Near the city of Kherson, Ukraine
Two Russian soldiers walked down a street in Kherson on a spring evening in early March, just days after Moscow took the city. The temperature was still below freezing that night and the power went out, leaving the town in complete darkness as the soldiers headed back to camp after a few drinks.
While one stumbled, the other stopped to relieve himself at the side of the curb. Suddenly a knife was thrust deep into the right side of his neck.
He fell into the grass. Moments later, the second Russian soldier, drunk and unaware, met the same fate.
“I finished the first one immediately and then I caught up with the other one and killed him on the spot,” said Archie, a Ukrainian resistance fighter who described the scene above to CNN.
He says he went on pure instinct.
“I saw the orcs in uniform and I thought, why not?” Archie adds, using a derogatory term for Russians, as he walks down that same street. “There were no people or light and I seized the moment.”
The 20-year-old is a trained mixed martial arts fighter, with agile feet and sharp reflexes, who previously always carried a knife for self-defense, but never killed anyone. CNN refers to him by his call sign to protect his identity.
“Adrenaline played its part. I had no fear or time to think,” he says. “I felt really bad for the first few days, but then I realized they were my enemies. They came to my house to take it from me.”
Archie’s account was supported by Ukrainian military and intelligence sources who handled communications with him and other partisans. He was one of many resistance fighters in Kherson, a pre-invasion city of 290,000, who tried to bend but failed to break Russia.
People in Kherson made their voices heard shortly after Russia took the city on March 2 and flocked to the main square for daily protests, carrying the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag.
But Kherson, the first major city and only regional capital that Russian troops were able to occupy since the beginning of the invasion, was an important symbol for Moscow. A dissenting opinion could not be tolerated.
Demonstrators were met with tear gas and gunfire, organizers and the more outspoken residents were arrested and tortured. When peaceful demonstrations didn’t work, the people of Kherson rose up in resistance and ordinary citizens like Archie took action themselves.
“I wasn’t the only one in Kherson,” says Archie. “There were many clever partisans. At least 10 Russians were killed every night.”
Initially solo operations, like-minded residents began organizing into groups and coordinating their actions with the Ukrainian army and intelligence service outside the city.
“I have a friend who we would drive around town with, looking for gatherings of Russian soldiers,” he says. “We checked their patrol routes and then gave all the information to the men on the front lines so they knew who to pass on.”
Russian soldiers were not the only ones targeted for murder. Several government officials installed in Moscow were targeted during the eight months of the Russian occupation. Their faces were printed on posters placed all over the city promising retribution for their cooperation with the Kremlin, in a psychological war that lasted throughout the occupation.
Many of those promises were kept, with some of those officials shot and others blown up in their cars in incidents pro-Russian local authorities described as “terrorist attacks”.
Archie was arrested by occupying authorities on May 9, after attending a victory parade to celebrate the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II while wearing a yellow and blue stripe on his T-shirt.
According to Archie, he was taken to a local pre-trial detention center taken over by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) where he tortured Ukrainian soldiers, intelligence officers and partisans.
“They beat me, electrocuted me, kicked me, and beat me with clubs,” Archie recalls. “I can’t say they starved me, but they didn’t feed much.”
“Nothing good happened there,” he said.
Archie was lucky enough to be released after nine days after being forced to record a video saying he had agreed to cooperate with the Russian occupiers. His account of what happened at the facility has been corroborated by Ukrainian military sources and other detainees.
But many others never left, according to Archie and other resistance fighters, as well as Ukrainian military and intelligence sources.
Ihor, who asked CNN not to reveal his last name for his protection, was also held at the facility.
“I was held here for 11 days and all the while I heard screaming from the basement,” says the 29-year-old. “People were tortured, they were beaten with sticks in the arms and legs, with cattle prods, even tied to batteries and electrocuted or put on board with water.”
Ihor was caught carrying weapons and says he was “lucky” to have been beaten alone.
“I arrived after the time when people were beaten to death here,” he recalls. “I was stabbed in my legs with a taser, they use it as a welcome. One of them asked what I was brought in for and another two of them started beating me in the ribs.”
His detention allowed Ihor to hide that he was a member of the Kherson resistance and that transporting weapons was not the only thing he did. Ihor says he also provided intelligence to the Ukrainian military – an activity that would have been punished much more harshly.
“If we found something, saw it, (we) took a photo or a video (and) sent it to the Ukrainian armed forces, they would decide whether to hit it or not,” he explains.
One of the coordinates he passed on to the Ukrainian army is a warehouse in the city of Kherson. “The Russian army had between 20 and 30 vehicles here, there were armored trucks, armored cars and some Russians living there,” says Ihor.
Departing Russian troops were quick to gut what was left of the prized interior, but the wrecked building bears the marks of the violent assault. Most of the roof has collapsed, the walls are shattered and broken glass still covers most of the floor. The structure remains in place, but in parts the metal has been mutilated by the blast.
Ihor used the Telegram messaging app to relay the building’s coordinates to his military handler, whom he dubbed “the smoke.” Along with the information, he sent a video that he secretly recorded.
“I turned the camera on, pointed it at the building and then I just walked and made calls while the camera was filming,” he explains. “After that, of course, I deleted video because if they stopped me somewhere and looked at my videos and photos, there would be questions…”
He sent the information in mid-September and just a day later the facility was targeted by Ukrainian artillery.
The United States and NATO have determined that when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin expected its troops to be greeted as saviors and with open arms. Reality fell short of expectations, not only in the areas where Moscow’s armies were pushed back, but also in those areas it was able to conquer.
The attack on the warehouse that Ihor helped with is one of many made possible by Ukrainian partisans in Kherson who are tireless and under threat to disrupt Russian activities in the city.
Eight months after being occupied by Russia, the city of Kherson is now back in Ukrainian hands and Moscow’s armies stand in the background, forced to withdraw from the west bank of the Dnipro River.
But despite winning here, Ukraine continues to face crippling rocket attacks almost everywhere else on a daily basis, while Russian forces continue to apply pressure 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’d record me and probably wouldn’t let me get out alive.”