SOUTHERN UKRAINE – Some fled on foot, climbing over a damaged bridge as fighting engulfed their village. Others traveled through Russian military posts in convoys of cars. Those families left behind, they said in interviews during their journey to safety, are facing increasing danger and hardship in and around the Russian-held region of Kherson, where the war has A major conflict is at hand.
The tension was evident on the strained faces of commuters as a half-dozen cars pulled up late in the afternoon at a checkpoint near the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia last week. “Glory of Ukraine,” cried one woman, hugging a soldier. “I saw the Ukrainian flag and I started crying,” said Anna, another woman. Her 7-year-old son stared silently through the car window.
With Russia tightening border controls, the number of families leaving Russian-held territory in southern Ukraine and crossing into Ukrainian-controlled territory has dropped — an average of about 20 per day, since the beginning of the year. 100 or less.
Some of those who made the trip last week were bringing passengers in need of medical care, but most were families who said they were only at their wits’ end, as Ukrainian forces retaliated. stressed and Russian soldiers commandeered civilian homes to avoid deadly precision bombing. .
“We didn’t have any more strength,” one man, Vadim, said, pulling his face to stop himself from crying. He had traveled with his wife and mother-in-law from the town of Vasilievka, just across the front line, with some supplies in plastic bags and a ginger tomcat in a pet basket.
His wife Irina said they left because there was no heat, gas, telephone service or Internet. The last straw was when Russian soldiers began occupying the apartment complex where his mother lived.
“She was the only resident left in the five-story apartment building and they started moving in,” Irina said. Like nearly everyone else who has fled a war zone, they asked that their surnames not be published to protect them.
Another group of families said they had decided to leave their village of Chironoblahodtne, in the eastern side of the Kherson region, after Chechen members of the Russian National Guard seized it a week ago.
“They moved into empty houses,” Lyudmila, 40, said. Soldiers set up checkpoints and began searching residents, and shooting and shelling began. “You couldn’t go out because of the shooting.”
Russian troops have 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 schools and administrative buildings they used as bases. . Many of those who fled complained that Russian soldiers used civilians as cover from Ukrainian fire, or even shelled villages themselves and then blamed it on the Ukrainian military.
Some even said they welcomed the increasingly intense bombardment of Russian positions by Ukrainian forces.
Amid the confusion and conflicting information, most said they felt that, under pressure from the Ukrainians, Russian forces were retreating into the Kherson region, an area Russia has held since the spring.
“They’re not just leaving, they’re running away,” smiles Vladimir, 38, a builder from the city of Kherson.
In the city itself, Russian authorities have evacuated all members of the police force and the National Guard, as well as people working with the Russian administration, he said.
“They are taking all the supplies from hospitals and emergency services,” he said. “I was going home near the Pedagogical Institute and I saw soldiers taking out documents. What they need them for, I don’t know.
But Russian troops were still in the city, Ukrainian builder Volodymyr said, and there were few signs of heavy armored vehicles and tanks leaving as the main bridge crossing over the Dnieper was compromised and often under fire. . He said that the armored men would be killed as soon as they tried to cross. “I think they will stay,” he added.
On Saturday, Russian officials, including President Vladimir V. Putin, urged civilians to flee western Kherson ahead of expected heavy fighting. Most of the evacuees are from Russia’s installed administration and are moving to the region on the east bank of the Dnieper River, which is more firmly under Russian control.
Vladimir described Ukraine’s increasingly destructive attacks on buildings used as Russian bases.
“To your delight, our boys have hit the positions of the Russian troops very accurately,” he said. “They are hitting very accurately.”
In September, as pro-Moscow authorities pushed through a referendum on annexation and Ukrainians began retaliating, the atmosphere became more oppressive, a former resident of the city of Kherson said.
“They started tightening the screws,” said Yohan, 29, a worker who left the city in late September. He was 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 the wrong answer, you will get at least a couple of blows, or five or six men will start beating you,” he said in a telephone interview from western Ukraine, where he now lives. are living “I was sitting on a small stool, with a bag over my head. All my back, ribs, head were blue.
Yohan was forced to take part in a propaganda video before his release, but continued to live in Kherson, working as a volunteer, distributing smuggled drugs to those in need.
But in September, soldiers went to his home and questioned him several times. “They began to more actively search and detain people with pro-Ukraine positions, activists and ex-servicemen,” he said. “I was afraid that one day they would take me again.”
To reach Ukrainian-controlled territory, Yevhen and his wife had to apply for a pass to cross the Dnipro River and get to the only border crossing near Zaporizhia. He said he waited in line for two days to cross, because only one ferry was running and the army was transporting armored vehicles, trucks, ammunition and troops to the east bank. He said only a few civilian vehicles were allowed to pass by them, possibly to provide cover.
As they waited for the ferry, Yeon said, Ukrainian missiles hit two public buildings in the city used by the Russian military. After a while, five or six buses full of wounded soldiers drove past them towards the ferry.
Vladimir said the punitive attacks on the Russian military and the steady withdrawal of the Russian administration had changed the mood in the city of Kherson. “People can’t wait for Ukraine to come.”
In stores, sales staff rejected payment in Russian rubles with an explanation, he said. “They are already openly mocking the Russians.”
Vladimir said he left the city of Kherson several days ago to bring a neighbor who had suffered a stroke and his wife to Zaporizhzhia for medical treatment.
The trip took two days, and Vladimir said Russian soldiers challenged him at every major intersection, even if he had sick passengers.
“They didn’t care that he was sick,” he said. “They were messing with us at every checkpoint. They were saying, ‘You are young, only 38 years old, you will come back with weapons.’
Vladimir said that while he was enjoying the freedom of life in the city of Zaporozhye, he intended to return to the city of Kherson as soon as possible, despite the dangers of war.
“Before I was worried, but not now. I have tried to worry,” he said. “There are only air raid sirens, but there are explosions every day. Here people are panicking about missiles and kamikaze drones, but there your whole house is shaking.
But he said that he did not want the Ukrainian forces to leave. “Let them set fire. This is my country,” he said. “This is my country whose land is being looted.”