Story #105. She Was On Their List: Melitopol Activist Recalls Her Experience of Occupation

August 16, 2023
Olha Leontieva was actively involved in improving life in Melitopol before it was occupied by Russia and armed men came searching her house.

Olha Leontieva was actively involved in improving life in Melitopol, Zaporizhizhya Oblast, before it was occupied by Russia.

As a public activist, head of the Patriot volunteer group, and a regional coordinator of the Docudays UA movie festival, she did a lot for the city, which brought her to the attention of the Russian occupiers when they took over Melitopol. 

"On March 14, my house was searched, and thankfully I wasn't there. I had spent the previous day at my friend's place. At 4 o'clock in the morning I got a call from my neighbors saying that jeeps with armed men in masks had arrived. They said that the men had a list and were looking specifically for me," Olha recounts.

At that point, Melitopol had been under occupation for about three weeks already, but she couldn't imagine that she would end up on a Russian list, among local authorities, as her projects were socially oriented, no politics involved.

A few days before the incident, on March 11, the mayor of Melitopol was kidnapped, and it was quite a resonance until more and more people disappeared each day.

"At some point I realized that it has become the norm, a matter of statistics, that people were being kidnapped every day, and I was downright scared. Until February 24, I had this illusion, I really thought that civilians would not be touched," says Olha.

Even on February 24, when Russia's full-scale invasion began, Olha managed to host a business breakfast for local entrepreneurs, as she did every Thursday. That morning, all were in a state of shock, discussing the events unfolding. On the same day, they went to donate blood, and in the evening, tanks arrived in Melitopol.

"Tanks quickly approached the town and stopped. But we had no idea whether they were Ukrainian tanks or not."

They were Russian tanks. And after the threat became clear to Olha, she left Melitopol through different detours and settled in Zaporizhzhya. At that time, all her family was already living in Europe.

"It's a strange feeling, as if you've been completely uprooted. I've been working with displaced people since 2014, and I thought I comprehended their experiences. After having fled myself, I realized that I hadn't truly grasped anything. It's impossible to fully understand without actually experiencing it."

Broken off from the world she had built, Olha couldn't swallow the fact of occupation. She said, she and her colleagues are already preparing for the day when their dear Melitopol is liberated, and are working on plans to restore the city.

"Russian propaganda keeps broadcasting what they have built or opened in Melitopol, but we know that it was there already, and was made by Ukrainians. Our pre-war Ukrainian authorities really loved this city and worked to make it even better. What is happening there now is lawlessness, impunity, and chaos."

While away, Olha worked hard to regain her feeling of safety, sleeping with her doors closed for a long time. However, she couldn't close the door to bad news that kept coming from Melitopol. This included the horrific news  that her father did not survive the occupation, and that her mother had been summoned for interrogation shorlty after Olha's left.  

To keep her mother safe, she had to cut all ties with her. But her sister keeps her informed.

Another thing she learned from her neighbors was that a Russian from Samara had taken up residence in Olha's house without any legal right, and was treating it as his own.

According to locals, Russians had not only seized Ukrainian homes but also laid claim to all their belongings. In some instances, they had even taken over local businesses.

But, once again, Olha won't simply swallow these indignities, and as she confidently states, the liberation of Melitopol is coming.

Yelyzaveta Dzhulai
Journalist at UkraineWorld