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Kherson residents describe reign of terror under Russian rule

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Natalia Chorna had warned her more outspoken twin sister to be careful after Russian forces occupied their home town of Skadovsk near Kherson, southern Ukraine, in February. But Tetyana Mudryenko found it hard to keep her anger about the war to herself.

Last month, Mudryenko paid the ultimate penalty for proclaiming Skadovsk Ukrainian territory. According to several witnesses, she was dragged into the street by the self-appointed pro-Moscow authorities and hanged in a public execution.

“In occupied Skadovsk, you can’t have your own opinion,” said Chorna, 56.

As Ukraine pursues its counteroffensive in Kherson and Russia forcibly relocates tens of thousands of people, those living in the southern region have said the occupying authorities are terrorizing anyone who challenges them.

Residents of Skadovsk, a Black Sea port of some 15,000 inhabitants, told the Financial Times that people were being jailed and having their possessions confiscated for speaking out against their Russian occupiers.

Russian soldiers are also seizing the homes of Ukrainians who had moved to territory controlled by Kyiv, or who have been deported to Russia or occupied Crimea.

The Ukrainian military said on Tuesday that Russian forces had expanded the area from which they were forcing residents to evacuate, ostensibly to protect them from the fighting but also to make it easier to defend the region.

Moscow has also moved its occupation administration from the city of Kherson to Skadovsk as it reinforces its positions on the east bank of the Dnipro river.

Despite reports of a potential Russian withdrawal from Kherson, Ukraine’s military said in a statement on Friday that some 1,000 newly mobilized Russian troops had arrived, setting the stage for what will probably be a difficult and crucial battle in Kyiv’s bid to recapture territories from Moscow.

The Kherson region is of strategic importance to Russia because it connects to Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014, with fresh water.

Following sham referendums last month, Russian president Vladimir Putin claimed to “annex” Kherson along with the eastern provinces of Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia.

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Chorna said Mudryenko, a former paediatric nurse who was as passionate about helping disabled children as she was about being Ukrainian, had had several confrontations with Russian troops during their occupation.

On a walk near the seaside one spring day, the sisters ran into a group of Russian soldiers wearing balaclavas and Mudryenko confronted them.

“She looked at the orc, right in his eyes and asked: ‘Why are you here? Will you shoot me?’,” said Chorna, referring to Russian troops by a derogatory term Ukrainians have used since the February invasion.

The most recent incident prior to her death came in early October, when Mudryenko scolded Ukrainian police for collaborating with Russian forces and cried out “Skadovsk is Ukraine!”

On October 7, Chorna, who had left Skadovsk in April for the twins’ hometown of Dnipro in Ukrainian-controlled territory, called Mudryenko to see how she was doing after the altercation. But the connection was bad and the call dropped out.

Some time later, according to Chorna and local eyewitnesses, Mudryenko and her partner, 60-year-old Anatoliy Oryekhov, were abducted from the front yard of their home by Ukrainian police officers collaborating with Russia.

Neighbors told Chorna that the home had also been ransacked by occupiers, who stole the couple’s car and bicycles.

For days, no one knew of their whereabouts. Then, on October 15, Chorna got a call from a woman who said that Mudryenko was not only dead but that she had been dragged into the street by occupation authorities and killed in a public display of terror.

“She told me that ‘Tanya’ was hanged,” said Chorna, using her sister’s nickname. “They poured something into her mouth and then hung her in front of the courthouse.”

The woman who called went on to say that Oryekhov had been released from captivity with a broken arm and other signs of being beaten and allowed to bury Mudryenko’s body. But he then disappeared again and has not been seen or heard from since.

When Chorna called the local morgue to confirm Mudryenko’s death, an employee first declined to speak to her. But eventually the worker sent her a death certificate that stated Mudryenko’s cause of death was “mechanical asphyxiation”, meaning severe physical pressure had been applied to her neck.

Some of the details surrounding Mudryenko’s alleged abduction and death could not be independently verified because they occurred in areas off-limits to western reporters. But the FT reviewed Mudryenko’s death certificate as well as text messages and discussions between local residents and eyewitnesses that support Chorna’s story.

The Media Initiative for Human Rights, a Ukrainian non-governmental organization, has documented the case. Ukraine’s state security service, the SBU, wrote on Telegram on October 14 that it “had established numerous instances of murder and torture of local residents during the temporary occupation” of the Kherson region.

Chorna’s story echoes scores of accounts by Ukrainians who have lived under Russian occupation and witnessed or personally experienced violence at the hands of Putin’s invading forces, including many documented by international human rights groups and journalists.

Skadovsk residents were angry and depressed in the first days and weeks of Russian occupation, said Chorna. Many people, including herself and Mudryenko, protested in the streets to show their discontent.

The sisters were among many residents who live-streamed the demonstrations on social media to show that resistance remained strong. But after Russian troops began firing warning shots and hurling smoke grenades at the crowds the public protests stopped.

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Ukrainians still in occupied Kherson and some who have recently fled and asked not to be named for security reasons said Russian forces had intensified their cruelty toward locals in recent weeks.

One resident who moved to Ukraine-controlled territory last month said the “occupiers are closing shops and business on a large scale [and] trying to create conditions unsuitable for people to live in”.

Another woman lamented the “concentration camp” and “military base” that she said the once quiet town of Skadovsk — with beach resorts that people from all over Ukraine used to flock to — had become.

“But everything will be Ukraine,” she said, adding that most Ukrainian residents who stayed remain defiant. “Today, I refused to pay [for my groceries] in roubles.”