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The stories of Ukrainian citizens who formed espionage cells to help liberate Kherson

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The southern port city of Kherson was the first major Ukrainian city occupied by Russian forces. With deep historical ties to Russia, it was not expected to be a center of resistance, but an army of citizen spies defied Moscow's expectations and helped Ukrainian forces liberate the city last November. NPR's Joanna Kakissis has the story of Kherson and its citizens turned partisans.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Let's start with the day of the invasion, February 24, 2022.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISHES CLATTERING)

KAKISSIS: Tetiana Horobstova, a retired physics teacher, remembers it again as a beautiful day in Russia.

TETIANA HOROBSTOVA: (Speaking Russian).

KAKISSIS: She remembers making breakfast and watching from her balcony as the sun rose, turning the sky pink and illuminating green fields bursting with the winter harvest.

HOROBSTOVA: (Through interpreter) And then I heard the explosions. And then I saw the explosions - one near the airport, then a second, the third at a gas station. It seemed to turn everything red.

KAKISSIS: Horobstova started to cry. She was born in Russia and did not believe the Russians would ever invade. Kherson used to be a Russian-speaking city. Many here had friends and family in Russia. But she says she and her husband are clear about their loyalties.

HOROBSTOVA: (Through interpreter) We have a Ukrainian flag on our TV and a poster that says, Putin, get out. That's my poster, by the way.

KAKISSIS: Their daughters in western Ukraine begged them to evacuate, but they stayed, along with their youngest daughter, Iryna, who wanted to resist.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

KAKISSIS: The first days of the invasion were chaotic.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Ukrainian soldiers fought to keep Russian paratroopers off the Antonivka Bridge, which crosses the Dnipro River into the city of Kherson. Serhiy, a soldier from a local brigade, remembers wondering why Ukrainian authorities had not blown up the bridge on the first day of the invasion.

SERHIY: (Through interpreter) It should have been blown up. That would have slowed down the Russian troops.

KAKISSIS: Serhiy would not reveal his last name because he's in the military. He says he got his wife and children out of Kherson, and then he turned to a special mission.

SERHIY: (Through interpreter) To destroy the enemy's equipment and enemy troops and also to find and kill collaborators.

KAKISSIS: Many civilians offered to help, including Oksana Pohomii, a 59-year-old accountant and city council member. With her dyed fire-red hair braided into a rattail, Pohomii looks like a cross between Cyndi Lauper and a Viking.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

KAKISSIS: She and others protested as Russian soldiers took over the city.

OKSANA POHOMII: (Through interpreter) The resistance was everywhere. I remember this boy with an amputated leg in the central market. He played the guitar and sang the Ukrainian national anthem. It was really brave.

KAKISSIS: Across Kherson, ordinary civilians became partisans, forming espionage cells, reporting to the Ukrainian military and security services. Pohomii joined one cell with at least 30 members. She kept tabs on who was collaborating with Russian forces.

POHOMII: (Through interpreter) I saw there were three types of people in Kherson - those who will die for Ukraine, those who will die for Russia and those who do not care, who are like, Ukraine is OK, but Russia took over now, and that's also OK.

KAKISSIS: Pohomii took photos and videos and eavesdropped on conversations, then pass on the information to Ukraine's security services. Suspected collaborators included some of her own fellow city council members and even some classmates.

POHOMII: (Through interpreter) We saw a list of those who organized the referendum to join Russia. And on that list was the son of one of my classmates. And she was a teacher of Ukrainian history.

KAKISSIS: Pohomii's closest friend, Olha Chupikova, a 48-year-old landscape designer, also became a spy. She lived near the Antonivka Bridge. She served as the eyes and ears of the Ukrainian military.

OLHA CHUPIKOVA: (Through interpreter) I told them everything I saw about Russian troops - where they live, where they put their vehicles. Sometimes I'd pretend that I was going to the grocery store or waiting for the bus. I'm not saying I'm Agent 007, but I just did whatever made sense to me.

(Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: With her pixie cut and bright blue eyes, she looks like a Minnesota soccer mom who's about to offer you a freshly baked pie.

CHUPIKOVA: (Through interpreter) They wanted us to look average, unremarkable, not easy, to remember so we could work undetected as if we were moving between drops of rain.

KAKISSIS: They used Google Maps to find coordinates of Russian convoys and sent them via Signal to a contact in Ukraine's military. When cellphone service was weak, she would climb to the roof of her house and throw her phone up in the air, hoping for a signal to send her messages.

CHUPIKOVA: (Through interpreter) I was really scared the first time I was on the roof. We are not professional spies. We are amateurs. But if not us, then who?

KAKISSIS: Russian troops were watching everyone closely. Chupikova says residents were getting arrested for simply giving Russian soldiers dirty looks. Tetiana Horobstova, the retired teacher who watched the invasion from her balcony, worried for her daughter Iryna. She says Iryna spent months driving all over the city, giving rides to nurses and doctors secretly helping injured Ukrainians. And then on May 13, Iryna's 37th birthday, two cars pulled up outside the house.

HOROBSTOVA: (Through interpreter) There were 11 guys armed to the teeth with their faces covered, wearing military uniforms and waving machine guns and pistols. Six went upstairs to our apartment and right to Iryna's room. She didn't deny anything. She said, yes, I'm a Ukrainian patriot, and I hate you. And they took her away.

KAKISSIS: Hundreds of others disappeared, too, including the elected mayor of Kherson, who was arrested in June.

OLEKSANDR DIAKOV: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: By the end of summer, several members of Oleksandr Diakov’s espionage cell had also been arrested. Diakov, a shy, bearded apartment manager, had spent months spying on Russian-installed politicians for Ukraine's security services.

DIAKOV: (Through interpreter) I knew that sooner or later, the Russians would find me, too. They arrested me when I was hiding at a friend's house.

KAKISSIS: They covered his head and took him to a prison cell. He says the Russian soldiers beat him repeatedly and also tortured him with electric shocks.

DIAKOV: (Through interpreter) They kicked me so badly in my leg and kept saying, we're going to break it. My leg got infected. I begged for a doctor.

KAKISSIS: After more than two weeks of detention, he was loaded into a van and driven to what looked like the outskirts of town.

DIAKOV: (Through interpreter) I thought they were taking me not to the doctor, but to the forest.

KAKISSIS: To the forest so they could execute you.

DIAKOV: Yeah.

KAKISSIS: Had they done that to other people you know?

DIAKOV: (Through interpreter) I know many people who died.

KAKISSIS: The Russians ended up taking Diakov to a hospital, and a doctor there helped him escape instead of returning him to Russian custody. The underground resistance was having an impact. Politicians installed by the Russians were assassinated. When Ukraine got sophisticated missiles from the U.S. military, officials say the partisans helped Ukrainian troops target sites like the Antonivka Bridge, which cut off Russian supply routes. And by November, Ukrainian forces had pushed the Russians to the other side of the Dnipro River. On the night of Nov. 10, Oleksandr Diakov heard a convoy of vehicles outside his bedroom.

DIAKOV: (Through interpreter) They were blasting Ukrainian music, and I realized our guys were entering the city. Every day, we were waiting for this.

KAKISSIS: By the next morning, Ukrainian troops controlled the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: Residents poured into the streets and cheered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Oksana Pohomii, the city councilwoman, helped replace Russian flags with Ukrainian ones. Her former classmate, who had helped Russians try to annex Kherson tried to stop her.

POHOMII: (Through interpreter) She said, what are you doing? Maybe the Russians will come back.

KAKISSIS: Pohomii says the classmate and her family soon left for Russia. Other pro-Russian residents fled across the Dnipro River to a part of the Kherson region still occupied by Russian forces. More than three months after liberation, Russian forces remain across the river, less than a mile away, and they hit Kherson every day with rockets, missiles or artillery. More than 80 civilians have died. Only 60,000 people of the city's pre-war population of 300,000 remain.

Oh, man, that smells nice.

Pohomii now runs a volunteer bakery with her friend Olha Chupikova, the one who used to spy on the Russian military near the Antonivka Bridge.

POHOMII: (Speaking Ukrainian).

CHUPIKOVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: They are dusted with flour as they show us. Pohomii says they deliver the free bread to residents.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCRAPING)

POHOMII: (Through interpreter) We never try to force anyone to stay because not everyone can take it. I know people who don't leave their homes. I know people who could handle the shelling at first, but then something broke inside them after the shelling killed people. They stop eating and drinking. And I said, it's time to leave.

KAKISSIS: Many partisans are still missing, presumed to be somewhere in Russian custody. Tetiana Horobstova's daughter Iryna is among them. Horobstova is pleading with her fellow ethnic Russians to free her daughter. Horobstova's Russian roots are now a deep source of heartache.

HOROBSTOVA: (Speaking Russian).

KAKISSIS: "I feel ashamed," she says, "as if it was me personally who started this terrible war."

HOROBSTOVA: (Speaking Russian).

KAKISSIS: Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kherson.

(SOUNDBITE OF NILS FRAHM'S "THEM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
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