Berdyansk: Life Under Russian Occupation

The coastal city would be preparing for the tourist season. Instead, there is little food, fuel or heat, and you can be killed for refusing to give a soldier your phone.

Berdyansk: Life Under Russian Occupation

The coastal city would be preparing for the tourist season. Instead, there is little food, fuel or heat, and you can be killed for refusing to give a soldier your phone.

Explosion of a Russian warship in Berdyansk.
Explosion of a Russian warship in Berdyansk.
Friday, 8 April, 2022

On February 24, Russia attacked Ukrainian cities with missiles, launching dozens of strikes, including on a military unit in the southern Ukrainian port city of Berdyansk. The first rockets killed two Ukrainian soldiers and wounded six.

Berdyansk, with a population of 110,000, is located on the coast of the Sea of Azov and lies between the Russian-controlled areas of Donbass and Crimea, occupied since 2014. Russia has long wanted to create a land corridor between these territories in order to improve the supply of goods and troops. That is why Russian soldiers were very quick to appear in Berdyansk.

On February 27, the occupying troops entered the city. Residents hid in apartments and houses, cautiously watching from the windows as armoured personnel carriers and the armed infantry that accompanied them move through the streets. The Russian military combed the whole city in search of Ukrainian soldiers and provisions. They were very hungry. Some went into the yards of civilians and asked for food, but they were not welcome. Doors were either not opened at all, or people refused.

There have never been any of the Nazis or fascists which Russian propaganda talks about in Berdyansk. If not for the war, the city's residents would be busy preparing for the upcoming tourist season. In peacetime, the inhabitants of Berdyansk considered their only enemies to be the jellyfish and mosquitoes that scare away holidaymakers. And now the Russians can kill a Ukrainian for refusing to give them his phone so that they can call home. Such an incident occurred on the very first day of the occupation.

"Russians have brute force on their side."

The first thing the Russians did after capturing the city was to occupy the TV tower and turn off all broadcasts. On the same day, the local Point internet provider stopped working. To access objective information and not be left in an information vacuum, residents turned en masse to a 4G mobile operator. Prices for starter packages for this service jumped from 80-90 to 500-1000 hryvnias (from 2.5-3 to 16-31 US dollars).

The inscription "Children" on the car of a resident of Mariupol, who stopped in Berdyansk.

In the first days after the Russians captured the city, bread disappeared from Berdyansk. Due to problems with the gas supply and lack of flour and yeast, bakeries reduced their output. Around 20 or 30 rolls were brought into the stores, which was far from enough for everyone. A few days after the occupation, 30 tonnes of flour for the bakery were delivered to the city. Now the townspeople are promised bread, and even at the old, pre-war price.

Other products began to run out rapidly due to the occupation, and prices for scarce goods increased significantly. So sugar, which in peacetime cost an average of 28 hryvnias, is now sold for 100-150 hryvnias (from one to 3.5 dollars). Even at such prices, is difficult to find sugar and you will have to stand in a line of several hundred people. Also in short supply: salt, flour, yeast, cereals, pasta, medicines, petrol, cigarettes, nappies, sanitary products and more.

Humanitarian aid from Russia, which locals initially staunchly refused, is increasingly in demand. To support the needy, Russians prepare hot meals located in kindergartens where about 7,000 people can eat daily.

Shops are refusing to accept payment cards and almost all ATMs do not work. Huge queues line up in front of those three or four that are still giving out cash. Withdrawal amounts are limited. It is better to get in the queue in the early morning, at 4 or 5 am. In order not to get confused, people write their numbers in line on their hands. Those who arrive around 9am can count on being 500th in line.

The banks announced they would stop working next week. The Russians say that soon the hryvnia in the city will be replaced by the Russian rouble.

On March 4, the Russians introduced a 7pm to 4am curfew in the city.

To solve the city’s everyday problems, employees of the Ukrainian executive committee of the local council created an operational headquarters. At first, this was located in the building of the local administration. But the Russian military drove out the local government, occupied the main building themselves and posted guards in front of it. The Russians also seized the buildings of the prosecutor's office, police, border guards, television companies and many others. Local officials are forced to work from the building of the children's art centre.

The Russians appointed a little-known local collaborator as head of the city. Now he publishes his messages on the Berdyansk ZaVtra (Berdyansk Tomorrow) Telegram channel, which has 295 subscribers. Ukrainian officials write in the Berdyansk Seychas (Berdyansk Now) Telegram channel, with 45,178 subscribers.

But Russians have brute force on their side.

In the 16th century, Berdyansk was an outpost of the Ukrainian Cossacks. Not surprisingly, many residents remain Ukrainian patriots even under occupation. The most activist residents of openly expressed their pro-Ukrainian position in the early days. Every day they went to the central square with Ukrainian flags and chanted, “Berdyansk is Ukraine!” “Home!” and “Russian warship, go fuck yourself!”

But soon the Russians began to detain the most vocal people and take them away to an unknown destination. The occupiers led someone out of the cafe at gunpoint in the middle of the day; they came straight to other peoples’ homes.

After several days of silence, video messages were released from those abducted, stating that they had no problems with the Russian authorities and asking others to stop holding patriotic protests. In mid-March, after another purge of activists, the rallies ceased.

Since March 17, Berdyansk has become a filter city for the inhabitants of Mariupol, which has been besieged and almost destroyed by the Russians. People who were lucky enough to get out have to make a difficult choice in Berdyansk: to try to move further into the territory controlled by Ukraine, or remain in occupation.

In the first days, about 6,000 people arrived in Berdyansk from Mariupol. Most have moved on to the Ukrainian-controlled territories, but some remain in the city or are trying to leave for Russia or other Russian-occupied regions.

Mariupol residents told locals in Berdyansk about the horrors of life under blockade: about many days of living in basements, about hunger and death, about corpses on the streets, about escaping the city by car and on foot with babies in their arms.

These terrible stories made many Berdyansk residents reconsider whether to remain under occupation, and many decided to leave their homes, just to get away from the Russians.

The morning of March 24 provided a ray of hope. On this day, a Ukrainian missile hit Russian warships in the Berdyansk port. This means that the Ukrainians had not forgotten about their citizens in the southern city, who are still waiting for liberation from their supposed Russian liberators.

The author is a Berdyansk resident who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

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