VELYKA OLEKSANDRIVKA, Ukraine -- A few weeks after Russian forces pulled out following a seven-month occupation, the signs of their presence are everywhere: in the ruined homes, the wrecked vehicles, and the blown bridge over the river that runs through this Kherson region village.
They are there in the graffiti on the World War II monument and in the missing statue of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet, which has been ripped from its pedestal in the center of town.
And they were there, too, in the bitter toast that Volodymyr, a local resident, raised with a friend and fellow survivor on his 55th birthday one recent afternoon, holding a glass of grape moonshine as he spoke outside his half-destroyed house.
Russian forces entered Velyka Oleksandrivka on March 13, about three weeks into the large-scale invasion of Ukraine and shortly after they seized the city of Kherson, about 80 kilometers to the southwest. It was liberated in early October, as Ukrainian forces slowly swept forward in a counteroffensive that culminated with the Russian retreat from Kherson.
WATCH: The airport is in ruins, littered with the twisted hulks of destroyed tanks and aircraft. On the edge of town, there is a mass burial site with unidentified human remains. On the main square, people are asking soldiers for autographs and posing with them for photos. A day in newly liberated Kherson is filled with contrasts.
During the occupation, Volodymyr -- a tree surgeon and ex-soldier who has spent most of his life in Velyka Oleksandrivka -- decided to stay put.
His readiness to resist the Russian invaders would be put to test four times.
Three days after the Russian troops rolled in, some 200 residents took to the main street to protest the occupation. The column of people -- holding yellow-and-blue national flags and chanting “Glory to Ukraine, glory to the heroes” -- was led by Volodymyr’s wife and his daughter from a previous relationship -- both named Anna.
Russian forces dispersed the rally, but no blood was shed. A demonstration the next day gathered far fewer people, and there were no more protests later on.
In a phone call with RFE/RL, Volodymyr’s daughter confirmed that she and Volodymyr’s wife organized the march along with a friend of theirs, despite a lack of support from the local authorities. But the Russians thought Volodymyr was behind the demonstration.
Shortly afterward, Volodymyr said, he was standing in his demolished garden when two KAMAZ trucks and an armored vehicle with a machine gun on top drove up to the house, where he lived with his wife and elderly mother, and he was taken away and interrogated.
The Russian officers who spoke to him initially treated him with respect and offered him food, he said -- they wanted him to serve as head of the town. He refused, defiantly telling them that “in Ukraine this function is elected democratically, not picked by Russian soldiers.”
Volodymyr, who did not want his surname or his image published for security reasons, was the head of the local organization of Donbas war veterans -- Ukrainians who have fought in the Kremlin-fueled conflict that erupted in southeastern Ukraine in 2014.
After that first interrogation, the Russians let Volodymyr go and nothing much happened to him at that point.
But conditions in the occupied village gradually became unbearable, said his neighbor, Oleh Dudka, a farmer who left the village during the occupation and recently returned. Russian soldiers stole all his grain, as well as a harvester, tractors, and other equipment -- and most of the belongings in his home.
The soldiers made stealing easier by pushing residents of what had been a village of about 9,000 people before the invasion to leave, Dudka said: “Staying to protect what you had could cost you your life.”
Getting out wasn’t easy either, though, especially after the bridge over the Inhulets River, which winds through the village and region and flows into the Dnieper near Kherson, was destroyed. Ragged ends of the span still hung in the air over the river in early November.
The second time Volodymyr was interrogated, it was because he was helping residents escape. This time, he said, a black bag was shoved over his head, and he was taken to a site near Nova Kakhovka, a town 80 kilometers from Velyka Oleksandrivka. He was beaten and threatened and held for more than a week before being released before Orthodox Easter, in early May, he said, making his way back home on foot.
In most years, spring and summer are tranquil times in the sun-kissed villages of the Kherson region, known in Ukraine for watermelons and homemade wine. But in 2022, as the weeks of Russian occupation turned into months, they brought sorrow and havoc.
The few residents who stayed in Velyka Oleksandrivka found themselves walking a tightrope, balanced dangerously between trying to save their lives and property, which entailed developing some relations with the occupiers, and trying to help the Ukrainian Army take back the village.
Volodymyr, a tough-looking man with an intense gaze and penchant for sharp, sarcastic laughter, said he did his best to make the latter happen.
As he evacuated people toward Ukrainian-held territory, he provided some of the Russian soldiers at the checkpoints he passed through with Ukrainian SIM cards he said they asked for because they wanted a stable Internet connection.
The conversations on those phones were intercepted by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), he said.
Later, thanks to information on the movements of the Russian troops collected by his wife, Anna, he planted a mine he received from Ukrainian soldiers on a road taken by a Russian convoy, he said, and one of the vehicles exploded.
After that, Volodymyr said, he was taken in for interrogation for the third time. Russian officers suspected that he was giving the Ukrainian Army coordinates of Russian troops, he said, and wanted him to tell them everything he knew about their movements and positions.
Before he was taken to the cellar of a house near the town school, where the occupying forces were holding several people, he asked a soldier from Russia’s Buryatia region, on Lake Baikal, to take care of about 50 geese he kept on a beach he had created on a riverbank near his home, offering a bottle of his home brew in exchange.
According to Volodymyr, the soldier said, “In the Baikal region, we can only dream of grapes like yours. After the war, I will visit you with my wife."
And once Volodymyr was in the cellar, he said, he convinced Russian soldiers from Daghestan to let him leave a couple of times -- when their commanders were not there -- to give his mother, who had cancer, injections.
Like captives held in basements and boiler rooms in various parts of Ukraine under Russian occupation, according to accounts from survivors, Volodymyr said the resisters in the cellar were subjected to a range of “tortures,” including electrocution, Russian roulette -- the threat of death with every pull of the trigger -- and beatings with blunt objects.
At one point, he said, Russian soldiers told him he would be freed if he killed a fellow inmate. He refused, and they made the same offer to the other man -- with the same result.
When he was released, he was left almost alone. His mother had died. His daughter had left Velyka Oleksandrivka, fearing for her life, and so did his wife. "But I am not going anywhere," he muttered when he was describing his story, as if it was all still happening, repeating the phrase several times.
The Russians came for him again on July 28 -- St. Volodymyr’s Day, according to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church calendar. A security officer known as Shadow entered his home along with several soldiers, punched him in the chest, drew a gun, and ordered him to dig his own grave in the garden, he said.
"It looks like a trench," one of the Russian soldiers joked -- and then the officer fired a series of shots, he said, some over his head and others close to his body, leaving still-visible gouges in one of the outside walls of the house. But he was left alive -- and he cannot explain why.
“I thought of building a greenhouse on the site of this hole, but my daughter objected," Volodymyr said with a laugh. On his 55th birthday, his spirit seemed unbroken, but his laughter was bitter and at one point he broke down and cried.
During the last interrogation, Russian officers found his wife’s name on his phone. “They understood that she is my weak point,” he said, wiping tears from his cheeks.
She received a phone call, and when she learned that he was being detained once again, she decided to go back to Velyka Oleksandrivka. On the way to the village on August 1, the vehicle she was riding in came under fire from Russian soldiers, according to Volodymyr. Five of the eight passengers died, including his wife.