‘We’re going to shoot your child’ A woman from a village in Ukraine’s now-liberated Kharkiv region recounts life under Russian occupation
Interview by Alexander Rybin. Translation by Sam Breazeale.
In early September, Ukrainian forces conducted a major counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region, successfully retaking a massive amount of territory and forcing Russian troops to retreat. Many of the region's towns and villages had been occupied by Russian forces for over six months. Yulia Petrova is a native of Kupyansk-Vuzlovyi, a village in the region whose railway junction connects Kharkiv to other major Ukrainian cities. A former veterinarian, she's been taking care of homeless dogs and cats in the village for years. Petrova said she was forced to flee the Kharkiv region in late August, when Russian soldiers threatened to kill her nine-year-old daughter. She spoke to Meduza about what it was like to live under Russian occupation, how she managed to get out, and whether she plans to return home now that Kupyansk-Vuzlovyi is back in Ukrainian hands.
The three of us live together: me, my mom, and my daughter. We were all home when the war started, and we were afraid. We got a call from our relatives in Kharkiv, and they told us the war had begun. You could already hear explosions and aircraft flying overhead. We immediately went down into the basement. We brought our animals down there, too — we currently have more than 20. Some of them were scared of the loud noises and hid.
Russian troops entered our village almost immediately. They came in without a fight; there weren’t any Ukrainian soldiers there, and the [Kupyansk] mayor [Gennady Matsegora] gave up the city. That was the beginning of our six months of occupation.
‘They took whatever they wanted’
They [Russian soldiers] came in right away and stationed their vehicles in front of the village council. Local residents soon began to assemble there to protest against them.
But they acted like they owned the place. In the first few days, they hung up flags everywhere — Russian and Soviet ones. They put a Russian soldier at every intersection. They didn’t have any contact with the locals; they were all standoffish. Nobody could say anything to them.
From the very beginning, they started taking people’s businesses from them. In the bazaars and the markets, they would take over people’s booths. They were like that when they went “shopping,” too — you couldn’t look them in the eyes. They took whatever they wanted from the stalls. And if you dared to talk back to them, or if they were simply in a bad mood, they would beat you and take you to the basement.
They took whatever they wanted from people. They went into apartments and just stole what they liked. They took over entire buildings. They would take people’s cars; the best case scenario was them just pulling the owners out of the front seat. Basically, they acted like the world belonged to them.
Sometimes they would get drunk and drive their APCs [armored personnel carriers] around with their machine guns. One time, one of them climbed out of the hatch with his gun at the bus station and said, “I’m about to shoot you in the legs.” Just like that, to the people standing there. They would fire at apartment buildings for their own entertainment. That kind of thing happened a lot.
Local residents were also found dead in a river with bags over their heads and their arms bound with tape — I heard about that from some local fishermen back at the start of the summer. They were fishing on the Oskil river when a corpse floated to the surface. Nobody dared to remove the bag from the person’s head; instead, they called the [occupation] commandant’s office. Some soldiers came, along with divers, and they silently retrieved the body and took it away.
Awful things happened in the basements [of the administration buildings] as well. They would detain people there. Whenever you walked by, your hair would stand on end, because you could hear the inhuman screams. Both women’s and men’s voices. It’s scary even to imagine what they did to make people scream like that.
A lot of people we knew who didn’t hide their pro-Ukrainian views ended up disappearing. We still don’t know where they are. Mykola Masliy, who went to the protests, is still missing. A lot of young women disappeared, too. Where are they? Nobody knows. A lot of bad things happened.
There were also people in the village who supported them. [Some of them] went to the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, then continued on to Russia. Most of them were old, but there were a lot of young people, too. Basically, none of this bothered them. They were so nostalgic. They would say, “Pretty soon, we’ll be earning good money — the railroad will start working like it did in Soviet times.” In my apartment building, for example, one woman started working in their headquarters. She would say Ukraine is bad and these guys were good.
Look on the Internet at the village of Kupyansk-Vuzlovyi on May 9, how they waved Russian flags and rejoiced. And we stood there and cried.
‘You don’t like Russians?’
In the first days [of the occupation], they gathered people to work on the railroad. They said they needed to reestablish a railway route to Russia. At first, they promised everybody high salaries. Then, once they’d fooled people, they started promising less. They brought in everything they needed, transported [military] equipment in from Russia, and didn’t end up paying anybody at all. They gave people food rations instead of paychecks and said told them they wouldn't be getting any money. And that if you didn’t come to work, they’d come find you and deal with you. So people started working for free. Meanwhile, they raised the prices of everything threefold. The prices were insane; people found themselves on the brink of starvation.
Then there were the denunciations. My friend’s mom, who works as a caretaker, for example, said to me, “Why are you supporting Ukraine? I can go right now and give you up to the Russians. And you’ll end up in the basement.”
There was nothing I could say, because once you’re in the basement, there’s no getting out. And if you do get out, it’s with serious injuries. A son of some friends of mine missed the curfew by just a few minutes, he wasn’t home in time. They took him and put him in the basement. The next day, they took him out. They had beaten him so badly that he couldn’t walk.
It must have been someone's denunciation that made them come for, too. Someone told them about my views — that I oppose them. Probably one of my neighbors.
Three people showed up. One of them immediately shoved me, and I fell over. They pulled me to the sofa in the kitchen. They sat me down and started going through our phones. One person searched the phones while the others searched the apartment. They were looking for Ukrainian symbols and that kind of thing. I don’t have anything like that, but they turned the whole apartment upside down looking.
Eventually, they aimed their guns at me and my daughter and reloaded them. They shouted, ‘We’re going to shoot your child! Tell us right now: where are your flags, bitch? You support Ukraine, right? You don’t like us? You don’t like Russians?”
I just stayed silent. I was so scared, I couldn’t say a single word. They searched and searched, until finally they said, ‘We’ll be back.” And left.
The next day, August 22, we found someone who had a car, and he drove us out. We didn’t take our things with us because we couldn't carry them. All we took were the oldest and most unhealthy cats. We put them in special carrying cases, two in each, and used the last of our money to get out of there.
We had to pass by nine Russian checkpoints on our way to Ukraine. The road to the [line of demarcation between Ukrainian and Russian troops] took six hours. It was hard going through all those checkpoints. Each [soldier] there had his own triggers, and you always had to find an approach that would keep him from shooting you. We had to give them money. So they wouldn't harm us. They think they own us because they decide who can pass through and who can’t.
Their leader was posted at the eighth checkpoint, the second-to-last. They led us up to him so he could decide whether to let us pass or not. That’s where they do the official, most thorough check. They don’t let everyone through, but in general, if you pay, you can continue on.
Although even that’s not always true. Some friends told me that they sometimes even refuse to let people who’ve paid. It probably depends who’s on shift. But we paid them to let us through. They took all of our gold, including my daughter’s gold cross and chain, and we gave them 400 dollars that we’d been saving for a rainy day, so to speak.
But even so, if you want to pass, you have to completely wipe your phone, because they can restore your messages and photos [if you’re not thorough enough]. You have to either have a brand new phone or delete all of your accounts and restore your phone to factory settings. Because they’ll always find a way to get you [otherwise].
We made it [to the unoccupied part of the Kharkiv region]. It was thanks, of course, to Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers — they really help everyone. They helped us with our pets, too; all of those baskets were hard to carry. They helped us load them and unload them, and by about 1:00 pm, we were already in a “filtration camp” — a Ukrainian one. It’s a building with Ukrainian soldiers and [officials from the] Ukrainian Security Service (SBU). First, they fed everyone. Medical aid was given to anyone who needed it. While we waited to be interviewed, they gave our cats some water and looked after them for us.
We were interviewed by SBU officers. They asked about life under occupation, whether we were abused, that kind of thing. They checked our phones to make sure there wasn’t anything there. That’s understandable — a lot of collaborators and traitors leave [occupied territory], too. But it wasn’t really anything you could call an interrogation. More of a conversation. We spoke with them briefly, then they released us. They called us a taxi. Overall, it was fine.
‘We calm down when we see Ukrainian soldiers’
At first, it was really difficult to get used to the fact that we didn’t have to be scared around soldiers anymore. Because there were our guys — Ukrainian soldiers. We’d gotten used to lowering our eyes. We weren’t allowed to look at the Russians. There was no telling what reaction it would provoke. Nobody looked at them and nobody spoke to them.
But now, when we see Ukrainian soldiers, it actually calms us down. We don’t get nervous and start twitching like we did back at home. We’re at peace. We’re slowly getting back to normal.
The trip has been hard on our pets, of course. We’ve had problems finding a place to live — most landlords don’t want you to have six cats. At first, we stayed with an elderly couple, both of whom were disabled. We lived with them in a tiny little house. Then, we heard through the grapevine about a small house in a village.
We don’t have any clothes except the ones on our backs. But our main priority right now is getting a hold of our other pets. Kupyansk has been liberated, but just yesterday, there was shelling from the Russian Federation, and there were some casualties. There’s no cell service there. And I still have a lot of pets there. One of our neighbors is looking after them.
I really want to go home, but I can’t right now. Our village is located right next to the border. All their artillery will be able to reach our house, and their missiles will be flying overhead.
I’ll go back — my pets are there and my home is there. But not anytime soon. I’m not a military expert, but I think the Russians are going to try to take the city back. Because we have a railway junction connecting railroads going five different directions, and it’s strategically important.
All of this needs to change. The war needs to come to an end. I really want to believe that's what will happen. I want it all to be over. I want people to stop dying and stop being crippled. I don’t want people or animals to have to suffer any longer.