MOOSEJAWTODAY.COM — Tears began streaming down Dar’ya Shyshko’s cheeks the moment she started to tell the story of the Russian occupation of her hometown of Kherson, a city of nearly 300,000 on the Dnipro River that came under attack in the first days of the war.
[Warning: this article contains graphic descriptions of war and war crimes. Reader discretion is advised.]
Shyshko, 39, and her family were happy in Kherson. Our lives were so good, she said mournfully, recalling a vacation to neighbouring Georgia before the war, and summers spent on the beaches of the Black Sea. Her husband Sergei, 42, made good money selling apartments on behalf of a local construction company, and her daughters — Masha, 11, and Milana, 5 — enjoyed school and friends. Shyshko herself worked as a nurse and as a teacher and tutor of English and Latin.
“We never planned to move anywhere. We were happy there. … They destroyed our lives,” she said. “People who have never experienced that, they can never imagine what we have been through. Never. I’ve never been so scared in my life. That fear took me over.”
Shyshko didn’t believe the war would happen. Not many people did, she said. When Russia began its invasion on 24 February, her husband woke her up and said, It’s war.
“For us, it was kind of like, all of a sudden, you know? We didn’t know what to do. I was in a panic, just (pacing). The girls were still sleeping, it was six o’clock in the morning. We didn’t know what to do, so we decided to stay.
“My sister phoned me and said they had left for western Ukraine. Because Russia, they were invading from the north, from the east, and from the south. The only part they couldn’t invade from was the west, because it borders with Poland.”
There were hundreds of kilometres of cars on the roads, bumper to bumper with people fleeing the oncoming violence. Shyshko’s sister and her family spent two days in their car before being able to stop.
Meanwhile, in Kherson, the Russians began fighting to control the Antonovskiy Bridge — one of the main crossings of the Dnipro, and a key route from occupied Crimea north through the city of Mykolaiv and into Ukraine.
“They started fighting there, and lots of people died over there,” Shyshko said. She paused to collect herself as she remembered that initial defense of Kherson.
“Higher up people from the police and the (Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU), they betrayed us. That bridge originally was mined, but they demined it.”
Shyshko said that the bridge was supposed to be destroyed, but Russian sympathizers in the local police and SBU allowed the Russians across. When they finally did, many young men of Kherson rallied to defend their homes.
That was March 1, 2022.
Without proper weapons or training, wielding mostly improvised gasoline bottle bombs, or molotovs, these young men were slaughtered by the invading Russians.
“The Russians came with huge tanks, against these young guys,” Shyshko said, crying. “There was like, half a body there, a head there. The Russians, they didn’t let us bury them. They left them for a week there, for everyone to see.”
Hundreds of bodies, mostly in unrecognizable pieces, were left on the streets radiating out from the bridge. Most of the city lives in high-rise apartment buildings, giving the population a clear view of the events below. Residents came down afterwards to try and collect the pieces and bury them, but Russian soldiers prevented them.
There is a park near the bridge, where the young men of Kherson gathered. Locals call it Violet Park now, and hope to build a monument. Shyshko said that when the Russians crossed the bridge and the makeshift defenders began to run, they ran to this park to draw fire.
“There were so many bodies in that park,” she said. “They were really motivated to protect their mothers, and their sisters. … The Russians were coming, and they didn’t want to run to the residential places, because they were shooting. So, they went into the park.”
The Russians used heavy, vehicle-mounted machine guns to mow down the survivors.
“The trees were all broken,” Shyshko described, “and there were no full bodies there. … I will never forget that day.”
Thus began the Russian occupation of Kherson, which lasted three months for the Shyshko family before they managed to escape, fleeing first to Odesa, then to Poland, and finally to Canada.
Russian forces broke through the city’s defences on March 1 and had complete control by the end of March 2.
Shyshko, 39, described watching Russian forces roll through the city for days.
“You could see, there’s just kilometres of military equipment and military cars and tanks — lots of them. We saw them, they were just coming and coming, because we’re like an entrance gate for them … from Crimea.”
Traumatizing as it was to watch her city used as a staging point for the invasion of her country, that experience could not compare to what came next: Occupation by undisciplined men with guns, whose leaders apparently did not care to restrain them.
“They had an order not to let anyone out,” she said. “And there was a curfew from eight o’clock in the evening. You are not allowed on the streets, or you will be killed. Anyone on the streets, they just shoot you, that’s all.”
Shyshko said that while it was awful in the city, they suffered less than the smaller villages the Russians occupied. On the rare occasions they had power and an internet connection, she and others would communicate on social media. The experiences shared through group chats on Telegram were horrific.
“People say, ‘I can imagine.’ They can’t imagine. They are evil over there. They are like animals. Some of them, maybe they’re fine, but most of them? They just steal stuff, they come into the houses, they take whatever they want, they rape women and children… There is so many scary stories over there.
“Even when they drove, they didn’t follow any rules. They got into car crashes and killed people. You know how many people they killed just driving around in our hometown?”
There was no controlling them, Shyshko said. "They had guns, and thought they were kings."
At one point, she said goodbye to her children, just in case, then left to another room so they wouldn’t see her cry.
Surviving under occupation
“Some people, they left the first day. But after that, those people who stayed had somehow to survive.”
When the invasion began, there was a rush on gas stations, grocery stores, and pharmacies. The battle for Mykolaiv started immediately after Kherson’s capture, and Russian forces mined the fields and roads and set up checkpoints.
“In one week, everything was empty,” Shyshko said. “The Russians didn’t let any medication into the city, any food, nothing. … But we still had farmers who grew their own food, who had chickens and cows … so they were still bringing us (eggs and dairy products).”
Prices for everything skyrocketed, and some turned to profiteering. Others gave away what food they could bring in. Shyshko’s family had canned food storage, but after the first three weeks of March, they were running out. So, Shyshko’s husband Sergei went out and joined the long lines for bread, and searched for other sources of food to stockpile.
“We had our canned food … but we ran out of things like sugar, flour, stuff like that. Our bread factories still produced bread … they came into the neighbourhoods, and in the beginning they were giving out bread.
“We didn’t know how long we would have to keep that bread,” she explained, “so we were drying the bread in the oven and freezing it when we had power.”
Power blackouts were the norm. When the electricity came back on, they would charge their phones so their children could watch cartoons.
Artillery stationed nearby fired continuously. The explosions were so loud they could be physically felt sometimes.
“At the bomb shelter, they said maybe if the entrance collapsed we would all be trapped ... so they suggested for us to stay in our houses and apartments, just between two walls, far away from the windows,” Shyshko explained. “We taped our windows so they wouldn’t break into small pieces when there was an explosion.
“We took off all the glass from our walls, all the picture frames, everything. And we were either in the corridor between two walls or in the bathroom. We were hiding.
“We lived like that for three months.”
After months of constant stress and fear, Shyshko and her husband decided they had to try and leave. You couldn’t call it living, she said, what we were doing.
In the beginning, there were rallies against the occupiers. People chanted, Kherson is Ukraine, Kherson is Ukraine, this is our land.
A defiant population shared pictures and videos of Russian war crimes and Shyshko said she made posts on Facebook in support of Ukraine, calling for NATO to close the sky.
A Russian crackdown put an end to public demonstrations.
“They followed lots of people who are participating in these rallies,” Shyshko said. “And they tortured them to death. Lots of people are still missing.”
Russian soldiers, supposedly searching for weapons and hunting partisans, were going door-to-door — looting, killing, raping, and torturing.
“Our lives were at stake,” Shyshko said. “I am Ukrainian, and they will search my phone and they will see evidence that I don’t like Russia.”
They knew they had to get out.
As far as possible from Russia
After three months under Russian occupation in their hometown of Kherson, Dar’ya Shyshko and her family decided they had to get out however they could and get as far from Russia and its soldiers as they could go.
“We were really scared to leave (Kherson) because they had an order to not let out anyone — they would kill,” Shyshko said. “When you drive on the highway from the city, you can see lots of cars on the sides of the road, just burnt down. They killed those people in those cars.”
Shyshko’s sister had fled Kherson with her family on the first day of the war. Shyshko and her husband Sergei didn’t have a garage of their own, so they obtained the keys to her sister’s garage and hid their car there.
They didn’t dare try to use it at first, however. Driving on the streets was not safe, and people who tried to leave just after Kherson’s capture risked being killed or interrogated in ‘the basement’ — a euphemism for the detention and torture chambers the Russians set up to suppress resistance.
In between power and internet outages, residents of Kherson shared stories and photos on Telegram, a messaging app that encrypts conversation end-to-end.
The situation was grim, Shyshko said.
“When we had connection, we could read that there are ways to escape the city. There was one group which was created to escape from the city, and people were writing their comments there. For example, ‘Don’t go yet, the Russians will not let you out.’
“They wrote everything, like, ‘the Russians will search your car, they will search your phone.’”
Shyshko said she couldn’t share any pictures from the occupation, because when she and Sergei decided to try leaving, they wiped their phones of all data in case they were searched.
“I was scared to take a picture because …. They can take you to the basement,” Shyshko explained, “and torture you to death.”
Three separate escape attempts
After three months, with the Ukrainian military making gains and Russian soldiers distracted, word on Telegram began to be more hopeful.
“When I started reading that they are letting people out, I said, ‘OK, let’s just leave everything.’ We didn’t care about our apartment, our stuff, nothing. … because they were walking through all the apartments searching for weapons and taking out men.
“Because what Russians thought is there are partisans. In the apartments, in the garages, in the houses, just hiding.”
The first time they tried to get out, they had to sneak past the lethal 8 p.m. curfew to get their car. They drove through a field to bypass streets patrols and made it to a roadblock outside the city, joining a line of other vehicles.
After seven hours, nothing had moved, so they drove back. They parked in a field and slept in the car until they could safely return it to the garage.
The second time, they were forced to drive through roadblock after roadblock.
“There were so many Russians,” Shyshko said. “And they’re searching you, they make you come out of the car, they search your documents, they ask you questions, and they can take whatever they want. They can do whatever they want.
“No one is going to say, ‘Oh, you’re not allowed to touch our belongings.’ If they want your phone, they say, ‘Oh, Apple, I love this phone,’ or ‘I like your watch, take it off.’
“What people were doing, just to get rid of them, they were taking cigarettes, alcohol, money, saying, ‘Don’t touch us, just take it and don’t touch us.’”
The third time was more roadblocks, more inspections, more waiting — nine hours, Shyshko said. But they made it, driving out from occupied territory through the no-man’s-land gray zone between the lines.
Finally, they saw Ukrainian soldiers.
“There were our Ukrainian defenders. We were so happy, hugging them and kissing them. And they gave to my children candies and stuff,” Shyshko said, tearing up. “Because we ran out and we didn’t have any sweets. It was nice.”
They drove to Mykolaiv, but the city was so severely damaged that most of the residents hadn’t had water in months. So they moved on to Odesa.
“We rented an apartment there, and we decided to go to Canada, and we applied for our visas there,” Shyshko explained. “It is still Ukraine, but it is still dangerous.”
Although Odesa had air defences, a military presence, and law enforcement, missiles fired indiscriminately from Russia were occasionally making it through. Shyshko couldn’t take any more.
“There are lots of missile attacks. … And yeah, a few residential houses got hit, and even kids were dying. So, I said, I just want a safe place. And I said to my husband, let’s go as far as possible from Russia.”
Eventually, they went to Poland and flew from there to Canada.
Arriving in Moose Jaw
“My husband was looking for a smaller town,” Shyshko explained. “We liked Saskatchewan because of the Ukrainian roots and heritage here. We read about it on the internet and he just googled, and Moose Jaw came up on top of the list of the safest smaller cities.
“Safety was priority number one, I wanted just a quiet, peaceful place.”
The welcome they received upon arriving in Saskatchewan was more than they could ever have expected.
They applied for a house with Moose Jaw Housing Authority (MJHA) before even leaving Poland. Then Dar’ya found a Facebook group called Moose Jaw Mommies and told them her situation.
The community of Moose Jaw took it from there. After three long flights — the first time any of them had flown — to get from Poland to Regina, they were exhausted and without a plan. A contact from Facebook picked them from the airport and drove them to Moose Jaw. Another booked a hotel for the family for the three days it would take before they could move into their MJHA house.
When they did move in, the house was almost completely bare. There were only cupboards, a stove, and a refrigerator. A Facebook group called Ukraine help and exchange in Moose Jaw, started by Moose Javians including Glenda James, Christy Schweiger, and Gale Reader co-ordinated people from Moose Jaw and surrounding area to fill the house, room by room.
Kitchen supplies, tables, chairs, living room furniture, clothes, bedding, and more were all quickly donated. Others donated gift cards to Walmart or Carter’s.
“We got such great help here, and support, and so many people came to welcome us,” Shyshko said. “We’re so grateful to everyone who helped us, who took the time to write ‘welcome’ on our Facebook post, who offered their help.”
Shyshko tried to keep a list of everyone who had helped, but it got so long she decided not to for fear of leaving someone out.
She gestured around her new home. “Everything you see here, people donated to us.”
The children are now attending Sacred Heart School, where Dar’ya has a job as an educational assistant. Sergei is learning English from his new co-workers at Doepker. They pick him up for work, and drop him off, so he doesn’t have to walk in the cold.
“This group from Facebook … It’s a great help for everyone. People are supporting us, and they try their best, you can feel that. It touches me. It melts my heart because these are just simple people who have sympathy towards us Ukrainians.
“You can see we lost everything, but we gained so much. At the end, here we are, safe. We have jobs, we can work. Over there, living in occupation, we didn’t have that. I can’t say that was life.”
Kherson is liberated
On Nov. 11, Kherson was liberated by Ukrainian forces. Dar’ya and Sergei Shyshko will go back one day, when the war is over, and the monster stopped.