Stories of Ukrainian resistance revealed after Kherson withdrawal

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Near Kherson city, Ukraine
CNN

Two Russian soldiers walked down a street in Kherson on a spring evening in early March, a few days after Moscow took the city. The temperature that night was still below freezing and the power was out, leaving the town in complete darkness as the soldiers headed back to camp after a few drinks.

As one stumbled on, the other stopped to relieve himself on the side of the sidewalk. Suddenly, a knife was thrust deep into the right side of his neck.

He fell into the grass. Moments later, the other Russian soldier, drunk and unaware, met the same fate.

“I finished the first one immediately, and then I caught up with the second one and killed him on the spot,” says Archie, a Ukrainian resistance fighter who described the scene above to CNN.

He says he moved on pure instinct.

'Archie' single-handedly killed two Russian soldiers just days after they took over Kherson.  He later joined with other partisans to form a coordinated resistance movement.

“I saw the orcs in uniform and I thought, why not?” Archie adds, using a derogatory term for Russians as he walks down the same street. “There were no people or lights and I seized the moment.”

The 20-year-old is a trained mixed martial artist, with nimble feet and sharp reflexes, who had previously always carried a knife for self-defense but never killed anyone. CNN refers to him by his call sign to protect his identity.

“Adrenaline played its role. I had neither fear nor time to think,” he says. “The first few days I felt very bad, but then I realized that they were my enemies. They came to my home to take that from me.”

Archie’s account was backed up by Ukrainian military and intelligence sources who handled communications with him and other partisans. He was one of many resisters in Kherson, a city of 290,000 people before the invasion, which Russia tried to bend but could not break.

People in Kherson made their views clear shortly after Russia took over the city on March 2 when they took to the main square for daily protests, wearing the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag.

But Kherson, the first major city and only regional capital Russian troops were able to occupy since the start of the invasion, was an important symbol for Moscow. Dissent could not be tolerated.

Protesters were met with tear gas and gunfire, organizers and the more outspoken residents were arrested and tortured. When peaceful demonstrations did not work, the people of Kherson turned to resistance, and ordinary citizens like Archie began to act on their own.

“I wasn’t the only one in Kherson,” says Archie. “There were many clever partisans. At least 10 Russians were killed every night.”

Initially operating solo, like-minded residents began to organize into groups and coordinate their actions with the Ukrainian military and intelligence services outside the city.

“I have a friend with whom we would drive around the city looking for gatherings of Russian soldiers,” he says. “We checked their patrol routes and then gave all the information to the guys on the front line and they knew who to go to next.”

Russian soldiers were not the only targets of assassination. Several government officials stationed in Moscow were attacked during the eight months of Russian occupation. Their faces were printed on posters placed across the city, promising retribution for their collaboration with the Kremlin in a psychological war that lasted throughout the occupation.

Many of these promises were kept, with some of these officials being gunned down and others blown up in their cars in incidents that pro-Russian local authorities described as “terrorist attacks”.

Archie was arrested by the occupation authorities on 9 May after taking part in a Victory Day parade celebrating the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II, wearing a yellow and blue stripe on his t-shirt.

He was taken to a local detention center that had been taken over by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and used to torture Ukrainian soldiers, intelligence officers and partisans, according to Archie.

Ihor says that while he was held in this Russian detention center, he spent much of his time looking out the window, dreaming of one day escaping the horrors inside.

“They beat me, electrocuted me, kicked me and beat me with batons,” Archie recalls. “I can’t say they starved me, but they didn’t give much to eat.”

“Nothing good happened there,” he said.

Archie was lucky enough to be released after nine days and after being forced to record a video saying he had agreed to work with the Russian occupiers. His account of what happened in the facility has been corroborated by Ukrainian military sources and other prisoners.

But many others never left, according to Archie and other resistance fighters, as well as Ukrainian military and intelligence sources.

Ihor, who asked CNN not to reveal his last name for his protection, was also held at the facility.

The Ukrainian flag now hangs atop a detention center used by Russian forces to hold and torture Ukrainian soldiers, dissidents and partisans.

“I was kept here for 11 days, and all that time I heard screams from the basement,” says the 29-year-old. “People were tortured, they were beaten with sticks in the arms and legs, cattle prods, even connected to batteries and electrocuted or waterboarded with water.”

Ihor was caught carrying weapons and says “luckily” he was only beaten.

“I arrived after the time when people were being killed here,” he recalls. “I was stabbed in the legs with a taser, they use it as a welcome. One of them asked what I had been brought in for and two others of them started punching me in the ribs.”

Ihor and other partisans helped Ukrainian forces reset this warehouse, where Russian forces had stationed military assets, targeting it with artillery.

Through his detention, Ihor was able to hide that he was a member of the Kherson resistance and that transporting weapons was not the only thing he did. Ihor says he also provided intelligence to the Ukrainian military — an activity that would have attracted far more brutal punishment.

“If we found something, saw it, (we) took a picture or a video (and) sent it to Ukrainian forces, and then they would decide whether to hit it or not,” he explains.

Among the coordinates he communicated to the Ukrainian military is a warehouse in the city of Kherson. “The Russian military kept between 20 and 30 vehicles here, there were armored trucks, armored personnel carriers and some Russians lived here,” says Ihor.

Departing Russian forces were quick to hollow out what was left of the prized interior, but the ruined building bears the marks of the fierce attack. Most of the roof has collapsed, its walls were shattered, and shards of glass still cover most of the floor. The structure remains in place, but in parts its metal has been destroyed by the explosion.

Ihor filmed this warehouse, which was used by Russian forces, as he walked past it and pretended to make a phone call.  His information helped Ukrainian forces target and destroy it.

Ihor used the Telegram messaging app to communicate the building’s coordinates to his military handler, whom he referred to as “the smoke.” Along with the information, he sent a video he secretly recorded.

“I turned on the camera, pointed it at the building, and then I just went and talked on the phone while the camera was filming,” he explains. “Afterwards I deleted the video, of course, because if they were to stop me somewhere and check my videos and pictures, there would be questions…”

He sent the information in mid-September, and just one day later the facility was attacked by Ukrainian artillery.

The United States and NATO have assessed that when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin expected its forces to be greeted as saviors, welcomed with open arms. The reality fell short of expectations, not only in the areas where Moscow’s armies were pushed back, but also in the areas it was able to conquer.

The strike at the warehouse, which Ihor helped with, is one of many facilitated by Ukrainian partisans inside Kherson, working tirelessly and under threat to disrupt Russian activities in the city.

Eight months after it was occupied by Russia, the city of Kherson is now back in Ukrainian hands and Moscow’s armies are on the back foot, forced to withdraw from the western bank of the Dnipro River.

But despite achieving victory here, Ukraine continues to face near-daily crippling missile attacks almost everywhere else, while Russian forces continue to push in the east.

Looking back, Ihor, father of a three-month-old daughter, says he was lucky he wasn’t caught.

“It wasn’t difficult, but it was dangerous,” he explains. “If they were to catch me filming something like that, they would take me in and probably not let me out alive.”

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