Ukrainians are repeatedly kidnapped in the Cherson region. With a mock referendum, Russia wants to seal the receipt here from Friday.
Zhanna Kiseleva, editor of the local newspaper Kachowska Zorja and Kakhovka city council deputy was abducted from her home by Russian soldiers on September 19. Iryna Razumey, a teacher at the local elementary school, disappeared with her. Kachowka, a town of once 50,000 people, is about 90 kilometers east of Cherson, in the region of the same name, occupied by Russian troops since March.
Now Russia wants to continue creating facts here: From Friday to Tuesday the occupiers want to hold a so-called "referendum" on the "annexation" of the Cherson region to the Russian Federation. But the vast majority of locals, apart from a few collaborators, want nothing to do with Russia.
The kidnappings of teachers, doctors, members of parliament, journalists, activists and civil servants, but also of "chance victims" had increased again recently. However, the abductions had already begun in the first weeks of the occupation. I myself was one of the victims of the Russians: from March 12 to March 20 I was illegally and without charge held prisoner and tortured in Nowa Kakhovka and Cherson.
After my release, I was able to escape to Ukrainian-controlled territory and work there again as a journalist. Since then, I've also been working on the team at The Reckoning Project: Ukraine Testifies, an organization that collects and documents testimonies from victims of the Russian occupation.
Many people flee
For the period from February 24 to September 20, we documented the disappearance of 111 civilians in just one neighborhood of Kachowka. But the real numbers are far higher. Many relatives of victims of the Russian occupiers who have disappeared or been imprisoned do not even want to talk to human rights activists or the police about it. But many of those who endured it themselves tell of the overcrowded cells and torture chambers.
The Russians beat some of their victims to death. “In early September, civilians were unexpectedly released from a torture chamber on the left bank of the Dnipro in the Kherson region. It turned out that the night before one of the men had suffered cardiac arrest as a result of the torture. The soldiers panicked and tried to cover up the traces of their crimes. They probably dumped the man's body in the Dnipro, as they had done with others," says a relative of a former prisoner from the Kakhovka region.
The mass disappearances of people, the constant shelling of residential areas by the Russian army and the storage of weapons and ammunition in civilian buildings have forced many residents of the Kherson region to flee to Ukrainian-controlled territory. They do it at their own risk because the occupiers have not allowed a single safe escape corridor since the beginning of the war.
Most of them can't take more than a bag or two. Money and food are often confiscated from them at the Russian checkpoints.
Businesses in the region are at a standstill
"I didn't want to leave my hometown. But there was a moment when I realized it was too dangerous to stay. Above all, old people and many, very many Russian soldiers stayed with us. Younger people like me are particularly noticeable there. Sooner or later they would have caught me and put me in the basement,” says 50-year-old Yuri from Nowa Kachowka. He left the Kherson region in August.
A pensioner family stayed in Nowa Kachowka until the end, and they didn't want to read their names in the newspaper. They only decided to flee when Russian soldiers brought weapons and ammunition to the basement of their multi-story apartment building. "That's when we realized that we could just be blown up. Because ammunition can explode, and relying on the Russians to take any precautionary measures would be simply naïve,” the pensioners said when they fled in early September.
According to Volodymyr Kovalenko, mayor of Nowa Kakhovka, 65 percent of the residents of the city of 50,000 have already fled. According to acting mayor Halyna Lugowa, about a third of the 300,000 people in Cherson still live there. And the small town of Hola Prystan has left about 85 percent of its former residents, according to Mayor Switlana Lynnik.
People are constantly leaving the Kherson region, among them are doctors, teachers and other professionals. That is why there are problems with medical care in the Russian-controlled south of Ukraine. Almost all companies are at a standstill, people have lost their jobs. There are known cases of seriously ill people who have committed suicide due to unavailable medication.
Those who remained in the occupied territory of Kherson live in constant fear. Shelling of residential areas, robberies and terror by the Russian army are the order of the day there.
Locals in the region are waiting for the Ukrainian soldiers who could bring peace to their towns and villages. And they hope that none of the crimes committed by the occupiers and their local volunteer "accomplices" will go unpunished.
Translated from the Russian by Gaby Coldewey