Dispatch

Putin’s War Drives Refugees From Occupied Kherson

Fighting in Ukraine’s south has caused an exodus.

People arrive at the Zaporizhzhia registration center in Ukraine
People arrive at the Zaporizhzhia registration center in Ukraine
People arrive at the Zaporizhzhia registration center in Ukraine from Russian-occupied territory on Sept. 5. Between 500 and 600 a day are arriving from Kherson. Emre Caylak photos for Foreign Policy
By , a journalist based in Ukraine covering the human cost of the war.

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine—Clutching dirt-streaked plastic laundry bags with a few prized possessions, Oksana, her five children, and her 6-year-old grandson walked for over two days and almost 80 miles sustained only by bread and water to escape from Russian-occupied Kherson to Ukrainian-held territory.

For the last two weeks, she and other witnesses say, a regular stream of both Russian and Ukrainian missiles have littered the skies and landscape of occupied Kherson as a long-awaited, but information-sparse, Ukrainian counteroffensive attempts to expel Russian invaders from the southern Ukrainian city. 

“All night now missiles and planes go over. The children were scared, so we had to leave,” said Oksana, who like others requested to use only her first name, as most still have friends or family left behind. That doesn’t include Oksana’s husband, who died of advanced blood cancer in mid-August, after local hospitals said they were unable to treat him.

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine—Clutching dirt-streaked plastic laundry bags with a few prized possessions, Oksana, her five children, and her 6-year-old grandson walked for over two days and almost 80 miles sustained only by bread and water to escape from Russian-occupied Kherson to Ukrainian-held territory.

For the last two weeks, she and other witnesses say, a regular stream of both Russian and Ukrainian missiles have littered the skies and landscape of occupied Kherson as a long-awaited, but information-sparse, Ukrainian counteroffensive attempts to expel Russian invaders from the southern Ukrainian city. 

“All night now missiles and planes go over. The children were scared, so we had to leave,” said Oksana, who like others requested to use only her first name, as most still have friends or family left behind. That doesn’t include Oksana’s husband, who died of advanced blood cancer in mid-August, after local hospitals said they were unable to treat him.

Oksana arrives at the Zaporizhzhia registration center
Oksana arrives at the Zaporizhzhia registration center

Oksana arrives at the Zaporizhzhia registration center with her five children and 6-year-old grandson on Sept. 5.

Ukraine has maintained a near-total information blackout since it announced the launch of its southern operation last week, yet residents fleeing the city say there was a sharp increase in aerial attacks even before the operation was announced. “We couldn’t even sleep at night because there were so many explosions,” said a resident of the Chaplynka district, who did not want to be named, as her husband is still in Kherson.

In interviews with a dozen people who fled the Kherson region to Ukrainian-held Zaporizhzhia over the last two weeks, most said they had left, for the most part, due to the significant increase of fighting around the city. They also witnessed a rise in the number of Russian troops on the streets, and they said military vehicles bearing a circle symbol had begun to appear alongside those with a “Z” or “V,” suggesting a deployment of new Russian units or reinforcements to the area. 

Citing the need for secrecy during a military operation, Ukrainian officials have said little publicly about the counteroffensives taking place both in southern and eastern Ukraine, but army units are thought to be retaking ground amid extremely fierce fighting. (A Ukrainian general said Thursday that the dual counterattacks had liberated significant chunks of Ukrainian territory, a rare glimpse into the unfolding operation.) Fleeing residents told Foreign Policy that there are no Ukrainian soldiers within Kherson itself but that fighting rages in the villages. Kyiv says it has already claimed a number of small settlements in the south, a development backed up by U.S. officials, while a video was shared over the weekend that showed forces raising the Ukrainian flag over the hospital in the northeastern village of Vysokopole.

Buses wait to transport displaced Ukrainians
Buses wait to transport displaced Ukrainians

Buses wait to transport displaced Ukrainians to shelters in Zaporizhzhia on Sept. 5.

On Monday, a representative of the Russian-appointed administration in Kherson said the Antonivskyi Bridge, which is vital to Russian supply lines, had been rendered impassable to cars after weeks of Ukrainian shelling, while the offensive has also forced Moscow to pause plans to hold a referendum on the city joining Russia in September. (Russia held a widely internationally rejected referendum in Crimea after invading it in 2014, formally annexing that part of Ukraine into Moscow’s orbit.)

Retaking Kherson would provide a huge morale boost to the Ukrainian army. It was the first—and largest—Ukrainian city to be occupied after Russia’s February invasion, but the fighting is likely to cause heavy losses. Evacuees said that many civilians were also leaving the area. Iryna Chorna, coordinator of the nongovernmental organization Posmishka UA, which helps run humanitarian hubs in Zaporizhzhia, said that over the last few weeks between 500 and 600 people a day have been arriving from Kherson, a sharp rise over what came before. This week, traffic jams at the last checkpoint in Russian-controlled territory at Vasylivka, where people often wait days to cross or are refused passage altogether, amounted to 5,000 cars, she said. 

“We have been waiting for this counteroffensive,” said Andriy, 43, who arrived from Beryslav in the Kherson region with his family this week. “We thought it would be more careful, but the fighting is damaging a lot, and we fled because of that. When we go home, if our house is destroyed, of course we’ll be sad, but we will be free from the Russian occupiers and we can build again.”

Andriy and Vika hold their children at a shelter.
Andriy and Vika hold their children at a shelter.

Andriy and Vika, seen in Zaporizhzhia on Sept. 5, have been living in the shelter with their children since Sept. 2 after fleeing Kherson.

After six months living under the boot of an occupying force, the promise of freedom seems a welcome, if perhaps still distant, reality to many Kherson residents. In July, a researcher at Human Rights Watch said Kherson and the occupied areas of Zaporizhzhia had been turned into an “abyss of fear and wild lawlessness,” with Russia carrying out war crimes such as torture, kidnapping, and killings.

In April, Yulia, 22, a mother of two who previously lost her husband—a civilian—in March after he was caught in crossfire between Russian and Ukrainian forces, witnessed the summary killing of a local man from her fourth-floor balcony. At around midnight, a Russian military vehicle marked with a Z pulled up in the street below beside a group of people who were drinking, warning them they were breaking curfew. One heavily inebriated man refused to follow orders to put his hands in the air, so “they shot him dead,” she said, putting his body in the car and driving off. 

Yulia and her children
Yulia and her children

Yulia, 22, a mother of two whose husband was killed in a shootout in March, stays in a shelter in Zaporizhzhia on Sept. 5.

Laryssa, 62, a former university librarian, was waiting at a bus station in June when two Russian soldiers in civilian clothes grabbed a young man, forced him into a car, and drove off. She believes they were forcibly recruiting him to fight for enemy forces. “They just stole him. I was worried every day the same will happen to my son,” she said. Russian forces have been accused of a number of kidnappings in the city, including of teachers, the university vice rector, a social media influencer, a number of police officers, and the Ukrainian mayor of Kherson, Ihor Kolykhaiev. 

A number of evacuees said that it was common for Russian forces to come to civilian houses to search for money, gold, or weapons, and in some cases even commandeer homes to live in themselves. Several knew of people who had gone missing from their neighborhoods. A neighbor of Olena, who arrived at a displacement hub on Monday heavily pregnant and with her two teenage children, said her husband had been accused of buying abandoned Ukrainian ammunition on the black market. “They took him to their base and tortured him with electric shocks to try to get him to confess,” she said.

Despite the horrors inflicted on the city, residents said some friends and family welcomed Russian forces and even collaborated with them. However, in some cases, people were so poor they had no choice. Goods are three or four times more expensive than before, and there is little work available, while Russia offers 10,000 rubles (around $165) and access to humanitarian aid to those who apply for a Russian passport. 

Access to medical treatment is also dangerously sparse, leading to situations like Oksana’s loss of her husband. When Andriy’s baby caught pneumonia, the hospital did not have the drugs to treat her, and they were forced to find medicine themselves by asking among friends. 

As schools in Ukraine returned to lessons either online or in person on Sept. 1, panic over a policy of Russification imposed by Kherson’s occupying administration also fueled the rush to leave. There is no connection to Ukrainian internet to learn online, and Russian history books have been brought in from Crimea to indoctrinate Ukraine’s young ones with a Kremlin-approved fantasy of Russian history. 

“The children and parents don’t want it,” said Olena, who left her husband in Kherson, believing he would be unable to leave, as he is of fighting age. She sought to secure both safety and an education for the children. “Soldiers with weapons patrol the school and tell the children to study, and there are fines for those who don’t attend.” 

“Nothing will ever be the same. Nobody asked to be ‘liberated’ from Ukraine, and now, after heavy, attacks my children point to the sky and say, ‘Afraid’,” said Andriy, who was only allowed to escape because he has five children. “The people who did this to us are not human.”

Liz Cookman is a journalist based in Ukraine covering the human cost of the war. Twitter: @Liz_Cookman

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