No one embodies the extraordinary story of Kherson quite like Alexei.
When the Russians invaded his home town, he worked under the cover of darkness, risking his life as he tracked the soldiers and officials setting up their hated government.
Three months later, he staged a dramatic escape across the front line to join the Ukrainian army, returning last week as a liberator in a lightning counter-attack.
Back for good, he is now hunting down and weeding out hidden Russian soldiers and the local collaborators who helped them rule Kherson with an iron fist.
“There are constant tears in my eyes,” he said as he moved through Kherson on his mission to rid the city of Vladimir Putin’s forces once and for all.
“I’ve never had feelings like this, but it needs to be felt,” Alexei said, reflecting on the atrocities committed here under occupation.
“Hearing the horrors they [Kherson residents] faced is crazy motivation to work to the end and round up everyone who is guilty. The cleansing of the city will continue for weeks.”
Despite the relief and jubilation that followed the city’s liberation, Alexei believes that “hundreds” of people who worked to help Russia are now hiding in plain sight.
The work of Alexei, and other hunters like him, has already borne fruit. Images have emerged from the city of suspected collaborators captured by Ukrainian forces, their hands bound and their heads covered with makeshift blindfolds with the words “looter” and “traitor” scrawled across them.
Officials fear Russian soldiers could be dressed in civilian clothing and many collaborators are fleeing without reprisals amid the mayhem.
Alexei said he has detained more than 20 collaborators after just one week in the city, their crimes ranging from looting to sexual assault and providing intelligence that led to the capture and torture of Ukrainian partisans.
He began tracking collaborators as soon as Kherson fell into Russian hands eight months ago, working with other locals to record the activities of Russians and those helping them.
Alexei would tail suspects to and from Russian bases, noting down identifying marks and addresses.
“We recorded all of this information to keep for the day freedom would come,” Alexei said. “I was ready to do everything to bring useful information and destroy enemies.”
Alexei then fled to join the Ukrainian army and fight to take back his city.
On his return, his local knowledge and the information he gathered in the early days of the occupation was vital.
“I have lived in Kherson all my life, so I am able to spot outsiders and spot gaps in the stories of collaborators,” he said. “Some of those from outside could not even name the streets of our city, but they said that they were local.”
Alexei described key markers that a person co-operated with Russians, including signs that they had been looting.
“During the occupation, the soldiers of the Russian Federation and collaborators took away everything that had value,” he said. “We keep an eye out for those with too much. For example, some may have all the electrical appliances, or someone may have cars.”
Residents of Kherson, a once quiet industrial town, said locals were subjected to a campaign of terror by collaborators, with some jailed, tortured or relocated to Russia for speaking out against their occupiers.
“The collaborators kept watch and made lists of all the men and what they were doing while still living in Kherson after the occupation,” said Svetlana.
“The Russians would arrive, knock on the door, and take them... for interviews, for torture, we just didn’t know.”
When the Russian tanks rolled in, Svetlana, like many others, hid in her home, opting to avoid coming into contact with Russian troops or their collaborators.
The 49-year-old, who was born and raised in the regional capital, limited herself to one hour of freedom a day. Instead, her son Oleksandr would take the risks. As he is a man of fighting age, collaborators alerted Russian forces to Oleksandr’s movements whenever he left home to secure supplies for his wife, baby and mother.
After his name appeared on a list compiled by local pro-Russians, the 33-year-old couldn’t leave his apartment without being stopped, searched and questioned on the street.
In April, Oleksandr was pulled over by a Lada full of Russian soldiers while he was driving to join the queue at the local market.
“He was thrown to his knees, a gun put to his head because they didn’t like the look of him,” Svetlana said.
He decided to flee Kherson with his wife and child, leaving his mother behind. Now on her own and fearful of the collaborators, Svetlana learnt to look over her shoulder, keep her mouth shut and steer clear of Russian offers of help.
While resented by locals, not all collaborators are considered evil by their neighbours.
Some parents took payments from Russian officials to enrol their children into the new Kremlin-controlled education system.
With the local economy in ruins, one young mother took a job at the Russian-installed authorities’ pension office to feed her baby, according to Dina, another Kherson resident. The single parent now faces being rounded up and arrested with the remaining collaborators.
Alexei, the collaborator hunter, said that those found guilty of working with the puppet government will be tried in court, while soldiers may be used in prisoner exchanges.
Despite feeling “boiling anger” towards those who assisted the invaders, Alexei said he keeps a “level head”.
“What makes us different from the soldiers of the Russian Federation and collaborators is our humanity,” he said. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)