It’s freezing in Kherson, and Victoria’s family’s little old Lada has no heat. Even so, she begs her parents to take her to the train station every afternoon, where she can have an internet signal, a scarce service in the city. They park in front of the building and wait outside the vehicle – despite the fact that it is drizzling – for her 15-year-old daughter, protected by a red jacket and baseball cap, to manage to upload her homework and download the new lessons from her mobile. “She has suffered a lot, that’s why we try to help her,” justifies her mother.
Victoria is left alone in the car, in the back seat. She today she studies mathematics. “I’m going to need it in life, I have to do it,” she says when her lesson is interrupted. Immediately afterwards she begins to cry, covers her eyes, takes a breath and continues her narration: “The occupation was very hard.” At first she, along with her mother, attended protests against the presence of Russian forces. But one day in April they were attacked and shot. “We had to hide the phones, all the Ukrainian symbols; they attacked us for being Ukrainians,” she says before sobbing again. “Now the situation is better… Sorry, sorry,” she says before covering her eyes again. In the distance, explosions can be heard, but she doesn’t want to leave until she finishes uploading her lessons.
Victoria’s pain is not unique. Similar sobs appear in many conversations. For thousands of inhabitants of Kherson, but also of the entire southwestern region of Ukraine, these nine months of war have been marked by fear, attacks, deaths, disappearances, losses, separations, precarious living conditions and Above all, the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen in the coming minutes.
“They told the parents that they were going to send the children to Russia if they did not take them to school”
“The parents were threatened; They told them that they were going to take the children to Russia if they didn’t take them to school,” explains Tetiana Schetyna, director of the 33 Institute in Kherson. This blonde woman who never smiles decided to stay despite the fact that the new authorities began looking for high school directors to “invite” them to work with them. “Nobody really knows what they gave to the three who decided to do it,” she says.
Like many other so-called “collaborators”, they are no longer in the city. They were evacuated along with hundreds of Russian citizens who had been mobilized to perform functions that Khersonians were unwilling to do, such as teaching. “I will never understand: how they could bring in uneducated men to instruct the children. And how can a man like that accept that job”, asks this woman who, along with dozens of teachers, continued to educate through the Internet.
But while teaching online sounds like a good idea, thousands of children suffered tremendously. Some suffered to access the internet, others were traumatized. Sofía, 12 years old, for example. She couldn’t concentrate. For starters, she lives in a very small house. But everything started to get worse when the nightmares began. “One night they came to the door and asked us if they could see our children. We showed them to them, they took photos of each one and left. I don’t know what they wanted, but the two older ones, especially Sofía, were in a panic, ”says Natalia, her 36-year-old mother, who is trying to leave the city.
“One night they came to the door and asked us if they could see our children, they took pictures of them”
Oxana describes life during these months as a parallel reality. “Throughout Ukraine life went on, but here it stopped. It was horrible. Every time we went out we thought they could vanish ”, explains this 52-year-old woman who has also decided to leave Kherson for fear of Russian attacks. The paradox is that as soon as you leave the city there is destruction. All the houses built near the road leading to Mykolaiv, 90 kilometers to the north, are damaged. Mostly uninhabitable. As the population in Kherson adjusted to life under Russian control – “my fear was that the Ukrainian forces would never retake us,” says Oxana – Mikolaiv came under constant attack. There were very few days in which the alarms did not sound…
This was witnessed by Valentina and her husband, Yuri, who live in the south of the city, where the rockets and missiles launched by the Russians from Kherson passed through. Many fell around him. One of them hit a neighboring school to her house; destroyed part of the garage. Another missile destroyed the kitchen. “I haven’t slept in nine months,” says this woman who covers her head with a scarf, very traditional for peasant women.
“It’s still hard for me to adapt to this calm,” continues Valentina, whom we had met in July after one of those attacks on Mikolaiv. She then cried non-stop; she spent the nights in a small basement whose original function is to store the preserves that she prepares in summer. She says that this was not life for her and her husband, who are sick. Many of her neighbors drank non-stop, it was their way of escaping the hell they had to suffer.
The “collaborators” were evacuated from the city with hundreds of Russians arriving to act as teachers
Life in Mikolaiv has been calmer since Ukrainian forces have taken control of Kherson, but the couple’s worries have not gone away. The water that comes from the tap is salty – for months they had no supply as a result of a Russian attack that left the city disconnected – and they have to travel to bring drinking water in drums. They also don’t know how they are going to heat the house when the cold is even more intense, especially on nights when there is no electricity. “We can do it with wood but we only have reserves for a month,” she explains.
In front of one of the International Red Cross headquarters, hundreds of people queue up waiting for a portion of food prepared by the organization created by chef José Andrés, World Central Kitchen. Most are older. “My son, who lives outside Ukraine, is embarrassed that I ask for food, but I have no other choice,” says 82-year-old Natalia. She has put his box in a bag so as not to be in evidence, as most do.