“Why do you want to go to Ukraine?”: Life in Russia-occupied Berdyansk

BERDANSK, Ukraine – Russian military patrols roam the streets, Russian channels fill the airwaves, and Russian-imposed authorities take part in poachers’ catch. The mayor has disappeared, phone service has stopped, and protests have been scarce after occupying forces fired into the air at rallies against them in March.

West of devastated Mariupol and east of the isthmus that connects Russian-controlled Crimea to mainland Ukraine, Russian forces captured Berdyansk four days after Moscow launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Victoria Roshina, contributor to the Ukrainian service of RFERL and Traveled last month A city of over 100,000 people on the Sea of ​​Azov.

After a long journey through Russian checkpoints — and a week in the custody of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), part of the occupying force, which she accused of working for his Ukrainian equivalent, the State Security Service — this is what she saw.

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The city was full of Russian military equipment. The Russian military occupied government buildings and turned them into their bases of operations. Russian military patrols roamed the streets.

There was no natural gas or mobile phone coverage. There was a shortage of food, medicine and fuel. Explosions could be heard from a distance, and the occupying forces appointed a “commander” from among their military ranks to act as mayor.

Some opponents of the occupation were kidnapped and captured. Freedom of expression is stifled, the local radio station is busy and Russian TV channels are broadcasting.

On the way to Berdyansk from Zaporizhzhya, a government-controlled city to the northwest, I passed about twenty Russian-controlled military checkpoints, most of them manned by forces from Russia’s Chechnya region or Russian-backed separatists from the Donetsk region to the east.

During these stops, men were asked to undress to check for tattoos, which are sometimes symbols of Ukrainian combat forces, and their fingers checked for the presence of a lubricant bound to gunpowder. Cell phones and other belongings were also carefully examined.

A large crowd of Russian troops was gathered in the city of Polohy, about 100 kilometers from Berdyansk. Here, the Chechens acted aggressively. A man trying to cross, his phone bearing a picture of a defiant meme born when Ukrainian border guards insulted a Russian warship in the Black Sea, was threatened with imprisonment and subjected to physical violence.

I was threatened with prison when one of the soldiers guarding the checkpoint said they didn’t have a female prisoner yet, but I was eventually allowed to pass.

Within 30 kilometers from Berdyansk, the mobile phone connection disappeared. Residents of the city said that the Russians who control the city promised to install a Russian network and issue SIM cards. Right now, someone said, “We’re cut off from the world.”

Berdyansk in March

Berdyansk in March

The lack of phone calls meant that residents were unable to call an ambulance. Hospitals said there were enough medicines, but only for a short time, and pharmacies were short.

“Suppliers don’t bring anything. We try on our own, but it comes out in a very limited number. Nothing needed is always available,” said Halina Boyko, the local pharmacist. “I don’t know what will happen next.”

Since there was no gas, the electric power grid was in an over-maxed state, which led to blackouts and blackouts.

The town’s main bakery and meat-processing plant were operating, but groceries were in short supply.

“The shops are almost empty, and those who supply the products are selling at a high price,” said one of the residents. “Everything in the market is also expensive.”

Halina Boyko, a local pharmacist, said:

“Nothing needed is always available,” said Halina Boyko, a local pharmacist.

Large groups of people can be seen outside the banks – not waiting in line but trying to connect to WiFi. Russian soldiers also went to the banks to try to catch a signal.

However, the banks themselves were closed, and some residents could not get their monthly pension before the city was taken. It was said that customers could withdraw money from a bank, but only if they had access to the app.

People were divided about where to seek help. Some went to the Russian authorities, others to the Social Security Office, which was not occupied. There, some humanitarian aid that did not reach Mariupol was distributed.

What about residents looking for a way out? They were told only to Russia occupied Crimea.

Another rare commodity: information.

After capturing the city, the Russians quickly approached the local journalists, detaining and in some cases detaining them, and tried to pressure them and persuade them to cooperate.

“They took their phones and documents and checked their computers,” said a local activist. He said that only Russian television and radio were broadcast, and the head of one of the local newspapers was beaten.

In the youth center turned aid center for the displaced, providing warm clothes, basic goods and advice to refugees mostly from Mariupol, sympathy was with Ukraine and the Ukrainians.

Ole Balaban is the head of the Berdyansk Center for Children and Youth Creativity.

Ole Balaban is the head of the Berdyansk Center for Children and Youth Creativity. “Now we are like the whole country. We live day by day,” he said.

The manager, Ole Balapan, said the workers are trying to show arrivals they haven’t forgotten.

“Now we are like the whole country,” Balaban said. “We live day by day. We do everything under these conditions so that the residents feel somewhat normal.”

But the signs that everything is not normal abound.

Volodymyr Bezverkhniy:

Volodymyr Bzverkhny: “This is a difficult time.”

The mayor of the city was not found. Former city councilor Volodymyr Bezverkhny said there have been reports of the disappearance of some of his former fellow deputies – but it’s hard to know for sure.

“In short,” he said, “this is war. This is a terrible time, when, unfortunately, the most vulnerable suffer – and those who have no weapons in their hands.”

Dozens of camps have been set up for the internally displaced.

Kirillo, 25, comes from Mariupol, many of which have been devastated by Russian attacks, and said people his age are often the most traumatized. Many people have fled the devastated city, and not many have survived – trapped in an inferno of its proportions as survivors recount their experiences.

WATCH: Ukrainian civilians who fled the besieged port city of Mariupol described the scenes of “hell” and say those who remained under the rubble were on the brink of starvation. Russian forces surrounded the city and bombarded it with artillery and missiles. (Originally published March 29.)

He said: “Most of the children do not understand all the horror and most of them have not gone out, nor have they seen all the destruction, the bombing and the corpses. It all depends on the strength of the human spirit because even some adults panicked and cried and hid in the corners.”

Kirillo, who did not want his last name to be printed for fear of the consequences, said many of his neighbors were burned to death when the building he was living in caught fire. A man jumped out of a third-floor window and escaped, he said, but was unable to save his family.

Another refugee said people had been moved from villages around Mariupol to the part of Russia controlled by the separatists it supports from the Donetsk region.

In the port of Berdyansk in March.  One local fisherman said that his colleagues should hand over 30 percent of their catch to the occupying Russian authorities.

In the port of Berdyansk in March. One local fisherman said that his colleagues should hand over 30 percent of their catch to the occupying Russian authorities.

Oleksandr, who also feared the consequences if his last name was made public, had been fishing in the waters off Berdyansk for 20 years. He said he and his fellow fishermen should hand over 30 percent of their catch to the occupation authorities, ostensibly to meet the needs of the displaced.

To protest the invasion, the war, and this demand, he had stopped fishing, he said, and had not gone out to sea since February 23, a day before the invasion.

“At the moment, we are resilient. We are not negotiating with the Russian Federation,” he added.

The Russian FSB took control of the district administration building in Berdyansk, and Russian forces occupied the former SBU building, city hall, city-wide police stations, and the local prison.

A sign reading “Military Order” hangs on the front of the police headquarters. The prison and port area were teeming with military equipment. Russian soldiers patrolled the city center and imposed a curfew.

Watch: The Ukrainian military announced that it destroyed a Russian Navy transport ship in the port of Berdyansk on March 24. Videos from several angles circulated on social media showed explosions and plumes of smoke rising above a ship in the port.

The appointed Russian commander, Oleksandr Solenko, often claims that humanitarian aid is flowing into community services. He said a “new city council” had been created.

Several false claims were made in advertisements posted around the city: “Russia does not fight the Ukrainian people” and “Russia guarantees you peace and security,” among them. Others urged residents not to trust the “military council” in the capital, Kyiv, in an inaccurate reference to Ukraine’s democratically elected government.

The FSB officers who detained me were constantly telling me another lie: “Ukraine no longer exists.”

At the beginning of the occupation, Berdyansk became famous for numerous pro-Ukrainian rallies – protests against Russian troops. But it vanished in the third week of March after Russian forces opened fire and organizers and activists began to disappear. Some detainees were later released.

A humanitarian aid station has been set up near one of the local churches in Berdyansk for migrants from Mariupol.

A humanitarian aid station has been set up near one of the local churches in Berdyansk for migrants from Mariupol.

“They were beaten, interrogated and even given electric shocks,” said one resident who attended the gatherings, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by Russian forces.

The day before I left town, two boys in black masks tore down the Ukrainian flag in the central square. At every checkpoint on the way out, they asked me: “Why do you want to go to Ukraine? Stay here.”

At one of the checkpoints, a man from Mariupol was asked why he wanted to go to Zaporizhzhya – and a soldier tried to frighten him by saying that that city, which remained under the control of the Ukrainian government, faced the same fate as Mariupol.

Returning to the beach in Berdyansk, another fisherman, Serhiy, said that he and his colleagues could hold out for at least a month, and sounded defiantly: “We will not cooperate with the Russian Federation.”

Written by Mark Rashkiewicz based on a report provided by Victoria Roshina, Ukrainian Service Contributor at RFE/RL