- Russian forces captured the city of Kherson, Ukraine, in early March.
- Life for 290,000 residents changed overnight, and food supplies are quickly disappearing.
- A 20-year-old man told Insider about trying to survive in the occupied city.
Hunger has descended upon Kherson, Ukraine, and with it, desperation.
Food warehouses in the Ukrainian city are nearly depleted and looters are beaten in the street.
The first thing 20-year-old Igor does each morning is look for food. The grocery stores are near empty now, but he continues to search.
When Russian troops invaded Kherson earlier this month, life for the young student, along with the city’s 290,000 residents, changed overnight.
Just days earlier, Igor was preparing for university exams at his local maritime academy. Now, he finds himself responsible for his entire family amid a brutal occupation. With his father abroad and unable to return home because of the war, Igor is tasked with protecting and providing for his mother, younger brother, and two grandparents — an increasingly difficult job as the realities of war sink in for Kherson’s residents.
Igor, whose full name is known by Insider and is being identified by only his first name to protect his safety, spoke about the everyday horrors people in Kherson are experiencing under Russian occupation as Russian leader Vladimir Putin continues to wage war across Ukraine.
Igor has spent his entire life in Kherson, which is located 200 kilometers east of Odesa. He told Insider that his city, located strategically near the Black Sea, was once a typical Ukrainian port, known for its famous sea academy, which graduates a cohort of international sailors each year.
The city’s people enjoyed their lives, Igor said. They had “enough of everything.”
But in the early hours of Thursday, February 24, Igor woke to the news that Russia was invading his country. For weeks, Ukrainians had received intelligence that such an attack was possible, but nobody wanted to believe it could really happen, Igor said.
Despite the initial shock, he managed to stay calm. The first thing Igor did that morning was go to the store to secure food for his family — a task that would soon become a daily necessity.
Over the next few days, Russian troops moved to surround Kherson. Then, they entered the city.
As high-level explosions targeted Kherson, Igor took his family to the basement of their home; everyone carrying emergency backpacks previously prepared with small amounts of food, water, and official documents. The family sheltered together for hours that night until there was a reprieve.
In the first moment of calm, Igor said he went outside to have a smoke and talk with a neighbor. But those small acts of normalcy failed to hide the truth: Kherson — and Igor’s life along with it — was forever changed.
By Wednesday, March 3, less than one week after Russian forces first rolled into Ukrainian territory, Kherson was fully occupied; the first major city to fall to Russia.
Burnt bodies in the street
As Igor stepped onto his balcony to smoke on that first day of Kherson’s occupation by Russian forces, a projectile hit nearby, he said. Then, a second one.
“A man got torn to pieces,” he told Insider. “The entire store is splattered with what’s left of him.”
Graphic photos reviewed by Insider show the mangled remains of the man’s body lying bloody in the street beside a Russian tank. The gruesome site is located close to Igor’s residence and a photo of an ID Igor found near the body suggests the dead man was a 38-year-old Russian soldier.
Igor believes the mounting Ukrainian and Russian corpses in Kherson — a result of ongoing fights and attacks throughout the city — are now being collected by city-appointed cars. Family members and friends of the Ukrainian dead are also collecting their loved ones.
In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion, Kherson’s mayor, Ihor Kolykhaiev, told The New York Times that Russia’s weapons left many of the city’s dead unrecognizable, forcing volunteers to bury them in mass graves.
“Many of the bodies have been blown apart,” the mayor told the outlet. “If we can make a photograph it makes sense to try to identify them, but if not we put them into bags and bury them that way.”
On one of his daily walks earlier this month, Igor came across the charred remains of Kherson’s main shopping center. After the building was bombed by Russian troops, Igor said “black snow” appeared to fall upon the remnants as it “melted into plastic.” Now, Igor and his family keep a heavy-duty gas mask among their emergency supplies.
The sound of explosions and the sight of burnt bodies — once jarring to the citizens of Kherson — have quickly become commonplace.
“Now people don’t pay so much attention to these attacks,” Igor said. “People are already used to explosions.”
Russian attacks persist throughout the city still. Igor and his family retreat to the basement during the assaults and venture above ground only when the skies grow quiet. When he walks through the streets of his hometown, Igor said he regularly sees corpses.
I doubt that when this is all over, we will be what we used to be before this war.Igor
“At first it was quite challenging,” he said of witnessing the human toll. “But at this point, you get completely indifferent to it; no more and no less than when you see a dead rat or cat on the street.”
“I doubt that when this is all over, we will be what we used to be before this war,” he added.
Kherson’s mayor estimated that as many as 300 Ukrainian civilians and fighters were dead in the aftermath of Russia’s initial invasion, The Times reported. Reliable death counts in the days since have been nearly nonexistent.
But Igor doesn’t like to think about the horrors. Instead, he keeps himself busy, seeking out ways to help his family and others. And there are plenty of problems to solve — the most urgent being the city’s rapidly-declining food supply.
Dwindling food and desperation
Kherson has been completely cut off from supplies, Igor said, who added that no humanitarian assistance is being allowed in. Ukrainian officials earlier this month said the same, accusing Russia of not allowing previously-agreed upon humanitarian corridors within the city.
Life in Kherson is now all about securing food. Each day Igor starts his morning by trying to gather cash or food to feed his family and others who are stuck in the city.
Igor has become the man of the family, so the work falls to him. Kherson’s women are terrified to leave their homes, he said, citing rumors of rapes and murders since Russian forces invaded.
While out on the streets, Igor talks to people about where to find food, seeking out warehouses or certain stores rumored to have supplies left. The lines at such locations are long — he said sometimes as many as 200 people have gathered to wait for limited amounts of food.
But on Friday, March 11, the last food warehouse in the city closed, Igor said. And people have become desperate.
Some citizens have tried to buy large amounts of food that they sell to people in need. Others have turned to looting.
One video shared with Insider shows a man duct-taped to a tree in Kherson as people assault him, slapping and kicking him on his bare bottom as his pants sit around his ankles.
The man in the video, Igor said, was a security guard who got caught trying to steal food from a store nearby. People in the streets took him and tied him to the tree last week as punishment.
Insider could not independently verify this account, but an additional source told Insider that she’s heard of the tactic being used in response to accused looters across Ukraine. Igor said it is because there is no longer a police presence to respond to low-level crimes.
“There is no one to punish them,” Igor said of the accused looters. “This [punishment] is done by ordinary citizens.”
Igor said he isn’t sure how the accused thieves free themselves from the displays of vigilante justice. He hasn’t seen anyone stuck outside for longer than a day and posited that compassionate passersby eventually un-tape them from their posts, or family members come to rescue them.
But long hours trapped outside can turn dangerous in the below-freezing temperatures that are currently plaguing Kherson.
Average temperatures, both day and night, fall below freezing, Igor said, which makes standing in long lines for food that may never materialize particularly challenging.
Desperation among hungry civilians, already in full swing, is likely to intensify in the coming days. Igor estimated on Friday, March 11, 2022, that there was enough food left in the city to last one more week; perhaps only days for those who no longer have cash to spend.
Kherson’s mayor echoed Igor’s estimates, telling NBC News on March 10 that the city had only one week of food left.
Once his family’s reserves run out, Igor said he plans to visit nearby rivers to fish.
“We still have fishermen,” he said. “There are absolutely no authorities in the city, and no one forbids fishing.”
Gas and medicine have become scarce in the city, as well. Igor said he’s witnessed lines at gas stations that are hundreds of cars long. He said a taxi driver told him that he waited eight hours to get only 20 liters of gas at twice the normal cost.
In a video posted to Facebook on Sunday, Kherson’s mayor said the city is running out of gas, medications, and food.
Since the city was seized, scores of Ukrainians have taken to the streets daily to protest the Russian occupation. Earlier this month, the city’s mayor estimated that nearly 2,000 people attended a protest in Liberty Square.
Over the weekend, hundreds of demonstrators gathered to protest against rumors that Russia intends to turn the Kherson region into a breakaway republic. A senior Ukrainian official in the area said the Russians are aiming to create the People’s Republic of Kherson that’s independent from Ukraine, according to CNN.
Igor said he knows several people who have attended the public gatherings to demonstrate Ukrainian solidarity. He posited that the wide-scale protests serve a dual purpose, with Ukrainians taking to the streets in an attempt to prevent the Russians from filming propaganda in Kherson.
Igor accused the Russians of staging fake, pro-Russia demonstrations to give the impression that Ukrainian people are eager to be a part of the country currently invading them, bringing in Crimeans to act the part of grateful civilians. In 2014, Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, and continues to occupy the peninsula.
The Russians, Igor said, prominently distribute food to these alleged interlopers to try and entice Ukrainians to join them.
It puts Kherson’s residents in an impossible position. Because of the Russian presence in the city, which has Kherson occupied on all continental sides, the only way out of Ukraine for the city’s residents is to go to Russia via Crimea — a Faustian bargain that Igor said few are likely to make.
Hopes for “green corridors,” or a humanitarian path for civilian evacuees and assistance, have disappeared. The demilitarized zones are meant to offer safe passage for humanitarian assistance to enter besieged cities and for fleeing refugees to leave.
Russia has also attacked Kherson’s telecom towers, bringing the city to its knees by controlling what information is disseminated and isolating it from the rest of the world.
Igor, like many other Ukrainians, uses the messaging app Telegram — considered a more secure option than some other messaging apps — to communicate with his cousin in New York each day; a last link to the outside world.
His cousin waits anxiously for updates from her many family members stuck in the country. She told Insider she feels helpless watching the war unfold from thousands of miles away.
Burying childhood friends
Igor’s current goal, he said, is to get his family to safety, and soon; perhaps to Poland, the Czech Republic, or even the US.
He told Insider his biggest fear is losing his family.
“There is no greater fear,” he said.
Even if he can get his loved ones out, Igor said he may stay behind in Ukraine, taking care of his family’s remaining business and continuing to help others who are in need.
In the last week, the 20-year-old told Insider he’s buried seven of his friends, many of whom he’d known since childhood, but said he did not want to discuss the details of their deaths.
“I just want their sacrifices not to be in vain,” he said.
Frustrations in Kherson are growing as residents decry the lack of attention on their grim circumstances. Accounts out of the embattled Mariupol and a still-resilient Kyiv lead nightly news coverage across the globe. But reports of life in Kherson have been far more scarce.
Igor said it sometimes feels as though the world has forgotten about his city.
But while food — and hope — continue to dwindle in Kherson, the defiant Ukrainian spirit persists. The city’s mayor on Sunday said the Ukrainian flag still flies outside his city office.
“What hope can there be?” Igor said.
“We will win anyway. Nobody doubts it.”
Translations by Oleksandr Vynogradov.