The Arkhanhelske couple who helped hundreds of Ukrainians flee Russian troops by boat near Kherson

Anatoliy Maystrenko, 63, and his wife Antonina Voytseshko, 59, still wonder how they managed to survive.

He is a tractor driver, and she is a nurse. For months and despite artillery fire, the couple helped hundreds of Ukrainians flee from the Russian occupation in a village south of the country with an inflatable boat. “God spared us,” Anatoliy Maystrenko, 63, says with conviction, and both he and his wife Antonina Voytseshko, 59, still wonder how they managed to survive.

Over six months, they helped numerous people flee Arkhanhelske, a town northeast of Kherson, in Ukraine, occupied by Moscow troops. From a boat, the couple helped the inhabitants to cross the Inhulets River, which runs through Arkhanhelske.

Kherson and its namesake region are currently one of the flashpoints of the conflict. The Ukrainian Army is trying to recapture them with a counter-offensive. On the land around Maystrenko, traces of the war are still visible, even though the Russian troops were driven out a month ago. In some places, there are still Russian uniforms covered with blood. In others, there is the smell of corpses. And in the distance, deafening explosions regularly rumble.

“They had to see us.”

Since April, a few weeks after the Russian army invaded the region, Antonina Voytseshko began to summon the inhabitants of the surrounding villages to a secret location near the river. Her husband, Anatoliy, was waiting for them and would put them in the inflatable boat and row them to the Ukrainian-controlled territories.

“The shells fell on the shore while we were in the water. We went through all the ups and downs,” he tells AFP. On the way back, he claims that he transported teams of Ukrainian army saboteurs or even intelligence agents several times. “The Russians did not authorize vehicles to leave (the village), but we were strangely authorized to go to the river,” Antonina told AFP.

“We still don’t know” why the Russians let us do it, she continued. “They had to watch us, necessarily. They were watching us all the time.”

Then, with the arrival of the northern autumn, the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the north of the Kherson region towards the Inhulets forced Russian soldiers to retreat south, in a new setback for Moscow, which had just lost thousands of km2 in the northeast of the country. On October 3, Arkhanhelske was liberated, and Russian troops were trapped between the Inhulets and the Dnieper. In parallel, another offensive advanced from the west towards the regional capital, Kherson, the largest city captured by the Russians since the beginning of the invasion.

“My children”

Tamara Propokiv, 59, explains that she entrusted her two daughters to the boatmen couple to escape from the occupied zone.

She stayed in her village of Visokopillia, where she owns a store. Despite the Russian withdrawal, the streets are still dangerous, with numerous mines and traps.

Last week, twelve civilians had to be hospitalized because of the explosion of hidden devices, according to the army. At least one of them died.

“To the Russians, you were nothing, and they were the bosses,” Tamara recalls.

“They never hurt me or beat me. But they never offered me anything to eat when I was hungry,” she adds when asked about life under occupation.

When, after months under Russian control, a neighbor announced to her that the Ukrainian army was back, Tamara was stunned.

“The soldiers hugged me so tightly that I had the impression that they were my children,” she recounts, on the verge of tears.