Emily Feng / NPR
ZELENODOLSK, Ukraine – They appear one by one in the morning light. Some walk, but most go by bicycle or wheelchair. Ukrainian soldiers know to wait for escapees on this dirt road.
Inna Kravchenko, 52, a resident fleeing with her mother from Vysokopillia, a village in southern Ukraine that is currently under Russian control, said: “It’s been a very long journey, because of the roads. very terrible. Beside her were three bags: all she and her 75-year-old mother Raïsa Kozlova could carry.
More than 15 million Ukrainians have fled their homes since then Russian Invasion at the end of February, according to the United Nations. Many fled abroad, while others sought refuge in other parts of the country, escaping towns ravaged by relentless bombardment or controlled by military control. Russian team.
Every day, an influx of war-evacuees arrives in the southern village of Zelenodolsk, under Ukrainian control. It’s a cluster of austere concrete buildings located in the Dnipropetrovsk region, just on the northern edge of the largely Russian-controlled Kherson region. The village has become a transshipment point for about 7,000 people so far, according to Dmytro Neveselyi, the mayor of Zelenodolsk.
That number is likely to increase soon. The Ukrainian government is asking the people evacuate from Kherson region as their forces prepared to counterattack to recapture southern territory lost to Russia early in the war. And in the coming months, Ukrainian military officials say, Zelenodolsk will become a key platform for the operation to regain control of the port city of Kherson, the regional capital and surrounding villages.
Military maneuvers by both sides have trapped Ukrainians living under Russian control in an unmovable spectacle. As they fled, many described the desperation of life in the warring countryside.
“A lot of apartments burned. Schools, kindergartens, everything was destroyed. There were no shops. That’s how we lived. We didn’t know where to look for help,” Kozlova said.
Emily Feng / NPR
The mother and daughter rode and pushed their bicycles to Zelenodolsk, about 10 miles north of their home village. Their bikes were now in a pile of about 30 others – all covered in mud and sporting white strips of cloth to indicate civilians were riding them. Russian attacks have kill thousands of civilians.
Kherson region fell to Russia early in the war
Russia has gained interest in Ukrainian territory that includes a large, curvilinear part of the east and spills over to the southern coast, near Crimea. In early June, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said “about 20% Our territory is under the control of the occupiers. “
In the south of Ukraine, Russian army regiments dug around rural villages. The skirmishes there were often the most intense communities, the most intense amid artillery fire on both sides.
Kherson be the first city fell into Russian hands, in early March, just over a week after the full-scale invasion began. Other parts of the larger Kherson government (area), including the village of Vysokopillia, were occupied around that time.
Only about 200 people, mostly elderly and sick, remain Vysokopillia, of the village’s original 4,000 inhabitants., according to three residents interviewed by NPR. The rest fled or were killed in shelling.
Olga Maltseva / AFP via Getty Images
The occupied countryside is looted and has no manager
In the city of Kherson, the Russian military junta imposed Russian in schools and banned the Ukrainian language. Surname give Russian passport and, according to Ukrainian officials, intend to keep a referendum on unification with the Russian Federation.
But in the occupied countryside, Ukrainians say, Russian military garrisons have done little to manage the villages ravaged by war, instead treating them as warehouses. food and medical supplies.
Lubov Ivanivna, 55, has just escaped from Vysokopillia and plans to continue further north to live with her family in the city of Kryvyi Rih.
“All we have, we have left behind. We have left our souls,” she said.
Back home, Ivanivna said, she and her neighbors were terrorized by a soldier of the Russian forces named Sasha Poltava. “He came to our yard and sat down with a grenade in his hand, then asked me to give him coffee, wine, vodka or liqueur,” she recalls.
Her neighbors escaped from Vysokopillia in April; The next morning, Russian soldiers ransacked their house and broke all the windows.
Russia knocks down cell towers
The Russian military also strictly controls the information that can be released from the village. Soldiers seized people’s digital devices after a resident posted an image of a destroyed street in Vysokopillia, said 55-year-old Lilya Navoyenko, who also fled the village to Zelenodolsk.
In the territory occupied by their forces, Russia demolished cell service towers and convert internet to Russian suppliers. Iryna, another resident who escaped, said her neighbors started climbing into tall houses and trees, trying to pick up a phone signal, but Russian soldiers opened fire on them. She does not want to give her last name because her family is still stuck in Vysokopillia.
For those who manage to keep their phones, four months without electricity, gas or running water makes it nearly impossible to charge; Ivanivna said a few use their cars to generate electricity, but then Russians also use cars.
John Moore / Getty Images
Ukraine fights to take back the south
Ukrainian officials say their forces are making border gains against Russia, village by village in the southeast. In the first week of July, the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine said its forces pry two neighboring villages of Vysokopillia from Russian control.
That gave hope to residents who said they would return and rebuild if their village returned under Ukrainian control. “We’ll be back. We want to come back. We’ve lived there all our lives. I want it so much,” Kozlova said through tears.
But such victories are often indeterminate, leaving villagers returning to the difficult task of rebuilding communities that were almost completely razed by shelling. Residents said about four-fifths of Vysokopillia had been destroyed.
Nina Mykhno, 80, a resident of Vysokopillia, said: “We used to have a prosperous village. The roads were newly paved. Now it’s all dilapidated.” A fire broke out because her power and gas lines had been shot.
But when a Russian rocket hits the public library, she decides to venture out and see what books she can save.
“I’ve seen Stephen King’s new books. I’ve never read him before, so I’m very interested in the books,” she said. She took 10 of his novels and read them in her basement, passing time until she was able to flee to Zelenodolsk.
Neveselyi, the mayor of Zelenodolsk, knows Vysokopillia could be a glimpse into the future if the Russians follow his lead. He said that two of his friends in Vysokopillia died in shelling in May.
Sleeping four hours a night, he’s trying to keep the town running while helping oversee the flow of displaced Ukrainians.
The village has also had some successes of its own. Power lines were cut due to shelling at night in early July. The mayor said he had to leave them untouched because sending an electrician on top of a crane would make them a target for Russian snipers.
Every night he Post a video on Facebook – modeled after President Zelenskyy’s evening address – advised people not to plant strawberries and grow vegetables within 2 miles of Russian artillery positions.
Some of his most pressing concerns seem the most mundane. A few weeks ago, when Russian shelling damaged a nearby nature reserve, 400 wild boars escaped their encirclement.
“Now I have residents coming to me, writing petitions, asking me to control these wild boars, to protect their potatoes and onions from the wild boars,” he said curtly. incredulous.
He laughed exasperatedly. “I’m telling them, we have other pigs to deal with,” he said. “Then we can deal with the wild boars.”