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'Scared to make wrong move': Life as a civilian volunteer under Russian occupation in Ukraine

Olga cries as she says, “Everyday I walk on the knife’s edge. But I can’t stop.”

Sky News interviewed her about the intimidation she experiences from Russian troops at her home on the Ukraine‘s south coast.

Vladimir Putin’s forces have now seized control of the area where she grew-up for more than three months.

The arrival of Russian troops in the area led to the removal of local politicians and their replacement by Russian sympathizers. Food prices have risen and access to medicine has become more difficult.


Many people who remain in the area are elderly, disabled, or have very little income are among those most at risk.

Like many other people in newly-occupied cities, Olga felt the need to help.

Sky News used encrypted messaging apps to speak with civilian volunteers from cities and towns across the Russian-occupied Ukraine. Security reasons have caused their names to be changed.

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Olga’s Story

Olga asked us to not identify the town she lives in, for her safety.

She claims that since March, she and four other women have delivered food and medicines to over 1,650 people.

“My stepfather lives 60 miles away from me. She told me that she couldn’t bring him here during the war.

“I was able to help a woman from day one. After that, I received a call from my father letting me know that someone had brought him food.

She said, “I realized that if people help me here, they will help my family elsewhere.”

The group began by pooling their resources. She now receives donations by her family and friends to pay for the high prices in the local and online markets.

“We try and buy what’s left in Ukraine. She says that we have to order things from Russia because of the current economic situation.

“What can you do?” “People are hungry.”

Image: Volunteers help with humanitarian aid in Zaporizhia (Ukraine). Pic by AP

She estimates that between 25-30% of the people in her community are sympathetic to Russia. The rest of the population will have to live with an occupation they do not agree with.

“Many of my close friends were held and tortured. They want us to all come over to their side. She said that they want us to work with the Russians and the orcs.

Olga claims that Russian troops have targeted volunteers in her community.

She said, “My work can be very dangerous.” “We all ask one another: Why would they target volunteers?” “No one knows the answer.”

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April: Ukrainians protest at Kherson

Olga states that while there are efforts to bring humanitarian aid to the area, it is often not received by those in need.

“Sometimes, a lorry carrying aid would pull up in a busy area and throw things at people like dogs. People start to fight with each other, including pensioners and all kinds.

“The Russian soldiers are smiling, laughing and taking photos. They find it funny. She says she has seen similar scenes.

“I don’t fear for my family, but I am afraid for everyone. We are nothing to Russia.

She said, “There are always people with assault rifles near you and you don’t know what they might do next.”

“We are like zombies. You are afraid to make the wrong move as you walk about.

Sky News was not able to verify these claims independently. We reached out to the Russian Ministry of Defence, but we have not received a response.

Experts in human rights say that civilian volunteers are being targeted, as well journalists and activists, in the occupied Ukraine.

Sky News was told by Nadia Dobianska (a researcher at ZMINA Ukrainian human rights organisation) that “one of the major Russian strategies it to starve people to obedience, to break their physical,”

“They are making it impossible for people to have independent access to food and water, so they make them dependent on Russia.” Russians view all those who help civilians escape suffering as dangerous,” she explained.

Irina’s story in the city of Kherson

Irina resides in Kherson, which lies on the Dnipro River.

Kherson, like Olga’s home town, was captured quickly and a new local government was established early in the war.

She is a full-time nurse, but she also helps out the volunteers when she can.

She said that there is a lot of moral pressure on civilians.

You need to be very careful when you are out and about with your phone. Photos, chats… You need to delete Telegram Signal, Instagram, and Signal because an occupier can view your phone.

Irina spoke of an incident in which a Russian soldier saw her sunflower tattoo, and declared that it was a Nazi symbol.

Irina is not afraid of the occupiers, unlike Olga.

“Those who remain here and don’t want to go are waiting for the Ukrainian forces’ return. While some of us may be scared, others, such as me, are resilient. She said that although each person is different, the atmosphere is tense.

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March: Russia’s first major city falls

According to Irina, Russian troops have also targeted volunteers in Kherson.

They are looking for them: kidnapping, terrorizing them.

Volunteers must work in secret. She added that if you are too active they will come after you.”

It’s not easy for all volunteers to volunteer in occupied towns.

Andriy’s story, Melitopol

About 180 miles away, Melitopol is home to Andriy, a volunteer organization that has been in existence since the start of World War II.

The group started by providing aid to hospitals. They recently opened a headquarters at a former media center, from which they were able to distribute hundreds more aid packages.

He said that “no obvious, open steps have been taken yet against volunteer, but I do have concerns”,

“Our foundation…we are Ukraine. On my website, I display the Ukrainian flag. We promote the fact that Ukraine is our country.”

As with Kherson’s town and Olga, Melitopol’s food prices have soared, so many cannot afford to eat.

Image: Andriy gives food and medicines to Melitopol residents in need. These supplies were obtained in April.

People lost their jobs and lost their work when the war broke out. People still had food and financial reserves so it was okay for the first two months.

“But people have now run out of money to support themselves. There is no job. He said that many people don’t have any money, not even a penny.

Andriy claims that supermarkets are closed in the city and ATMs don’t work there.

“Life is terrible here, we live like in the Stone Age.”

The Data and Forensics Team is a multi-skilled unit that provides transparent journalism from Sky News. To tell data-driven stories, we gather, analyse, and visualise data. Our traditional reporting skills are combined with advanced analysis of satellite imagery, social media, and other open-source information. Multimedia storytelling allows us to tell the story of our journalism and help people understand it.

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