1 April 2023
Anna Bowles is a pro-Ukrainian activist from the UK, and from 23 March to 6 April she is in East and South Ukraine, with her friends from the Freefilmers NGO, interviewing local people – especially women in rural communities – about their experiences and survival strategies. Anna is blogging about her trip here – we are also republishing some of her blogs on Rights in Russia, but please also visit Anna’s site. You can donate here to support the people Anna meets.
Flight and Resistance: Occupied Zaporizhzhia
While we were at Yes, Marina (name has been changed) kindly agreed to talk briefly about her experience of living in the occupied city of Tokmak between February and April.
A lot of what Marina said is based in context that Ukrainians know, but don’t think to explain to others. So this is an interview with a difference, as Sashko later gave me background detail on all the situations she described, and I’ve inserted that here as a kind of gloss. We have all read a lot about refugees at this point, but seldom with real context.
Marina sat on a chair by the medicine distribution table in a lull between recipients. I leaned in in an attempt to catch her Russian without invading her personal space (a difficult balancing act) as the busy office continued its life around me. A small girl was drawing, huddled so completely under a pink coat that nothing was visible except her right hand. Tea was offered to me and Sashko, and the ubiquitous jelly sweets.
I sweated. Not because of anything to do with Yes or Marina as such, but because I was in a Ukrainian public space and they firmly believe in approaching boiling point as closely as possible, and then stand there contentedly in thick coats while sweat drips down my face. But I was in luck today; the office allocated to Yes by the local authorities doesn’t have heating, so there was merely a great portable device in the middle of the room glowing orange and blasting inferno rays. This meant that I at least did not sweat so much that it got into my eyes and I couldn’t see.
‘Tokmak was occupied in the first few days of the invasion,’ Marina recalled. ‘There was some back and forth, and for one day both our lads and the Russians pulled out. But then the Russians came in, and that was that.’
I asked if people had foreseen the invasion, and prepared. ‘Foreseen what was coming?’ Marina was dismissive of the idea. ‘That’s impossible. How can you imagine tanks in the streets of your own town? It’s like a film. And we had to watch it.’
Sashko comments: In occupied areas, people don’t go to the basements because they don’t expect indiscriminate shelling. So Tokmak people were in their flats all the time, and they saw tanks driving around the city. Compare Tokmak, which is occupied, with Orihkiv, which is between Tokmak and Zaporizhzhia, and on the frontline; it’s been totally destroyed.
People had to adapt fast to the situation – and that meant, at first, trying to do something about it. ‘There were a lot of protests,’ Marina recalls. ‘8 March was the biggest. There were snipers on the roofs, but they didn’t shoot.’ And she showed me a picture of herself, looking hopeful, in a crowd with police snipers in the background.’ After that, though, the protests faded away.
Sashko explains: There were protests in all the towns in the south of Ukraine, especially in Kherson city. But there and in Nova Kakhova they were violently dispersed. That signalled to other towns that protesting was dangerous, and the rashists were taking prisoners, so the protests stopped by the end of March. They broke down the doors of apartments and captured and detained people at night, to scare everyone as much as possible.
To take someone ‘to the basement’, ‘na podval’ in Russian, is understood to mean to take them there to torture them.
Marina lived under occupation for a long time, witnessing people pass through her city in the hope of reaching free Ukraine: ‘Thousands of refugees arrived from Mariupol and we tried to help them. They’d been sleeping in their cars and there wasn’t even glass in the windows.’
Yes already existed at that time, but it focused on cultural projects and educational opportunities for young people. Like Freefilmers, it underwent a transformation. ‘Now there are 11 staff and 30 volunteers here,’ Marina told me. ‘All from Tokmak.’
She herself made the decision to leave in April. Sashko provides some insight on how this process happened for different people and in different ways: In the middle of March, Tokmak became a stopover for refugees from Mariupol. They shared their stories of the complete destruction of Mariupol, so people in Tokmak realised things could get even worse. They self-organised and provided places for people from Mariupol to rest and eat, and helped them cope with their initial trauma and continue their journey to Zaporizhzhia. And many took the risk of trying to leave, whether to take their children abroad, join the army, or find a way to volunteer.
Men in particular had to flee quickly, or they might get forced to join the Russian army. If they had had connections to the police and military already, or even to the emergency services, they were in particular danger. Azat evacuated a lot of these guys.
Marina finally risked the dangerous journey north through a checkpoint into free Ukraine in April. ‘I don’t know what’s happened to my flat. Some people have been bombed out completely, yes. Or Russians break in and occupy the place. They steal everything – sheets, clothes, crockery, washing machines – or destroy it. Everything! They even slash holes in the ceilings!’
Sashko comments: Sometimes this happens multiple times to the same flat. Other times, the first lot of soldiers make such a mess and loot everything so completely that neither they or other rashists want to use it again.
Now Marina lives in Zaporizhzhia with her children. Her husband is in the army, though not at the front line, and her mother, like so many old people, refuses to leave her small village outside Tokmak.
‘I want to go home as soon as I can. After all, home is home!’ said Marina. ‘I don’t know when the victory will come, but we hope for it.’
Her life in Zaporizhzhia hasn’t been peaceful. One of the largest strikes here was on a tower block in October, and Marina was unlucky enough to be living nearby. Or, perhaps lucky, as she described what happened: ‘A rocket hit a high rise, and the bottom six floors collapsed, like a big arc taken out from under the seventh and eighth floors. The shockwaves broke the window panes in the building all around. But we were protected from the worst of the shockwave by another building between ours and the one that got hit.’
Sashko explains some more about the waves of refugees from the first half of 2022: The biggest wave of refugees to the West was at the start of the war.
Then there was a second wave, this time of IDPs from the occupied parts of Zaporizhzhia oblast, when people realised what had happened in Mariupol, and how it could happen to them too. People couldn’t use the highway from Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia because it was too dangerous, so some walked towards Berdyansk and spent the first nights in small villages outside Mariupol. If they were lucky, then they found vehicles to drive on to Berdyansk.
Normally you could drive from Berdyansk to Tokmak in a few hours – it’s 100km. From Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia it’s 250km. But there were dozens of checkpoints on the way, and each time you were menaced and searched, and maybe had to pay bribes. One of the Freefilmers took a week to get from Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia.
That wave of IDPs continued until the end of summer. Then there was a third wave from the villages in Kherson because the fields had been destroyed or mined and it was impossible for people to earn a living. They also knew that the Ukrainian army was making advances, but that might mean more intense fighting before liberation, or even worse cruelty from the retreating Russians.
At the start of the war it was possible to flee from occupied Kherson towards Kryvyi Rih, but by the end of summer the only way to leave the occupied territories on the whole East and South of Ukraine was via Vasylivka, which is located on the highway from Melitopol to Zaporizhzhia.
Volunteer drivers, including some of our friends, went to the occupied territories with supplies, but but they had to pass it off as private packages for their family, not general humanitarian aid. That way we managed to get medicines to the occupied territories. Freefilmers sent 20 or 30 boxes to Berdyansk, five to Kherson and even some to Mariupol. But it was already very hard to cross at Vasylivka in September, and it was closed at the start of December. Now there are no checkpoints, and no way into the occupied territories.
To get a grasp of the geography involved here, Deep State Map is a really good resource. Here’s a screen grab showing Zaporizhzhia city (top left), Tokmak (near the centre, name partially obscured) Berdyansk (bottom middle) and Mariupol (bottom right). Vasilivka, the location of the last checkpoint, is on the south bank of the Dnipro river, its name partially obscured.
As Marina turned her attention to another of the stream of arrivals, I looked at the collection of beautifully-drawn resistance posters on the wall. They all refer to cities in Zaporizhzhia, or the region itself.
Top to bottom, left to right:
Polohy is Ukraine
Orkhiv – hold on! We will rebuild.
The invincible Zaporizhzhia region
Tokmak is Ukraine
Tokmak is winning
Berdyansk is Ukraine
Vasilivka is winning
Energodar is Ukraine
Huilyapole is Ukraine
Molochansk is Ukraine
Some of them have the hashtag #яктитам (yaktitam). This means ‘how are you, there?’ and it’s a Telegram channel/other social media pages, aimed at keeping those inside and outside the occupied part of the region in touch.