A memorial at a park where residents said at least 18 militia members died at the beginning of the war in a disastrous attempt to ambush a Russian column in Kherson, Ukraine, Nov. 21, 2022. (Finbarr O'Reilly/The New York Times)
A memorial at a park where residents said at least 18 militia members died at the beginning of the war in a disastrous attempt to ambush a Russian column in Kherson, Ukraine, Nov. 21, 2022. (Finbarr O'Reilly/The New York Times)

On a foggy morning a few months ago, an aging Ukrainian fisherman with a bad back and horrible knees, datememe datememe datememe datememe datememe datememe, his inflatable dinghy cutting through the mist.

The city of Kherson had been taken over by the Russian army, and on the floor of his boat, he hid three disassembled automatic rifles.

He remembered that a Russian patrol boat came in front of him as he took a bend in the river. The commander stood on the deck and barked. Where do you plan to go?

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The commander ordered a search of the boat after Yermolenko said he was going to get fish for his wife. A soldier went to the black tub after stomping aboard.

He wanted to know what this was.

He wet his pants because he was so frightened.

Kherson was captured in the war's first days. It was declared part of Russia by the Russians.

The government of Kherson wasted little time pulling down Ukrainian flags, taking over Ukrainian schools, and even bringing Russian families into the country. Russia's leader, Vladimir Putin, devoted so much money and violence, the carrot and the stick, to bend a city to his will, that it's hard to believe he didn't do it elsewhere.

It wasn't able to work.

An assembly of ordinary citizens formed themselves into a grassroots resistance movement. In dozens of interviews, residents and Ukrainian officials described how retirees like Yermolenko, along with students, mechanics, grandmothers, and even a wealthy couple who were fixing up their yacht and got trapped in the city for the better part of a year, became spirited partisans for the Kh It was very similar to a spy film.

They took videos of Russians and sent them to the Ukrainians. Code names and passwords were used to make guns and explosives. The city was frightened by small attack teams that picked off Russian soldiers at night.

Kherson became a powerful symbol when the Russian army withdrew in November. Kherson showed what could be done for Ukrainians who had suffered so much misery and death.

Now that the Russians are gone, people are free to talk about what they did and even brag a bit.

Dmytro Yevminov, the yacht owner who was recruited into hiding guns and sacks of grenades, said that he never questioned what they were doing. I didn't know I loved my country.

It was like links in a chain.

Olena and her husband, Yermolenko, might not be like the kind of people you'd expect to find in a war zone.

When the blue flame on the stove serves as the home's only source of heat, they argue over who is the bigger hero.

She said she was the one who made you feel this way.

"Maybe this country didn't give me everything I wanted" It is my country.

The two met in Kherson. She worked at a plant. He had just left the soviet army.

He spied her sunbathing on a beach beside the Dnieper River and soon they married, moving to a riverside Kherson neighborhood called the Island, where people make their living off the water one way or another: fishing, working at boatyards or at the shipbuilding plants. A few years ago, the Yermolenkos retired from running a smoked fish business. Their lives were thrown into disarray soon after.

Thousands of Russian troops arrived in Kherson on the first day of the invasion. Local residents with military experience banded together to form a territorial defense force in order to repel Moscow. A man and his grandson enlisted.

Most of the weapons they had were hunting rifles. The local fighters were left on their own by the Ukrainian military's withdrawal from Kherson.

At least 18 militia members were killed when they failed to ambush a Russian column a few days after the invasion. The Kherson resistance changed their strategies after that. It was under the ground.

The local defense force and other people began to spy on the Russians. Within days of the war breaking out, the Ukrainian security services created special channels on Telegram and other messaging services for people to give strategic tips.

The Yermolenkos were willing to share information from their neighborhood. Since they had been living on the Island for a long time, they were familiar with everyone.

The Yermolenkos said they received dozens of videos, audio files and texts every day that tracked the location of Russian troops. There were many people who were willing to do it.

Olena said that they had a grandma in a high-rise feeding them. There were two people on the water in a sailboat watching the Russians patrol the river. There were people all around.

They said that their house became a transmitters.

Soon, the resistance movement would evolve. The Yermolenkos were asked by Ukrainian military commanders and intelligence agents to do more in the coming weeks.

The life was not good. He ran out of food. There were no stores open. There were people without jobs. Many residents shared disturbing stories of themselves or people they knew being dragged into torture chambers and subjected to electric shocks and brutal beatings, as Russian troops searched for civilians who were spies on them.

The residents continued to find ways to resist. There was a rash of yellow ribbons all over Kherson in the middle of April. There was a small act of defiance. Russian soldiers barged into hardware stores and demanded to see closed circuit TV footage to find out who had bought yellow paint, according to residents.

He said that as the weeks went by, he became more careful in whom he told. He struck up a friendship with Yevminov, a successful businessman who stopped his around the world sailboat trip. The two men pretended to be looking at circles from fish jumps or talking about boats while they were by the water.

Yevminov was asked if he would feed his dogs if something happened to him.

He felt like he was getting sucked into a riskier role. He said that he was getting messages from people in the resistance network. The messages had a code name and a location. He was moving assault rifles, bullets and grenades from one place to another.

According to interviews with other members of Kherson's partisan network and a Ukrainian military officer from the city, the weapons had passed from civilians to civilians. They were handed over to undercover Ukrainian security agents who were hiding in Kherson.

Oleksandr Samoylenko, head of Kherson's regional council, said that the system was built like a chain. It wouldn't compromise the whole operation if someone got caught.

The grandson of the Yermolenkos was interested in getting involved. He was in a cell with three other guys. He said that the Russian troops walked around the waterfront in the dark, oblivious to the glow they were casting.

Interviews with other members of the local defense force supported his account that he had killed enemy soldiers.

He admitted that they were scared in the beginning. He said that one of his friends drank a glass of alcohol before each attack.

He said they were steeled to shoot Russian soldiers at close range and take their weapons off their warm bodies.

I wasn't going to work with the other person.

The elder Yermolenko was keeping an eye on Russified. In the spirit of the Russian flag, billboards in Kherson were adorned with bands of white, blue and red.

There were acts of defiance. Some transportation companies in Kherson refused to haul stolen Ukrainian grain to Russia because of the risk.

The owner of a trucking company was kidnapped. I wouldn't work with them. There is no end to the period.

The Russian families were moving into the apartments that had been occupied by Ukrainians. Russian children were common in Kherson's parks and supermarkets. Moscow was losing its grip on Kherson.

The Kherson regional council head, Samoylenko, said that civilians working with the army sent in real-time information that allowed Ukrainian forces to bomb a meeting of high-level collaborators in mid-September and a hotel full of Russian intelligence officers. There are two factors behind those successes, he said.

The liberation happened so fast because of the residents.

The Ukrainian military had more powerful weapons. The bridges were blown up across the river. The ground forces moved across the countryside. The Russian forces began to leave.

The people didn't know what was happening.

The repairman banged on his gate to announce that Ukrainian forces had arrived. The crowd of people celebrating the city's liberation were joined by the Yermolenkos.

He said that you wouldn't believe what he had done for the first time. I kissed a police officer.

The farewell and thanks are over.

Everyone in the neighborhood who was involved in the resistance was important to the Yermolenkos. Two dozen partisans, men and women from their early 20s to mid 70s, dressed in heavy coats and woolen hats, stood in their yard. Their faces were whipped by the wind.

The speaker was Valentyn Yermolenko. He said that many of the people here had close calls. He encountered that on the river in May.

The soldier cracked open the plastic tub after the Russian patrol stopped him. He didn't lift the fishing net because he didn't want to get his hands dirty. He would have been shot on the spot if the soldier hadn't found the guns.

The faces of the people listening to him were traced by his eyes. On this morning, he was reflective, even though he's often grouchy. He said he wanted to thank everyone on the Island who didn't betray them.

He couldn't walk inside. There were no drinks or food offered. The people slowly walked out of his gate into the road.

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