In the two-day battle for Kherson, Russian tanks shelled a school and troops shot dead residents seeking to repel the attack with Molotov cocktails. But once the city was captured, the yellow and blue Ukrainian flag kept flying above its main official building as part of life under Russian occupation.

Mayor Ihor Kolykhaiev laid out the new rules in a Facebook post. His constituents could leave home in groups no bigger than two. Cars should drive at low speed. Arrangements were made to collect corpses of Ukrainians killed in the main square and other parts of town, which the city said numbered at least 49, mainly civilians.

“We are experiencing colossal difficulties with collecting and burying the dead, delivering food and medicines, rubbish removal, accidents removal, etc,” Kolykhaiev said.

“For now, the flag flying above us is Ukrainian,” he added. “And in order to stay that way, these requirements must be met. This is all I can offer for now.”

Alongside Kherson, smaller cities that fell to Russian forces this week are Berdyansk and Melitopol, which were captured on Sunday and Monday, respectively.

However, Ukrainians say the Russian hold on these cities has been incomplete and that the occupiers have shown little sign they are equipped to run them, or interested in doing so.

Map of southern Ukraine showing Russian military presence in major cities

“A very important element of this war is that even if Russians have managed to gain control over some towns around Ukraine, and put their troops in some areas, they do not attempt to occupy those areas in a full sense of the word,” the Centre for Defence Strategies, a military think-tank in Kyiv, wrote in a report this week.

The new arrangements in Kherson — agreed by Kolykhaiev under duress — have divided residents. In a country that has experienced a surge in patriotism since the Russian invasion began last week, some were unhappy with their mayor’s decision to bow to the demands. Others conceded he had no choice. Kolykhaiev insisted he had held no negotiations nor made any promises, and just wanted to ensure “normal life” to resume.

“At least now it is possible to go out and shop, but the situation remains difficult, especially as regards food and medicine,” said Serhiy Nikitenko, a journalist from Kherson. “The mayor asked the Red Cross and international organisations to help with a humanitarian corridor.”

Military vehicles on a street in Kherson
Military vehicles in Kherson on Tuesday © Reuters

Local officials such as Kolykhaiev are trying to co-ordinate emergency aid to fend off hunger and public health emergencies. Residents of Kherson and other cities in Russian hands told the Financial Times that while humanitarian conditions were worsening, local officials and grassroots volunteers were stepping in to try to maintain health, food security, and law and order.

As Kherson was burying its dead on Thursday, another public health emergency was looming: the city is home to one of Europe’s largest poultry farms, operated by the company Ukrlandfarming. Feeding and slaughtering operations have stopped since Russian president Vladimir Putin’s military assault on Ukraine — and the chickens are dying.

“Kherson has a shortage of food, and a huge chicken factory that is becoming a morgue for birds,” Inna Zelena, a local government employee who fled the city this week, told the FT. “The locals worry because 3mn dead birds would create a huge sanitary problem.”

After the initial panic and run to cash machines, groceries and pharmacies, Melitopol residents began organising online chat groups to secure food and emergency medications such as insulin, said Olga, a 29-year-old resident. They also set up volunteer patrols to stop looting.

While Russian troops were stationed in the city’s administrative buildings, Ukrainian government officials were working to keep heating, water, electricity and health services running from other locations, she added.

“The situation has made the hospitals’ work very difficult,” she said. There is a shortage of medicine.”

Unlike Kherson and Mariupol to its east, Berdyansk has not faced severe fighting. Alexander Svidlo, the town’s mayor, told his constituents that after armed Russian troops stormed city hall on Sunday he was now working on keeping local services running remotely.

“Until the last moment, I remained in my office in the administration building . . . co-ordinating the work of all communal services,” Svidlo said on his Facebook page.

Residents contacted by phone by the FT said Berdyansk was calm, with only the rare volley of artillery to be heard.

“They’ve set up some checkpoints inside the city and on its exit and entry points,” said Maksim Goncharuk, head of the town’s chamber of commerce and industry. He said there were sporadic stop and search checks. Mobile internet continues to operate, shops are open, and the lights are on.

But on Monday, after news that the town had been taken, Berdyansk residents came out to confront heavily Russian armed troops with chants of “go home”. Videos of similar protests from Melitopol emerged on social media two days later.

Whereas in 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimea and fomented war in the eastern region of Donbas, residents of mainly Russian-speaking Berdyansk were split in their views on the conflict, now “it’s unanimous”, Goncharuk said. “No one is fine with [Russian] control. People want to live as part of Ukraine.”