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Persecution, torture, and kidnapping: what people in Kherson went through while waiting for the Ukrainian army

Ukrainian forces entered Kherson on November 11 — this information was officially confirmed by intelligence. The city will now be mopped up, and after that, it will be able to return to a more stable routine. But what had life been like in Kherson during the nine months before liberation?

As of January 1, 2022, the population of Kherson was just over 279,000. After the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, around 80% of the residents left the city because of the Russian occupation. What has life been like for those who stayed, and what human rights did Russian fascists violate during the months-long occupation?

The Page spoke with Maryna Usmanova, director of the feminist, LGBT-inclusive charitable organization "Insha". The organization has been relocated to Berlin and for the last eight months has been helping women and members of the LGBT community leave Kherson. It has also been providing humanitarian and psychological aid for displaced people.

Maryna helped LGBT people escape from Kherson

Maryna helped LGBT people escape from Kherson

Marina told The Page how people lived in occupied Kherson until November 11, what basic human rights were violated there daily, and why the Russian occupation of Ukrainian territories showed that human rights are always on the agenda.

Life in Kherson under occupation: food, medications, and communication

In the last days of the occupation, there was a city-wide blackout. No pharmacies and only sparse groceries and markets were working, with no perishable products in store. During the daytime, you could buy groats, but the locals who didn’t leave the city mostly stocked up on food and rarely went outside.

Under an almost 24-hour curfew introduced by the invaders, the locals could merely leave their homes to go to a grocery store. No medicines were left in pharmacies — Russian fascists took everything and didn’t bring new medicines or food.

Kherson residents greeting the AFU in the city [video]

It was also impossible to call in the fire brigade, while only a few ambulances remained in the entire city.

The main thing to understand about life in Kherson before the Ukrainian Armed Forces arrived is that each resident was completely insecure. If a fire started, there would be no one to put it out. Bandits freely roved over the city, and there were no police to protect anyone.

Only those residents who waited for liberation stayed in the city since Russia’s sympathizers, according to the locals, had left. Some of those who stayed were also bedridden, and local volunteers took over helping the elderly and people with disabilities whenever they managed to get out to buy some food.

For the past few weeks, people in occupied Kherson have been without communication, medicines, or fresh food. Photo: Yevheniia Virlych

For the past few weeks, people in occupied Kherson have been without communication, medicines, or fresh food. Photo: Yevheniia Virlych

The Russians spread shocking rumors that the city would be bombed or flooded, attempting to persuade residents to flee to Russia, where allegedly everything was ready for them. Some people who had been waiting for the Ukrainian army for a long time succumbed to intimidation — many of them hoped to travel to Georgia or Estonia via Crimea and Russia.

In the last few weeks of the occupation, no Ukrainian communication providers worked in Kherson. The only one to operate was Feniks, the SIM card the invaders distributed, claiming it was Russian. However, it’s not a Russian network but a parasite leeching off other networks. You cannot use this card to make a call to Ukraine or Russia, but only to another Feniks card. Sometimes it also provided an Internet connection, but only when the invaders wanted it to.

Kherson residents charging their phones from a car during a blackout. Photo: Yevheniia Virlych

Kherson residents charging their phones from a car during a blackout. Photo: Yevheniia Virlych

The locals developed a scheme to connect with Ukraine. They called a Feniks card holder from Mariupol or elsewhere, who in turn could establish a connection with someone in the Kyiv-controlled territory, for example, using WhatsApp.

The personal safety of being on the street varied by city district, depending on how vigilant and angry the Russians were.

Was it possible to leave occupied Kherson?

In the last few weeks of the occupation, it was impossible or nearly impossible to leave the city. There was a tiny chance to be let out, and the only possible route was through Crimea or the occupied part of Donbas.

It was a dangerous route, though, since you never knew where it would take you. Some people, for example, hoped to get to Georgia, but they were stopped at the border and couldn’t leave Russia. Some were also taken to Skadovsk. This evacuation route (through Crimea or occupied Donbas territories) was only permitted for invaders’ buses, and you could never know where they would take you.

Kherson residents were waiting for the Ukrainian army while helping bedridden people. Photo: Yevheniia Virlych

Kherson residents were waiting for the Ukrainian army while helping bedridden people. Photo: Yevheniia Virlych

It was already impossible to escape to the territory controlled by Ukraine, as well as to enter Kherson from there (save for the advancing Ukrainian army), all the more so with cargo.

For those who stayed, the risks were associated not with leaving but with the fact that the Russians could bomb the territory they were in, flood it by blowing the Nova Kakhovka dam, or explode a "dirty bomb" there.

How were the Ukrainians helping Kherson?

Ukrainian volunteers had been bringing necessary medicines and humanitarian aid to Kherson for some time — however, it also became impossible in the last few weeks of the occupation. Later, the volunteers who were in Ukraine or abroad raised money and transferred it to the local volunteers’ bank cards. The money then could be converted to cash with the help of local "peddlers" for a 5–20% fee.

The volunteers used this money to buy food or hygiene products at local markets, as long as there were some, as well as to help bedridden people. Such a way of communicating — through Ukraine and, for instance, Berlin — helped volunteers in Kherson contact each other and share information about exchange options or open stores.

What fundamental human rights did the invaders violate in Kherson?

Looking through the articles of the Ukrainian Constitution concerning human rights, it is clear that nearly all of them were violated by Russian fascists in occupied Kherson:

  • the right to the free development of personality (art. 23 — children in schools were forced to listen to all the Russian propagandistic nonsense taught by propagandist teachers);
  • gender, racial, ethnic, and other equality (art. 24 — women who had family members in the Ukrainian army were stalked and harassed, and there was rampant hate towards LGBT people and Crimean Tatars);
  • a citizen of Ukraine shall not be expelled from Ukraine or surrendered to another state (art. 25 — Ukrainian children were forcibly taken to Crimea or Russia);
  • the inalienable right to life (art. 27 — there were known cases of people being shot in their cars when trying to escape from the occupied territory, with many more to be discovered);
  • the right to respect for one’s dignity (art. 28 — locals were forced to undress in the street as a punishment);
  • the right to freedom and personal inviolability (art. 29 — people were kidnapped and put in basements or prisons, with the further fate of many still unknown);
  • the right to the inviolability of one’s dwelling place (art. 30 — invaders would break into people’s apartments, rob them, force them out, or force them to share their apartments with a few soldiers);
  • privacy of mail, telephone conversations, telegraph, and other correspondence (art. 31 — people’s telephones were inspected by Russians patrolling the streets who restored previously deleted applications to find anything pro-Ukrainian or otherwise suspicious);
  • interference in personal and family life (art. 32 — LGBT people were deliberately hunted, tortured in basements, or otherwise harassed);
  • freedom of movement and free choice of place of residence (art. 33 — there was evidence of forced displacement of children, and the invaders threatened to take children away from their parents; some locals escaped to Crimea or Russia out of fear that their children would be taken away; people were also not allowed to leave the occupied territory);
  • the right to freedom of thought and speech and to the free expression of one’s views and beliefs (art. 34 — people were forced to vote at a sham referendum at gunpoint, protests were suppressed, and people were persecuted for having posted Ukrainian flags or pro-Ukrainian posts on social media);
  • the right to assemble peacefully without arms and to hold meetings, rallies, processions, and demonstrations (art. 39 — the invaders dispersed pro-Ukrainian rallies by using tear gas and shooting at the crowd);
  • the right to healthcare (art. 49 — the supply of insulin for people with diabetes was interrupted and later completely stopped; the same problem affected hormone therapy drugs and antiretroviral medications).

There were also other constitutional rights of Ukrainians that the Russian fascists violated, like the right to freedom of worldview, the right to dispose of one’s property, or the right to a fair trial. There were numerous accounts of war crimes committed by the invaders.

Russians kidnapped children and tortured civilians in Kherson

Kherson was longing for the Ukrainian army. Photo: Telegram channel “Pivden”

Kherson was longing for the Ukrainian army. Photo: Telegram channel “Pivden”

In addition to removing children from Kherson orphanages, Russians took a few children from their parents — allegedly for improving their health. The children haven’t come back since then, and their parents still don’t know their whereabouts. That’s why some Kherson families fled to the occupied Crimea and then to Russia to avoid being separated.

Russian fascists visited families with children under 13 and intimidated them, saying they would take the children if the family didn't evacuate.

Their beloved method of punishing the locals was forcing them to undress right in the street in order to inspect them, which is considered torture under international humanitarian law. The invaders undressed people to look for suspicious tattoos.

Maryna knows a tattoo artist who stayed in Kherson and was busy for months covering up people’s patriotic tattoos or other tattoos that Russians might not like. Those who looked masculine were at the biggest risk of such inspection, locals say.

The invaders also hunted civic activists, as someone handed them a list of the most active local champions of civil rights. In addition, the locals were filmed with drones during protests and later searched in the city.

Quote"Every time you went out, there was a risk that you would be stopped to check your documents, and then they could demand your phone for inspection. They looked through all messengers and deleted applications; they also could look into your history of messages, both sent and deleted, or check if you had a Ukrainian flag on your profile picture," says Maryna.

Many of those who tried to leave Kherson were sent back from a checkpoint three or four times. There was also evidence of people having been shot in their cars, with many more cases to be established or confirmed. At some checkpoints, the invaders would let people pass and then shoot them.

Kherson residents celebrating the return of the Ukrainian army. Photo: Telegram channel “Pivden”

Kherson residents celebrating the return of the Ukrainian army. Photo: Telegram channel “Pivden”

The situation with access to life-saving medicines was also dire. As we wrote, insulin, ART, or hormone therapy drugs could hardly be obtained even sporadically, let alone regularly.

Quote"They say more people died in Kherson from the lack of insulin than from bullets," says Maryna.

Women were raped, especially those who had family members in the army

Locals say many women were raped during the occupation, but these facts couldn’t be recorded.

Medical workers back these statements, activists say, since victims of gang rape turned to hospitals and clinics, but doctors were afraid to record them because the FSB requested data about visitors and diagnoses almost daily. That’s why rapes and even gunshot wounds were recorded as common colds or ailments.

Women who had family members — husbands, siblings, parents, or children — in the Ukrainian army were especially vulnerable. They were hunted down and gang-raped more often than others, so people had to house them or help them escape Kherson with extreme caution.

Quote"We had a case where a woman survivor of such rape was evacuated at night on a rubber boat — a trusted boatman was luckily found. It had to be a rubber boat to move quietly, or else Russians could shoot them," Maryna recalls.

Invaders harassed LGBT people in Kherson

The Russian servicemen are very homophobic and transphobic because homophobia and transphobia are part of the propaganda explaining to them why they are fighting in Ukraine, Maryna says.

Just before the invasion, the Russians had been told that somewhere in Ukraine there were NATO soldiers who would make everybody gay, that there was terrible LGBT propaganda in Europe, and so forth. In Kherson itself, the already-dead collaborationist Kyrylo Stremousov would come to speak to children at school and tell them of horrible Nazi gays.

Quote"When they frisk you, rummaging through your phone and documents, searching for Ukrainian symbols or patriotic statements, they can also find Hornet, an app for gays, or a tattoo with a Pride flag, or find that the name in your passport doesn’t match the way you look, or undress a trans person and find breasts under a bandage, and so on. We had a case where invaders inspected two guys’ telephones and found they were members of gay groups on social media. The boys were taken to the forest, and the Russians shot one of them in the leg. They both were left there," Maryna recalls.
Kherson residents greet the Ukrainian army in their city. Photo: Telegram channel “Pivden”

Kherson residents greet the Ukrainian army in their city. Photo: Telegram channel “Pivden”

She said that all LGBT people in Kherson feared being raped, be they lesbians, gays, or trans people. Transgender people whose bodies didn’t match their documents and who couldn’t make themselves look like the photos on passports their were also afraid to leave the city because they could be forced to undress at checkpoints.

Quote"The reaction to their non-conforming bodies could be nearly anything — rape, torture, and more. We have no accounts of this — there are no people who would try to escape with their passports altered and could speak about it later. Perhaps, none of them is alive," Maryna explains.

For this reason, transgender women in Kherson were hesitant to go outside at all. For months, trans people went without their hormone therapies.

There is also evidence of lesbians having been taken to the forest and tormented, as well as an LGBT activist who was imprisoned and tortured in a basement for three months. He was forced to give information on LGBT people in Kherson who were later stalked at their work, Maryna says.

A few gays who had been thus identified were caught and tortured. Some victims of torture could later flee the city, while others stayed, fearing that they would be frisked at checkpoints and thrown into basements again.

Quote"There were cases where LGBT people could escape through Crimea. However, they received the same treatment there: their phones were rummaged through, and their bodies were inspected after forcing them to undress. Russians looked for tattoos, searched through their social media accounts, and restored deleted applications. I know about people who prepared for it and bought primitive "dialers" so that they could pass. I also know others who deleted everything from their smartphones properly and could pass too," Maryna said.

Those who could make it to Russia then went to Georgia or Estonia with the help of Russian volunteers — in case Russian fascists let them out.

How the occupation showed the importance of human rights

Everyone is a member of a minority or a discriminated-against group.

This is why, if we say that the rights of some specific groups are irrelevant, it means we disregard human rights as such because, in order to be effective in helping people during a full-fledged war, in saving people, you need to understand the difference in their needs and their risks, including special risks. The more dangerous the situation is, the more relevant human rights are.

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It was the occupation that showed what life is without human rights and how important they are.

This article was supported by Unit.

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