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Kherson diary: ‘Now we know in person our heroes and our traitors’ | Ukraine

Now in their third week under Russian occupation, Kherson residents have resisted attempts to declare the city a “people’s republic”. But in a third dispatch for the Observer, two female journalists, whose identities we are protecting, warn that as supplies run low, a humanitarian disaster is unfolding.

Monday 14 March

The morning has a taste of victory over the enemy’s plan to make us “pro-Russian”. In Telegram channels, residents post amateur videos – fragments of two rallies from yesterday: ours and the one where they were supposed to announce the creation of the Kherson People’s Republic (KPR). Now we know in person our heroes and our traitors.

At the rally for the supposed KPR, troops opened fire on protesters, so frightened were they by the number of people who were shouting, “Russian soldier is a fascist occupier!” The collaborators, under the protection of the Russian guard, got hurriedly into the car with the Z sign and left. There is no Kherson People’s Republic here and never will be.

Today the protests continue. The enemy lost their nerve again. One of them threw a stun grenade at protesters. It hit a tree, and ricocheted into them. In the end, they stunned themselves. Our people laughed at the clumsy soldiers. The video of this episode went viral.

War is war, but no one has cancelled the planting season. There is not enough fuel and herbicides, but the tractors went out to plough the fields – with Ukrainian flags! –amid the enemy’s tanks. On social media, even Russians comment: this nation is invincible.

Tuesday 15 March

As usual, the protest rally started at midday against the background of constant loud explosions outside the city. A trumpet player performed our anthem live. The music sounded so loud and piercing that we all sang the anthem again. Creative protesters built a tomb with the drawn image of Putin, and had his impromptu funeral.

Today the central market of Kherson was opened. Farmers brought vegetables and some meat.

Endless lines at petrol stations. People have been queuing since 2am. You can only buy 40 litres.

We buy button phones with new SIM cards, as it is dangerous to walk around the city with iPhones and Androids. Russians can come and check all your connections and activity on social media. They also take away cars and fuel. They are poorly provided with food and get it most often by just robbing shops.

But sometimes it happens differently. We stood in line at the butcher’s, which had nothing but meat for dogs and cats. The armoured personnel carrier stopped nearby, four soldiers jumped off it and quickly headed towards us. My heart dropped – I didn’t have time to hide the phone. But their chief asked, “What are they selling here?” The queue grinned – don’t you see? Meat. He asked permission to enter the store ahead of the line and showed the money: “We do not rob, but buy.” A woman shouted: “Why are you killing us on our land?” The chief muttered: “We didn’t want that,” and hurried into the store, followed by two others.

Three minutes later they came out – with very unhappy faces. What was sold there could hardly be called meat. The queue was giggling. The soldiers climbed into the vehicle and went to look for food in other places.

Now the situation is really tough. They have begun to search the homes of SBU security officers, police and anti-terrorist operation soldiers. In the villages, Russians kill them on the spot.

Two Ukrainian soldiers who died defending the city were buried today, in the church of the Intercession of the Blessed Virgin. The employees tried to take payment for ritual services from the mother of the deceased. Kherson residents expressed outrage at the misers and paid for funeral services.

At night it thundered at Kherson airport. Russian helicopters were burning.

A satellite picture shows smoke rising from Kherson airport and airbase after a suspected Ukrainian strike damaged Russian helicopters and vehicles.
A satellite picture shows smoke rising from Kherson airport and airbase after a suspected Ukrainian strike damaged Russian helicopters and vehicles. Photograph: Planet Labs PBC/AP

Wednesday 16 March

The morning smells like bread. It is baked everywhere – in private bakeries, in homes. The winner of MasterChef Ukraine, Pavlo Servetnyk, bakes 1,600 loaves a day and distributes it to people for free.

There are no medicines. Minimum vegetables. Sausages, butter, sugar and fresh fruits have completely disappeared; there are only apples.

Some people lined up for the Russian humanitarian convoy. One person condemns them, another justifies them – they are afraid of hunger.

Today a group of collaborators gathered in the Kherson regional council. A rescue committee “for peace and order” was set up. A well-known activist who fought in Donbas, the owner of the online newspaper Postfactum, Maxim Negrov, was arrested. His whereabouts are still unknown. Kherson journalist Oleg Baturin is in a local prison.

The evening is awful: we cannot stop crying when we learn that a bomb has been dropped on the theatre in Mariupol.

Thursday 17 March

In the morning, the Russian military removed the national flag of Ukraine from the building of the Kherson regional state administration. Then they went to the city council to check the premises for saboteurs, weapons, firing points.

At the protest, the Russians decided to get on our nerves too. They installed speakers and played children’s songs from Russian cartoons and began to dance to them. Then they played the Russian anthem. It’s some sort of provocation. But we remain calm.

Pharmacies, stores, hospitals are open. Post services begin to give out parcels received before the war.

Some cafes begin to arrange hot lunches for the poor and pensioners. The menu includes borscht, porridge and bread.

In the evening, their armoured personnel carriers patrolled the city centre – they drove back and forth. At 10pm, the soldiers hit the window on the third floor of a residential building with a teargas grenade.

Friday 18 March

The 23rd day of the war. No spring mood. It’s frosty and snowing again. We drink coffee in our favourite coffee shop. The brave owners did not close it, although we often sit there under the roar of artillery strikes.

All our thoughts are about green corridors. People in the know warn – you can’t go in the direction of Nikolaev; they can shoot at your car or take it away. But you can evacuate to the Crimea. Still, people want to survive at any cost.

The Russians continue house-to-house searches. Volunteers and journalists lie low.

A couple of hairdressing salons opened – a friend went to put her hair in order; another friend took his son to get a haircut. Everyone wants to take a break for a while from standing in lines and do something pleasant for themselves. Everyone is waiting for a victorious spring.

Saturday 19 March

A humanitarian disaster is unfolding in Kherson. There is practically nothing. Only dietary supplements remain in pharmacies.

The deputy prime minister of Ukraine, Iryna Vereshchuk, said routes for the delivery of humanitarian aid to the Kherson and Luhansk regions are being worked out. We hope and wait.

Today we will go to the daily rally. We are looking for a creative idea. Yesterday, a young woman pasted her air tickets, insurance and Covid certificate on a piece of paper, everything that was needed for a holiday abroad. She told how she dreamed about this trip, and then “Russian tourists” came to us. Plans of millions of Ukrainians for vacation, study, work, a normal life have been upset the same way.

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