Two Russian soldiers marched down a street in Kherson on a spring evening in early March, just days after Moscow took control of the city. The temperature that night was still below zero and the electricity went out, leaving the town in complete darkness as the soldiers returned to camp after a few drinks.
When one stumbled, the other stopped to relieve himself on the sidewalk. Suddenly, a knife was thrust deeply into the right side of his neck.
He fell on the grass. Moments later, the second Russian soldier, drunk and unaware, met the same fate.
“I finished the first one right away and then caught up with the other one and killed him on the spot,” says Archie, a Ukrainian resistance fighter who described the above scene to CNN.
He says he’s moved to pure instinct.
“I saw orcs in uniform and thought, why not?” Archie adds, using a derogatory term for Russians, as he walks down the same street. “There were no people or light and I seized the moment.”
The 20-year-old is a mixed martial arts fighter, with nimble feet and sharp reflexes, and once always carried a knife for self-defense, but has never killed anyone. CNN refers to him with the call sign to protect his identity.
Adrenaline played its part. I had no fear or time to think. The first few days I felt very bad, but then I realized that they were my enemies. They came to my house to take it from me.”
Archie’s account has been corroborated by Ukrainian military and intelligence sources that have dealt with him and other supporters. He was one of the resistance fighters in Kherson, a city that had a population of 290,000 before the invasion, which Russia tried to dissuade but could not break.
People in Kherson made their views clear shortly after Russia took control of the city on March 2 and took to the main square for daily protests, while wearing the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag.
But Kherson, the first big city and the only provincial capital that Russian troops managed to occupy from the very beginning of the invasion, was an important symbol for Moscow. Dissent cannot be tolerated.
Protesters were met with tear gas and gunshots, and organizers and the most outspoken residents were arrested and tortured. When peaceful demonstrations did not work, the people of Kherson turned to resistance and ordinary citizens like Archie began to take action on their own.
“I was not the only one in Kherson,” says Archie. “There were a lot of clever partisans. At least 10 Russians were killed every night.”
At first it was one-man operations, and like-minded residents began to organize themselves into groups, coordinating their actions with the Ukrainian army and intelligence outside the city.
“I have a friend with whom we drove around the city looking for gatherings of Russian soldiers,” he says. “We checked their patrol tracks and then gave all the information to the guys on the front line and they knew who to pass next.”
Russian soldiers were not the only ones targeted for assassination. Several government officials appointed by Moscow were targeted during the eight months of the Russian occupation. Their faces were printed in posters posted all over the city, promising revenge for their collaboration with the Kremlin, in a psychological warfare that continued throughout the occupation.
Many of those promises have been kept, as some of those officials have been shot and others blown up in their cars in incidents that pro-Russian local authorities have labeled “terror attacks”.
Archie was arrested by the occupation authorities on May 9, after attending the Victory Day parade, celebrating the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II, wearing a yellow and blue ribbon on his shirt.
He was taken to a local pre-trial detention facility that was taken over by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and used to torture soldiers, intelligence officers and Ukrainian partisans, according to Archie.
“They beat me, they gave me electric shocks, they kicked me and they beat me with clubs,” Archie recalled. “I can’t say they starved me, but they didn’t give me much to eat.”
“Nothing good happened there,” he said.
Archie is fortunate enough to be let go after nine days and after being forced to take a video saying he has agreed to work for the Russian occupiers. Ukrainian military sources and other detainees confirmed his version of what happened in the facility.
But many others did not leave, according to Archie and other fighters, as well as Ukrainian military and intelligence sources.
Ihor, who asked CNN not to release his last name for his protection, was also being held at the facility.
“I was here for 11 days and all that time I heard screaming from downstairs,” says the 29-year-old. “People were tortured, beaten with sticks in the arms and legs, cattle sticks, even plugged into batteries and given electric shocks or waterboarding.”
Ihor was caught carrying weapons and said “fortunately” he was only beaten.
“I arrived after the time people were beaten to death here,” he recalls. “I was stabbed in the leg with a taser, and they use it as a welcome. One of them asked why I was there and two others started hitting me in the ribs.”
With his arrest, Ihor was able to hide that he was a member of the Kherson resistance and transporting weapons was not the only thing he did. Ihor says he provided intelligence to the Ukrainian military – activity that would have led to more brutal punishment.
“If we find something, we watch it,[we]take a picture or a video (and we send it) to the Ukrainian forces, and then they decide whether to hit it or not,” he explains.
Among the coordinates he reported to the Ukrainian military was a warehouse within the city of Kherson. “The Russian army kept 20-30 vehicles here, there were armored trucks and armored personnel carriers and some Russians lived here,” says Ihor.
The departing Russian troops scrambled to unload what was left of the precious interior, but the shattered building bore the marks of a heavy blow. Most of the roof has collapsed, its walls are shattered, and broken glass still covers most of the floor. The structure is still in place, but parts of it were distorted by the blast.
Ihor used the Telegram messaging app to relay the building’s coordinates to his military handler, whom he referred to as “Smoke”. Along with the information, he sent a video he had secretly recorded.
“I turned on the camera and pointed it at the building and then walked and talked on the phone while the camera was shooting,” he explains. “After that, I deleted a video, of course, because if they stopped me somewhere and checked my videos and photos, there would be questions…”
He sent the information in mid-September, and just a day later, Ukrainian artillery targeted the facility.
The United States and NATO assessed that when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin expected its forces to be greeted as saviors, and to be greeted with open arms. Reality failed to live up to expectations, not only in the areas where the Moscow armies were repulsed, but also in the areas they managed to capture.
The strike on the warehouse, in which Ihor helped, is one of many facilitated by Ukrainian partisans inside Kherson working tirelessly and under threat to disrupt Russian activities within the city.
After eight months of being occupied by Russia, Kherson was now back in Ukrainian hands and the Moscow armies on alert, and forced to withdraw from the west bank of the Dnipro River.
But despite achieving victory here, Ukraine still faces near-daily missile strikes almost everywhere else, all while Russian forces continue to press on in the east.
Looking back, Ihor, the father of a three-month-old daughter, says he was lucky he wasn’t caught.
“It wasn’t difficult, but it was dangerous,” he explains. “If they caught me filming something like that, they would take me inside and probably wouldn’t let me out alive.”