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

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

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

Ukrainian villager Anatoliy Maystrenko, 63, who reportedly helped more of 2,000 Ukrainians fleeing Russian forces, poses in his garden in the village of Arkhanhelske, in the Kherson region, on November 3, 2022. (AFP)

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

Over six months, they helped numerous people to flee from Arkhangelske, a town northeast of the city of Kherson and that it was occupied by Moscow troops. From a boat, the couple helped the inhabitants to cross the Inhulets river, which runs through Arjanguelske.

Kherson and its homonymous region are currently one of the most critical points of the conflict. The Ukrainian Army tries to recover them with a counteroffensive.Traces of the war can still be seen on the land around Maystrenko, even though Russian troops were expelled a month ago. In some parts, there are still bloody Russian uniforms, in others it smells like a corpse. And in the distance, deafening explosions rumble regularly.

“They have had to see us”

Since April, a few weeks after the Russian army invaded the region, Antonina Voytseshko began meeting the inhabitants of the surrounding villages at a secret location near the river. She was waiting for her husband, Anatoliy, I installed them in the inflatable, to take them there, by oar, to the territories controlled by Ukraine.

“The projectiles fell on the shore while we were in the water. We have lived through all the possible ups and downs,” he tells AFP. On the way back, he claims that several times he transported teams of saboteurs from the Ukrainian army or even intelligence agents. “The Russians did not allow vehicles to leave (the town), butthey strangely authorized us to go to the river”, Antonina explained to AFP.

“We still don't know” why the Russians let us do, he continues. “They have had to see us, necessarily. They were watching us all the time.”

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

“My children”

< p class="paragraph">Tamara Propokiv, 59, explains that she entrusted her two daughters to the coupleof boatmen so that they could escape from the occupied zone.

She stayed in her village of Visokopillia, where she owns a shop. There, despite the Russian withdrawal, the streets remain dangerous, with numerous mines and booby traps.

Last week, twelve civilians had to be hospitalized due to 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,” recalls Tamara.

< p class="paragraph">“They never hurt me or beat me. But they never offered me anything to eat when I was hungry”, she adds, when asked by life about the occupation.

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

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

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