Ukrainian villagers flee Russian-occupied Kherson on foot, bike and wheelchair
ZELENODOLSK, Ukraine — They emerge one by one in the morning light. Some by foot, but most come by bike or wheelchair. Ukrainian soldiers know to wait for the escapees on this dirt road.
"It is a very long journey, because the roads are terrible," says Inna Kravchenko, 52, a resident fleeing with her mother from Vysokopillia, a village in southern Ukraine now under Russian control. Next to her are three bags: all that she and her 75-year-old mother Raïsa Kozlova were able to carry with them.
More than 15 million Ukrainians have fled their homes since Russia invaded in late February, according to the United Nations. Many have fled abroad, while others have sought shelter in other parts of the country, escaping towns devastated by incessant bombardments or gripped by Russian military control.
Each day, a stream of people displaced by war arrives in the southern village of Zelenodolsk, under Ukrainian control. It's a cluster of austere, concrete buildings located in the Dnipropetrovsk region, right on the northern edge of the largely Russian-controlled Kherson region. The village has become a transit point for about 7,000 people so far, according to Dmytro Neveselyi, Zelenodolsk's mayor.
That number is likely to rise soon. Ukrainian authorities are telling residents to evacuate the Kherson region as their forces prepare a counteroffensive to retake southern territory lost to Russia early in the war. And in the coming months, Ukrainian military officials say, Zelenodolsk will become a key staging ground for the campaign to win back control of the port city of Kherson, the regional capital, and surrounding villages.
The military maneuvers from both sides have trapped Ukrainian residents living under Russian control in an unlivable hellscape. As they flee, many describe the desperation of life in rural war zones.
"A lot of apartments burned. Schools, kindergartens, everything is destroyed. No shops. That is how we lived. We did not know where to look for help," says Kozlova.
The mother and daughter rode and pushed bicycles to Zelenodolsk, about 10 miles north of their home village. Their bikes now lie in a pile of about 30 others — all muddied and sporting strips of white cloth to indicate civilians were riding them. Russian attacks have killed thousands of civilians.
The Kherson region fell to Russia early in the war
Russia has made gains on Ukrainian territory that cover a wide, curving portion of the east and swoop down to the coastal south, near Crimea. As of early June, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said "about 20% of our territory is under control of the occupiers."
In Ukraine's south, Russian military regiments have dug in mostly around rural villages. The fighting there is often the most intense, trapping communities between artillery fire from both sides.
Kherson became the first city to fall to Russia, in early March, just over a week after the full-scale invasion began. Other parts of the broader Kherson oblast (region), including the village of Vysokopillia, came under occupation around that time.
Only about 200 people, mostly the sick and elderly, remain in Vysokopillia, out of the village's 4,000 original inhabitants, according to three residents interviewed by NPR. The rest have fled or been killed in shelling.
The occupied countryside is left looted and ungoverned
In the city of Kherson, the Russian military authorities imposed the Russian language in schools and forbidden Ukrainian. They handed out Russian passports and, according to Ukrainian officials, plan to hold a referendum on unifying with the Russian Federation.
But in the occupied countryside, Ukrainians say, Russian military garrisons have done little to administer villages ravaged by war, instead treating them as repositories to loot for food and medical supplies.
Lubov Ivanivna, 55, has just fled Vysokopillia and plans to continue farther north to live with family in the city of Kryvyi Rih.
"Everything that we have, we left behind. We left our souls behind," she says.
Back home, Ivanivna says, she and her neighbors were terrorized by a soldier with the Russian forces who went by the name Sasha Poltava. "He would come to our yard and sit down with a grenade in hand, then demand I give him coffee, wine, vodka or liqueur," she remembers.
Her neighbors escaped Vysokopillia in April; the next morning, Russian soldiers ransacked their house and broke all the windows.
Russia knocks out cell towers
The Russian military also tightly controls information that could get out of the village. Soldiers seized many citizens' digital devices after one resident managed to upload a picture of a destroyed street in Vysokopillia, says Lilya Navoyenko, 55, who also fled the village to Zelenodolsk.
In territory its forces occupy, Russia has been knocking out cell service towers andswitching internet networks to Russian providers. Iryna, another resident who escaped, says her neighbors started to climb onto tall houses and trees, trying to catch a phone signal, but Russian soldiers shot at them. She does not want to give her last name because her family is still stuck in Vysokopillia.
For those who managed to keep their phones, four months of no electricity or gas or running water made it nearly impossible to keep them charged; a few used their cars to generate electricity, but then the Russians took the cars too, Ivanivna says.
Ukraine fights to take back the south
Ukrainian officials say their forces are making marginal territorial gains against Russia, village by village in the southeast. During the first week of July, Ukraine's Defense Ministry said its forceshad pried two villages neighboring Vysokopillia from Russian control.
That has given hope to residents who say they will return and rebuild if their villages come back under Ukrainian control. "We will be back. We want to come back. We lived all our lives there. I want it so much," Kozlova says through tears.
But such victories are often pyrrhic, leaving returning villagers with the daunting task of rebuilding communities nearly completely leveled by shelling. Residents say about four-fifths of Vysokopillia has already been destroyed.
"We had a prosperous village. The roads were newly paved. Now it is all in ruins," says Vysokopillia resident Nina Mykhno, 80. For four months, until she could escape, she hid in her basement and only came out to cook over an open fire because her power and gas lines had been shelled.
But when an incoming Russian missile destroyed the public library, she decided to risk venturing out and see what books she could save.
"I saw new books by Stephen King. I had never read him before, so I got interested in the books," she says. She took 10 of his novels and read them in her basement, passing the time until she could flee to Zelenodolsk.
Neveselyi, Zelenodolsk's mayor, knows Vysokopillia could be a glimpse into the future if the Russians come in his direction. He says two of his friends in Vysokopillia died in shelling in May.
On four hours of sleep each night, he is trying to keep the town running while helping oversee an influx of displaced Ukrainians.
The village has taken some of its own hits, too. Electricity lines were downed by nighttime shelling in early July. The mayor says he has had to leave them unrepaired because sending an electrician up in a crane would make them a target for Russian snipers.
Each night he posts a Facebook video — modeled after President Zelenskyy'sevening addresses — exhorting residents not to sow their fields of strawberry and dill just 2 miles from Russian artillery positions.
Some of his most pressing concerns may seem the most mundane. A few weeks back, when Russian shelling damaged a nearby nature preserve, 400 boars escaped their enclosures.
"Now I have residents coming to me, writing petitions, asking me to control these wild boars, to protect their potatoes and onions from the boars," he says incredulously.
He laughs in exasperation. "I am telling them, we have other pigs to deal with," he says. "Then we can deal with the wild boars."
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