We will shoot your child! Tell me where you hid the flag!, Alexander Rybin

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The Ukrainian military carried out a very successful counter-offensive and forced the Russian army to retreat from the Kharkiv area. Some settlements in this area were under occupation for more than six months. Yulia Petrova is a resident of one of them, Kupyansk-Uzlovi, a major railway junction connected to Kharkiv and other cities. Petrova has lived there all her life, helping local stray animals for many years (before that she worked at a local veterinary clinic). In late August, Yulia was forced to leave the occupied village after Russian soldiers threatened to kill her nine-year-old daughter.

Here is her account of six months of occupation – and her dream of returning home.

We live together: me, my mother and my daughter. We met the war with fear. Relatives from Kharkiv called. They said the war had begun. Explosions were already heard, planes were flying. We immediately went down to the basement. We also started bringing the animals there, more than 20 of them.

Almost immediately, Russian troops entered the village. They entered without a fight – ours were gone, the mayor [кметът на Купянск Генадий Мацегора] betrayed the city. Thus began our six-month occupation.

They came to the village as masters

They immediately burst in [руските военни], occupied the square in front of the village council with cars. Soon local residents gathered there and tried to organize rallies against them.

But they entered the village as owners. Already in the first days, flags – Russian and Soviet – were hung everywhere. Armed soldiers were stationed at all intersections. They had no contact with the local population, they were negative.

Already in the first days they began to take away people’s livelihood. They bought whatever they wanted in the markets. For “shopping” they went the same way – it was impossible to look up at them. They took whatever they wanted from the shelves. If you dare to argue with them or they are just in a bad mood, they take you to the basement and beat you.

They took from the people what they wanted. They entered the apartments, whatever they liked – they took it. The houses were taken. They were taking people’s cars. At best, they just dragged the owners out of the salon. They held as masters of life.

Drunks drove around on armored personnel carriers with machine guns. One day one of them came out with a machine gun at the bus station and said: “Now I’m going to shoot you in the legs.” For the sake of fun, they could shoot at any building. There were many such cases.

Local people were found murdered in the river with bags over their heads and bands wrapped around their arms – local fishermen told me about this in early summer. They were fishing on the Oskol River when a corpse floated along with them. No one dared to remove the bag from the head, they called in [окупационното] commandantship. The military arrived with divers, pulled him out of the water and carried him away silently.

In the basements of the administrative buildings it was also a horror. They kept people there. When you just walked by, your hair stood on end: inhuman screams could be heard. Both female and male. What they did with them there, that people screamed like that, it’s scary to imagine.

Many of our acquaintances, who did not hide their pro-Ukrainian position, disappeared. We don’t know where they are. Our MP Nikolay Maslii, who attended the rallies, cannot be found to this day. Many young girls have disappeared. Where are they? No one knows. A lot of bad things happened.

There were those in the village who supported them. Some of them went to Luhansk and Donetsk regions, and from there to Russia. They were mostly elderly people (although there were also many young ones). Basically, they were fine with everything. They were just so nostalgic, they said, “Well, we’ll be making good money soon, the railroad will be running like it was under the Union.” In my block, for example, a woman went to work in their commandant’s office. She said that Ukraine is bad, but these are good.

“You don’t love us Russians, do you? Do you love us?”

Even in the early days of our railway, workers gathered. They said it was necessary to release a link with Russia. At first, everyone was promised big salaries. And then when people failed, they began to promise less. They transported everything they needed, they brought [военна] equipment from Russia and finally people were not paid at all. They gave food rations instead of salary and said there would be no money. If you don’t go to work, they will come to show you what they can do. So people worked for free. At the same time, the prices of everything rose about three times. People were on the brink of starvation.

There were also denunciations. For example, my friend’s mother, who works as a security guard, tells me: “I know you are for Ukraine. Now I will go and release you to the Russians. And you go to the basement.”

You see, it was impossible to say anything. Because once you get to the basement, you never get out. Or, if you get out, you’re in a very serious condition. The son of my acquaintances was a few minutes late for the curfew, he didn’t have time to get home. They took to the basement. They brought him out the next day. He was so beaten he could not walk.

They came to me, I think, also on someone’s tip. Someone told them about my position – that I am against them. Probably one of the neighbors.

Three people came. One immediately pushed me, I fell. They pulled me into a corner in the kitchen. One rummaged through my phone and the others ransacked the apartment. They were looking for Ukrainian symbols and all that. I don’t have that in my house, but they turned everything upside down.

They raised machine guns against me and the child, loaded them. They shouted: “Now we will shoot your child!” Where are your flags, where is your flag, bitch, you are for Ukraine, we Russians don’t like you. Don’t you love us?”

And I am silent, I was very afraid. I couldn’t even say a word. They searched and searched and said, “We’ll be back.” And they left.

The very next day, August 22nd, we found a man with a car who would take us out. We didn’t take any belongings, only the sickest and old cats, put them two by two in special cages and left with our last money.

There were nine Russian checkpoints on the way to Ukraine. The road to the dam (conditional demarcation line between the Ukrainian and Russian troops) took six hours. It is difficult to go through all these checkpoints. You have to find an approach to everyone so that they don’t shoot you, you give money so that they don’t harm you. They consider themselves the masters of our lives, they decide who passes and who doesn’t.

At the penultimate, eighth checkpoint, sits their chief. They bring you to him and he decides whether to let you into Ukraine or not. There is now a cardinal check. They don’t let everyone in, but in general, if you pay, you’ll pass.

Although this is not certain either. Friends told me they didn’t release them for money either – probably it all depends on the shift [на военните на КПП]. But we paid and they let us go. They took all the gold off, took the gold cross with a chain off the kid – and took that $400 we had for a rainy day, so to speak.

But anyway, to pass, you need to completely clean the phone, because they can restore all your correspondence, photos. It is necessary to either have a new phone at all, or completely delete all accounts for the factory settings to be there. Because they will surely find something to grab onto.

We have reached [неокупираната част на Харковска област]. Thanks, of course, to the Ukrainian military and volunteers, they help everyone a lot. They helped us with the animals: it is very difficult – all these baskets. They helped to load and unload, and around one o’clock in the afternoon we were already in the “filtration camp” – Ukrainian. This is the building where the military and the Security Service of Ukraine sit. There, they first give food to everyone and anyone who needs medical help. While we waited our turn to be interviewed, our cats were watered and groomed.

During the interview, we spoke with SBU officials. About how we lived during the occupation, whether they insulted us… They asked such things. They checked the phones to make sure there was nothing there. This is understandable: many collaborators and traitors also leave. Well, there was nothing much to call an interrogation. More of a conversation. We had a quick chat and they let us go. They called us a taxi.

“When we see Ukrainian military, we calm down”

At first it was very difficult to get used to not being afraid of the military. Because they are our, Ukrainian military. We were used to keeping our eyes down, we didn’t have to look at the Russians, we didn’t know how they would react, no one talked to them.

Now it’s the exact opposite – when we see Ukrainian military, we calm down. We don’t get nervous, we don’t squirm. We have peace.

Of course, the animals could hardly bear the road. There were problems with finding housing: not everyone will let you into an apartment with six cats. First we were sheltered by an elderly couple, both disabled. Then we managed to rent a small house in a village.

We have no clothes, only the ones we ran away with. Now, first of all, we are thinking about how to get the rest of the animals. Kupyansk has already been liberated, but yesterday there was shelling from the Russian Federation, there are also victims. No connection there. And I still have a lot of animals there. A neighbor is watching them.

I really want to go home, but it’s still dangerous. Our village is located near the border. All the artillery will be poured in on us.

But I’ll be back someday. My animals are there, my home is there. But not in the near future. I’m not a military expert, but I think the Russians will try to retake the city. Because we have a railway junction with five branches and it is strategically important.

All of this must change. The war must stop. I really want to believe it. I want this to end. So that people do not die and are not maimed. I don’t want people and animals to suffer.


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