‘Pretending to live a civilian life’: How pro-Ukrainian residents of occupied Melitopol feel daily fear

Editor’s note: The southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol has long been known for its sweet delights. The name “Melitopol” means “the Honey City” in Ukrainian and the city’s official logo features a cherry, a nod to the deep red fruit the region is famous for.

But life in Melitopol is anything but sweet. The city was captured by Russian troops shortly after Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year. Pro-Ukrainian partisans have remained active in the city, orchestrating several attacks against the pro-Russian administration installed in the place of its elected leaders. The Zaporizhzhia region in which the city lies is partially occupied by Russia and was illegally annexed last September.

There is terror in Melitopol. But it’s quiet, you don’t see it in the streets.

For partisans, the situation here is terrible. For those of us who rejected Russian passports and are now known as “the unreliable,” the situation is terrible. But if you go to the market, you wouldn’t think that anything is going on.

The Russians are trying to force everyone here to get Russian passports. It’s easier to manipulate people when they have Russian citizenship. Not getting the passports makes our life very difficult. They are refusing to give us access to hospitals and so on. We are a family of farmers and we are losing our land because we don’t have any Russian documents.

I’m afraid I will eventually have to get it. But we are delaying this moment. One relative went to the office and the queues were huge because everyone was intimidated into getting a passport. The process has sped up. Previously, you had to wait a month or two, but now they can print a passport in a week.

Everyone was given cash welfare payments until February, but starting in March, only people with Russian passports get them. That’s why many pensioners started getting passports now because there was no need for it before. Disabled people, people on low incomes, and those who wanted to use free healthcare took the passports immediately after the Russians started offering them, because they didn’t want to lose the benefits.

All in all, a large percentage of the population already has Russian passports. If you don’t, you’re a black sheep, and you can be subject to a frisking.

Here in Melitopol, searches are usually conducted after shelling and after guerrilla attacks on pro-Russian collaborators. My grandmother’s house was searched because a Russian soldier deserted when he was in the village. They searched the houses in the village, trying to find him.

The people who remained in Melitopol can be divided into several categories. There are those who are basically satisfied with the current pro-Russian government. There are those who don’t care and who would support whoever gives them more money in cash payments.  

Those who stayed mostly support the pro-Russian government. They are convinced that it is here to stay.  

Obviously, there are also Ukrainian patriots, those of us waiting for Ukraine to win this war. We whisper to each other in the market. You can tell that someone is supporting Ukraine at the market when you ask for high quality produce. Vendors start cursing Russia because they now have to choose between selling bad products and worse products.

There are still a lot of partisans, God bless them, but we are in the minority. Most of the Ukrainian patriots have left, especially those who actively participated in rallies, because there was a direct threat to their lives.

Our neighbor turned us in for supporting Ukraine, but we are not being touched, at least not yet. My neighbor works for the new government and she knows that we actively opposed Russia during the first phase of the war.

I think we will be issued some kind of document that they give to “the unreliable” which says we have refused the passports. This means nothing except showing that we refused to take Russian passports. It’s a temporary certificate of non-citizens, but you either take this piece of paper or you have to leave Melitopol. So, we are going to take it.

Until April, it was possible to move freely throughout the occupied zone without documents. Now you need a Russian passport or the non-citizen document, but they keep issuing warnings and saying that you need to get a Russian passport by June or you will not be allowed to leave.

People here are encouraged to send their children to summer camps in Crimea, like they were last year. Some parents on our street voluntarily sent their children to Crimea for a month and the children came back. But our neighbors, who have since left for Germany, did not want to send their son to a Russian school or to a camp, and it was okay. Their son stayed at home all year, studying online at a Ukrainian school. Children are not taken away by force here. You have to understand that parents send them there voluntarily.

We call the war a ‘situation’ here   

It’s true that the occupiers are worried about the counteroffensive. The mood in the city has changed dramatically over the past month, from “Melitopol is forever with Russia” to thinking where and how they will build defense lines.

Of course, this is just what the ordinary soldiers in the city are saying, but there is no longer that victorious mood. I feel that something is going to happen here soon. Ukrainian hryvnias are being bought up in the market, and farmers are refusing to sell their products, because they are waiting to give it to Ukraine. And all the neighbors who are in favor of Russia have stopped communicating with us, because they are no longer sure that Russia will stay here forever and are afraid to talk.

There are more or less no problems with getting food. There is no variety, but there are no shortages either. The standards and packaging have completely changed since the invasion started. Butter that is made at the same factory tastes so bad now that we don’t know what to do to mask the taste.

Everything that is imported from Russia contains palm oil. That’s not an exaggeration, the ingredient list of a candy lists palm oil three times. It’s in everything. Sausages, cheese, candy, cookies, butter.

But the biggest problem is with medicines and household goods, as well as baby food. Russia doesn’t have good quality medicines and there is no choice. You go to a pharmacy and they give you one option, take it or leave it. People inquire about medicines for 10 minutes and in the end, they only have iodine. A woman in front of me was trying to buy Nestlé baby food, but the price was out of this world. She ended up buying some Russian-made equivalent.

My mother and grandmother have diabetes. The Russian medicines have the same active ingredient but they affect them in completely different ways. They have different dosages and excipients and my mother and grandmother started feeling much worse when they began taking them. We received some Ukrainian medicines from Ukraine through Crimea, enough for a month and a half.

The cynicism of doctors and pharmacists here is overwhelming. No one says anything directly. We call the war a “situation” here. So, they just answer: “Well, this is the situation, if you need it, go to Ukraine or Europe.” When I told the doctor that I needed specific medication, I was told to go to the city of Zaporizhzhia to buy it. And just so you understand, to go to Zaporizhzhia, you have to go via Moscow. That’s the only way.

In Russia, they don’t have the same standards and regulations for products. Nothing like that. Russian soaps, shampoos, and toothpastes are of terrible quality. Belarusian ones are a little better, and the best option for us here is Turkish shampoo. There are a lot of Chinese and Turkish products on the market. Russian and Chinese products are of the worst quality, while Belarusian and Turkish products are more or less okay, but more expensive.

The problem is that only the military here have a lot of money, and often they buy everything decent. The rumours that Russians themselves do not want to buy Russian products are true. Until September, Ukrainian products were smuggled to Melitopol and the Russian military bought everything themselves. Soldiers stood in line in front of me and asked for Ukrainian socks and soap. Now there are no Ukrainian goods anymore.

Everyone is pretending to live a civilian life. There’s no talk of evacuation. People are used to the explosions and to the fact that from time to time there are burnt-out cars of pro-Russian collaborators on the main street. People are used to the fact that Russian troops and authorities can come to your house and kick you out.

People have gotten used to everything over the year.

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