“Here in Ukraine, we are destroying what we didn’t have at home,” the head of the Stanislav municipality quoted the occupiers as saying
Ivan Samoilenko talks about how the ‘semi-occupied’ municipality lives, hopefully listening to the explosions from Chornobaivka.
Text by: Dmytro Syniak
The Stanislav municipality is located on the banks of the Dnipro Estuary or, as locals call it, the Dnipro Lyman. Steep sandy slopes create an extraordinarily picturesque coastline, and dawns and sunsets here have their own unique beauty. Therefore, when the Stanislav municipality united in 2017, it was decided to focus on the development of tourism. With the help of donors, local authorities and public activists created the Sustainable Municipality Development Strategy for 2019-2027, the Local Economic Development Programme and the Community Economic Profile. In five years, the Stanislav municipality has had every chance to become a powerful economic and tourist centre. But the Russian invasion cut these plans short. Now the municipality is divided by the front line. However, Ivan Samoilenko, head of the municipality, firmly believes that the Kherson region will soon return under the Ukrainian flag and is not afraid to speak directly about it to the occupiers. Decentralization asked him how the ‘semi-occupied’ municipality lives.
What was the first day of the war like for you?
At four in the morning, I woke up from the explosions. The radio had already talked about the invasion, but I did not believe it. I called my son-in-law, who lives near Chongar, on the administrative border with Crimea, and he confirmed it. “Yes, the Russians have really broken through the Ukrainian defences and pushed north,” he said. Then I hurried to the highest point of our municipality, between Oleksandrivka and Stanislav, and from there I heard Mykolayiv and the airfield in Kulbakine being shelled. Eventually, our power supply was cut off, and I went with the electricians to Tomyna Balka, where our community is powered. (I also have a degree in electrical engineering). When we finally got to the substation, we suddenly saw tanks, armoured personnel carriers and an off-road Ural vehicle with the letters ‘Z’ on them. Soldiers started jumping out of the Ural and headed for us. I thought it was going to be the end of us. But the soldiers did nothing. They learned that we were electricians, checked our IDs and went on. And the next day, Russian planes and helicopters began to fly over our heads. Now, however, they no longer make sorties, because they have been shot down a lot. Only over Stanislav, two helicopters were shot down. One of them sank in the estuary, and the other reached Bilozerka and crashed there. Two more helicopters crashed near the villages of Rybalche and Lymaniv. I haven’t seen any planes or helicopters for a month and a half. From the first day of the invasion, I’ve been keeping a ‘war diary’ where I write down every day what I did as a village head.
What have you written down in your diary today? What is the general situation in the Stanislav municipality?
Our municipality includes four villages: Stanislav, Oleksandrivka, Shyroka Balka and Sofiyivka. There are now about 300 Russian soldiers and a big number of their vehicles in Stanislav and Shyroka Balka and in the nearby fields. And in Sofiyivka, there are only Russian checkpoints. About a third of Oleksandrivka, where the dam is located, remains under Ukrainian control. Oleksandrivka leads to the road to Mykolayiv, so the Russians are extremely eager to take full control of the village. Fortunately, Ukraine’s defence is quite strong. Still, artillery duels continue almost non-stop, and from time to time, enemy infantry attempts to storm Ukrainian positions. There is no running water, electricity or gas in Oleksandrivka now, and 350 out of 800 houses are uninhabitable. The electricity supply system in the village was completely destroyed, including a 35kV transformer substation and 14 transformers.
Did the locals manage to evacuate?
Almost everybody left, including through evacuation that we organised for about a third of the residents to the territory controlled by the Ukrainian government. About 300 IDPs from Oleksandrivka are now living in Stanislav, sheltered by locals. Such unity became possible only thanks to the decentralization reform: Stanislav’s residents have long perceived the people of Oleksandrivka as their own. About a hundred people, who are now hiding in their own basements, flatly refused to leave Oleksandrivka. It is impossible for civilians to enter the village, so it is impossible to provide these people with food or medicine. Stanislav and Shyroka Balka are shelled from Oleksandrivka all the time. We don’t know who is doing that, but the shelling is chaotic. One day we took a closer look at the fragments of cluster munitions that exploded near the villages. Most of them have pentagonal Soviet-Russian stars embossed on metal.
What is the situation in other villages?
One might say that they are doing fine: there is, albeit intermittently, electricity, gas and water, because the utility networks are mostly underground. There is mobile phone reception and mobile internet. Our outpatient clinic in Stanislav is open daily from 8:00 to 12:00 a.m. The ambulance station is open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and at night, the ambulance leaves for Bilozerka. Our school worked remotely, but now the school year is over. In Stanislav, however, the shelling destroyed one of the transformers in the main water well, so we were forced to switch the village to other transformers. Now there is water, although the pressure is a little lower than it was before. Two more transformers are damaged, and to repair them, I went to Kherson today for wires and insulators. I didn’t communicate with the occupying power and sorted everything out with the head technician of our section of the Kherson Regional Power Supply Company.
Do businesses work in the municipality?
Well, nothing is working in Oleksandrivka now. In other villages, however, most shops are open. Thanks to this, there are no problems with food or basic necessities. Entrepreneurs bring everything. Payment terminals work when there is electricity, so you can pay with bank cards. It’s a pity that only one of our farmers has launched spring field operations. Everyone else left the municipality. We distributed all their equipment to people’s houses so that no ‘liberator’ could steal it. Because they nick everything you leave unattended: starters, batteries, generators and fuel pumps. One farmer even had his Kamaz engine and transmission stolen.
Do the occupiers commit serious crimes?
They shot a girl in Shyroka Balka. Six more locals were killed by Russians in Oleksandrivka. I do not know the details. In addition, six of our locals died in Shyroka Balka from the shelling. In the beginning, the Russians also looted shops, but now this is not the case: they politely, like everyone else, buy the goods they need, and only for the hryvnia. To tell the truth, the troops of the so-called ‘DPR’ cause us the most trouble. They were the ones who took away all the computer equipment from the village council in Shyroka Balka and broke the furniture there. Until the last local elections, I was a starosta in Shyroka Balka for two years, and I developed that village council myself, so I am especially sorry to see what happened to it. So far, the Stanislav Village Council has managed to save its computers.
Did many residents leave the municipality?
About 40%. Most of them went abroad and to the territory controlled by the Ukrainian government, but many people also moved to Kherson and Crimea. They flee to where they have relatives, so several of our families went to Russia. Women and children are mostly the ones to leave. And men enlist in the Armed Forces of Ukraine or seek to make themselves useful in the rear. We did not have time to create a Territorial Defence unit. There are rumours about the forcible mobilisation of Ukrainians to the occupying army, but no one has been mobilised yet. In any case, there are almost no men between the ages of 20 and 50 left in our community.
Are Russians kidnapping pro-Ukrainian activists?
This happens from time to time, but everyone is later released, in 6, 10 or 12 days. The longest of our residents was a guy who spent 23 days in captivity. As punishment for his pro-Ukrainian views, he was forced to clean up the area.
Do you communicate with the occupiers?
Well, what does ‘communicate’ even mean? So they would go to the Stanislav Village Council, knock on the door… Electricity, gas and water supply in the villages of the municipality can be ensured by only three men: the head of the communal farm, the locksmith and me with my electrical engineering degree. That’s why they treat us relatively well. Although I resent the presence of the Russian military. Recently, they hoisted their flag at the village council. “Why?!” I asked them. “We don’t like it!” I know that there are many village councils in the Kherson region—in the Holoprystan, Kalanchak and Novotroitsk districts—that work under the Ukrainian flag, and no one tells them anything! I am in contact with many heads of municipalities.” The Russians told me to let it be. By and large, I know that the Kherson region is Ukraine all the same, and I speak openly to the Russian military about it.
Aren’t you afraid?
Well, I do not arrange rallies. It’s just that when they start telling me about the benefits of the ‘Ruskiy Mir’, I have counterarguments to that. An officer from the so-called ‘DPR’ started telling me how great their ‘republic’ was, and I told him, “When was the last time you repaired a school? And what equipment do you have in your outpatient clinic? And which country can you visit with your ‘DPR’ passport? Because we have visa-free travel regime with the European Union, so we can go wherever you want without any problems. Even before the war, we had amazing upgrades in our municipality, and our outpatient clinic was exemplary. And what do you have?! Just that the gasoline is a little cheaper?” The officer had nothing to say. And once, during an argument, I asked the ‘DPR’ soldier to show his passport. He showed it, and it was our Ukrainian passport. “You see, you and I are Ukrainians, so what can be the differences between us?!” I told him then. “Why do you and I, Ukrainians, need Russia?!”
Aren’t the occupiers threatening you for your outspoken position?
Only once, when my house was searched, I was told that I was going to be shot. “What for?” I asked. “For being Ukrainian?” The guy who did the search replied, “Yes!” “But nobody is shooting you here just because you’re Russian!” I said. That was it. The soldier then said, “My way home is still a long way off. Anything can happen to me.”
Do the Russians really plan to annex the Kherson region to Crimea? Are they taking any action in this direction?
A Russian colonel was talking about such intentions here once. I told him frankly that sooner or later the peninsula would return to Ukrainian control. The same will happen with Donetsk and Luhansk. “Why all this circus with the annexation?” I asked. “Go to your Russia, build roads, clubs, hospitals there, instead of destroying ours!” The Russian replied only that as a soldier he could not go against the order. But he realised that I was right. He and other Russian servicemen are sincerely surprised by our wealth. They were asking how a village house could have gas, water and an indoor toilet! They were told that we were waiting for them here and would meet them with flowers, but now they see that this is not the case at all. Some people admit to me: “Here in Ukraine, we are destroying what we didn’t have at home.” In time, all this foreign armada will return home to Russia.
Is it possible to leave the Stanislav municipality and enter the territory controlled by the Ukrainian government?
Only through Kherson. By the way, we already have one shuttle bus to the regional capital, and we will launch another soon. Sometimes the Red Cross facilitates evacuations ‘to Greater Ukraine’ through Kherson and further through Snihurivka. There is no road to Mykolaiv as there are active hostilities there. But I’m not going to leave anyway. Who will work then? Especially since I keep in touch with the Kherson Regional Military Administration and the Prosecutor’s Office.
Why do you need to contact the Prosecutor’s Office?
It was a sad occasion. After fierce fighting, we buried 29 soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine on the territory of our municipality. Each of them had to be identified and photographed. The Prosecutor’s Office advised us how to do everything right and according to the law. Unfortunately, only 15 of our dead boys were identified.
Is it possible to bring humanitarian aid to the Stanislav municipality?
It is not. A humanitarian convoy from Dnipro tried to pass to Kherson once, but they did not allow it. At that time, the regional administration still had considerable stocks of food and allocated 800 kg of various cereals to us. This, of course, was not enough for 10,000 people, and we distributed them only among the elderly and large families. No one came since then. Now we are especially short of medicines: you cannot grow them at home, and it is difficult to get them from the unoccupied territory.
Do the residents of the municipality receive pensions?
Yes, everything is credited to the cards without any issues, and yesterday in Kherson I agreed on cash with the head of the regional branch of Ukrposhta. Soon I have to meet the mail truck with unpaid pensions for April.
Does the village council work?
Yes, 08:30 to 11:00 a.m. And how can we not? Some people need to be issued statements, powers of attorney and death certificates, some need assistance in obtaining new documents, because the old ones burned down or remained in the destroyed house. You can’t move about without a passport, as the Russians will detain you immediately! All employees of the Stanislav Village Council switched to two-thirds of their salaries due to martial law. We turned off the street lights, and households use very little gas. Because of this, our budget plan is being met by 70%, and there are no outstanding payments.
What is the sentiment among the locals? Do they want the municipality back under Ukrainian control?
They are looking forward to it! Even a few rare pro-Russian characters have changed their minds after losing their homes. Nobody here wants to live in Russia. More and more people are happy when they hear explosions from Chornobaivka, which is about 35 km from us. Stanislav belongs to the Kherson region, and the Kherson region is Ukraine!
Громади:Станіславська територіальна громада
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