‘The world must stop Russia’: Ousted Ukrainian farmers furious over annexation

Zaporizhzhia farmers who fled violence and looting hope to go home after Kremlin is defeated

For more than two decades Serhiy Porada worked the plains of Zaporizhzhia region in southeastern Ukraine, expanding a farm that he hoped would sustain his family for generations.

Now Russian soldiers have taken over his house, stolen his machinery, grain, fertiliser and fuel, and on Friday their president, Vladimir Putin, annexed Zaporizhzhia and three other Ukrainian provinces in the biggest European land grab since the second World War.

“I worked for more than 20 years and then they came and took everything, just like that,” he says in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia, which sits on the Dnieper river about 130km from his home village of Fedorivka, which he and his family fled in April.

“I wanted my son to run the farm after me, like in normal countries. I saw on television how in America and other places there are fifth-generation farmers, and I wanted it to be like that here. That inspired me,” says Porada (51), who also has two daughters.

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Porada invested hundreds of thousands of euro in vehicles and equipment for his farm, and in a normal year would expect to harvest about 2,000 tonnes of wheat and a similar amount of sunflower seeds. Now all the machinery has been stolen, along with hundreds of tonnes of last year’s harvest that were in storage, and even fridges and furniture, as different units of Russian troops arrived in the area and looted whatever they found.

“I lived for about a month under occupation and saw all that abuse, how they stole everything. Now nearly all farmers like me have left. There are a few who are still there, who the Russians allow to work, but if they don’t like something then they just come and take over,” says Porada.

“Now Russian soldiers are living in people’s houses, warehouses, workshops, taking over the property of those who have left – they’re everywhere.”

Porada says people in his home district have been beaten for complaining about or resisting the Russians, and alleges that one of his acquaintances was taken to the nearby town of Tokmak and tortured with electric shocks until he agreed on camera to collaborate with the occupiers.

“They told him that if he causes trouble then they’ll make sure the SBU [Ukrainian security service] receives the video,” he says, in an account that could not be verified but resembles many other reports from areas occupied by Russia since its February invasion.

In a process orchestrated by the Kremlin this month its appointees in occupied Ukraine staged “referendums” on joining Russia, and then appealed to Putin to annex those areas; on Friday he is scheduled to oversee a signing ceremony that will see Moscow formally claim possession of about 15 per cent of Ukraine – territory bigger than the island of Ireland.

Map showing the four regions in Ukraine that Russia says it will annex following referendums in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia

An invasion that has killed thousands of civilians and displaced millions has had the hardest impact on eastern and southeastern regions of Ukraine, such as Zaporizhzhia, which are home to most of the Russian speakers whom Putin claims to be protecting from a “neo-Nazi” regime in Kyiv led by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a Jew from the largely Russophone city of Kryvyi Rih.

The war has also devastated farming in Ukraine, previously the world’s fourth biggest exporter of grains: Kyiv says Russia has stolen more than half a million tonnes of grain from occupied areas, and estimates that hundreds of millions of dollars of storage infrastructure and more than half a billion dollars of agricultural products have been destroyed in missile attacks.

“We had about 110 hectares of wheat that we couldn’t harvest – about 20 hectares were set on fire by shelling and the rest we had to leave in the field. And I couldn’t sow sunflowers because of the occupation,” says Anatoliy Piskovets, a farmer from the Polohy district of Zaporizhzhia region.

“I think it was March 2nd that they came into our village. We tried not to have any contact with them, we wanted nothing to do with them – relations were not good, to say the least.”

Piskovets (60) says soldiers from several parts of Russia came to his village, including Buryats from Siberia and Chechens from the Caucasus, as well as fighters from areas of Ukraine’s Donetsk region that have been de facto controlled by Moscow since 2014 amid relatively low-intensity fighting with Kyiv’s forces.

“They said we’ve suffered for eight years and now you’re going to suffer,” he recalls of the troops from Donetsk. “After a month or so it became impossible to stay. They started stealing vehicles and took a truck from us to carry ammunition or something, and they took wheat from last year’s harvest. There was shelling and we had no power or running water for two weeks.”

On April 4th, Piskovets drove with his wife, a neighbour and her child through a gauntlet of Russian checkpoints to Zaporizhzhia. He says the journey took eight hours instead of the usual two, and Russian soldiers searched them and the car and took “whatever they wanted”.

But they were lucky: many others have been repeatedly turned back at the checkpoints, and on Friday Ukraine said at least 23 people were killed and 28 injured when Russian shells hit cars waiting on the outskirts of Zaporizhzhia city to enter occupied territory, as a significant number of people do to deliver supplies and visit family and friends.

Russia does not control the entirety of any of the regions it plans to annex, and in all of them the Ukrainian military is now holding its ground or moving forward, having retaken territory the size of Cyprus this month in a rapid liberation of the Kharkiv region.

Yet Russia insists it is occupying the regions forever and will use all the weapons at its disposal – potentially including nuclear missiles – to stop Ukraine taking them back.

“Our neighbours tell us that five ‘orcs’ have moved into our house. We left everything there, so you can imagine what will become of it,” Piskovets says, using a term for Russian soldiers that is commonly used in Ukraine. “If there’s a battle to deoccupy the area who knows what will be left afterwards. But if anything survives, we’ll go back.”

Porada says he is at his wits’ end in Zaporizhzhia, where there is little work, a large number of displaced people and daily Russian shelling. He is helping support his former farm workers who have also fled occupation, “just so they have something in their pocket”, but he knows “the money won’t last forever”.

His obvious fury over Russia’s occupation is compounded by an injustice is his family history, when his great-grandfather was exiled to Soviet Kazakhstan by the communist authorities for being a “kulak” – a prosperous peasant farmer.

“And now I’ve been driven off my land too. And it’s hard to do something else when you’ve worked on your own land. I was born on a collective farm. My place is in my village and I’m at a loose end in the city – I was helping out on a combine harvester when I was 13 years old,” Porada says.

“They can’t be allowed to do this. The world must stop Russia before it destroys everything. And even if there’s nothing left of my farm after all this, I will go back, even if I have to walk all the way home.”