Secret maps shared of escape routes and a rainy April day were what allowed a Ukrainian couple under threat of Russian persecution to flee the southern region of Kherson when it was still occupied. A few months later, they’d feel “raped” as they would watch live as Russian troops broke into their home through a security camera.
Anastasiia Hryshko, 34, and Yurii Antoshchuk, 36, had spent two months in their home city of Kherson while it was under Russian control.
As head of ‘Union‘, a local human rights organisation, Mr Antoshchuk helped coordinate efforts to deliver aid to thousands of civilians across the Kherson region with the help of his wife, who is executive director of the charity.
But amid fears of being detained in torture chambers or killed or even having their five-year-old son sent for adoption to Russia, they decided it was time to leave their beloved city.
“They could do anything, because we, activists and patriots, are a direct ‘threat’ to their ideology of genocide and lies and bloody terror,” Ms Hryshko toldi.
i reported last week how journalists, priests, teachers and ordinary civilians were among those detained in 20 torture chambers found in the Kherson region when it was freed in a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Electrocution, rape and waterboarding were among the practices used in the chambers which, according to research by Global Rights Compliance’s Mobile Justice Team, had been directly funded by the Kremlin.
The mother-of-one said when she woke up on 24 February last year, the day Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, there were explosions all around. But the couple decided to stay, failing to grasp just how grave the situation would become.
“The city was under bombing all the time”, Ms Hryshko said while describing long traffic jams and petrol stations running out of supplies due to soaring demanding from those wanting to flee.
They moved to a friend’s house with a basement instead and for the first few days they never set foot outside because of how “incredibly scary” it was.
When the Russians entered the city, “people stopped going outside at all”.
Then came the shortage of food, which saw Ms Hryshko and her husband divide their portions to one third of normal in a bid to stretch their stock of food as much as they could.
By that point, leaving the city had become an “incredible risk”, with “many people” killed in the attempt, she said. Those who wanted to leave had to go through a “very large” number of Russians who would search them for any nationalist links.
“They searched cars, could take away everything they liked. People could also be taken away. They checked the presence of tattoos [with some national symbols or slogans].”
In an apparent reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that he invaded Ukraine to “de-Nazify” and “demilitarise” it, Ms Hryshko said: “They looked for nationalists whom they came to kill, but never found [any].”
Residents’ daily job became queueing outside shops for leftover groceries or at ATMs for cash as she stressed how nothing could be delivered to the occupied territory.
The Russians she referred to as “orcs” in a commonly used Ukrainian insult patrolled the occupied territory, searching people’s phones and documents. If pro-Ukraine material was found on them, they would be taken to a torture chamber where the city’s prison once was, the activist said. Some 400 who were detained have reportedly vanished.
Many residents refused to accept a Russian passport or financial support from the Kremlin, including a one-off payment of 10000 rubles (£110). The same amount was then given out regularly for pensioners and families with small children, Ms Hryshko claimed.
“Russian goods began to appear in stores. You have no idea how difficult it is to live under such pressure… When you hate occupiers as much as it’s possible.
“And when they go around your own city on armoured vehicles with a huge number of weapons, feel like they are masters of the situation and say that they have come to liberate you,” she said.
The Russians eventually switched off all mobile and internet communication and only allowed for traffic to go through their own providers, making it “almost impossible” to read any news or call relatives.
“Brave” citizens started rallying to protest the occupation until the Russians allegedly started opening fire at the crowds and “throwing explosives” at them.
Ms Hryshko said they found the route to leave the city through a Telegram chat where people who had already fled explained the way. They took a screenshot of the route and, after wiping their devices, set off with their son and a few necessary things.
The activist said they were “lucky” on the day they left as it was very windy, rainy and cold.
The Russians “hid in the dugouts and had no desire to stand and check cars in the rain”, she explained.
The inspection of the “endless” queue of cars wanting to leave was therefore quick and superficial, she recalled.
“I will never forget that feeling of freedom… When we were on ‘free’ Ukrainian territory and met Ukrainian soldiers I was crying. Someone gave our son candies, and I started sobbing even harder. These feelings are difficult to remember and describe again.”
The family is now living in Cherkasy, central Ukraine. But in July, just over two months after their escape, what they had dreaded for so long had come true.
Footage was caught on their home security system of three Russian troops storming their Kherson home on 10 July in what Ms Hryshko said “felt like being raped live”.
Asked what went through her mind as she watched the video, she said: “Hate, very strong hatred, disgust, powerlessness.
“Because this is my home, where my family lived, where our son’s toys and our things are. Do you know what the greatest cynicism is?
“They threw out everything from the cupboards in the study, took the small money that remained on the table, took a camera, a suitcase from under the tea set, a bottle of wine from the kitchen… And left 50 rubles on the table…,” she said.
Speaking of what her family and millions of Ukrainians have been subjected to since Russia invaded, she said: “Russians broke millions of lives. And from Ukrainians they deserve just hate for long years.”