AFP — Tanks in the streets, a severe medicine shortage and Russian soldiers searching homes — residents in Ukraine’s southern city of Kherson told AFP about life under Russian occupation.
Kherson, at the mouth of the Dnieper River and a stone’s throw from Russian-controlled Crimea, was the first major Ukrainian city to fall to the Kremlin’s invading forces.
It has become known for staging anti-Russian street protests and Kyiv regularly posts videos of these demonstrations.
AFP spoke to six Kherson residents by phone. They did not want their family names to be published.
No international media is present in the Russian-controlled city.
The six residents said Russian forces had blocked food supplies and humanitarian aid and medicine was fast running out.
“Another month and you don’t even have to bomb us. Hunger and illnesses will do the job,” an ambulance worker, Kyrylo, told AFP.
All the residents AFP spoke to said they had either seen or heard of Russian soldiers going door to door looking for people.
“They look for people on some kind of lists. Enter homes. It’s impossible to go against them, they are armed,” said Tetyana, a university lecturer.
A local from Kakhovka, a nearby town up the Dnieper River under Russian control, echoed her.
‘We are with UkrainE’
She said Moscow’s forces were “grabbing people” — mainly local activists and former servicemen — and “we don’t know where they take them.”
The US said last week that Kherson, which fell to the Russian army on March 3, was now a “contested city” and that Kyiv had launched an offensive to get it back.
But residents say while fighting rages on the outskirts, Kherson is still in the hands of the Russian army.
Kherson has been spared the destruction and heavy death toll seen in eastern cities like Mariupol and Chernigiv.
“We are hoping there will be no such atrocity,” said PR manager Alyona.
Despite Russian control, protesters have still held demonstrations in the city’s main square.
“We are under occupation. But we are with Ukraine,” said Maria, a 24-year-old saleswoman.
‘Pharmacy shelves are empty’
All the Kherson residents AFP spoke to said the main worry since Russian tanks rolled in is a fast escalating medicine crisis.
Insulin and other vital drugs began running out within the first week.
“Pharmacy shelves are empty,” paramedic Kyrylo said. “There is only water there.”
Volunteers look for extra supplies in private homes and buy them. Ambulances are now only called in severe cases, Kyrylo said, “because there is no fuel”.
Food is scarce too.
While meat and vegetables are still available, residents say prices have doubled since before the war.
Non-perishable products such as pasta and barley, which have to be brought in from outside, are rare.
“They are not letting humanitarian help in,” said Alyona, the PR manager.
“For a month, they are not bringing in food.”
Residents said a local poultry factory distributed chickens to the public.
Mayor Igor Kolykhayev, who has remained in Kherson, had said the birds were at risk of starvation, and warned of an “environmental disaster.”
Kolykhayev said this week he was working to resolve the medicine crisis.
There have been rumours that the Russian army is trying to introduce the use of the ruble in Kherson, but AFP has been unable to verify this and residents said the Ukrainian hryvnia was the main currency in use.
‘They search everything’
While the days in Kherson are relatively quiet, residents say fighting rages at night in the village of Chernobayivka nearby.
“Every night, we wake up to the sound of shooting there. Like an alarm clock,” university lecturer Tetyana said.
Ukraine claimed to have killed a high-ranking Russian general in Chernobayivka and President Volodymyr Zelensky said the battle there will “go down in history.”
Kyiv also said this week that it had regained control of some villages in the Kherson region.
In the towns under Russian control outside Kherson, life has dramatically changed, too.
Maria, a furniture saleswoman, lives in the town of Kakhovka upstream on the Dnieper river.
She worked in a nearby town but since the Russian invasion has had “virtually no access” to where she works.
To get there, she has to pass a Russian checkpoint.
“They search everything. They check your phone, your private messages. You have to delete everything,” she said.
People only travel between towns when there is an “absolute necessity”, she said.
She said her town was unprepared for the Russian attack — which came from Crimea — with most of the police units gone to prop up the army.
The Russian army immediately took control of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric power plant when it entered the town, she said.
Maria said she never expected such a large attack from Russia, where her father lives.
“My father is in Russia and tells me everything I say is fake.”
She has stopped calling him.