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Quiet Terror and Grads in the Back: Life in the Occupied Tokmak

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The invaders entered Tokmak, Zaporizhzhia Oblast, during the first days of the invasion. Despite fierce fighting, the town came under the temporary control of the Russians, who immediately began to establish their “order” here: persecution, torture, confinement in detention centers, and extortion of money at checkpoints. We were able to talk to two local activists who, having survived Russian terror, are now finally in relative safety.

“No one understood how to behave”

On February 26, columns of Russian vehicles moved into Tokmak, a process that was accompanied by artillery shelling and airstrikes. There was no electricity, water, gas, or communications in the city, so the locals were left in an information vacuum.

“We didn’t expect it to happen so quickly at all. No one understood how to behave or what to do now. For the first 5 days, the city was paralyzed and dead,” said a local activist (we can’t give her name). “Everyone stayed at home, just waiting for something. Mostly for information of some kind. Is Tokmak now part of Russia or will there be more fights? We only heard loud noises, people were afraid. Everything was closed, but no one had made any stockpiles. It became clear that we were left without food, hygiene products, medicine.”

On March 1, Oleksandr Starukh, head of the Zaporizhzhia Military Administration reported that vehicles are moving through the city, and the invaders have assumed positions in the fields, on farms, and in the forests. But the struggle for the city continued. Volodymyr Kharlov, deputy mayor of the city, stated the following at the time:

“There is very serious fighting in the city. There were fatalities among both our military and Russians, as well as civilians. There were airstrikes, tank battles, artillery, and so on.

For the 4th day, there are problems with electricity, no cell phone signal, and Internet. The city is encircled by the invading troops”.


Source: State Emergency Service of Ukraine in Zaporizhzhia Oblast

“Fighting was going on in the outskirts of the city, private houses were destroyed. Our soldiers were few at the time, almost all of them were killed. For the Russian military, Tokmak was a transit point to move to Orikhiv, Berdyansk, and Mariupol and consolidate further. After [February] 26th, the Ukrainian military was able to conduct a counteroffensive operation and drive them back, it was a difficult few days,” says our second interviewee, “The city was being bombed, but they managed to somewhat dislodge the Russians. On the next day, there was a vacuum – there weren’t any Russian soldiers. There was a feeling that a turning point had occurred, but the next day they entered the city again from the direction of Melitopol. Representatives of Russia occupied the city, and a ‘deep’ occupation began,” the man said.

Our interviewees said that the Russians first went about their business, so they paid no attention to the rallies, the pro-Ukrainian position, or politics. But it didn’t last that long. As soon as the administration and power were seized, the next stage began – the “mopping up” of those who could interfere with Russia’s plans. First of all, these were activists, journalists, politicians, and bloggers. Staying in the city was not safe, but leaving the city was no easy task either.

They let us through and said “Have a safe trip!” and then shelled us with Grads.

There was no organized evacuation from the city at first, but people could join the car convoys that drove through the city, for example, from Mariupol.

“Three weeks after the cessation of active hostilities, it became clear that the first opportunity to leave the city appeared. At that time only Russian units that did not yet have information about activists, politicians, and active people were in the city,” says the activist.

The man was able to leave for Zaporizhzhia. Our second interviewee also left, but her journey to Zaporizhzhia was no less dangerous than her life under the occupation. The woman said she came under fire from the Russians, the same ones that were letting people through:

“When we were leaving, we got caught in a wave of people released from Mariupol. They were traveling in one column, through Tokmak, and we joined them. It seemed safe, but near Hryhorivka [Zaporizhzhia Oblast] we were shelled. It is terrible when they say “Have a safe trip! ” at the checkpoint, and then you get shelled with Grads.”

This shelling resulted in deaths and injuries, including children. Our interviewee was lucky to reach Zaporizhzhia unharmed.

Source: Ministry of Defence of Ukraine

Source: Photo made by Head of Zaporizhzhia Military Administration Oleksandr Starukh

At present, the invaders do not allow men and people of certain professions (e.g., doctors) to leave. For the rest, leaving the city has also become a difficult task. The Russians demand money or other payment for leaving: alcohol, food, clothes. In Melitopol, for example, there were recorded cases where they demanded up to 5,000 hryvnias ($160), which due to the lack of work and the extremely difficult conditions is an unaffordable sum for the locals.

Quiet Terror

The city remains under the control of the invaders. Most activists, journalists, bloggers, politicians, and just pro-Ukrainian locals have escaped, but a significant number of people have remained in the city, not because of their loyalty to Russia, but simply because they are afraid to leave their homes or simply because they had no such opportunity. These people cannot live their usual lives now, nor can they express their position, nor can they gather for peaceful rallies.

“You can’t take part in a rally anymore, they’ll put a bag over your head and take you to the police station. Or they come to your home in the evening and take you away. They have firmly “settled in” and are continuing their terror. First, they form lists of active people, entrepreneurs, journalists, bloggers, etc. Those who remain are subjected to torture. For example, one activist, he has been kept in pre-trial detention for more than a month and tortured in every way,” says an activist.

Regardless, local residents remain hopeful that Tokmak will be freed sooner than later.

Source: Tetiana Syvokon

 

Veronika Khorolska

 

This article was produced by Bihus.Info as part of the program “Supporting Ukraine’s Regional Media in Times of War” with the financial support of the European Union and the Foreign Ministry of the Kingdom of Norway. The content is the sole responsibility of Bihus.Info and does not reflect the views of the European Union, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

 

On the evening of June 1, the Russians once again shelled the Lviv Oblast. The missile strike damaged a bridge and a tunnel in the mountainous part of the region. Journalists spoke with eyewitnesses about the events of that day, as well as with an expert, to understand why it is not the first time that railroad facilities in the Lviv Oblast have been targeted by the enemy.

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