After 48 days under Russian occupation, they were so used to seeing enemy soldiers on every street corner that they thought the first Ukrainian checkpoint out of Kherson could be a trap. Arriving in a long column of cars, filled mostly with women, babies and pets, Oksana Borisova and Alisa Poliakova (who are speaking under pseudonyms to protect their families still living in occupied territory), didn’t dare trust that they were safe.
For weeks, Russian soldiers had stalked them around the southern Ukrainian city in Z-marked vehicles, destroyed their livelihoods, imprisoned and tortured their friends and lobbed grenades at them at rallies. But after driving past seven Russian checkpoints over 10 hours to Mykolaiv – a journey that prewar would have taken an hour – and surviving a close encounter with a missile, they had finally reached what appeared to be a Ukrainian soldier.
“You understand that it should be our territory, and you see the soldier, but can’t distinguish the military signs on his uniform,” said Borisova, now in the UK, recalling their escape last month. “And you think: ‘Well, Russian or Ukrainian?’”
The confirmation she was looking for came when, the car window lowered to the greeting “dobrogo dnia!” (Ukrainian for “Good day”). She could have hugged him, she said. “Because now I believed that the Ukrainian army exists. Since 24 February we hadn’t seen our soldiers.”
In a series of dispatches for the Observer at the start of the war, the two female Ukrainian journalists bravely documented the horrors of life in occupied Kherson – from the city’s brave resistance to looming humanitarian disaster and burying the dead. But they also offered an insight into how, despite it all, residents fiercely continued to find glimmers of joy: a tale of young hospital interns getting married; drinking coffee at their favourite coffee shop under the roar of artillery strikes. There were scenes of dark humour too. In one dispatch, they described how a queue of civilians laughed a group of empty-handed Russian soldiers out of the butcher’s shop because they were unimpressed with the quality of meat available.
Despite growing numbers of people leaving, the escalating danger – particularly for journalists – and dwindling supplies, the old friends, who are both in their 50s, hadn’t planned to leave their home city.
Despite writing anonymously, they feared being identified by their reporting. One of their friends, Oleh Baturin, was detained and tortured for eight days and threatened with mutilation and death, and Maxim Negrov, the owner of the online newspaper Postfactum, was arrested and detained. They also worried that if the city were liberated it could lead to further killings by Russian soldiers.
But it was only when they were offered seats in friends’ cars that they made the decision to go. Borisova in a car with her daughter-in-law and a baby, and Poliakova with a friend and her cat. Their husbands and sons remain in Kherson.
“I made up my mind very quickly, during half a day,” said Borisova. “Not because of me, more for the sake of my daughter-in-law because my son begged me. Now with all these Bucha stories [of rape], he was very afraid. He said: ‘I will sleep well when you girls get out of Kherson.’” She added: “That chance was given to me and it was too foolish not to take it.”
They left just in time. Just a few days ago, an acquaintance was shot in the head and killed trying to escape. His family were not allowed to bury him. “Now I’m ready to pay any money for my son to leave,” said Borisova. “And I told him frankly: ‘Don’t bargain, pay anything they want, I will get money for you.’” Her mother, who her husband has promised to take care of while she is away, is dying with cancer.
After reaching Mykolaiv, they went to Odesa, which, initially at least, felt like “a resort”. At a cafe, they drank good coffee and ate fish, revelling in the fact that they didn’t have to worry about being harassed by Russian soldiers. But when bombing started, they realised it wasn’t safe there either.
With the help of Christian volunteers, they travelled for free by bus to Germany via Moldova, where they stayed at a shelter for two nights, before reaching Halle where they had been invited to Artist and the City, a residency on the role of public spaces. Last week, they arrived at Stansted under the Homes for Ukraine scheme after a London-based friend found them a host.
After months of communicating online, this is our first time meeting in person. Sat side by side on a sofa in the quiet Surrey suburbs, Poliakova wearing a blue T-shirt and Borisova a hoodie that says “I speak fluent sarcasm” across it, they seem remarkably calm and pragmatic on the surface – direct and quick to laugh and joke – but as they talk the heaviness of their deep pain seeps through.
Although arriving in the UK was in some ways a relief, they continue to suffer from the steady stream of debilitating updates from home via Telegram. “This news makes us anxious, depressed, we cry,” said Borisova. “We cry every day.”
Before the war, their lives in Kherson were busy and full. Borisova travelled throughout Europe, writing about architecture and contemporary art, and Poliakova reported on political and social issues. In the summer, they spent holidays and weekends at the nearby seaside. Now, however, the shore has been mined by Russia.
While it was not very prosperous and had fallen victim to corruption, Kherson was “a cosy city and very warm”, they said, and had potential as a tourist attraction. They had a new mayor, Ihor Kolykhaiev, who they hoped would restore the city with new green zones and public spaces. But after the invasion of Ukraine and a battle for the city, on 2 March Kherson became the first to fall. Kolykhaiev has since been replaced by a pro-Russian administration.
After the Russians arrived, they said, the city was “cut off from the rest of the country immediately”. The television centre was quickly seized and the vast majority of residents did not have time to leave. “The next day we were absolutely sieged.”
Living under occupation, the issue of trust has become a life or death matter. “We stopped talking to anyone, it’s a paranoia,” said Borisova. “You stop believing people.” To illustrate, Poliakova cites the example of a former city manager who was such a convincing patriot with his “perfect Ukrainian”, slogans and speeches but turned out to be a Russian collaborator.
Although for weeks they continued to attend daily protests in the city’s Freedom Square, a sense of escalating threat and distrust was palpable in their occupation diaries and in my communications with them. In one of their final Signal messages before they left, Borisova expressed doubt they would stay alive.
How did their feelings change under occupation? “From great, great fear to some acceptance of reality to total despair, because nothing helps you to accept it really,” said Borisova. She compares waking up under occupation to the film Groundhog Day. “It’s a nightmare and you feel like the day is repeating and repeating.”
The streets were littered with explosives disguised as toys and they were watchful entering their homes. Each day, from around 3pm, the streets would empty out when soldiers started patrolling. People hid in their houses to avoid being shot. “Riding their vehicles around with their machine guns they could be drunk sometimes and just start firing. So it was quite dangerous wandering around in the evening,” said Borisova.
While it was rare to see the Russians engaging in terrible acts in the morning, they could be hungry and angry. “They were told in Russia that we would be happy to have them there. And they couldn’t understand, it was a paradoxical thing for them, that we were not waving flowers and Russian flags.”
For weeks, the Russian response to the daily protests was muted, giving them the confidence to carry on. “It was a very surprising thing for me personally, and for others I suppose, that why they allowed protests so long,” said Borisova, who now sees it as a tactic to paint them as “aggressive Nazis” rising up against “peaceful Russian soldiers”. But on 21 March, the protesters were taken by complete surprise when they were met with grenades. The next day, there was teargas and shooting and Borisova narrowly escaped with her life. Rally numbers dwindled and soon the protests stopped.
“For the first time we saw lots of blood on the ground and we understood it was the end of peaceful rallies,” she said with sombre finality. “They showed us, ‘OK people, we’re fed up with it.’”
Now, they said, life in Kherson is very tough. There are no jobs, Russia has stolen their grain and people are being paid in food instead of money. Meanwhile, the shops are full of expensive food from Moldova and regions of Russia that most couldn’t afford to buy, even if they wanted to.
“For people who stayed there, nothing will help them except themselves,” said Poliakova. “So they start making gardens, orchards near their houses to provide themselves with some food.”
Sometimes medicines are smuggled in, but it’s painfully insufficient.
“So many countries of the world are ready to help us but it’s not very easy to squeeze between all these checkpoints,” said Borisova. “They’re numerous. And sometimes they’re in good mood, sometimes they’re furious, so it’s quite a roulette.”
Trying to escape now can mean spending several days in battlefields surrounded by explosions. “We were lucky to escape within one day,” said Borisova. “But after the roadblocks are getting more and more numerous, people spend two-three days. You’re very, very scared. You are in the centre of the battle.” A ghost city would be bad for Russian propaganda, she said, but not everyone wants to leave. There are those who are prepared to cooperate and are informing on their neighbours.
Although many of its residents speak Russian, the journalists said there has been a sharp rejection of Russia since 2014, when Moscow annexed nearby Crimea, but Russian culture was not cancelled entirely. But now, as she translates the eyewitness accounts of Ukrainian women and girls who have been killed and raped by Russian soldiers for a book about the war, Borisova said she cannot tolerate anything Russian.
“When you come through this terror and see these atrocities … I couldn’t bear it,” she said. “While translating, I was just crying. I stopped for a while to comfort myself but it’s unbearable to read all of this.”
Since arriving in the UK they have been received with warmth and kindness, immediately bonding with their host over their shared love of Monty Python, but it has also been overwhelming. Borisova is trying to see it as an adventure, but Poliakova feels a strong pull back to Ukraine. They want to continue their journalistic work, documenting Ukrainians’ experiences of the invasion and hope to write a book.
“We are very conscious that our psychological conditions are very fragile. Not stable,” said Borisova. But she hopes that every day spent in the UK will help distract them from their grief. “This routine, this desire to see another places, meeting with other people will help us to cope and to overcome.”