The police station in Beryslav district occupies an unassuming building in a quiet rural area, surrounded by farmers working wheat fields and tending grapes and tulips at home.
But for months, officers here have been on the front lines of Russian occupation. Beryslav district is a small corner of Ukrainian controlled territory at the northern tip of Kherson Oblast, most of which fell under Russian occupation at the beginning of March.
Thousands of people have since fled. Some have stopped at the Beryslav police station, where officers have opened war-crimes cases based on what they have heard. Among the most recent was a farmer who described soldiers stealing his jewellery and nearly $7,000 in cash.
“He was beaten and tortured,” said Captain Mykola Marinik, who is deputy head of investigations in the district.
“They are terrorizing people in different ways,” said Capt. Marinik. “Extorting people. Holding them in basements. Taking their property. These crimes are continuous.”
His office alone has opened more than 200 war-crimes-related cases, although some are from the two weeks when Beryslav district was itself occupied. Two women reported being raped during that time, one 16, one in her 80s.
For those living under occupation, there is “an absence of any basic rights,” Capt. Marinik said. “Rights belong to the person holding a gun. People have no ability to protect their freedoms, their property or their own lives.”
Three months into their invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces have been beaten back from Kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. But they have seen success elsewhere, expanding Moscow’s grip along the shores of the Black and Azov Seas. Russia now controls a 500-kilometre-wide swath of coast from Kherson to the Russian border, an area once home to nearly two million Ukrainians.
Many of those people have left or been killed since the war began Feb. 24, with an estimated 20,000 dead in Mariupol alone. But the war has nonetheless brought large numbers of Ukrainians into Russia’s domain. On Wednesday, Vladimir Putin offered a simplified path to citizenship for many of those people, a further sign of the Russian President’s determination to bring the region under his control.
Moscow says it has brought humanitarian aid to the region, freedom from nationalist Ukrainian language laws and a new invitation to profit from Russia’s markets and banks.
Russia has sought to assert control with orders to raise its flag, remove the Ukrainian trident from licence plates, circulate the ruble and connect the region to Russian media space, rerouting internet data through Russia and broadcasting Russian radio and television. Russian authorities have repeatedly pledged to hold referendums that, they say, would prove local support for joining with Moscow.
No votes have taken place, however, and the occupation has been met with continued resistance. This week, an explosion injured the Kremlin-appointed mayor of Enerhodar, the city that operates the biggest nuclear power station in Europe.
Yet life in occupied territory has nonetheless transformed at a rapid pace. Those seen to harbour pro-Ukrainian sentiment have been arrested, interrogated, subjected to mock executions and barred from leaving. Soldiers at checkpoints assert the right to force men and women alike to disrobe, searching for tattoos that might indicate allegiance to Ukraine.
For residents, life under occupation has brought new shortages and anxieties.
In Kherson, “we had nice supermarkets. We had nice malls,” said Anzhelika Melnyk, a school principal. Now, travelling peddlers have appeared, opening car trunks to sell products that have grown difficult to find in stores, including pharmaceuticals, cigarettes and Coca-Cola.
“Everything has gone back to the chaos of the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed,” Ms. Melnyk said. “We had forgotten what that was like.”
Fears of surveillance have driven people to dig old analogue mobile phones out of drawers, leave handwritten notes to neighbours and bury documents in backyards. Ms. Melnyk took steps to make her school’s records impossible to find, in hopes that would frustrate any Russian attempt to take command. To forestall that possibility, the Kherson school system officially closed on April 30, although Ms. Melnyk and other teachers have continued with online classes to ensure students can meet Ukrainian curriculum requirements.
So many have sought to leave that a single convoy travelling north to the city of Kryvyi Rih included 1,500 vehicles. A Ukraine military reconnaissance team told The Globe and Mail that Russian forces have synchronized equipment movements with evacuations, using fleeing civilians as shields.
More recently, soldiers have blocked two major exit points from Kherson Oblast. People have responded by pursuing riskier escape routes, swimming across rivers and walking through fields studded with landmines and strafed by Russian guns. Namig Alibalayev, a shopkeeper in Beryslav district, met one man who limped past, his foot injured by a bullet. The man said he had walked from 25 kilometres away.
Enerhodar was among the first places in Ukraine to come under Russian occupation. Maxim Shcherbina helped organize a blockade installed by residents to slow the advance of Russian troops. The soldiers broke through with heavy armour.
Soon after, they came looking for Mr. Shcherbina at the local hospital, where he worked as an engineer. In an interview, he recounted what happened. After ordering his boss at gunpoint to summon him, the soldiers interrogated him and told him he would be shot – only for that execution to be stayed by a soldier who worried local residents might witness it.
Mr. Shcherbina was then driven at gunpoint into a forest, where masked men shot bullets over his head and brandished a knife, threatening to slice off his ear. He was placed in the trunk of a car and told he would be burned inside. When that didn’t produce the answers the soldiers sought, they put a pistol on the ground, urging him to pick it up “so we can kill you with dignity.”
“It was not a game, because they had Kalashnikovs,” Mr. Shcherbina said. He was eventually set free, and escaped Enerhodar.
Others have been less fortunate. The city’s elected mayor, Dmytro Orlov, who has lived in exile for more than three weeks, estimates that nearly 50 people are being held in captivity. Among the missing is his deputy.
A pro-Russian Enerhodar channel has been created on the Telegram chat app. Recent updates include the banishment from the library of books about the 2014 Euromaidan protests and a false claim that U.S. and British generals were captured in the fall of Mariupol.
The channel has carried recruitments ads for Russian military academies and declarations of loyalty from local residents, some holding Soviet-era flags. One came from a family that had previously suggested in a social-media video that rockets should rain down on Russian troops. On the Telegram channel, the family posted a new video speaking out against the “criminal regime in Kyiv.”
They end the video: “Hurrah, comrades.”
Russian leaders have pledged to extend their rule across Ukraine. “All of the goals set by the President of Russia must be met,” Nikolai Patrushev, the influential secretary of the Kremlin’s Security Council, said in an interview published Tuesday by the state-owned Argumenty i Fakty newspaper.
Russia has declared its invasion of Ukraine is in service of eliminating Nazis, and “either Nazism is 100-per-cent eradicated, or it will raise its head in a few years in even more ugly form,” Mr. Patrushev said.
In Ukraine, the troops determined to frustrate those ambitions say they remain confident they can take back occupied territory. But they also say they are bracing for new attempts by Russia to expand the area under its control.
On the front lines separating Beryslav district from occupied Kherson this week, Ukrainian soldiers watched over weaponry aimed at the spot on the horizon where they knew Russian troops were in position. Exchanges of artillery here happen nearly daily, but for the moment the only sound was the wind in the leaves.
“It’s not a good quiet. It’s not a peaceful quiet. It’s a tense quiet,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Mikola Ishchenko, deputy commander of the battalion stationed here.
“This area is waiting for a hard battle to come, in my opinion.”
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