By FRANCESCA EBEL and YURAS KARMANAU
LVIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ever since Russian forces took the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson in early March, residents sensed the occupiers had a special plan for their town. Now, amid a crescendo of warnings from Ukraine that Russia plans to stage a sham referendum to transform the territory into a pro-Moscow “people’s republic,” it appears locals guessed right.
After Russian forces withdrew from occupied areas around Kyiv in early April, they left behind scenes of horror and traumatized communities. But in Kherson — a large city with a major ship-building industry, located at the confluence of the Dnieper River and the Black Sea near Russian-annexed Crimea — the occupying forces have taken a different tack.
“The soldiers patrol and walk around silently. They don’t shoot people in the streets,” said Olga, a local teacher, in a telephone interview last month after the region was sealed off by Russian forces. “They are trying to give the impression that they come in peace to liberate us from something.”
“It is a little scary,” said 63-year-old Alexander, who like other residents gave only his first name for fear of reprisals. “But there is no panic, people are helping each other. There is a very small minority of people who are happy that it is under Russian control, but mostly, nobody wants Kherson to become a part of Russia.”
While the city has so far been spared the atrocities committed elsewhere, daily life is far from normal. After Russia occupied Kherson and the surrounding region, all access was cut off. Kherson now suffers from a severe shortage of medicine, cash, dairy and other food products, and Ukrainian officials warn the region could face a “humanitarian catastrophe.”
Russia has blocked all humanitarian assistance except its own, which troops deliver before Russian state TV cameras, and which many residents refuse to accept. With no cash deliveries to Kherson’s banks, the circulation of Ukraine’s hryvnia currency is dwindling, and damaged communication networks mean credit card payments often fail to go through. Access to Ukrainian TV has been blocked and replaced by Russian state channels. A strict curfew has been imposed.