Russian troops occupied Kherson on March 2, a little more than a week after the start of the full-scale invasion. Oleh Kuharskyi, a disabled Kherson citizen, lived for several months under occupation until he decided to leave the city to protect his daughter. Zaborona editor Andriy Bystrov spoke with Kuharskyi about partisan resistance, the secret basements of the Russian Guard and the FSB, and the evacuation through the so-called “road of hatred” – the path to Ukrainian-controlled territories through dozens of Russian filtering checkpoints, which can take a week.
What did you do in Kherson before the active phase of the war?
It is very difficult for a person with a disability to get a job. I worked as a driver on my own car, worked as a taxi. Tried to earn something little by little. I have a wife and a daughter, so I also take care of my family.
I was fond of sports – powerlifting, archery, table tennis, bicycle racing.
How did you get your disability?
In the army, I was taken to the sports company, I was an athlete in the army club. At a competition, I fell off my bicycle at high speed and broke my spine. Since then I’m in a wheelchair.
How your adaptation passed?
I am a professional sportsman, so I had character. I did not lose heart. In 1994, in Kyiv, I joined a group of active rehabilitation which trained people with disabilities in the field of sports and self-care.
I specialized in teaching people how to use an active wheelchair. See, it’s a pretty comfortable little chair, it’s very light. You can live independently, because it drives into the door, into the elevators, you can do sports. You can also climb even the stairs — you should know how to do it. I taught people how to use it properly, how to fall off it safely, how to jump on curbs, how to slide down ramps. I showed them secrets and taught them how to get out of the state of depression, unwillingness to live.
Tell us about the first days of the war in Kherson.
The daughter came running at 4 in the morning: “Mom, dad, get up, the war has started.” My wife said: how could there be war in the 21st century? And then there was panic because the explosions were approaching very quickly, they could already be heard on the outskirts of the city.
The people of Kherson started buying gasoline in the early hours, and the next day it was gone. Whoever had the car filled up could go quickly. But it is very difficult to take responsibility, drop everything and leave. We have a private house. At home, we have a cat, a dog, several chickens… And a mother who does not want to leave the farm and go with us. We stayed. It was scary and very loud. In a straight line from us to the famous Chornobayivka there are 4 kilometers.
There were active protests in the temporarily occupied Kherson, the townspeople stopped the armored vehicles of the occupiers with their own hands.
As soon as the Russians came in, they were kind of meek: “We’re liberating you.” They were smiling. At first, they did not touch the protesters, but simply stood nearby, barriers were set up, and cars blocked the street near the administration. And then the Russian Guard came and started to tighten the rules. They threw stun grenades, shot protesters in the legs. People were seriously injured and eventually stopped going to protests.
Then the occupiers began to go to the addresses quietly at night, dragging all the activists “to the basement”. Someone leaked the lists to them. Former ATO veterans began to disappear… Many Kherson residents understood that they had to flee. Because the occupiers took anyone “to the basement” and did not return them back, especially young men. They did this because of a patriotic tattoo, or some relation to the Armed Forces. Searches are currently underway in Kherson, even in garages.
How did Kherson live in the first weeks of the temporary occupation?
Different people came: so-called DNR citizens, Chechens, Yakuts, there were also Crimeans. More or less adequate were Crimean ones. And the others are dumb, it is very difficult to deal with them. They came to liberate us from the Nazis… Such nonsense! They themselves do not understand why they came here. It is believed that both Bandera residents and Nazis are here. “We came to protect Russian-speaking people.” Some have already brought their families. They find more or less whole houses – the best, of course, they find – and settle their own people there.
The equipment drives all day long – not by one car, but by 2-3. They patrol all the streets regularly, keep an eye on them. “For intimidation.” They don’t go alone – they go in groups of 5, 6, 10 people with automatic weapons. It is noteworthy that the occupiers are wearing balaclavas all the time, hiding their faces – even in 40-degree heat.
A curfew was introduced in the city, roadblocks were placed. We tried to leave in our own car at our own risk. You get to a roadblock, documents are checked, the trunk is checked, boys of draft age are undressed… If you don’t like something, they take you out of the cabin. It is better to be silent and not provoke them.
They brought a lot of alcohol of unknown origin. They drink a lot and there are drunken gunfights over in the city.
Do the people of Kherson manage to save their own businesses and property?
The Russians somehow believed that they captured Kherson – and that’s all, it’s theirs. They engage in looting. They break down the doors of apartments and garages. In the first days, all warehouses with products and household appliances were robbed. They took away everything: TVs, phones, laptops. All Foxtrot, Comfi, Citrus, Allo, Eldorado stores were looted.
Stores began to sell off the goods they had at a 50% discount. And in the middle of the day, Russians drove up on buses with machine guns, went in, took what they were interested in, and took it to the temporarily occupied Crimea. All new cars went there from car dealerships. Goods, warehouses where there were Ukrainian products — everything was looted, taken to the temporarily occupied Crimea.
They visited the farmers: “70% of the crop is for us, 30% for you.” Such an attitude: if you don’t want it, we’ll take everything. Agricultural machinery was taken from people and everything they had grown. Our region is known for growing vegetables. There, in the villages, agricultural products were taken away for a pittance. They say to Ukrainians, you plant, and we will come and take everything away. Friends traveled in the direction of the temporarily occupied Crimea and saw columns with agricultural machinery and products.
In the villages, people slaughter animals because the “orcs” will eat them! They come to the village, gathered meat and left. They ate it all and come again. In a neighboring village, a herd of sheep is being eaten on a farm. The Russians more or less have their own food, and the so-called DNRovites have nothing at all. They were thrown here, they rob, loot. Looking for food, moonshine, hungry, want to drink.
The problems started with the cash hryvnia. ATMs were robbed. And only a few shops accept cards, and they have already closed. There are funds on the card, but it is impossible to buy food with them. Pensioners who receive pensions through Ukrposhta have stopped being paid. Ukrposhta has closed, there are no funds. Ukrainians are self-surviving.
Now there is a lot of talk about collaborators from Donbas and Mykolaiv. How do you think the situation in Kherson looks like? How many people cooperate with the Russians?
Unfortunately, there are collaborators, but there is a small number. Some collaborators are forced. For example, Russians started threatening the family. Russians are interested in teachers, community leaders, civil servants, but ordinary people are not very useful for them. The occupiers need to establish an educational process, manage a village or a city somewhere.[Former mayor of Kherson, now a collaborator Volodymyr] Saldo came to manage our city. Where did he come from? He was once a mayor, then a member of the Verkhovna Rada, “Party of Regions”. Such persons began to appear… Kherson residents do not want to take Russian passports. Although there are queues for passports, it is forced. If you don’t have a passport, you are nobody.
What does the humanitarian situation and general life in Kherson look like now?
There is still electricity, gas, and water in the city. Outside the city, in the villages where hostilities are taking place, none of this is there anymore. People there… I don’t know how they survive. There is no work, everything is closed: shops, all enterprises. No one wants to cooperate with the Russians. There, you either cooperate and pay Russia, or you close your business.
Ukrainian television was immediately turned off. Many elderly people try to watch Russian TV. And I see how people are changing their attitude towards all this. Right in front of your eyes. The person was normal, then watched Russian television – and I see that he is already saying something wrong. Then they turned off the Internet. The cable from Mykolaiv was damaged. Then they connected the Internet from the temporarily occupied Crimea. It was a different Internet — not the one we have. Access to many sites is already limited, only through VPN. The quality is bad, the speed is low. But we still tried to communicate via the Internet, because there was no mobile connection. When the connection was lost and the Internet began to disappear, we already start to think about how to get out of there.
There are difficulties with pharmacies. People immediately bought everything that was there. And there is no new delivery. It is a terrible trouble when there are no reserves. Thank God, volunteers helped – they brought medications against blood pressure and kidney diseases, painkillers.
It is also impossible to call an ambulance because there is no connection. You realize that if something happens to you, no one will help you.
How many residents remain in the city now?
About 70% have probably already left. 30 percent remain in the city. If you don’t have a car, you can leave by bus – because there is gasoline in the city, it was brought from the Crimea. For example, a ticket to Zaporizhzhia costs 5,000 UAH, and to Odesa — 8,000 UAH. It is necessary to stand there in the bus for 4-5 days.
You have joined that 70%. When did you decide to leave the city?
We left on July 17. We tried to survive, we had food supplies: we had cereals, we had water, we had a little bit of vegetables. The prices for vegetables in Kherson were not bad, because there is nowhere to take them, and other foods were already a problem. They started importing from Crimea, but the price is 3-4 times higher.
We have been waiting for so long for the announcement of the liberation of Kherson. And in fact, it didn’t happen. We could hear the fighting approaching. The fighting went to Mykolaiv, and then we felt that everything was getting closer-closer-closer to us, already very close to us. And when it was very close, we decided to leave. Such an awareness: if [the Armed Forces] expel [Russian troops] across the Dnipro River, then they will shoot at the city from the left bank. And there is no green corridor, nowhere to go. At our risk, we broke through Melitopol to Zaporizhzhia, through Vasylivka [a town in the Zaporizhzhia region]. Maybe we, the adults, wouldn’t go – we did it just for the sake of the child. She is a little one, she gas to study more.
How old is your daughter?
16. We were worried about the children so that nothing would happen to them. Because the girls are 16-17 years old, they can take them away.
Do you know such cases?
It happened more in the villages. Where the Russians stood, around Kherson. There were also cases in the city, but not as many as in the villages. There will be so much of this. We will have many “Buchas” in the region. Because there are such villages where there is absolutely nothing left. Large villages were destroyed, people sat in basements. And they took away the cars, and raped the girls, and shot them. And it happened that the bodies were lying around, people were not allowed to take them away.
How did you leave? How was it organized?
There were six of us. My wife, daughter, niece, and we also took a neighbor with a 2-year-old child. The main motivation was to save children. I studied the routes, we only had one exit – through Vasylivka. A little earlier it was possible to leave through Snihurivka, through Davydiv Brid. There is fighting there now. Civilian cars that went there were simply turned back. We went down this long road. There were more than 30 checkpoints from Kherson.
There is also a second exit – through the temporarily occupied Crimea. It is safer, but I didn’t really want to go there: there is filtering, FSB, inspection. Then it would be necessary to drive either through Georgia or through the Baltic states.
What does the filtering process look like?
This is a conversation with a representative of the FSB, where every person is checked from A to Z. Phones, laptops – everything is checked. You hand over the equipment, the FSB employees sit there and check everything for a while. Then a person is called for a questioning. This interrogation can be [conducted] several times, up to 12 hours in length. If you didn’t answer some questions properly – then sit down. Then they dig and dig. They have some databases. Everything is re-examined: did you serve in the army or not; what did you do; your position; where you worked; what relation with others you had.
How did you pass the Russian roadblocks?
Verification of documents. “Open the trunk.” They may inspect things, or they may not. We saw: here they check our documents, and there they pulled a guy out of the car and beat him with a rifle butt. He said something wrong or they did not like something.
There was a terrible roadblock in Vasylivka. The system unit of a [stationary] computer was seen in the trunk. They say: “Turn it on and show what’s there.” The wife says: “Well, how can I turn it on?” They: “Well, then throw it away.” The daughter was in tears: why should we throw away our computer? The wife offered both money and cigarettes. He says, “Pull out the hard drive and throw it out.”
The attitude towards Ukrainians is boorish. People are just bullied. Children are crying. It’s hard. We arrived 501st in line. And they pass there barely 100 cars per day. We would stand there in the sun for 4-5 days without a toilet or basic human amenities. To a person with a disability, it is generally… How, where? I don’t know what I would do with the toilet at all. Where to look for that toilet in the steppe? [Fortunately, the Kuharskyi family was allowed through at the end of the first day because of a small child].
And the products there will be spoiled in a day or two. This is how people eat and live under the sun. We were preparing to leave. We understood that it might be necessary to spend more than one night there – we took a tent, air mattresses, and an umbrella with us.
When you arrived, was Zaporizhzhia your first stop?
There were also roadblocks, but it was our boys, it was joy. These are already our guys! Everyone works there: the military, SBU, police, and volunteer girls help. We arrived and immediately they asked everyone, wrote everything down, checked the documents, told where to issue what. Volunteers immediately came and told what to do. We spent the night [in Zaporizhzhia], then came to Dnipro, then to the country house of friends. And already in Dnipro, I was looking for options, where to go next (either abroad, or to stay in Ukraine). And here, thank God, we stayed in Kyiv.
There is a secret resistance in the city. Does the average citizen of Kherson notice the activities of the partisans?
They are invisible at all. We only hear their work. They shot a collaborator here, blew up a car there – they set such traps. They write announcements, paint fences with the words “Ukrainian Army is near”, draw Ukrainian flags. There is resistance!
How important is it to the locals? Are they counting on a partisan movement?
It’s important. It is a feeling that we have not been abandoned, that they are close, that our guys are on the way.