Home News Loss and liberation: Escape from Russia-occupied Kherson

Loss and liberation: Escape from Russia-occupied Kherson

Loss and liberation: Escape from Russia-occupied Kherson

Loss and liberation: Escape from Russia-occupied Kherson

A Ukrainian mother shares her story of fleeing with her daughter, but aches to return one day.

Loss and liberationDisplaced Ukrainians queue to board a bus to Poland outside Lviv train station in western Ukraine

Ukraine’s Kyiv – On a scorching May afternoon, a minibus carrying 16 citizens from Ukraine, including two children, left a checkpoint guarded by Russian soldiers.

The driver veered off the shell-damaged asphalt and onto a zigzagging dirt road that had been built in the steppe by hundreds of vehicles.

After days and nights of driving and waiting at numerous checkpoints, the bus was finally leaving the territory of Zaporizhia in southern Ukraine which was currently occupied by Russia.

While verifying IDs, searching luggage and phones, and ordering the Ukrainian males in each vehicle to remove their shirts to inspect for bruises caused by rifle recoil, the troops made lewd remarks.

The drivers were then told to wait for many hours by the soldiers.

Resident Valentyna Buhaiova embraces Ukrainian marines in the recently retaken village of Kyselivka, outside of Kherson, Ukraine.

On May 20, the hot minibus and its famished, anxious occupants were excruciatingly close to the side under Ukrainian control – and freedom.

However, as the bus retreated, the Russian soldiers opened fire on it, just as their comrades in arms frequently did in every region of occupied Ukraine, according to authorities and survivors.

“I observed the driver’s strained expression as I stared at him. He simply took off after stepping on the gas, according to Alyona Korotkova, who fled the neighboring Kherson district with her daughter Vera, then eight.

“Behind us, we heard explosions. In a telephone conversation from the safety of Marl, a peaceful village surrounded by forests in western Germany, where she and Vera have made their home, she claimed, “They were shooting at us.

They believe it will only last temporarily.

Kherson was the only Ukrainian province that Russia fully occupied soon after the invasion started on February 24. Kherson is a region the size of Belgium with grassy steppes and fertile farmland that is crisscrossed by rivers and irrigation canals.

Just before dawn on that chilly, cloudy day, Korotkova heard the initial blasts.

A few hours later, Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers from the Crimean peninsula that had crossed the border roared into her village of Oleshki.

Oleshki is situated on the lower left bank of the Dnieper River, the largest river in Ukraine, and is surrounded by sand dunes, farmland, and orchids.

The largest urban center Russia seized prior to Mariupol’s fall is the regional capital, also known as Kherson, which is located across the water from it.

Naturally, Korotkova said, “we were wondering why they got to us so quickly.

Insisting they had not blown up explosive-studded bridges and highways near Crimea, some Kherson officials and intelligence officers were accused of treason by Ukrainian politicians and analysts.

They gave up on the first day, according to Halyna, a Kherson resident who declined to provide her last name to Al Jazeera in May.

In a few days, the army crushed under their tanks the voluntary volunteers and Ukrainian soldiers guarding the 1.4-kilometer Antonovsky Bridge, the sole direct route connecting the city to the left side.

By March 2, the Russians had seized the city and were making themselves at home.

The motto recited by the Kremlin and pro-Moscow leaders was “Russia is here forever.”

Korotkova, her daughter, and her mother lived in a house surrounded by orchards and vegetable gardens, where they all lived in seclusion.

The home had a wood-burning stove, a cold, dark basement, and a freezer with meat in it. Glistening jars of pickles were also present.

Korotkova, who once organized exhibitions and worked as a babysitter on the side, was able to subsist thanks to the fruit, pickles, and meat as well as parcels from friends.

Although Oleshki’s Russian soldiers were seldom noticeable in the first several weeks, the community still felt the occupation in numerous other ways.

Russian soldiers examined IDs and mobile phones, making movement dangerous.

Grocery shopping took hours as basic necessities like food, medicine, and clothing slowly vanished or skyrocketed in price.

The Ukrainian volunteers who provided the medications and other necessities started to vanish as well. Some of them were either kidnapped and never seen or heard from again.

At first, there were numerous, large-scale protests held all across the area.

Tens of thousands of fugitives fled the annexed peninsula through Kherson, which serves as the only land bridge to Crimea.

In Kherson, Korotkova remarked, “We realized what had happened to Crimea, and we didn’t want it.”

The demonstrations were put down by smoke bombs, beatings, arrests, kidnappings, torture, and extrajudicial killings carried out by the Russian military and renegade Ukrainian police officers.

On November 14, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared, “The Russian army has left just as many atrocities in the Kherson region as in other regions it had entered.” “We want to catch every killer and bring them to justice.”

In improvised jails known as “basements,” hundreds are thought to have been kidnapped and tortured; some of them wound up there merely because they were valuable enough to demand a ransom.

Farmers were assaulted in the basement in order to get them to pay, according to Korotkova.

When they started to retreat earlier this month, the occupiers treated Kherson like a war trophy, extracting as much as they could from it while attempting to leave nothing of value behind.

Aleksey Kushch, a Kyiv-based analyst, told Al Jazeera that “they destroyed many infrastructure sites, including bridges, heat generators, transmission stations, and cell communication towers.”

They removed bronze statues of czarist generals and raccoons from the city zoo in addition to washing machines, toilet seats, and electronic equipment.

According to Kushch, “their loot resembled a robber’s wagon.”

The Kremlin-installed “authorities” sought to imply that most Khersonites supported Russia from the outset.

Except for a driver Korotkova once met, nobody nearby was. She described the man as being in his 60s and sentimental about his upbringing growing up on collective farms and eating inexpensive sausages.

A 90-year-old woman who had long since relocated to St. Petersburg, Russia, called her granddaughter in Oleshki and extolled the virtues of Vladimir Putin, the country’s president.

The grandmother reportedly stated, “You’re making it all up,” when the granddaughter informed her of the facts of the occupation.

The noise of battle, however, permeated everyday life.

“As explosions could be heard outside, I planted potatoes. Gunfire interrupted my strawberry replanting as I worked. You become accustomed to it because you must continue to live, she remarked.

She and Vera were exhausted by depression because they felt confined to the house and yearned for a quick stroll or a chance to gaze at the night sky.

“There is fear, yet you manage to go on living. Fear doesn’t lead you to stop breathing, according to Korotkova.

Vera was told to take cover in the room with the stove if there were gunshots or explosions while Korotkova was out.

But the kid didn’t flinch. Korotkova remarked, “She grew up so quickly, became so serious, and responsible.

In May, they made the decision to leave, despite the 69-year-old grandmother’s warnings that she wouldn’t make it through the long journey.

They needed two tries and nearly a week of driving, waiting, and sleeping in kind strangers’ houses or on buses before they succeeded.

After waiting for days, the original minibus driver turned around, and they located another one.

The sound of artillery clashes between Russian and Ukrainian forces on their final night on the seized side was drowned out by rain and thunder.

The Ukrainian soldiers simply waved the driver in and told him to keep moving when the Russians started shooting at their minibus and he sped off.

The passengers sobbed with relief upon entering the Ukrainian-controlled zone and were treated like long-awaited guests.

There was hot food, first aid items, showers and shampoo, overnight accommodations, and transportation.

Korotkova and Vera traveled to Kyiv, spent a few weeks there, and then left for Germany with their new passports.

They yearn to go back to Oleshki despite the fact that Vera has adjusted to the new school, picked up some German, and made friends with other refugee kids.

We genuinely want to go home, but we probably won’t in the foreseeable future, Korotkova added.

Russians demolished infrastructure and placed landmines around the city, leaving residents without access to electricity, natural gas, or mobile phone connections.

The de-occupied districts were first entered by Ukrainian forces, police, and aid workers last week with power generators, fuel, food, medical supplies, and arrest warrants for collaborators.

Kherson does not, however, appear to be as damaged and hopeless as other parts of northern and eastern Ukraine where Russian soldiers have left.

A volunteer who delivered insulin to the area told Al Jazeera on Thursday that “it’s not as awful as other locations I’ve been to.”

Khersonites who live in occupied territories fight for survival while holding out hope for their liberation.

One homeowner told Al Jazeera that despite prices being inhumanely high, people continue to wait and believe.