Saturday, June 25, 2022

Zombie cars, stolen bread and special passes to get around – life under Russian occupation

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From “zombie cars” peddling Russian propaganda to special passports needed to leave your home, the reality of life under Russian occupation

From stealing bread from starving Ukrainians to being banned from leaving home without a “special pass,” life in Russian-occupied Ukraine has proven to be a test.

Many have had to pass through “filtration centers” where Russian officials try to identify people linked to the former ruling organizations.

I has collected testimonies of what life was like for Ukrainians living in the Russian-occupied territories in the south and east, where Russia’s “special military campaign” is concentrated.

Oleksandr, 29, and a teacher from Mariupol whose real name has been changed for his safety, tells I how he lived with his aunt and mother in a block of flats just a kilometer from the Azovstal plant – the last bastion of resistance in the Black Sea city until it was forced to surrender to Russia on May 17.

Before the war began on February 24, he considered himself a “great patriot. I believed that nobody could fight and bomb Mariupol.” But a few weeks into the invasion, he began hearing about Ukrainians stealing from their neighbors. “I realized that the situation was not good,” said Oleksandr by the interpreter Maiia Habruk.

On a day in mid-March, when fighting was still raging between Ukrainians and Russians, the history teacher described how he was walking with two other men when they saw a young man, a civilian, lying in a pool of blood.

“It was a Separatist sniper on a roof shooting at him, we tried to save him but the sniper started shooting again so we had to flee.

“The man died when he was shot again and nobody could help him,” Oleksandr said.

Oleksandr, who had to go through a filtration camp while fleeing Mariupol late last month, said he housed Chechen troops in his building until April 25. That meant his building wasn’t hit while his neighborhood was bombed.

Oleksandr, who also teaches law and public education, said the Chechens kept claiming they “saved” the building’s occupants by giving them food. But when Oleskandr checked the food, it had a Ukrainian label, suggesting the troops had stolen it.

Discussing what he, his 54-year-old mother and 65-year-old aunt survived from under the occupation, Oleksandr said there have been two rounds of humanitarian aid, one once a month and the other every two weeks, though Oleskandr said , he rarely saw the latter.

The monthly relief package, for which up to 3,000 people would queue and for which Oleskandr once stood in line from 3 a.m. until the next day, included five liters of water, two kilograms of pasta, a bottle of vegetable oil, two glasses of condensed milk, two chicken stews , four cans of canned fish, a jar of pork stew, a jar of beef stew, buckwheat porridge with beef, a kg of rice and a kg of oatmeal.

“We don’t leave our own,” were the words of the Russian armed forces printed on the food parcels being distributed to residents by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, while a “Z” in the shape of a St George’s ribbon marked the packaging held together.

“Russian propagandists turned us into dogs trying to survive. Because they wanted to tame us and force us to do what they wanted. To live on their propaganda and always wait for humanitarian aid and survive, look for water and food,” said Oleksandr, whose mother and aunt decided to stay in Mariupol.

Mayor, Deputy Mayor, Sergei Orlov recently shared footage I of hungry people running for one of the 100-200 food packages available. “Residents are forced to fight for Russian humanitarian aid due to lack of another food source,” he said.

The deputy mayor explained the process by which people can get the help, which means signing up before queuing. Then they have to be among the first 200 “lucky ones” to get the item, which is “not of very good quality” and will spoil without a refrigerator. After two or three days, people have to repeat the process for more food.

Oleksandr, who enjoyed participating in archaeological expeditions before the war, said that under the occupation, Mariupol turned into a city full of checkpoints that required a “special pass” to do everything.

The 29-year-old said the ID cards, which included a name, address and passport number, were issued by separatist forces in a designated building and were a way of conducting a census of the remaining population, which is down from a pre-war figure of nearly 500,000 to 150,000.

According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHRPG), people are also being forced to have a stamp in their passport proving they have passed through a filtration camp where their phones, personal belongings and tattoos will be checked for belonging to the Ukrainian army . “The fate of those deemed ‘unreliable’ is still unclear, but Russia has already killed several people kidnapped by the invaders, so there is clearly cause for concern,” the organization reports.

According to quoted by Kyiv independent, 50,000 people were forcibly evicted from Mariupol and taken to Russia or to the Russian-occupied territories in Donetsk.

Oleksandr said he was not forced to go to a filtration camp but was told it was the only way for him to leave the besieged city. Upon his arrival at the filtration camp, he was interrogated by the Russian military for an hour and a half, during which he was asked about his political stance and whether his friends and relatives belonged to Ukrainian authorities. He said he held a neutral position in politics and denied having any acquaintances in the army or police.

Oleksandr went on to describe how Russians drove so-called “zombie cars” around the city while showing Russian state news on big screens, mainly the Kremlin’s own Channel One. He said newspapers Komsomolskaya Pravda and Republic of Donetsk were also distributed among Mariupol residents by specially appointed volunteers from two groups, the Volunteer Company and the Young Guard, wearing blue and red shirts respectively.

The report comes amid reports of Russians seizing Ukrainian documents and replacing them with Russian ones, while Kremlin-led forces seek to “Russify” their smaller neighbor.

Late last month, it was reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree aimed at simplifying the process for Ukrainians in occupied Kherson and Zaporizhia to obtain Russian passports.

The Ukrainian government has described the move as a “gross violation” of its sovereignty, and an official website set up to encourage resistance in the occupied regions has called for reprisals to stop the work of immigration officials helping to implement it be sent to the passport policy.

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