To this day, Serhiy does not know where his mother hid it. Volodymyr hid it in a cupboard. Julia in a shoebox. Now they proudly parade in the streets with the flags.
He doesn’t even know how the old tattered flag got there. For as long as 17-year-old Serhiy can remember, it hung at the gas station where his father worked. The latter was the one who brought it home the day after the Russians launched a full-scale invasion on February 24. The front was rapidly approaching Kherson, where almost 300,000 people lived before the invasion. Soon the city was occupied.
Serhiy and his parents hid it first in one closet, then in another, and finally pinned it under the table. However, each hiding place seemed easy to find. Finally, without saying anything, mom took the flag and hid it somewhere in the house. She never told them where. “Even if I tell you where I hid it, you won’t find it,” was all she said.
She returned it after eight months, when it was certain that the Russians were no longer in Kherson. They were sitting at home, the city was already celebrating, and his mother still did not want to give it away. She was preparing dinner.
“Give us the flag back,” Serhiy said.
“I will not. Wait for official confirmation.”
There was no telephone service or electricity in the city. Father and son dug up grandma’s old battery operated radio. They tried to catch a station for a long time, until they finally heard the Ukrainian language. The news stated that Kherson had been regained.
“It got warm inside. We danced, shouted and cried,” says Serhiy.
Only then did mom give them back the flag.
No one will take the memories away
Looking at the tattered flag of 67-year-old Volodymyr, one can see that it has been through a lot. “This is nothing. The other one was so full of holes it was embarrassing to carry it around, so I took this one,” he admits.
He bought it in 2013, when protests against President Viktor Yanukovych and his decision not to sign an association agreement with the European Union spread across the country. Although the epicenter of events was Kyiv’s Independence Square, minor demonstrations took place all over Ukraine. Including Kherson.
The second one, the one he’s wrapped around himself, he bought seven years ago. He wanted to hang it at the entrance to the eight-story building where he lives. He wanted to show his love for his country. “This is a part of it, just like the people and the land,” Volodymyr says.
The concierge said if he bought it, she would hang it. So he did.
When the invasion began on February 24, the flag was still flying. However, the Russians were approaching Kherson, and after a few days the cautious caretaker pulled it off the building. Volodymyr was indignant, but understood that if it stayed, he would put himself and perhaps other residents of the building in danger. He only asked the caretaker to give him back the flag.
He didn’t hide it at first. The inhabitants of the city–which surprised not only the Russians, but also many Ukrainians–came out for weeks to protest against the occupying authorities. Crowds chanted: “Fascists!”, “Go home!”, sang “Red viburnum” and a song about the Turkish Bayraktar drone, which was one of the heroes of the first days of full-scale war. At first, the Russians did not react. The protesters even managed to block armored personnel carriers. A policeman with a Ukrainian flag climbed one such vehicle.
Volodymyr was one of the protestors. Together with his friends, he proudly walked not only with the Ukrainian flag, but also with the American, Spanish and Bahamian ones, souvenirs from his many travels. In the past, he was a sailor in the Bahamas, a construction worker and soccer referee in New York, and a tourist in Mallorca. “My late friend told me that anything can be taken away from you except your memories. That’s why I tried to travel every year,” he says today.
These various flags were partly a joke and partly showed that Ukraine is a place for everyone–as long as you don’t arrive armed.
Window to the world
The Russians, however, did not tolerate such behavior for long. Soon, seeing the protesters, they would fire into the air, spray tear gas and throw flashbang grenades. They also began to use repression. They rounded up protestors and came for them at to their homes. Those who were caught were often tortured.
Such misfortune befell Volodymyr’s 70-year-old friend, who had been helping soldiers. since the outbreak of the war in Donbas in 2014. The Russians are said to have stopped her twice. She was beaten so much that her arms and legs were blue, and when she fainted, they left her on the side of the road, probably hoping that she wouldn’t make it. They allegedly told another detainee, whom they also beat, that if they saw him again at the protests, they would kill him.
Volodymyr: “During the occupation, one wrong move and you were done. Twice I had to run from kids who reported to the Russians. In addition, it was constantly reported on local television that there was a cash reward for information about people who opposed the new authorities.”
“There were no collaborators in my building, but there were those who…” Volodymyr cuts his sentence short.
It is hard to deny: some inhabitants of Kherson supported the Russian occupation.
Volodymyr often recorded life in the city on his phone and put it on social media. He had a lot of chats with friends from all over the world on chat apps. He doesn’t really know how to maintain digital security, so if the Russians caught him they would find everything they wanted on his old iPhone. Fortunately, he wasn’t caught.
When the protests were suppressed, Volodymyr folded the flags, hid them in a cupboard under the TV set and covered them with a rag with which he dusted every day. They stayed there until the Russians withdrew from the city.
See another championship
Volodymyr admits that he was afraid that eventually they would come for him for participating in the protests and then find both the flags and the telephone. One Sunday, when he was returning from the market, he saw with horror a group of armed Russian soldiers in front of his building. He thought that they were waiting for him. “I’m getting old, my best years are behind me, but I still dream of watching another World Cup and seeing a little more of the world,” he admits.
He is not only an avid traveler, but also a huge soccer fan. When the Russians stood in front of his house, there were a few months left until the World Cup in Qatar (today he is cheering for the Netherlands, Japan, Poland and Portugal). One of the soldiers asked him for his apartment number. Volodymyr replied, and the Russian immediately lost interest. It turned out that a Ukrainian soldier lived in the building. They broke into his apartment and searched it, but found no one.
On November 9, Volodymyr saw the Russians packing near the market where he bought the flag years ago. None were in the city the next day. On November 11, he went out in the morning and saw cars with blue and yellow flags. He ran home, opened the cupboard and pulled the flag out from under the rag. He was bursting with joy and excitement. He wrapped himself in the flag, went into the street and felt free again.
Hang it above the bed
When 39-year-old Julia finally convinced her husband to go to an anti-Russian protest, it happened to be the day when the occupiers were throwing flashbang grenades. They had a blue and yellow flag with them. They decided to turn back because they had children waiting for them at home: 17-year-old Karina and 8-year-old Danylo.
When the protests stopped, the family—like Volodymyr—decided to hide the flag. Just before February 24, they moved from a one-room apartment to a three-room apartment. They were supposed to renovate it, but that didn’t happen. That’s why there was not much furniture in it, but a lot of boxes. Julia took a white cardboard box from Danylo’s old sandals, hid the flag in it, and stuffed the box among other shoe boxes. They’ll open one, two, or three, but they won’t look in all of them, she thought.
In addition, she rolled up the flag and put it in a plastic bag so that the blue and yellow colors would not stand out. They cared about the flag because it had a symbolic value for them. Two years ago, Julia and her daughter went to visit Julia’s mother and stepfather in Kyiv. An older couple gave them a flag to take to Kherson and hang on the occasion of Flag Day, which falls on the eve of August’s Independence Day.
Now this thing that was dear to them and of which they were so proud suddenly became a burden.
“It was a terrible feeling, that they might find it,” admits Karina.
“I’d like to hang it over the bed,” she said to her father during the occupation.
He realized he wanted to do it right now. – No flags! Are you crazy?! After all, there are rashiki around here.
“Rashiki” and “ruscist” are terms used by many, including Karina’s family. They come from the combination of the words “Russians” and “fascists”.
The teenager explained that she dreamed about the future. She knew they could get in trouble for something like this.
We got lost in time
Julia, who worked for a marketing company for a while after February 24, and her children, hardly left the house during the eight-month occupation. Her husband, an electrician, sometimes went out to work. They lived on savings and supplies gathered earlier.
It was a kind of boycott—they did not want to support the Russian economy. Karina, who was unable to apply to university due to the situation in her city, thought about getting a job, but decided against it. She did not want to be paid in Russian rubles.
“Life under occupation is like being locked in a box. You can’t move,” admits Karina. “Sometimes I thought that when I’d wake up everything would be as it was before, but in the morning I was back in an occupied city.”
Julia didn’t even want to change time zones. She stuck to the Ukrainian one, which sometimes made it difficult for her husband to agree on what time it was.
“We got a little lost in time,” admits Danylo.
Julia endured the occupation wearily. She woke up at night–usually when the sound of artillery reached her. Panic and fear gripped her. She didn’t know where to go or what to do. Only after some time did she manage to calm down.
“When the city was liberated, those panic attacks disappeared like magic,” she says today.
Danylo in the wardrobe
Only little Danylo didn’t care. He made a den behind the fridge, sat there with the computer and played games. His parents barely managed to drag him out into the corridor when shelling occurred.
Danylo only played one game. Eventually, he grew weary of it, but still lingered in front of the screen. As long as there was internet, he went to school online. After that, he had time to himself.
Although the boy seemed to be the least concerned about the situation in the city, Julia was afraid for him, especially as September 1 approached. The Russians threatened that everyone had to send their children to their schools. She was afraid that they would go door to door. That’s why she planned to hide not only the flags but also the child, should inspectors come to the house. A wardrobe-staircase was placed beside the bunk bed where the children slept. When the drawers were pulled out, there was some space behind them. Julia decided to check if her son could fit there.
“It was terribly cramped in there and hard to breathe, but I was not afraid,” admits Danylo.
“He never cares,” Karina interjects.
“We barely squeezed him in, but we did it,” says Julia.
She laughs about it now, but at the time she was terrified. When someone knocked on their door that September 1, she turned pale. Her son was to go to his room and listen. If it was a stranger, Karina would help him hide.
“Who is it?” Julia asked.
She was met with silence. It later turned out that it was a hearing-impaired neighbor who wanted to ask about some trifle.
On November 11, Julia’s husband went out to the garage to get something. He came back excited because people with Ukrainian flags were running around the streets. Karina immediately ran to the cabinet, pulled the rolled canvas from the white box and put it on. Her heart pounded and her palms were sweaty.
She decided to go outside. But suddenly she turned around and said, “Mom, I’m afraid to go out with this flag.”
She thought someone would report or kidnap her. But she gathered herself. She saw many people like her on the street. She took a big breath. She says it was then that her fear disappeared and a sense of strength emerged.
Where is your flag?