By Vasco Cotovio, Sam Kiley, Peter Rudden and Olha Konovalova, CNN
Two Russian soldiers walked down a street in Kherson on a spring evening in early March, just days after Moscow captured the city. The temperature that night was still below freezing and the power had gone out, leaving the town in total darkness when the soldiers headed back to camp after a few drinks.
As one stumbled on, the other stopped to relieve himself on the sidewalk. Suddenly, a knife was thrust deep into the right side of his neck.
He fell on the grass. Moments later, the second Russian soldier, drunk and clueless, met the same fate.
“I finished the first one immediately and then caught up with the other one and killed him on the spot,” says Archie, a Ukrainian resistance fighter who described the above scene to CNN.
He says he drove out of pure instinct.
“I saw the orcs in uniform and thought why not?” Archie adds, using a derogatory term for Russians, as he walks down the same street. “There were neither people nor light and I took advantage of the moment.”
The 20-year-old is a trained mixed martial arts fighter, with nimble feet and sharp reflexes, who has always carried a knife in self-defense but has never killed anyone. CNN refers to him by his callsign to protect his identity.
“Adrenaline played its part. I wasn’t scared or had time to think,” he says. “I felt very bad for the first few days, but then I realized that they were my enemies. They came to my house to take it off 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 city of 290,000 before the invasion that Russia tried to bend but could not break.
The people of Kherson made their views clear shortly after Russia took over the city on March 2, as they came to the main square for daily protests, carrying the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag.
But Kherson, the first major city and only regional capital to be occupied by Russian troops since the invasion began, was an important symbol for Moscow. Dissent could not be tolerated.
Protesters were hit 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 turned to the resistance and ordinary citizens like Archie began taking 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 single operations, like-minded residents began organizing into groups and coordinating their actions with the Ukrainian military and intelligence outside the city.
“I have a friend who we drove around town with, looking for clusters of Russian soldiers,” he says. “We checked their patrol routes and then relayed all the information to the people on the front line and they knew who to relay to next.”
Russian soldiers weren’t the only ones targeted for murder. Several government officials stationed in Moscow were targeted during the eight months of Russian occupation. Their faces were printed on posters spread across the city promising retaliation for their collaboration with the Kremlin in a psychological warfare that continued throughout the occupation.
Many of those promises have been kept, with some of these officers gunned down and others blown up in their cars in incidents pro-Russian local authorities have described as “terrorist attacks.”
Archie was arrested by occupation authorities on May 9 after taking part in a Victory Day parade to celebrate the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II and wearing a yellow and blue stripe on his T-shirt.
According to Archie, he was taken to a local pre-trial detention center that had been taken over by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), where Ukrainian soldiers, intelligence officers and partisans were tortured.
“They hit me, electrocuted me, kicked me and hit me with batons,” Archie recalls. “I can’t say they starved me, but they didn’t give me much to eat.”
“Nothing good happened there,” he said.
Archie was lucky to be released after nine days and 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 was 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 during that time I heard screams coming from the basement,” says the 29-year-old. “People were tortured, they were beaten in the arms and legs with sticks, beaten with cattle prods, even connected to batteries and electrocuted or treated with water.”
Ihor was caught transporting weapons and says he was “luckily” only beaten.
“I came after the time when people were beaten to death here,” he recalls. “I was stabbed in the legs with a taser, they use it to greet them. One of them asked why I was admitted and two others started punching me in the ribs.”
His imprisonment allowed Ihor to hide that he was a member of the Kherson resistance and that he wasn’t just transporting weapons. Ihor says he also provided information to the Ukrainian military — an activity that would have drawn far more brutal penalties.
“If we found something, saw it, (we) took a picture or a video (and) sent it to the Ukrainian armed forces and then they decided whether to hit it or not,” he explains.
Among the coordinates he gave the Ukrainian military is a warehouse in the city of Kherson. “The Russian military stopped here between 20 and 30 vehicles, there were armored trucks, armored personnel carriers, and some Russians lived here,” says Ihor.
Withdrawing Russian forces quickly excavated the remains of the valuable interior, but the ruined building bears the marks of the violent strike. The roof has mostly collapsed, the walls lie shattered and broken glass still covers most of the floor. The structure remains in place, but parts of its metal were shredded by the blast.
Ihor used the Telegram messaging app to relay the building’s coordinates to his military leader, whom he dubbed “the smoke.” Along with the information, he sent a video that he secretly recorded.
“I turned on the camera, pointed it at the building, and then I just walked over there and talked on the phone while the camera was filming,” he explains. “After that, of course, I deleted videos because if they stopped me somewhere and checked my videos and pictures, there would be questions…”
He sent the information in mid-September and just a day later the facility was attacked by Ukrainian artillery.
The United States and NATO have noted that when the Kremlin began its invasion of Ukraine, it expected its forces to be greeted as saviors and with open arms. The reality did not live up to expectations, not only in the areas where Moscow’s armies were pushed back, but also in the areas it was able to take.
The warehouse strike that Ihor helped organize is one of many supported by Ukrainian partisans in Kherson, who work tirelessly and under threat of disrupting Russian activities in the city.
Eight months after Russia’s occupation, the city of Kherson is back in Ukrainian hands and Moscow’s armies are lagging behind, forced to withdraw from the west bank of the Dnieper River.
But despite the victory here, Ukraine faces devastating rocket attacks almost every day almost everywhere else as Russian forces push further east.
Looking back, Ihor, father of a three-month-old daughter, says he was lucky not to have been caught.
“It wasn’t difficult, but it was dangerous,” he explains. “If they caught me filming something like that, they would take me in and probably not let me get out alive.”
The CNN Wire
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