As Ukraine Bears Down, Life Worsens in Occupied Areas

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SOUTHERN UKRAINE — Some fled on foot, clambering across a destroyed bridge as fighting engulfed their village. Others traveled out in convoys of cars through Russian military checkpoints. What these families left behind, they said in interviews on their journey in search of safety, was escalating danger and hardship in the Russian-occupied region of Kherson and surrounding areas, where a pivotal confrontation of the war is looming.

The tension was visible in the strained faces of the passengers when half a dozen cars pulled up in the late afternoon at a checkpoint near the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia last week. “Glory to Ukraine,” cried one woman, hugging a soldier. “I saw the Ukrainian flag and I began to weep,” said another woman, Anna. Her 7-year-old son stared silently from the car window.

With Russia tightening border controls, the number of families leaving Russian-occupied territory in southern Ukraine and crossing into a Ukrainian-controlled area has dwindled to a trickle — around 20 a day on average, down from 100 or so earlier in the year.

Some of those who made it through last week were bringing passengers in need of medical care, but most were families who said they were just at their wits’ end, as Ukrainian forces pressed their counteroffensive and Russian soldiers commandeered civilian homes to escape deadly accurate bombardment.

“We had no more strength,” said one man, Vadym, screwing up his face to stop himself from weeping. He had traveled out with his wife and mother-in-law from the town of Vasylivka, just across the front line, with a few belongings in plastic bags and their ginger tomcat in a pet basket.

They left because there was no heat, gas, telephone service or internet, said his wife, Iryna. The last straw was when Russian troops began to occupy the apartment complex where her mother lived.

“She was the only resident left in the five-story apartment building and they started moving in,” Iryna said. Like almost everyone fleeing the war zone they asked their surnames not be published for their security.

Another group of families said they had decided to leave their village of Chervonoblahodatne, on the eastern side of the Kherson region, when Chechen members of the Russian National Guard had occupied it a week earlier.

“They moved into empty houses,” said Lyudmyla, 40. The troops set up checkpoints and began searching residents, and shooting and shelling began, she said. “You could not go out because of the shooting.”

Russian troops have increasingly sought shelter in residential areas and private homes across the region as well as in the embattled city of Kherson as Ukrainian forces have targeted the schools and administrative buildings they had used as bases. Many of those fleeing complained that Russian troops used civilians as cover from Ukrainian fire, or even were carrying out the shelling themselves on villages and then blaming it on the Ukrainian army.

A few even said they welcomed the increasingly intense bombardment of Russian positions by the Ukrainian forces.

Amid the confusion and conflicting information, most said their sense was that under pressure from the Ukrainians, Russian troops were on the retreat in the Kherson region, territory Russia has occupied since the spring.

“They are not just leaving, they are running away,” Vladimir, 38, a builder from Kherson city, said with a grin.

In the city itself, the Russian authorities have evacuated all members of the police force and national guard, as well as people who worked with the Russian administration, he said.

“They are taking all the equipment from hospitals and emergency services,” he said. “I was driving home near the pedagogical institute and I saw soldiers taking out documents. What they need those for, I don’t know.”

But Russian military forces have remained in the city for now, Vladimir, the Ukrainian builder, said, and there was little sign of heavier armored vehicles and tanks leaving because the main bridge crossings over the Dnipro were compromised and frequently under fire. As soon as columns of armor tried to cross they would be hit, he said. “I think they will stay,” he added.

Russian officials, including President Vladimir V. Putin on Saturday, have also urged civilians to flee western Kherson ahead of expected heavy fighting. Most of those leaving have links to the Russian-installed administration and are moving to territory on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River that is more firmly under Russian occupation.

Vladimir described increasingly devastating Ukrainian strikes on buildings used as Russian bases.

“What makes you happy is that our guys are hitting very precisely on Russian troop positions,” he said. “They are striking very accurately.”

In September, as the pro-Moscow authorities pushed through a referendum on annexation and the Ukrainians began their counteroffensive, the atmosphere became more oppressive, one former resident of Kherson city said.

“They started tightening the screws,” said Yevhen, 29, an activist who left the city in late September. He had been detained by Russian troops and badly beaten in May, accused of working first as a spotter for the Ukrainian military and then as an informant for Ukrainian intelligence.

“If you give them a wrong answer, you receive at least a couple of blows, or five or six men start smashing you,” he said in a telephone interview from western Ukraine, where he is now living. “I was sitting on a small stool, with a bag on my head. All my back, ribs, head were blue.”

Yevhen was forced to participate in a propaganda video before being released, but he continued living in Kherson, working as a volunteer, distributing smuggled medicine to those in need.

But in September, soldiers visited his home and questioned him again several times. “They started to search more actively and detain people with a pro-Ukrainian position, activists and former military,” he said. “I was afraid that one day they might take me away again.”

To reach Ukrainian-controlled territory Yevhen and his wife had to apply for passes to cross the Dnipro River and travel to the only border crossing near Zaporizhzhia. They waited in line for two days to cross, he said, because only one ferry was operating and the military was evacuating armored vehicles, trucks, ammunition and soldiers to the eastern bank. Only a few civilian vehicles were allowed to cross with them, possibly to provide cover, he said.

As they were waiting for the ferry, Yevhen said, Ukrainian missiles struck two public buildings being used by the Russian military in the city. A while later, five or six buses filled with wounded soldiers drove on to the ferry in front of them.

The punishing strikes on the Russian military and the steady evacuation of the Russian administration has led to a shift in the mood in Kherson city, Vladimir said. “People cannot wait for the Ukrainians to come.”

In the stores, the sales staff rejected payment in Russian rubles with an expletive, he said. “They are already making fun of the Russians openly.”

Vladimir said he left Kherson city several days ago to bring a neighbor who had suffered a stroke and his wife to Zaporizhzhia for medical treatment.

The journey took two days, and Vladimir said Russian soldiers challenged him at every major intersection, regardless of his ailing passenger.

“They did not care that he was sick,” he said. “They were messing with us at every checkpoint. They were saying, ‘You are young, only 38, you will come back with weapons.’”

Vladimir said that while he was enjoying the freedom of life in the city of Zaporizhzhia, he intended to return home to Kherson city as soon as he could, despite the dangers of the war.

“At first I was worried, but not anymore. I’m tired of worrying,” he said. “Here it’s just air-raid sirens, but there it is explosions every day. Here people are panicking about missiles and kamikaze drones, but there it is your whole house shaking.”

But he said he did not want the Ukrainian forces to let up. “Let them fire. It’s my country,” he said. “It’s my country that is being robbed of its territory.”


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