‘I’m terrified of going back there’: Ukrainians flee occupied Kherson

The journey to Odesa takes two or more days via scores of checkpoints manned by unpredictable Russian troops on backroads that snake through minefields and trenches

In a simple room in a small hotel in the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa, Tatyana Arkhipova perches on the edge of the bed and barely takes her eyes off her phone.

She is waiting for news of her son Ilya (9) and sister Darya (18), who are due to arrive in this Black Sea port sometime after midnight after an exhausting and risky journey from Russian-occupied Kherson.

Arkhipova already knows that the evacuees had to spend the previous night in a frontline village after failing to reach Ukrainian-held territory before an 8pm curfew, and that a shell exploded about 150m from their bus.

Before Moscow's all-out invasion of Ukraine 10 weeks ago, it was an easy 220km drive from Kherson to Odesa but now the journey is four times longer and takes two or more days, via scores of checkpoints manned by unpredictable Russian troops on backroads damaged by tank tracks and shelling that snake through minefields and trenches.

"I almost passed out when I heard war had begun," recalls Arkhipova, who has been working in Poland and sending money home to her family in Kherson region, where fertile farmland runs down to the Black Sea and the Crimean peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014.

“Now I want to take my son and my sister back to Poland with me. But life as an immigrant is hard, and I love and miss Skadovsk so much,” she says of her hometown, which is a small port and holiday resort 80km south of Kherson city.

“My grandma won’t leave. She supports Ukraine but she wants to stay at home. Lots of others have left Skadovsk, though. They say the Russians are going into houses and searching for ATO veterans,” she explains, referring to Ukraine’s eight-year military campaign against Moscow-led militia in eastern Ukraine.

Moscow is now placing collaborationist officials in charge of towns and cities in Kherson region, introducing its school curriculum and rouble currency, and – according to reports and local rumours – planning a “referendum” on splitting from Ukraine and joining Russia.

On a visit to Kherson on Friday Andrei Turchak, a senior member of Russia’s ruling United Russia party, said: “Russia is here forever. There should be no doubt about this. There will be no return to the past.”

Russian security services have abducted officials, teachers, activists and journalists in Kherson who they regard as having a strongly pro-Ukrainian position, and this week rerouted internet traffic through Russia, where it can be monitored, censored and blocked.

‘It seems chaotic’

"Since the first day of occupation there is no longer any notion of human rights or rule of law there. People are kidnapped, houses ransacked, kids threatened with weapons, and the Russians loot whatever they want," says journalist Oleh Baturin, who was in his hometown of Kakhovka, 85km from Kherson, when the Russians took over.

“Officials are told that if you don’t collaborate, you’ll be arrested and kept in a basement. And businessmen who don’t co-operate have their businesses taken away,” he explains, listing a number of such cases in Kherson, one of several occupied areas where Ukraine says Russians are stealing farm machinery and thousands of tonnes of grain.

Baturin was at home in Kakhovka on March 12th when a local activist called and said he needed to talk to him urgently, and they agreed to meet at the town’s bus station. When he arrived the activist was not there – Baturin believes he had been abducted and forced to make the call – but waiting Russian soldiers grabbed the journalist, dragged him into a car and drove him to a nearby town.

"I realised I was in the mayor's office in Nova Kakhovka, and two men started questioning me," says Baturin, who believes one of the pair was a local businessman whom he had written about and who is now collaborating with the Russians.

“They cuffed my hands very tightly and talked about that article. They said I could either say goodbye to work as a journalist or to my life. They threatened to kill me and to skin me with a knife,” he recalls. “Then I was moved with some other captives to Nova Kakhovka police station. They beat me on the first night but after that they just interrogated me and used psychological pressure. But I could hear others being beaten terribly, horribly.

“I could hear them being asked where they served, how many people they killed, their rank and commander, things like that, so I think they were ATO veterans. One young man was kicked and told he was going to be killed, and they fired a shot that sounded like a blank. It was like a mock execution. But from another room I heard what sounded like real shots.”

Baturin says his interrogators demanded to know who was organising peaceful anti-occupation protests in Kherson, Kakhovka and Nova Kakhovka, which Russian troops violently dispersed, reportedly shooting dead at least one person and injuring several others.

When he was released after eight days, Baturin’s captors ordered him to “stay at home and wait to be contacted because you will be told what to do next”. Instead, he fled with his wife and child to government-held territory before the Russians could take full control of the region.

“I don’t think the Russians have a clear plan about what to do with us. It seems chaotic,” Baturin (43) says, in the relative safety of Lviv in western Ukraine.

“They might try to create some sort of ‘people’s republic’ in Kherson, as they did in Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014, or they might want to connect the region to Crimea. But whatever they do, it won’t have the support of local people.”

‘Catastrophic shortages’

Street protests against the occupation have dwindled as Moscow has tightened its grip on the region, but Ukrainian officials say attacks on Russian troops continue and at least two prominent local pro-Kremlin figures have been shot dead in Kherson city recent weeks.

Chornobaivka, near Kherson, has already entered the folklore of the war after Ukrainian artillery repeatedly struck Russian positions and equipment at its strategic airfield; Kyiv claims its forces have hit the site 18 times and killed two Russian generals there.

“People in Chornobaivka are very scared, and for weeks now they are in the basement every night from 5pm, sheltering from shelling,” says Andrei, a resident of the village.

“No food shops are open and there’s a catastrophic shortage of things like medicines and nappies, and the water, electricity and gas systems constantly have to be repaired due to damage; 186 houses have been destroyed, but mercifully no one has died,” he explains.

“The Russians loot the houses of people who have left. They take whatever they need – beds, mattresses, tools for cars, washing machines, cars, minibuses. They just come with guns and take things, and civilians can’t do anything about it.”

Andrei (42) does not want to give his surname because he is a volunteer doing the dangerous work of evacuating civilians from Chornobaivka.

“We try to find ‘green corridors’ [safe routes] through Kherson region to get people to Ukrainian-controlled territory. We prioritise mothers with newborn babies and infants, then the elderly and relatives of Ukrainian servicemen,” he explains in Odesa.

“Last time the journey took 2½ days: mothers with breastfeeding kids had to spend the night in a field, under shelling; we had to find a route from one green corridor to another; we began Easter Sunday in a field somewhere with 14 evacuees,” he recalls.

“Now we’re planning a new route out to Odesa but it will be 1,000km instead of 220km in normal times. And it’s totally unpredictable – at every checkpoint we have no idea if the Russians will let us through. They may ask for money, cigarettes, vodka or petrol.”

‘The drivers got us here’

Marko and Svitlana reached Odesa from Kherson two weeks ago, driving their car on a three-day journey in convoy with dozens of other vehicles. They do not want their real names to be used because they fear for the safety of relatives still living under occupation.

“I need to get my mother out. She can’t really move and we need to find a place where we can care for her. But honestly, I’m terrified of going back there, and if Marko went instead of me it would also be awful,” Svitlana says. “I start shaking just thinking about that journey,” adds Marko.

They describe driving through a landscape scarred by fighting; a tank cannon pointing at their car at one checkpoint; a man being forced to strip so Russian soldiers could examine him for Ukrainian “nationalist” tattoos; and wondering what thoughts moved behind the eyes of the masked gunmen who checked their documents every few kilometres.

“In Kherson we happened to be going past Freedom Square twice when the Russians were chasing away protesters. At least one person was shot – I don’t know if they did it on purpose but there was a big pool of blood,” says Svitlana.

“Cars without number plates drove up, four or five men jumped out and caught people and took them away. There’s a feeling of fear in the city. People start appearing on the streets at about 8am but by 2pm the streets are almost empty,” adds Marko.

Svitlana says prices for basic goods in Kherson region have soared under occupation, and that rumours of Russian plans for a referendum on its status are rife.

“People are scared of that and are almost everyone is completely against it,” she insists. “If our forces don’t liberate us, then I don’t know what will become of Kherson – we do not want occupation.”

Hours after Odesa’s 10pm curfew, the bus bringing evacuees from Kherson pulls up under police escort at the hotel where free accommodation and anxious relatives await.

“It’s such a relief, it’s so good to see them,” says Arkhipova as she hugs Ilya and Darya and then smothers her weary son with kisses. After two days on the road, the evacuees go inside, where they are offered food and drinks and shown to their rooms. Sveta and Lena, two friends from Kherson, are not quite ready to sleep.

“When all this is over, they should put up a statue to those drivers,” says Lena. “There were explosions on the way, mines beside the road, and some of the Russian soldiers were horrible – they demanded money and broke the door of our minibus – but the drivers got us here.”

They are safe now, but as they talk in the mild Odesa night, cigarettes glowing in the dark, they are still thinking of home. “We’re so glad to be in Odesa,” says Sveta, “but we will go back to our Kherson.”

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