In early February, Alexander was working as a seaman docked in China. He had been away from Ukraine, his home country, for two and a half months. While Alexander was gone, he kept a close watch on the news surrounding a growing escalation of tensions at the border between Russia and Ukraine, but he did not think anything would come of it. Like many of his fellow Ukrainians, Alexander was convinced a full-scale invasion could not happen in Europe, not in the 21st century. However, as the month passed, fear replaced his assurance that Ukraine was safe. Still, he carried on working with the hope that he would be home in Kherson with his wife and parents in a few weeks.
By the time Alexander was finally able to return to Ukraine, his wife had already fled their home; the city was now firmly in the grasp of Russian occupation. It could mean imprisonment, torture, or death if Alexander returned to Kherson—and, if he returned, there was no guarantee he would be able to leave. Alexander might be trapped, living in an annexed part of Ukraine, where he would have to become something he dreaded: a Russian citizen.
On Feb. 24, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced in a press conference that he would “carry out a special military operation,” in Ukraine. Kherson, a port city located in southern Ukraine, was the first to fall to Russian forces after the invasion began. It had been under Russian occupation since the first week of March. In the following months, according to the former mayor, 40 percent of Kherson’s 290,000 citizens fled to save themselves, risking their lives in the process. Those who stayed in the region reported living under a constant state of attack, with limited food and water supplies. Every day, Kherson’s remaining residents wondered what they would do and how they would protect themselves should Russia’s missiles hit their homes.
Alexander, a 37-year-old who grew up in a village outside of Kherson, requested that his last name be withheld out of concern for the safety of his parents, who are still in the village. Growing up, Alexander had always wanted to be an engineer, and in 2002 he enrolled in college and began to move toward his childhood dream of doing a job he loved. He became the chief seaman of his company in 2015. Alexander met his wife, Alona, a 35-year-old adjunct professor at Kherson State University, in 2010—over the next year, they fell in love. They married in 2013 and lived in Kherson until Russian forces occupied their town. They had already bought a new home and had plans to start a family, but the invasion put their much-desired plans on hold, making them fear what bringing a child into the world might mean.
Earlier this month, Alexander spoke with The Real News over a video call on WhatsApp from Kyiv and recounted what it felt like to be away from his family at the beginning of the war. “Horrible,” he said. “You cannot sleep, you cannot eat, you’re just thinking all of the time about [your] home, about your family. How are they? You just read the news…” At the time, Alona had packed her bags and, along with 11 other people, she huddled in her parent’s large basement, hoping it would provide enough shelter from the war raging on around them. But in those early days of the war, the basement was without heat, and those seeking refuge slept on the cold, concrete floor, afraid to leave. The residents taking shelter in the basement had been following the progression of the war as best they could by connecting to the internet and checking social media. Aboveground, Kherson was under constant attack, and Alona relayed her fears and experiences to her husband each day.
Speaking through WhatsApp voice memos, Alona told TRNN that those huddled in the basement together were horrified by the atrocities the Russians committed against Ukrainians in the areas just outside the capital city. “The most scared we became [was] after we found out the news from Bucha and Irpin,” she said, referring to two towns just outside Kyiv. Those towns were liberated from Russian control in early March, and officials documented over 500 bodies between the two neighboring areas, many of whom were found in mass gravesites and displayed signs of torture. There were also reports of women and girls being raped by Russian soldiers while the towns were occupied, which prompted Alona and other women in her village to dress in old, torn clothing to mask their appearance whenever they ventured out of their houses. Alona said she never left the basement without her father, fearing that she might be abducted and raped next.
On April 6, Alexander signed off from his ship, which had docked in London, and flew to Romania. Over the next two months, he lived in a hotel room that his company provided him, then he moved to the apartment of his brother’s friend. Alexander could have returned to Ukraine anytime, but he was hesitant: A government mandate required all men between the ages of 18 and 60 to stay in the country, so returning would mean he could not leave or work. Furthermore, his company had explicitly told him, “If you go [to] the border, then you will not be paid, and you will be on your own.”
Eventually, the weight of being away from home became too much to bear for Alexander. In early June, he crossed the Romanian border into neighboring Moldova—from there, he made his way back into Ukraine. Alexander lived in a town outside of Kyiv for a few weeks on his own, but at the end of June Alona made the decision to flee Kherson and join her husband. Although driving was not her strong suit, she did it anyway, taking a mother and her two children with her. They passed multiple Russian checkpoints along the way and didn’t know if they would make it out safely. Alona arrived at the final Russian checkpoint in the city of Zaporizhzhia on July 30, where Alexander met her. Then they made the journey back to their new home in Kyiv, together at last.
It soon became apparent, however, that Alona’s experiences in Kherson had traumatized her. “Even after leaving occupied territory, after a few months, I still feel horrible, and feel worried about the relatives who [are] left there,” she told TRNN. “I still cannot sleep properly, and [I have] dreams about [the] beginning of this war, about all the military actions… in the beginning,” she added.
Over the next few weeks, Alexander got used to being back in Ukraine—and he started making plans to return to Kherson. He and his brother knew they would need to help their aging parents prepare for the upcoming winter. On Sept. 4, in the same car his wife had used to escape Kherson, Alexander drove back to his war-torn home.
Upon arriving in his hometown, Alexander said he was shocked at how much it had changed. “The town is empty, it’s dead. You cannot see people,” he said. He began searching for much-needed supplies for his parents, but the stores were badly damaged due to constant shelling, and the shelves were mostly empty. Alexander had heard of people who had to wait in line for 12 hours to get simple items like bread (and the items that were available cost four times as much as they did in Kyiv). “There are no jobs at all. The people I know who have lost their jobs [had] two choices: Get a Russian passport and work there, or lose their jobs,” Alexander said. “They [chose] the second. You can’t find nothing now.”
Throughout the following weeks, Alexander and his brother worked on winter preparations while barrages of missiles landed all around the city. The rapidly approaching winter months are predicted to be particularly painful in the areas of Ukraine that have no access to heat or electricity. Alexander’s parents are some of the lucky ones: they have an agreement with the city that will allow them to burn wood in their furnace to keep warm.
On Sept. 23, Putin announced referendums that would lead to the annexation of four Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine—Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson. The referendums have been denounced as a “sham” by Ukraine and the West; hours after they were announced, US President Joe Biden said he would “Never recognize Ukrainian territory as anything but Ukraine.” According to Alexander, residents only received a one-week warning before the voting began, and he feared staying in Kherson could mean he would be trapped and have to fight in Russia’s army. Alexander made the decision that day to leave his home. “If Russia will be there, I will never be there,” he said. “I don’t want to live in this country. I have been there for some time. I was working there.” He did not want to be a Russian citizen. Alexander tried to get his parents to join him and others as they prepared to flee Kherson, but they refused. “They can’t just leave everything like we are. We are younger. We can just move around the country. It’s very hard to do that for them,” Alexander said.
Alexander accepted their decision to stay, but in the days leading up to his departure the areas surrounding his parent’s home were hit by Russian missiles. “There was a plane that drove past their house and dropped a missile… near them. All the windows were bombed. It was quite scary. We could hear explosions all nearby, military jets. Every day they are so noisy we cannot even sleep. At nighttime, the rockets are always coming. Explosions in Kherson—you can hear it very loudly, the windows are shaking, even the walls are shaking,” Alexander said via WhatsApp message.
On Sept. 25, Alexander left his parent’s house accompanied by their neighbor, her daughter, and one of Alexander’s friends. Once the four began their trip, Alexander felt a growing sadness about leaving his home and his parents. “My whole life is left in Kherson, but I still think life is more important,” he said. “Your life is more valuable.” After he left, he would hear stories from his mother about two soldiers with loaded guns, a man in a suit, and a woman carrying a plastic box going around collecting votes. One day, while leaving a local store, Alexander’s mother was asked if she wanted to vote, to which she replied, “Of course not!”
The trip back to Kyiv took three days. Alexander had to pass through as many as two dozen checkpoints along the way—each time he was forced to speak to Russian soldiers, he was afraid. When Alexander’s car reached the final checkpoint in Vasilivka, a town in Zaporizhzhia, around 100 cars were waiting in line at the border. Everyone was trying to get away from Putin’s grasp as fast as they could. It took Alexander and his companions two days to make it across the border and find their way to safety; the very next day, it was announced that Kherson would become part of Russia. (However, in recent days there has been a shift in Ukraine’s war tactics, and it has made significant gains on the battlefield. As of October 7, Ukraine’s armed forces had liberated 2,434 sq km of Ukrainian territory, according to reporting by Reuters.)
From September to October, Ukraine’s armed forces reportedly liberated more than 600 Russian-held settlements, which includes 75 in the Kherson region alone, according to Reuters. Alexander’s town has not been one of those liberated, and he said that he won’t be going back until it is no longer under Russian control.
Alexander told TRNN that he felt like he had lost a lot over the past eight months and that Russia “Comes and steal part of my life. We were living in a nice country. We [Ukraine] were going the right way, these guys come, and they broke up completely [sic] my life.”
“I have a house in Kherson,” he added. “Now I need to rent an apartment in Kyiv. I need to pay, and I know that a part of my life [is] simply stolen. I don’t know what to do next. I spent so much time and force to get what I have now, and I get nothing. I have zero in my account. I have zero in my account, I have zero in my life, so that’s very scary.”