Ukraine War: ‘I got over my fear a long time ago. I only have anger left’ – resistance and flight under the occupation | World News

Whenever Oleksiy planned a trip from his home in the occupied Kherson region, he came prepared with a “legend” for the trip, a character who helped him avoid suspicion at Russian checkpoints.

He found that playing the character of an elderly Russian farmer worked best.

He brought props to back up his story: a USB stick loaded with Russian songs that he could play in his truck, a shovel, and a tractor license. The fact that he was born in Russia certainly helped him too.

He was helpful during the three months under occupation as he ran errands helping his community, including delivering groceries and distributing medicine.

And ultimately, Oleksiy’s legend helped him escape the occupied zone after smuggling a veteran of the Ukrainian armed forces, whom the Russians had been hunting, through no man’s land into the Ukraine. free.

The Russians had moved into the area around the village of Oleksiy a few days after they invaded southern Ukraine in late February.

“The first week after the Russian invasion we didn’t leave our houses,” he told Sky News.

“I felt enormous fear, animal fear for my life, family, friends and neighbors.”

This fear soon turned to anger at the invasion of Russia, the country where Oleksiy spent his childhood before moving to Kherson to attend naval college. Anger motivated him to leave the house for the first time, running to the grocery store and to his farm where he grew berries.

Oleksiy photographed a few weeks ago.  He deleted all his photos from the occupied area for his own safety.
Image:
Oleksiy photographed a few weeks ago after his escape

Over time, he did more by ferrying health workers and delivering supplies, trips that involved passing through Russian checkpoints.

Speaking Russian helped him in these encounters, but he knew his phone could be his downfall. Oleksiy had started sending information about Russian military positions that he saw on his trips to a Telegram channel belonging to the Ukrainian security service.

A friend was asked which knee he would prefer to be shot on

“I carefully prepared to pass the checkpoints by cleaning my phone: I deleted Viber, Telegram, Signal, YouTube, all photos and videos, and I cleaned Google queries. But if the specialists checked the phone, they would definitely find something.”

When Russian soldiers found an anti-Russian Facebook post on a friend’s phone, they pinned him against the wall for over an hour, asking him which knee he’d rather be shot in.

The soldiers eventually let the man go unharmed, but it was a warning to Oleksiy.

He also began to hear stories of Russian soldiers breaking into people’s homes looking for weapons and of veterans of the Ukrainian armed forces. Rumors circulated that in the neighboring region of Zaporizhzhia the Russians demanded that farmers register their plots of land with them. It was not long before the soldiers visited Oleksiy’s farm.

“A large Kamaz armored truck followed by an armored personnel carrier went straight into my yard… eight soldiers with machine guns got out of the vehicle. One approached me and politely asked how I was feeling. I told him that I had been much better “. before they arrived.”

A Russian armored personnel carrier, like the one that arrived at the Oleksiy farm.
Image:
A Russian armored personnel carrier, like the one that arrived at the Oleksiy farm.

The Russians were at a loss and were looking to locate a hunter with records of gun owners in the area.

However, these encounters did not stop their acts of resistance.

When morale was low in his village, for example, he turned on the sound system while cleaning his car to play a Ukrainian folk song that had become an anthem of defiance.

“I turned on ‘Oi u luzi chervona kalyna’ really loud and opened the door so people around could hear it. My neighbors weren’t expecting this, because it was a dangerous move if the Russians were listening. But it worked, it raised spirits in the neighborhood.”

‘I ran out of patience’

Despite Oleksiy’s urging to resist the occupation, his family, including his son and daughter-in-law who live abroad, had urged him and his wife Svetlana to leave the occupied area. But Svetlana’s elderly mother needed care, and five people worked full time on her farm, a business she had built over 13 years. Without him around, she worried about her future.

“I was hoping that we would have a little patience and be able to save the staff and the plants. But every day was worse and more alarming. Searches for friends and acquaintances, threats of execution for a phrase in my correspondence, the cutting off of communications. I’m out of patience.”

In late May, Oleksiy began planning his escape, hoping to join the estimated 50% of people from Kherson who had fled to other parts of Ukraine and beyond by that time.

He was aware of groups on Telegram, a popular social media messaging service, where tips on how to get out of the occupied zone were shared, as well as information on where the Russian checkpoints were.

While he was planning his trip, one of Oleksiy’s employees approached him with a request: she wanted him to take her husband and two children on his trip. Her husband, however, was a recent veteran of the Ukrainian armed forces, one of the people the Russians were looking for, and her truck was already full.

Oleksiy had to make a decision; help a friend and potentially risk his life or prioritize his and his family’s travel.

“It was crazy to take another man and two children. We talked for a long time, I didn’t know how to say that I didn’t have room in the car. We started discussing what to do if he got arrested at the checkpoint. . She sobbed, asking to save the children and take them to relatives. I still can’t get over these sobs… in general, I realized that we will all go together, to hell with things, we will squeeze each other somehow. “

Oleksiy (opposite the center) and nine of the people he was carrying.  The veteran of the Ukrainian armed forces has his face blurred to protect his identity.
Image:
Oleksiy (opposite the center) and nine of the people he was carrying. The veteran of the Ukrainian armed forces has his face blurred to protect his identity.

Oleksiy had already promised transportation to three health workers and two of their children, meaning that 11 people would now have to get into his van.

“My requests that people not carry more than one bag per person were to no avail, there was a mountain of stuff,” Oleksiy said.

There was enough room for one last passenger, Otis the cat, who crawled through the sea of ​​blankets and bags after being thrown inside.

otis the cat
Image:
Otis the cat climbed into the luggage of the van

When they set out on June 2, they headed east toward the front line at Vasylivka, more than 180 miles away.

There were about 25 checkpoints along the route and Oleksiy made sure to have one of Putin’s favorite songs on the radio to show the Russians that he wasn’t going to cause any trouble.

The route to the east along the banks of the Dnieper River.
Image:
The northeast route along the banks of the Dnipro River

No one knew exactly what to expect as they approached the front line. Some people reported getting through in one day, others had to hide from the fighting for several days in the middle of a line of cars that stretched for miles.

“We drove to Vasylivka at 3 pm There was a queue there and we were 73. Groups of 10 cars were formed and everyone had to write down the name, gender and year of birth.”

It was a warm day and three generations of people – and a cat – had lunch and sought shelter from the sun with the sound of fighting in the distance, not knowing how long they would be.

A Russian guard let one of the boys play with his assault rifle, and Oleksiy asked if there was any chance of getting through the Russian lines, insisting that his mother-in-law couldn’t handle the heat well.

“I think they somehow remembered us. After 5pm, the inspection started, 10 cars were allowed through at a time, after belongings and documents were inspected.”

Miracle of crossing no man’s land

They advanced accompanied by a Russian armored personnel carrier and reached one last checkpoint. The Russians were looking for evidence of tattoos on people who suggested serving with the Ukrainian forces and ordered the former veteran to get out of the van.

“He crawled out of the pile of bags. They checked if he had any tattoos on his body and once again they checked all the passports.”

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With no way of knowing that this man had been in the military, the Russians let the group through.

“After that, we were free and we were in no man’s land.”

Once in the neutral zone between the front lines, Oleksiy hit the gas. The bridge over the river that separated the Russians and Ukrainians was broken, so they turned onto a dirt road.

Artillery began firing overhead and heavy rain began to fall, turning the swamp they were crossing into a quagmire. A fire truck and two military tractors belonging to the Ukrainian forces had to be called in to pull the motorcade through the swamp.

They eventually made it across, a feat Oleksiy described as a miracle.

Once past the Ukrainian front, police escorted them and other vehicles in convoy to Zaporizhzhia, a city of 750,000 about 20 miles behind the fighting.

Upon arrival, they registered at the local office, had tea and coffee, and were given a bed in a local nursery, where more than 100 mattresses were placed on the floor.

The nursery where dozens of beds were arranged for the incoming displaced persons.
Image:
The nursery where dozens of beds were arranged for the incoming displaced

Oleksiy and his family are now staying with relatives in Zaporizhzhia, while most of his passengers have moved west to Lviv or Odessa.

He has also returned as a volunteer, helping get equipment to Ukrainian troops and medical supplies to the Red Cross in Kherson.

Having grown up in Russia, Oleksiy might be the kind of Ukrainian Vladimir Putin hoped would give his troops a warm welcome. His reaction to the invasion and his resistance show how wrong the Russian president was.

“I got over my fear a long time ago. I only have anger left.”

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