Under explosions and artillery fire, with Vladimir Putin’s troops surrounding the small town of Shevchenkove in southern Ukraine, Mayor Oleg Pilipenko and a group of volunteers rushed to fill a small van with food packages and jugs. of water. The city of Kherson had fallen into Russian hands and the Kremlin soldiers tried to continue advancing with blood and fire towards Mikolaiv, as a prelude to launching into Odessa and capturing the entire Black Sea coast. Shevchenkove was organizing himself well. He had a modest group of militiamen and had turned the church into a warehouse stocked with food and medicine. Several nearby villages, by contrast, were in dire straits, so Pilipenko and his driver stepped forward and headed to fetch help. They were only able to complete the first of the items on their list. Immediately afterwards, they were caught by the Russian Army. The driver was released a week ago. Nothing is known about Mayor Pilipenko, 34, father of three children. He has been held hostage by Russian forces since March 10.
Since Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine, his troops have launched a dark strategy of disappearances and kidnappings. Above all, from mayors, councilors and other public officials from occupied cities and towns, but also from activists, journalists and anyone who does not accept the new rules imposed by the invading forces. At least 29 mayors have been kidnapped since February 24, according to the Ukrainian government. Some have been replaced by Moscow puppets. As in Melitopol, a city of 150,000 inhabitants. Earlier, Russian troops kidnapped its mayor, Ivan Fedorov, as he was walking down the street on March 11. They put a bag over his head and dragged him away. He was held five days. Until the Ukrainian government exchanged him for nine Russian soldiers between the ages of 20 and 21.
In Shevchenkove, a modest town of 500 inhabitants, with a pharmacy, three stores, two restaurants and a liquor store, a police officer explains that the authorities have no information on Pilipenko. The driver, who hardly leaves the house since he was released, cannot talk about the case. Not just because he hasn’t recovered yet; Above all, for safety. The mayor’s wife, Tanya Pilipenko, has called for the alderman to be released, but her case has far less resonance than Fedorov’s. He “went to distribute bread and didn’t come back. Please, I ask everyone who is interested in him to help in the search for him. We need you at home, ”she begged on her social networks.
Very shortly after the kidnapping of its mayor, the Kremlin forces entered the limits of Shevchenkove, on one side of the road between Kherson and Mikolaiv, with fields now strewn with missiles and roads cracked by explosions. The Russians came to control the outskirts of the village, where fierce battles were fought with Ukrainian soldiers, but they failed to enter the center, the police officer says. The Ukrainian Army managed to push them back 12 kilometers in the direction of Kherson, the only regional capital occupied by the Kremlin forces – their greatest achievement -, an area where the Ukrainian troops have now launched a harsh counteroffensive and which the US has gone from considering a “occupied” to declare it a “disputed area”.
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Today, explosions and artillery fire are still constant in Shevchenkove, where a large part of its inhabitants have fled. Especially the older ones remain. Like Luba, 67, a corpulent woman with short brown hair, who rails against “Russian fascists” and is outraged by the disappearance of the mayor. An explosion left her house without gas, but she stresses that she doesn’t want to leave the house where her parents lived before her or the town in whose graveyard her ancestors are buried. Or like Mikhail Zayed, 80, limping through the rubble of his former home, with its cream-colored walls, nearly new white-lacquered wooden doors and gilt doorknobs, which was destroyed in a shelling on Wednesday, bill. “And now that? What I am going to do? Where am I going to go?” he wonders tearfully as he pets her dog Vina, who accompanies him wherever she goes.
Shevchenkove is today one of the towns recovered by the Ukrainian forces in their counteroffensive, but between the artillery fire, the constant bombing and the presence of troops in the surroundings, its inhabitants remain frightened. While finishing a cigarette, Andréi and Kolya Turlai say that they were stopped at a checkpoint by a Russian patrol that forced them to undress to verify that they did not have “nationalist” tattoos and searched their mobile phones. “They did not return them to us. They robbed us. In addition to fascists, thieves”, they say.
The Russian occupation is meeting resistance. There have been protests in Melitolpol, in Kherson, in Berdyansk. In the first demonstrations, the Kremlin forces, stunned to not find what they hoped would be a great reception for a Ukraine “liberated from the Nazis”, as propaganda from the Kremlin’s orbit has constantly repeated and telegraphed, did not react. The following protests were harshly suppressed, even with live fire. And more kidnappings of public figures followed, as marked by the script that the Kremlin already used in the Crimean peninsula —which was illegally annexed in 2014— and in Donetsk and Lugansk, where Moscow has controlled part of the territory for eight years through the pro-Russian separatists. Putin’s army charged on Saturday against another rally in rejection of the invasion in Energodar.
Controlling communications is also included in this script, which is why many cities are disconnected from the Ukrainian telephone network. In some places they have distributed Russian mobile cards, but many do not work and most do not offer internet access. The next step is to control the media, implant Russian propaganda channels and silence the Ukrainian media and independent journalists.
Oleg Baturin, a journalist at a local daily in Kherson, was kidnapped by Russian forces in broad daylight. He was eight days in captivity. The first, they beat him and threatened him and interrogated him thoroughly, he says by phone. Later, they chained him to a radiator and left him isolated in a cell from which he only left for further interrogation. “They wanted to know who is telling me information, who is not supporting the invasion, who are the most renowned activists,” he explains. We journalists are on their list, they try to control the information at all costs”, he adds.
In a new speech to the public, in a much harsher and more sinister tone, President Volodymyr Zelensky threatened anyone who helps the Russian forces on Friday. The Ukrainian leader explained that the Kremlin has appointed people – whom he called “gauleiters”, like the regional governor of Nazi Germany who gave such collaborators their name – to take over local governments and major companies in the areas under their control, and is forcing the public to help them. “There will be consequences for cooperating with them [los colaboracionistas] or with the occupants directly. This is the last warning,” Zelensky warned.