BERDYANSK, Ukraine -- Russian military patrols prowl the streets, Russian channels fill the airwaves, and the Russian-imposed authorities take a cut of the fishermen’s catch. The mayor has disappeared, phone service is dead, and protests are rare after occupying forces fired into the air at rallies against them in March.
West of devastated Mariupol and east of the isthmus that connects Russian-held Crimea to mainland Ukraine, Berdyansk was seized by Russian forces four days after Moscow launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Viktoria Roshchyna, a contributor to RFERL’s Ukrainian Service, traveled last month to the city of more than 100,000 on the Sea of Azov.
After a lengthy journey through Russian checkpoints -- and a week in the custody of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), part of the occupying force, which accused her of working for its Ukrainian equivalent, the SBU -- this is what she saw.
The city was filled with Russian military equipment. Russian personnel had occupied the government buildings and transformed them into their bases of operation. Russian military patrols plied the streets.
There was no natural gas or mobile phone coverage. Food, medicine, and fuel were in short supply. Explosions could be heard in the distance, and the occupying forces had appointed a “commandant” from among their military ranks to act as mayor.
Some who opposed the occupation have been abducted and held in captivity. Freedom of speech is suppressed, the local radio station is occupied, and Russian TV channels are broadcast.
On the way to Berdyansk from Zaporizhzhya, a government-held city to the northwest, I passed through about two dozen Russian-controlled military checkpoints, most of them manned by forces from Russia’s Chechnya region or by Russia-backed separatists from the Donetsk Oblast to the east.
During these stops, men were asked to undress to be checked for tattoos, which are sometimes symbols of Ukrainian fighting forces, and their fingers were inspected for the presence of lubricant associated with gunpowder. Cell phones and other belongings were also carefully examined.
A huge concentration of Russian forces was gathered in the city of Polohy, about 100 kilometers from Berdyansk. Here, the Chechens behaved aggressively. One man trying to cross, whose phone had an image of a defiant meme that was born when a Ukrainian border guard cursed at a Russian warship in the Black Sea, was threatened with imprisonment and subjected to physical violence.
I was threatened with imprisonment when one of the troops manning the checkpoint said that they hadn’t had a female prisoner yet, but I was eventually allowed through.
Within 30 kilometers of Berdyansk, the mobile phone connection disappeared. Residents of the city said that Russians who control the city were promising to install a Russian network and issue SIM cards. For the time being, one said, “We’re cut off from the world."
Lack of phone connections meant residents could not call an ambulance. The hospitals said there was enough medicine, but only for a while, and pharmacies were experiencing shortages.
“Suppliers don’t bring anything. We try on our own, but it goes out in a very limited number. Almost nothing that is always in demand is available,” said Halyna Boyko, a local pharmacist. “I don't know what will come next."
Since there was no gas, the electrical power network was in overdrive, which led to power shortages and blackouts.
The city’s main bakery and meat processing plant were operating, but groceries were also in short supply.
"Shops are almost empty, and those who supply produce sell at a high price.... Everything at the market is also expensive," one resident said.
Large clusters of people could be seen outside banks -- not waiting in line but trying to connect to WiFi networks. Russian soldiers also went to banks to try to catch a signal.
The banks themselves were closed, though, and some residents were unable to get their monthly pensions before the city was seized. It was said that clients could withdraw money from one bank, but only if they could access the app.
People were divided over where to seek help. Some would go to the Russian authorities, others to the social security office, which had not been occupied. There, some humanitarian aid that didn’t make it to Mariupol was distributed.
What about residents seeking a way out? Only to Russian-occupied Crimea, they were being told.
Another scarce commodity: information.
After taking the city, the Russians quickly approached local journalists, detaining and holding them captive in some cases, and tried to pressure and persuade them to cooperate.
“They took their phones and their documents, and looked through their computers,” one local activist said. Only Russian TV and radio were being broadcast, he said, and the head of one local publication was beaten.
At a youth center that had been transformed into an aid hub for displaced people, providing warm clothing, essential goods, and advice for refugees mostly from Mariupol, sympathies lay with Ukraine and Ukrainians.
The director, Oleh Balaban, said workers try to show those coming in that they haven’t been forgotten.
"We are now like the whole country. We live one day at a time,” Balaban said. “We do everything under these conditions for residents to feel more or less normal.”
But signs that all is not normal abounded.
The mayor of the city could not be found. A former city councilman, Volodymyr Bezverkhniy, said there were reports that some of his fellow former deputies had disappeared -- but that it was difficult to know for sure.
"In a word, this is war,” he said. “This is a terrible time, when, unfortunately, those who are most vulnerable suffer the most -- and those who have no weapons in their hands.”
Several dozen camps have been set up for internally displaced people.
Kyrylo, 25, came from Mariupol, much of which has been razed by Russian attacks, and said that people his age are often the most traumatized. Many people have fled the devastated city, and many didn’t make it -- trapped in a hell whose dimensions are emerging as survivors recount their experiences.
WATCH: Ukrainian civilians who have escaped from the besieged port city of Mariupol described scenes of "hell" and say those who remain in the ruins are on the brink of starvation. Russian forces have surrounded the city and have been pounding it with artillery and rocket fire. (Originally published March 29.)
"Most children do not understand all the horror and mostly did not even go out, did not see all the destruction, the shelling, and the corpses,” he said. “It all depends on the strength of the spirit of a person because even some adults panicked, cried, and hid in corners.”
Kyrylo, who did not want his last name printed for fear of repercussions, said several of his neighbors burned to death when the building where he lived caught fire. One man jumped from a third-floor window and survived, he said, but was unable to save his family.
Another refugee said people were being taken from the villages surrounding Mariupol to the part of the Donetsk region that is held by Russia and the separatists it backs.
Oleksandr, who also feared consequences if his last name was made public, has fished the waters off Berdyansk for 20 years. He said he and his fellow fishermen must surrender 30 percent of their catch to the occupying authorities, ostensibly for the needs of displaced people.
To protest the invasion, the war, and that demand, he has stopped fishing, he said, and hasn’t been out to sea since February 23, the day before the invasion.
“For now, we’re holding out. We are not negotiating with the Russian Federation," he said.
The Russian FSB has commandeered the district administration building in Berdyansk and Russian forces occupy the former SBU building, the city council, police stations citywide, and the local prison.
A sign reading “military command” hung on the façade of the police headquarters. The prison and the port area bristled with military hardware. Russian soldiers patrolled the city center and enforced a curfew.
WATCH: Ukraine's military announced that it destroyed a Russian naval transport ship in the port of Berdyansk on March 24. Videos from several angles that circulated on social media show explosions and plumes of smoke rising above a ship in the harbor.
The appointed Russian commandant, Oleksandr Saulenko, frequently claims that humanitarian aid is flowing in and touts the work of the communal services. A “new city council” has been established, he said.
Announcements posted around the city made several false claims: “Russia isn’t fighting the Ukrainian people” and “Russia guarantees you peace and safety,” among them. Others urged residents not to trust the “junta” in the capital, Kyiv, an inaccurate reference to the democratically elected government of Ukraine.
The FSB officers who held me were constantly telling me another falsehood: “Ukraine is no more.”
At the outset of the occupation, Berdyansk was known for numerous pro-Ukrainian rallies --- protests against the Russian forces. But they faded in the third week of March, after Russian forces opened fire and organizers and activists began to go missing. Some who were detained were later released.
“They were beaten, interrogated, and even experienced electric shocks," a local resident who had attended the rallies said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by the Russian forces.
The day before I left the city, two boys in black balaclavas tore down the Ukrainian flag in the central square. At every checkpoint on the way out, they asked me: “Why do you want to go to Ukraine? Stay here.”
At one checkpoint, a man from Mariupol was asked why he wanted to go to Zaporizhzhya -- and a soldier tried to scare him by saying that city, which has remained under Ukrainian government control, faces the same fate as Mariupol.
Back on the shoreline in Berdyansk, another fisherman, Serhiy, said he and his colleagues could hold out for at least a month, and sounded defiant: “We won’t cooperate with the Russian Federation,” he said.