The voices of occupation is a series of stories from people who lived under occupation and managed to get out. This is a story about Illia, a grad student in philosophy, a photographer, and a tattoo artist. He managed to evacuate from temporarily occupied Izium by coming up with a story about a pregnant girlfriend.
Izium, Slobozhanshchyna, is located on the highway of international importance that connects Kharkiv with Slovyansk, Bakhmut and other settlements of Donechchyna. That it is why it is sometimes called the “Key to Donbas”. In late-February, soon after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, the battle for the city began. Izium, where almost 50 thousand people lived before the war, was almost flattened. The city is occupied by Russians since early-April and the fighting for this region still continues. During this time, the locals desperately try to leave the city — through minefields, by swimming, by foot or any other means.
Illia was born in Izium and lived in Kyiv for the last six years, where he studied and worked. He has dedicated his life to scientific, educational and cultural work. At the end of 2021, together with his girlfriend, he went to his parents in Izium. There, they were caught by a full-scale invasion and ended up under occupation. “We were a little late!” — the man said. But the family managed to evacuate, they returned to the capital on May 5, 2022.
The beginning of the war in Izium
On the night of February 24, Ilya talked for a long time with his friend from Kharkiv. At 5 o’clock in the morning, she reported that Russians begun to shell her town, and fighting was already underway on the district road. At first, the man did not believe this, but around 6 o’clock the first official statements about the full-scale invasion of Russia in Ukraine appeared.
— On February 23, right in the center of Izium, we talked about the possibility of a major conventional war (in Europe. — ed.), which has not happened since the Yugoslav conflict (since the end of the 20th century, most conflicts have had a hybrid nature. — ed.). We were very skeptical about this. We assumed that it could happen, that it was necessary to prepare for it, but we wanted to assure ourselves that it was impossible.
Conventional (traditional) warIt’s the type of war that is waged with the use of conventional weapons and military tactics between two or more states in open confrontation.
During the first days of the invasion, nothing happenned in Izium. The city “died out”, Illia says. Shops, petrol stations, ATMs did not work.
— Nothing happens and you can’t figure out what you should do.
On February 28, the Russian Army shelled the city for the first time. At the beginning of March, a FAB-500 (500-kilogram aerial bomb. — ed.) which did not explode, fell on the street next to the one where Illia lived. Izium is divided in half by the Siverskyi Donets River. At that time, on the northern part of the river, Russian troops were already standing facing Kharkiv.
— There was one road with which to make an exit — in the direction of Kramatorsk (to the south. — ed.). About a day after our discussions about leaving, the bridges were blown up, and from the northern part of the city where we lived, there was no possibility to leave. Or maybe we did not know any. I mean, we wanted to leave in the first week, but because the bridges were blown up, we were late.
Since March 4, the situation became more difficult as the gas supply was turned off amid enemy shelling. Then, two days later, electricity and internet were also turned off. The city was cut off from everything. On March 10, Illia saw the Russian tricolor flag under his window. By then, the occupiers had already entered the city from the north. Active fighting began for another part of Izium, the man said. Fighting in the city continued until the end of March. On April 1, the city came under the temporary control of the Russian occupiers.
Life under occupation
Oleksiy Danilov, the Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) of Ukraine said in July that the largest number of Russian rockets, among all Ukrainian cities, was fired at Izium. Maksym Strelnyk, a member of the Izium City Council said that as of May 25, more than 80% of the residential infrastructure in the city has been destroyed.
During the first month and a half of the full-scale war, no humanitarian aid was delivered to the city. The enemy insidiously shelled the road to Sloviansk, and the road from Kharkiv was controlled by the occupiers. It was not possible to deliver food and medicines, as well as to take people out in an organized manner. However, Illia’s family, fortunately, had more than a month’s reserve of food.
— People who were under constant shelling, whose houses were destroyed, lived in great hardship. They survived on preserved foods or what they found in abandoned apartments. They looked for food wherever they could, not for looting or resale, but for survival.
Later, people started to bring some products from temporarily occupied Kupiansk or Russia, but those products were of low quality. These were probably goods from humanitarian aid (cereals, milk, canned goods), Illia believes.
There was no shelter available near Illia’s house. Due to the ground water in the area being high, it was impossible to make any evacuations to basements or bomb shelters. The whole time the family was in Izium, they hid in their own house. During periods of shelling, they hid in a corridor behind two walls. “We decided it was better than nothing,” the man says.
During the occupation, funny leaflets began to appear in the city, stylistically quite superficial — random fonts and drawings were highlighted, Illia describes. Later, the occupiers began to publish Russian newspapers in Izium and tried to launch their radio broadcast. The man listened to it for three days, but then the signal disappeared.
— There were no communication operators. And as far as I know, there is still no coverage, no communication, no Internet. In order to make a call, people go either to the Kremianets Mountain in Izium, or they go outside the city for 30-35 kilometers. There, they have already calculated the places where the connection catches.
During April, electricity appeared only two or three times. There was no water or gas. Over time, it became somewhat easier, because there were no longer sub-zero temperatures. Back then, you didn’t need firewood to heat your home.
As of July 25, they tried to restore the electricity supply in Izium, but they did not succeed. Electricity appeared at best for two or three hours a day. According to Izium Mayor Valery Marchenko, there is no gas in the city and Izium will be without heating in the next heating season.
Imprisonment for a tattoo with Ukrainian content
In late-March, Illia saw the destroyed column of Russian occupiers. Then he decided to go out from the house with his father to see what is happening in the city.
— During the first three weeks of the active war phase, I stayed at home and didn’t even know whether Ukraine still existed. You don’t have any information so you decide to go out to find out what is happening and to find out the extent of damage to the city.
Almost in the center of Izium, the men were stopped at a checkpoint. The Russian military interrogated them for a long time asking them: who are you, where are you going, are you in the military, do you have any tattoos? That is why the occupiers undressed Illia – they saw a drawing on his body:
— It was hard for them to identify my tattoo, they understood only a part of it. But if you have a tattoo with Ukrainian content, you will be sent to jail. I know of one case, when a man was imprisoned just because his tattoo was in the Ukrainian language.
During the interrogation, the soldiers took Illia’s mobile phone. However, they checked only messages and Viber and didn’t find anything that could be used as a reason for imprisonment:
— I explain this by the fact that they do not know how to use technology, that they simply did not look because of their inability. But this information could be a reason for my imprisonment.
“It’s our fault,” the monk-collaborator said
Before the full-scale war Illia met the monk of a men’s monastery dedicated to the Pisky’s icon of the Holy Mother which belongs to the Moscow Patriarchate. At the end of January, the man came to that area to take pictures. There they met and talked about all sorts of things. Then the conversation turned to Russia’s military aggression. Illia asked the monk how the church feels about the war on the east of Ukraine. He replied that they do not comment on this situation: “The war and the church are separate things.”
The next time they met at the end of March, after the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. There is a well on the territory of the monastery, Illia came there to collect drinking water. There was a constant guard: 3-5 Russian soldiers and a medic. The monk saw Illia and was very surprised why he stayed here and said: “If you need something, come, I’ll help.”
— On Palm Sunday, I came to him because I tried to find food for my dog. It was a critical situation as our dog refused to eat everything we had. I came to the monk because there were rumors that Russian volunteers were bringing humanitarian aid for animals as well. He said he would find it.
The monk did help. However, Illia had interesting questions for him. The man asked the monk if he could comment on current events in Ukraine.
— At first the monk was a little confused, and then he said: “It’s our fault”. And he asked me the same question. I looked at the soldiers around us and thought that I wouldn’t answer. I thought that he already knows who I am studying for and what my position is. That is, the church, as usual, lied.
The legend for departure
In early April, some people started to bring food to Izium from the territory controlled by Ukraine. From these people, the family found out the best route for evacuation — the road to Kyiv. On April 30, they decided to leave the city. Illia managed to get a Ukrainian radio, so he could find out actual information from time to time. It motivated the family to leave.
At first, the route went from Izium to Balaklia. The roadtrip took around five hours. At the first settlement’s checkpoint there were quite strict inspections and interrogations by the occupiers, Illia recalls.
— I took several laptops, a camera and tattoo equipment with me. And I thought they would be more interested in the camera, but no. They were interested in the tattoo equipment with the words: “It’s not only that you’re ruining your skin, you’re also ruining someone else’s.”
Balaklia (occupied since March — ed.), was the most difficult place for the family, because the Russian soldiers did not let the family go. It was possible to enter the city only with a local residence permit or if you know someone there:
— We didn’t meet any of the requirements. We made up the legend that my girlfriend is in her sixth month of pregnancy and we need to reach the hospital. In order to get into the city, we remembered a person who lived with my girlfriend in the basement. She was registered in Balaklia. The girlfriend named the person’s address. The Russians took the documents, got into the car and said that they would accompany us. We understood that the situation is a bit of a stalemate. We didn’t know where to go, so we went to the city to ask the locals.
The occupiers saw that such a street really existed, the family was let go, and they returned to the first checkpoint. During the conversation, the military realized that some of the evidence did not match the legend.
— I spent about half an hour at the checkpoint, speaking with them about it. Finally, they gave us a document and told us not to stop during the drive through the city. I don’t know why this happened, because before that, no humanity was observed in them.
On the first day, the family stopped in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Pervomaiskyi (90 km from Izium), where they were met, fed and provided with everything they needed. They spent the night there, and the next day they went to Kyiv.
From that time until now, Izium has been periodically shelled. Humanitarian aid is given only to people who cannot work. And there is only one job — clearing rubble after shelling. At first, the occupiers distributed aid to everyone, now only to socially vulnerable persons, says Illia. Prices in stores are rising, the ruble to hryvnia exchange rate is 1:1.
— The shops are focused not on the locals, but on the soldiers with money. In order to get cash from cards, people go to Svatove, the commission is from 15% to 30% of the amount.
For some, the most terrifying and difficult thing in the occupation is hearing planes and missiles flying above, but for Illia, it is the lack of information:
— You don’t understand whether you need to do something or not. Does Ukraine still exist or not? You lose the information connection with reality.
For those who still live under the occupation, Illia advises minimizing communication with the occupiers and avoid walking on the streets during curfew. “This will save lives in most cases,” he says. Although Illia himself did not have the opportunity to do anything due to the lack of communication and the Internet, he advises others to help others, to volunteer if possible:
— When you do something, you show your own will and choice. You are not a spineless slug. You understand that you can influence something.
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