Kherson had been under Russian aggressor’s occupation since the beginning of March. Ukrainians on the controlled territory observed the enemy’s doings in Buch and Irpin with pain in their hearts. They saw and heard those stories from all the places where the terrorists’ boots had stepped. Arthur Ivanenko is a native of Kherson who saw with his own eyes what the occupier can do with the city and its citizens. In his 26 years, the guy managed to build a dentist career, was engaged in activism and volunteering. For the first time, Arthur dared to share his memories from the period when the walls of his own house turned into a fortress and a prison equally.
Can you imagine we wake up and the war has started?
In Kherson Arthur worked in private and state dental clinics, combining his main activity with volunteering. He begins his memoirs with a story about the new opportunity, the management position in the newly opened branch, which he was offered the day before the full-scale invasion. Having agreed to think about the proposal for a week, Arthur joyfully called his cousin and invited her home. During a family meeting, they discussed the current situation in the country and the possibility of Russian attack. He admits they did not believe in a full-scale war.
“Towards the evening, my sister and I went outside to discuss some personal stuff. Then she asked me unexpectedly: “Can you imagine we wake up and the war has started?”,— I answered that it was nonsense and couldn’t be like that.”
That night Arthur could not sleep, feeling anxious. He fell asleep at about 03:00 a.m., and his crying mother ran into the room already at dawn. She said the invasion had started.
“I didn’t believe it for a moment. I got out of bed and went to my parents’ room. There was news about the beginning of the so-called special operation. Even after that, I thought it was impossible. Then my mother asked me to go to my sister’s house to help move the cribs into the basement. When I opened the door, I heard a powerful explosion, its wave literally pushed me back.”
The military base in Chornobaivka, which got the first strike, is located not far from the Kherson. Only when the smoke from the explosion filled the city, Arthur realized that the full-scale war had begun.
“I went to my sister, and when we packed our things and went outside, there was chaos already. People were going somewhere, three-kilometer traffic jams at the gas stations appeared, locals were running away with their bags. Mass panic began. We moved our things to the house basement, it is roomy and strong. After that, we started calling relatives and friends, offering them to stay close those days”.
Shots and explosions rumbled all around. People did not understand how close the fighting was. In the evening, all relatives gathered in the basement, and then one guy decided to go outside. He opened the door and heard a quiet sound that got louder and louder. It was a fighter jet. It literally flew over the house.
“Then the neighbors joined us. We took blankets and made a sleeping place in the basement. There were about 40 people and we felt safer when we were together. That was the 24th of February.”
For three days, cars were burning on the streets and corpses were lying around
There were many fakes online that Russians had already entered Kherson. During the first days of the invasion, Arthur monitored the news day and night and watched city webcams occasionally. The guy remembers the first time he saw on camera five Russian tanks not far from their house. At that moment, he realized that the city was occupied. The fighter jet Arthur saw on the first day left a constant sense of danger. Therefore, he spent the first two weeks in the basement. He left it once in a while just to get some food and immediately ran back to the supposed shelter, which seemed to be the safest place then.
“I remember how at the second or third day’s dawn we heard the wailing of sirens. At that time there were many people who tried to fight the occupation forces. The local group made Molotov cocktails and prepared to fight. In fact, it was not a preparation, but a very big sacrifice.”
When clashes between occupiers and citizens began on the city streets, a vast shooting took place. Automatic gunfire and explosions rang out. The first three days were hellish, Arthur says. The relatives who lived nearby said that the carnage was under the houses. Military men and local activists climbed onto the roofs. During the next three days, cars were burning and the corpses of locals were lying in the yards. Nobody took away the dead for days. Then the Ivanenko family realized that something had to be done, they had to stock up on food and pack walk-away bags, because they were not ready for war.
“In two weeks we decided to buy some food. Me, my dad and my sister’s husband had three cars in the family. After finding some private ads, with crazy prices, of course, we went in different directions. On the same day, the city lost Ukrainian mobile services, and the only option was to arrange to meet at home in an hour. I remember driving along the roads and constantly looking around. No one followed the traffic rules. At this time military vehicles were only on the main square as a demonstration that Russians were in the city. Dad said when he saw the tank driving down the city street, he was confused and didn’t know what to do. He just waited until it drove by.”
Russians took photos of protesters, then those people would disappear and return as different ones
The first meeting on the city’s main square took place at noon. The events were covered in social media, so everyone saw how much the people of Kherson were against the Russian occupation. After that, there was a rule to gather every day at the same time and place, no matter how poor the mobile services were.
“Then we got a big problem, Russian military and special agents took photos of protesters and people disappeared. They caught and tortured dissenters. I talked to the guy who went through psychological and physical torture by Russians. He came back a completely different person.”
It continued for about a week, and there were fewer and fewer people around. One day Arthur heard an alarming siren in the city, although it had never been turned on since the beginning of the occupation. Strong explosions came after that. As it turned out, in such a way Russian military tried to disperse the rally. They simply pelted people with explosives and tear gas. Then the locals decided to stop rallies, as they began to worry about their lives.
We set the rule to clean up one’s phone and unsubscribe from media channels when you wake up
During the occupation, the military established its own rules in the city. An attempt to break them could cost your life. Taking out your phone when you walk down the street and see a military man was prohibited. Even if you were talking at that time, you should immediately hide it. Otherwise, soldiers would check it for correspondence, media channel subscriptions, photos, and even calls.
“So, we set the rule: when you wake up, clean up your phone, unsubscribe from media channels and delete everything as if it was new. When we went out, we left smartphones for texting at home and took other ones with us. During interrogations on streets, we had to express a neutral position to preserve lives. But it was a forced neutral position.”
Russians carried out a forced evacuation. They took children as if to summer camps, but did not return them back
Arthur didn’t leave Kherson for several reasons. At that time, looting was rampant in the city, and Arthur’s parents didn’t want to leave their house and pets. So he didn’t dare to leave his mom, his dad and his patients in the occupation. The second reason was the lack of official evacuation.
“We heard that it was possible to evacuate through Mykolaiv, Zaporizhzhia or Kryvyi Rih, but no one gave any safety guarantee. Many local people were injured trying to leave because Russians fired on the civilians. As for evacuation by Russia, it was possible to leave via Crimea. A week before the liberation of Kherson by the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Russians carried out a forced evacuation. They took the children as if to summer camps in Crimea, but no one returned them back. They stayed there.”
Arthur had an agreement with his parents that he would try to leave within a month after preparation for the so-called referendum was announced. The guy thought he would have time to leave, but Russians announced the date in two days.
“It happened so that I let all the patients go till that time. Not many people were in the city, so after returning from work, I packed my things and the next day started to leave through Crimea. There was an alternative to get to Vasylivka, the territory controlled by Ukraine. But there were about 5,000 cars in the queue, and no more than five were allowed to leave the city daily. My car broke down, I had to look for someone to evacuate me, and the only option left was Crimea. The transit road through Russia is quite difficult and takes about four days, but I could not stay.”
The guy passed his first border check in Crimea. He was kept there for 11 hours, just like when he left Russia for Latvia. But it was already the second attempt to leave. For the first time, Arthur dared to go to Crimea on a volunteer mission. Many people in the city at that time needed medication. Іnsulin, Euthyrox, Aspirin Cardio. It was impossible to find them in Kherson. To go to Crimea for medicine, Arthur had to go through 17 checkpoints. At each of them Russians checked phones, tattoos, asked questions and tried to pressure people psychologically. Arthur spent about 11 hours outside in the rain, waiting for a decision on his pass.
“I bought some medicine and went back. The reverse procedure was simplified, but the attitude remained the same. At the passport control, they asked why I was going to Kherson and just threw the documents in my face. They didn’t understand what people had forgotten in the occupied city.”
In the first weeks, work in Kherson stopped. Arthur went back to the clinic only after some time. In a month and a half, it became necessary to purchase medicine, and to get permission to leave, the guy went to his boss. After asking to take a break for a couple of weeks, he offered to sign documents to take a vacation at his own expense.
“The chief laughed and assured me it wasn’t necessary because it’s better not to write about trips to Crimea. Later I returned to my workplace and heard that the only option was to file a dismissal in the personnel department. Kinda some intern came and they couldn’t kick him out. That’s how I was fired.”
Russians mistreated the volunteers and tortured them for helping locals
Arthur has his own organization but decided to devote himself to medicine. Thus all activist and volunteer actions were related to it. The organization provided free dental care by removing teeth, cleaning them up or putting in fillings. All this was done in Arthur’s home office. Other volunteers took educational activities and applied for different programs. Before the invasion, the activists planned to do projects on medicine and memory preservation, they were waiting just for donors to answer. After the invasion, they only volunteered, providing humanitarian and medical aid. Russians mistreated volunteers, and there were occasions of kidnapping.
“We had a specific person who helped with product purchases. We met within the projects and cooperated already after the occupation. This guy acted as an intermediary. The products cost a lot, but at least the quality was pretty good. When it was time for the second tranche, we couldn’t reach him. His relatives told us he hadn’t been in touch for two days. As it turned out, he was captivated. Russians treated the volunteers badly and tortured them for helping the locals.”
Humanitarian aid and volunteering were prohibited. Arthur mentions that Russians issued an ultimatum: there is humanitarian aid from Russia and the locals must take it. When people took it, Russians filmed them, interviewed and emphasized that only they helped the citizens. In fact, you could lose your own life because you helped someone.
“They wanted to put psychological pressure and mislead people. Three days later, our activist came back, but he had such a psychological trauma that he immediately evacuated from Kherson.”
They entered the office with machine guns and pointed them at me
“I believed till the end that we would be reconquered. All citizens of Kherson believed and expected that the city would be liberated by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. When I got a job, my patient told me about a rocket that explode near his house. But there was nothing to worry about, he said because the Ukrainian army will come soon. People were so positive. Even though their houses were destroyed, they waited for our guys. They were ready to sacrifice it just to live free.”
Russians spread the message that they came to Kherson forever. One day, Arthur was letting go of a patient and was already waiting for the next one when the soldiers started to enter. The administrator explained that there was no free time in the schedule and free doctors to help them. The soldiers disagreed with that and brazenly demanded to take care of them urgently. After that, they went to Arthur’s office.
“They entered my office with machine guns and pointed them at me. One soldier sat down in a chair, and the others surrounded him from the back and sides. They said that I should remove the tooth because it causes sharp pain. I explained that it was necessary to do anesthesia, and they agreed if I showed them all the materials. Well, I showed them everything, charged the syringe and did anesthesia. The next moment that soldier went faint. The machine guns were still aimed at me. I quickly started bringing him to life, and something had already begun behind me. They thought I had mixed something up. In the long run, that soldier came back and said that he had forgotten to tell me he was losing consciousness because of injections.”
Arthur admits that the situation looks funny now, but he was frightened back then. The guy did everything and the occupiers left the clinic. But after that, they started coming constantly and demanding dental treatment. All the time they were in the office, they said they would stay in Kherson forever. They called the city the safest place because it was planned to drop a vacuum bomb on Mykolaiv. Russians mistreated locals. They paid but pointed their guns and demanded immediate service.
“The feeling of being constantly under the gun never left me. I remember the day I was returning home, it was about 3:00 p.m., and military vehicles started moving down the street: tanks, armored personnel carriers. More than thirty vehicles with soldiers on top. They drove by and everyone pointed their guns at me. At that moment, I didn’t know what to do. Should I go somewhere around the corner and hide? But they could think there’s something wrong. At the same time, I was afraid to move further. I just went numb and wanted that to pass as soon as possible. I wanted to go home. It was the most terrible feeling.”
I plan my return to Ukraine
Now Arthur stays in Germany with his sister. As far as he has not yet completed all the necessary documents, he has no right to do anything there. He monitors grants and programs because their partner organizations and some activists have remained in Kherson. The guy hesitates whether to get more education or confirm his diploma and start working in the medical field. To do that he has to learn German and get the right to take medical exams.
“I temporarily came to Germany because my psychological health is disturbed. I’m still coming to my senses. Sometimes I think about therapy with a psychologist. Some people say I stay here because of mobilization, but it’s not the case. I’m not conscripted, so I could safely leave through Ukraine.”
The guy says he waits for explosions every night, he is frightened by loud noise and the roar of planes. But in the future, he plans to return to Ukraine anyway. Now the only thing he is waiting for is one short message…
“My cousin has been serving since 2014. He does not get in touch so often, but once in a while he writes us something like ‘Okay’. That’s how we know he’s alive.”
Author: Ruslana Polianska