Voices of occupation: Berdiansk

Kateryna Vovk, Anastasiia Kucher
Voices of occupation: Berdiansk

Berdiansk has been under temporary Russian occupation for over six months. On the evening of 27 February 2022, the Russian army entered the city and seized administrative buildings. Since then, there has been no gas, Ukrainian mobile communication, Ukrainian food and medicine. 

Located on the shores of the Sea of Azov, Berdiansk was one of the best resorts in Ukraine. However, with the outbreak of full-scale war, the locals lost their primary sources of income, particularly those coming from tourism and the port. Nevertheless, the city continues to keep in touch with Ukraine - people in Berdiansk use the hryvnia, despite the circulation of Russian rubles. 

Svidomi tells the stories of Berdiansk residents who managed to escape and those who continue to live in the city. All the names of the characters have been changed for security reasons.

"We’ve lost a lot of weight. If we survive, we will need months for rehabilitation"

Oleksandr is 41. Born in Yenakiieve, Donetsk region, he lived most of his life in Horlivka. The war first affected his family in late August 2014. Then they left in summer clothes, having no belongings for Kamianske, Dnipropetrovsk region, to wait for the liberation of Horlivka for two weeks. 

Two years later, they moved to Berdiansk and later bought a house in a village near the city. The war came again, but there was no possibility of leaving this time.  

"Like before, life in the Russian occupation is hardly different. There has been no gas since March and no mobile communication or internet. We cook food on the fire. We do not know how to survive in winter if we are not liberated. There is no firewood, only fields around, and electric stoves are also missing. Since February 24, we have never been to Berdiansk because there are seven Russian checkpoints to the city", - the man says. 

It took the family four years to grow their orchard in their new home in the south of Zaporizhzhia region - they planted more than 100 seedlings of trees and nuts. Unfortunately, there was no harvest this year because there were no chemicals to protect plants from diseases and pests. The garden brought considerable profit, but the temporary Russian occupation took away everything. 

"If I had a good Internet connection, I would send you more photos of our cats and kindergarten", - Oleksandr writes, and within the next few days, he is out of reach. 

For almost seven months, the family has been living on savings. However, these funds are almost over. 

"It is difficult to survive. Prices have increased 3-5 times. Russian companies began to appear - they offer jobs with an average salary of about 30-40 thousand rubles. My neighbour's son got a job on a grain truck with a salary of 60 thousand; they have never seen such money in their lives. It is all fake. Time is not on Ukraine's side," Oleksandr says.

On September 21, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the beginning of partial mobilisation in Russia. Almost immediately, the Russians blocked the escape routes for people from the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. Thus, people became hostages, and men were threatened with illegal mobilisation.

"In addition to the fact that we survive every day, the men are forced to hide. There have been no calls, but friends say many guys have disappeared in Berdiansk. They go to work or the store and vanish. It is genocide," the man says.

At the end of September, the Russian military drove up to Oleksandr's gate - he did not come out. The next day the Russians came again. 

"Then our neighbour came out to them with a small child. The so-called "teacher" from the commission with the armed military of the Russian Federation ordered her to put "yes" in the form. If she refused or put "no", she was added to the list of unreliable and sent for filtration", - Oleksandr says. 

October 14 was the day when Oleksandr got in touch for the last time. There had been no electricity in the village for more than two days. First, Russians promised to deliver gas by September, then by October. There was no phone service either. Only Russian SIM cards were on sale - the couple did not buy them. 

"Fiber-optic Internet, 100 Mbps which cost UAH 150 before the war, now costs UAH 450 under Russian occupation, and its speed is up to 100 kbps during the day and a little faster at night. We do not buy it. It's expensive for us. I saved a WiFi repeater, which I had bought before the war. Now we use the neighbour's Internet, having agreed to help her with the housework in return," - the man wrote in the message. 

Then Oleksandr adds: "Our life in the temporarily occupied village near Berdiansk is better than in Mariupol, but it is also terrible. My wife and I have lost a lot of weight. Once I was 88 kg, and now it is 70 kg. We have problems with health, teeth, and nerves. If we survive, we will need months for rehabilitation".

"You're sleeping, and your breath is steamy. You are constantly cold."

On February 24, Maryna was in Kyiv - in three days, she planned to go to her hometown Berdiansk. Instead, at 4 am, she heard the first explosions and immediately called her grandfather, who was still in the temporarily occupied Berdiansk with the girl's great-grandmother. 

On February 28, when the Russian military fully occupied the city, people began to come to pro-Ukrainian rallies. A week after the protests, Russians started kidnapping people. Marina's friend said that the Russians had seized his father - they came home and took him away.

"I knew almost all the names of those I saw in public among the abductees. My father's friend was held prisoner by Russians for more than four months. His wife did not know what was happening to him and whether he was alive. Later he was released, and he is at home", - Marina says.

The girl's friends and relatives often had to talk to the Russian military. Once, the Russians did not let Marina's friends to the cemetery. 

"Russian military lived at the cemetery. So we all worried least the graves should  be destroyed," she says.

Marina interrupts the conversation and recalls another story: the Russian military detained a local on the city's central beach and took him to the so-called "prison", where they held him for about 15 days. The reason for the detention was a swimming ban. 

In March, Russian humanitarian aid arrived in Berdyansk. However, Russians artificially created a social and food crisis in the city. In particular, they stopped the work of supermarket chains, did not let in trucks with food and goods from the territory controlled by Ukraine, and seized local food industry enterprises, limiting production. 

At the request of the Russian military, market and shop workers display price tags in rubles, which devalues the hryvnia, i.e. 200 rubles equals 200 hryvnias. Despite this, people pay in hryvnias. 

"People feel that Ukraine is here. My teacher always says that they keep some connection with the Ukrainian government, the economy, that as long as the hryvnia is here, Ukraine is also here," says Maryna.

According to the girl, there has been no gas in the city for more than seven months. The most reliable thing now is water because the gas and electricity supply is interrupted.

"As my grandfather used to say: "Game of Thrones, winter is coming." You're sleeping, and your breath is steamy. You are constantly cold." Maryna recalls her grandfather's words. 

There is no access to Ukrainian news.

"There were problems with communication, and my grandfather walked all over the city, searching, trying to catch the network. Finally, when we called, I asked him: 

- Grandpa, what are you doing? Where are you?

- I’ve been walking around Berdiansk, looking for Ukraine. 

He meant Ukrainian network".

Maryna's grandfather often shares his memories from his life before the full-scale war, recalling the routine that he did not appreciate and did not notice before.

"I want to come to Kherson, pick watermelons, and then bring them to the market for our people to buy," Maryna shares her grandfather's wishes.

The girl describes the evacuation as the most stressful months of the full-scale war. Nevertheless, she managed to evacuate her 70-year-old grandmother, who initially drove 180 kilometres from Berdiansk to Zaporizhzhia for 17 hours, as every 500 meters she passed a Russian checkpoint. 

"The grandmother could not dare. There might be buses one day, but not any the next. She lost so much weight, I was scared," says Maryna. 

"After the evacuation, we felt like wild people. We were frightened by the full shelves in the shops."

On February 22, Sofia and her friend moved to a newly rented apartment in Berdiansk. Unfortunately, they managed to live there for only two days - they spent the night, and on the second day, the full-scale war broke out. 

"My boyfriend woke me up. Then I realised that I had to be the person who would go into my friend's room to tell her that a full-scale war had started. So we opened the window, and there was a second explosion," Sofia describes February 24. 

The girl had been working as a primary school teacher for several years. She was a city activist, having diverse connections. She was registered in many chat rooms where people began to pass each other information about the movements of the Russian military. Then Sofia and her friends sent this data to the Ukrainian military and law enforcement. 

The Russians did not know where military bases and the port were located in Berdiansk, so they drove tanks and armoured vehicles through parks and boulevards. 

"On the day of occupation, we were hiding in basements. It was scary that they could come here because we could not lock our shelter from the inside," says Sofia.

The girl also recalls the Russian captivity of her relatives. At 4 am, a Russian APC drove up to her friend's house. Russians broke into the apartment - they were looking for a Ukrainian soldier, but he had not lived in the city for five years. Then they took his brother. 

"They pressured him morally, tortured him with electric shock," the girl says. 

In addition to activists and the military, the Russians interrogated teachers and employees of the local volunteer headquarters where Sofia worked. First, the Russians herded all those present in the centre's building into the assembly hall. Then they called them for interrogation one by one and looked through galleries of photos in their phones. 

"They were very alarmed by the photo of a child, one of the staff members, holding a picture with the Ukrainian flag. Then, they started asking why we were allegedly educating "Nazis"," the young woman says with a smile. 

This headquarters was often approached by people who managed to evacuate from Mariupol. In particular, one woman walked barefoot more than 80 km to Berdiansk. She managed to run out of her house, which was hit by a Russian missile, just in time.

There was a shortage of necessities in the city, particularly bread, which was often unavailable in stores. The only bakery available was bagels, UAH 210  per kilo.

"We stood guard outside the store until the food was delivered. Everything was bought up in a second. I remember how happy I was because I had bought two loaves of bread. But, the emotion changed instantly when a military vehicle with a pointed machine gun drove in front of me," the girl says. 

Sofia managed to leave the city in mid-April in an evacuation convoy through Polohy and Orikhiv to Zaporizhzhia. 

"At one of the checkpoints, the Russian military took out a guy from a nearby bus. They brought him to a trench and ordered him to lie down in a pit, pointing a machine gun at him. We do not know what happened to him", - the girl recalls. 

During the inspection at another Russian checkpoint, a Russian came in and said: "Glory to Ukraine". All passengers remained silent. If they had answered "Glory to the Heroes", the whole bus could have been shot, says Sofia. 

"On the first day after leaving, we went to Silpo in Zaporizhzhia. We felt like wild people - we were shocked by the range of goods. We went and saw that there was something else apart from bagels. I didn't cry when the full-scale war started, but when I arrived in Zaporizhzhia, I couldn't help but cry," says Sofia.