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Searches, Death of Business, Interrogation by FSB, and Evacuation by Boat: Story of a Family From Temporarily Occupied Hola Prystan

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Hola Prystan is a town in southern Ukraine, located 11 kilometers from Kherson and now under temporary occupation. Locals have repeatedly shown the enemy that their town is Ukraine. They demonstrated this by carrying Ukrainian symbols and placards with patriotic slogans through the streets and demanding that the Russian military release the kidnapped residents. Meanwhile, under the guise of “liberation”, the invaders did their usual thing: looting and raiding.

Olena and her husband used to live in Hola Prystan. They had a private house there, ran a business, and were raising five children. On February 24, the family’s usual life came to an end. They had to endure searches, looting of their business, and a lengthy evacuation.

“We would stop, wait, they would fire at us, and we would continue moving.”

Olena’s two eight-year-old sons constantly need to take seizure medications. In February, they ran out of medications, so on February 23, the family’s friends from Lviv sent them medications by mail. The very next day the Russian invasion began.

“We didn’t get them and realized we had to do something. The bridge was closed then, and Kherson was fully occupied. The Russians were just shooting at the cars that were leaving. We started calling for help and our military helped us,” said Olena. 

March 14 was the date of the evacuation. The family learned where and when the meeting with Ukrainian defenders would take place two hours in advance. There was no time to think about it, so they quickly decided that mom, dad, and four children would leave the house, while the oldest son, who needed special care, would stay at home with his grandmother, as the family was not sure he would be able to physically make it.

“Three boys have cerebral palsy. The older one has very severe impairments, he doesn’t walk, has autism, screams, bites, and fights. We could carry the little ones in our arms. We could explain to them that we have to be quiet because we are running away. We packed like this: open bag, shaking hands, grabbing everything from the wardrobe. I understood that we could only take one suitcase,” said the woman.

It took the family another hour to reach their destination by car. Then they had to take a boat.

“When we came ashore, the Russian military started shelling Mykolaiv from a ship. We stood on the shore for four hours, it was terribly cold. We turned off all cell phones, we had no signal. My husband said, “That’s it, they [Ukrainian military] won’t come for us, because there is still ice on the river.” But we waited. And we saw them start cutting it through with sticks. We boarded. I asked the captain if it was safe to go because we could hear the shots right next to us. He said, “We’ll pray.” It was a short distance, but we had been driving for an hour. We would stop, wait, they would fire at us, and we would continue moving,” recalled the woman. 

“The pigs died out, and they took all the grain.”

At the time of the evacuation, Olena had no idea that very quickly the invaders would turn her hometown into a large concentration camp. Now the woman sometimes manages to get in touch with her friends and relatives who remained in Hola Prystan. At the first opportunity, the woman makes phone calls to her son. He is fine [to the extent possible], spends all his time at home or in the yard, but due to his illness he is almost unaware of what is going on around him. 

Her friends, on the other hand, told her that the town is almost out of medicine, the Russians are jamming communications, circulating their propaganda on TV, entertaining themselves with drunk shooting in the air, killing people, and dumping the bodies in landfills.

People are routinely interrogated, harassed, and their homes searched. It was only a matter of time before the invaders “visited” Olena’s home. The woman’s mother was at home that day and told her daughter everything.

“Fifteen men in balaclavas came in, making themselves at home. They came into the children’s room, started shouting that there were blue stamps there, and hurried to grab them… The jewelry was on the bedside table, they were shoveling everything into their pockets. They went into the dressing room, there were personal things, drawers with underwear. They say they brought us a better life, they want to liberate us. And then they come out with their pockets full. It’s so nasty and disgusting,” said the woman.

The family was also left without their business, a pig farm. Before Russians arrived, the family’s business was doing well:

“We provided pork for the entire southern region. We had 42,000 sows. Two sites: one with the sows, the other with growing pigs. The pigs died out. There were people who took care of them, but they [the Russians] took all the grain, fodder, equipment, and cars,” said Olena. 

“They checked in their databases if my face was seen at rallies.”

Olena’s brother Oleksiy also managed to get out of the temporarily occupied Kherson Region. On April 7, together with his friends, he had to cross the checkpoint in Chaplynka, on the border with the occupied Crimea.

“They didn’t want to go through Ukraine because they were being shelled and they had children. It was ethically difficult because of Crimea, but it was a less dangerous option. We stood in line for 10 hours at first at the border with Crimea. There weren’t many cars, but they were held for 2-3 hours at a time. They did thorough searches with dogs, metal detectors, they checked under the car, everything had to be opened and pulled out”, said Oleksiy.

After a 10-hour line at the border, Oleksiy was interrogated by FSB officers. He said that they were most interested in his participation in pro-Ukrainian rallies.  

“Where they interrogated me, there were three of them. A small booth of six square meters, two rooms. They were designed to lead me to say that I was pro-Ukrainian. My speech was abstract, that I was for peace and all that. I knew it was better not to talk about my stance. They were checking their databases to see if my face was in the square, at the rallies. Now they have cameras in the squares that can remember and recognize your face,” added Oleksiy. 

Oleksiy said that some Ukrainians who, according to Russians, have not passed this stage end up in filtration camps, where they have to go through humiliating procedures and harassment. 

After the interrogation, they took his phone away and looked at it. “They hadn’t seen two SIM cards on an iPhone, they were surprised,” Oleksiy said. The FSB officer then started calling someone, went outside, and returned telling Oleksiy that he was “clean”. 

Now Oleksiy and Olena’s eldest daughter work in a rehabilitation center in Lviv. Olena, her husband, and three children are abroad. Despite the difficulties, the family is sincerely confident that the Kherson military offensive will succeed and they will very soon be able to embrace their relatives on liberated Ukrainian territory.

Maryana Sych

This article was created by Bihus.Info as part of the project “EU Urgent Support for Civil Society” implemented by ISAR Ednannia with the financial support of the European Union. The content of the article is the sole responsibility of Bihus.Info and does not necessarily reflect the position of the European Union.

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