (Chechens or Dagestani men) are sitting on a large sofa, next to them are machine guns and knives. But children and their belongings are not touched.”
The Russification of Halyna’s town continues. The school celebrates the anniversary of the illegal annexation by Russia of the four occupied regions of Ukraine (DPR, LPR, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia)
“Children and teachers were forced to celebrate the accession of the Zaporizhzhia region to the Russian Federation. Some teachers were very nervous, hid their faces and tried not to be in the assembly hall. There were almost no teachers there."