Stories of resistance

Life of a Roma activist under occupation

Yanush Panchenko is a researcher of Roma culture and language, public activist, ethnographer and historian. He is a Roma by origin. Yanush was born in Kakhovka, Kherson region. One of those who survived the Russian occupation in his home city. I saw how the Russian military occupied the city, broke down the doors of the residents’ houses, and took other people’s property. They broke and destroyed. The premises of the “Romano Than” Roma center, which Yanush and his associates founded a year ago, were taken away. However, the Roma activist managed to get out of the occupation. Now he tells the testimony of the occupation of the Russian military in his home city and, despite everything, dreams of one day returning to Nova Kakhovka.

February. The war really started

The morning of the 24th of February for Yanush began unexpectedly and not as usual. After all, as for all Ukrainians. The boy woke up to the explosions at dawn. The walls of the house shook violently, and the hum of the rockets did not subside. After looking at the news, he did not find anything. Then he simply wrote “explosions in Kakhovka” in Google, but did not receive any information either. Not understanding what was happening, he opened the school chat, which was crammed with messages from his students that the war had started. Then he realized that the situation was becoming more and more serious. The first thing that Yanush decided to do was to pick up his brother, who at that time lived in Nova Kakhovka. It was there that the most explosions were heard, and the air was exhausted from enemy rockets.The brother said that a neighbor came to them and informed about the beginning of the war. That’s what she told him, “Let’s hide in the bomb shelter.”

Enemy tanks entered the town

Thirty-year-old Yanush, along with his family, did not fully believe that the war would knock on the door of the house. Initially, they planned to go to Lviv for some time. They called relatives who live in the western part of Ukraine, but they heard the opposite in response. Like, “there’s no need to go anywhere, because it’s all short-lived”. “Two or three days and everything is over,” — so the relatives said. Therefore, the idea of moving to another, safer city remained on hold. Every day, Yanush felt anxious, thought about what would happen next, how events would develop. He was constantly thinking about his brother, who stayed on the other side of the city – that is, in Nova Kakhovka. Finally, he decided to go and take him to his own house. It was calmer for everyone.

The road was full of military equipment. APCs and military vehicles constantly passed by. Morning breathed anxiety. It was necessary to overcome several long kilometers to see his brother and transport him to a safer place. At first, it seemed to Yanush that the Ukrainian military had come to the city for protection and patrolling. He did not believe that enemy tanks would be able to enter the city so quickly and move through the streets. When he and his brother were already returning to Kakhovka, they saw a dozen completely burned and crushed cars on the way. Then everything became clear: enemies came to the city. “The invaders probably thought that Nova Kakhovka and Kakhovka are one city. That’s why they shot mainly on the outskirts of Nova Kakhovka,” says Yanush. The Russian military was always based in Nova Kakhovka, so it was calmer and safer on the other side – in Kakhovka.

Life under a quiet occupation

For the first few months, Yanush Panchenko’s family gathered together with other Roma families. During the day, they mostly stayed at home, and in the evening they listened to the roar of military planes flying over the roofs. Over time, people began to get used to it and slowly go outside. Yanush decided not to sit idly by, but to try to do something useful. First, he called the city council, where he knew some of the workers well and offered his help as a volunteer. They immediately decided that the boy would be able to supply the poorest Roma families with food and bring them everything they needed. This is how the Roma activist worked for some time together with the employees of the Kakhovka City Council. Later he established contact with foreign volunteers – they sent funds to an open charity account, and Yanush bought products and helped others. The biggest shortage was in milk. Then it was simply impossible to get it. Therefore, he put only what was available in the humanitarian aid packages. 

The Ukrainian flag flies again on the city hall

Residents are getting more and more used to the shots that sounded most often in the evening and at night. During the day, they continued to do their daily business. For two days, one of the invaders hung the Russian tricolor on the building of the city council, but in a few days it was replaced by a blue-yellow one. Since then, life continued. Somehow Yanush realized that his mobile connection was disappearing more and more often. First for a few days, then for a long period. It became impossible to communicate with foreign volunteers. Therefore, later the aid activities simply stopped.

May. (Not) to cook dinner for the invaders

On the 9th of May, Yanush woke up at nine in the morning with a thought about the Roma center “Romano Than” in Kakhovka. Then he was informed that the doors of the center were broken down by the Russian military, and after a while they invaded the premises altogether, not letting anyone in. For the Roma activist, this was the first alarm signal to make the decision to leave the city. Every day, activists and journalists were abducted from Kakhovka. When it got to the point that Yanush’s friends started disappearing, the boy realized that this could happen to him as well. Russian equipment moved freely through the city more and more often, and the number of invaders increased every day. Residents suffered from a humanitarian crisis – there was almost no medicine, food and other necessary means of subsistence. The neighboring villages of Kherson Oblast – Oleksandrivka, Bilozerka, and Vysokopillia became a target for the enemies, and for the inhabitants – a place where it was increasingly difficult to breathe. At any time, the Russian military went to other people’s homes, ordering them to cook dinner. Equipment and other valuables were taken. Those who tried to protest or object were beaten and abused. Residents came out of their own houses in the middle of the night, leaving home. They looked for shelter where it could be safer. More and more people left Kakhovka every day. The city was orphaned before our eyes.

“You sit at home, and he comes silently with a gun, takes a bath, takes everything he needs. If you pretend that everything is fine, then he goes away. And when you start to protest, he beats you,” recalls Yanush. Almost no relatives and friends of the boy remained in the city, they all left. They left everything at will. The only thing holding the boy back was his own home. Neighboring houses became empty in front of his eyes. There was almost no light in the windows. Kakhovka was rapidly turning into a ghost city. When you sit in the basement, you don’t understand why you are sitting here, why? We believed that we would be able to return to normal life. But we quickly realized that it would not be like that”.

A drunk soldier with a weapon in his hands is an invader

At checkpoints, people could not leave for several days, or even worse – for weeks. Often tired and abandoned of all hope, they returned to the occupied villages, towns, and homes. The road was constantly being shelled by Russian enemies. Someone was wounded by fragments, someone died right in front of their relatives. Yanush was waiting for the day when the situation would become calmer. But such a day never came. He decided to go through the Crimea. Although I understood that it could be even more dangerous. 70 long kilometers – the road from Kakhovka to the first checkpoint in the direction of occupied Crimea. Near Chonhar, the first Russian soldiers stopped the car. Drunk and with a machine gun in their hands, they started talking to Janusz quite unfriendly. They made unclear claims.

“Drunk soldier with weapon in a hand. Invader! He stopped me and started yelling at me. The feeling was so-so,” recalls Janusz. Airplanes were buzzing everywhere, machinery was moving. The crushed one returns to the Crimea, the new one – in the direction of Ukraine.

Filtration camp on the border

Next is another checkpoint. Here, Yanush was interrogated for several hours. A special “interview” was scheduled. They took away the phone and checked all correspondence. For several long hours, the boy waited for his verdict, scrolled through various options in his head. All the time he was thinking about the Instagram network, in which there were many publications about the resistance of the Roma against the Russian occupiers. After long hours of questioning, he got permission to cross and went to the border with Latvia. There were still 37 hours of waiting. Russian border guards deliberately did not allow all Ukrainian cars to pass. Documents were taken away. They were forced to return to the end of the queue. And so in a circle. at two o’clock in the morning the next day, Yanush and his family managed to cross the Russian-Latvian border.

Latvia supports Ukraine!

Already on the Latvian side, the Latvian border guard checked documents and crossing permits in 20 minutes. “I couldn’t believe that it finally happened.” I asked the border guard, “What’s next?” And he said, “It’s okay, go. Have a safe trip!” From here, Yanush’s car was speeding along the road. Everyone in the car felt calm and relieved. There was a big sign on the road: “Welcome to Latvia.” Latvia supports Ukraine in the war with the Russian aggressor. We will do everything to make Ukrainians feel safe”. “This inscription was more pleasant for me than ever.”

Today Yanush lives in Berlin in a camp for Ukrainian and Roma immigrants. He again re-established contacts with foreign volunteers. He tries in every possible way to assist Ukrainian Roma who were forced to leave their homes in Ukraine as a result of Russian aggression and continues to do research work. This time it is about how the war will affect the new generation of Roma in Ukraine. And Yanush dreams of restoring the Roma center in Kakhovka and open the door of the native house again.

Author: Marianna Maksymova

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