Constantin, a 28-year-old internet installer, decided he had had enough. On Tuesday, he packed his gray Lada 110 and its roof rack with everything he feasibly could, then put his brother, his wife, his son and his daughter in the car and drove away, leaving behind his home in Ivanivka, a Russian-occupied town in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine. Tuesday was the last of five days during which Moscow had organized annexation referendums in the occupied zone and three other regions partially under the control of Russian troops to decide if those territories would become part of Russia. The Kremlin’s next step will be to impose mandatory enlistment from October 1 on men aged between 18 and 35, forcing them to fight in Russian uniform against Ukrainian forces defending their own country.
Constantin did not open the door of his home on Monday, when two armed men and a woman, a ballot box in her hand, went house to house to coerce residents into participating in the illegal vote. Neither does he intend to wear the uniform of his country’s enemy. The Kherson region has now been occupied for seven months and the ongoing war, which has resulted in insecurity, inflation and harsh living conditions, have now been brought to the doorsteps of residents suffering harassment in the face of the Kremlin’s designs. “I was scared,” Constantin admits, hours after arriving safely in Zaporizhzhia in the southeast of Ukraine.
Zaporizhzhia, capital of the eponymous region, is also playing host to officials of the Kyiv government who fled their municipalities after refusing to collaborate with the Russians. Moscow’s agenda “will not change our lives or those of our troops in any way. Berdyansk will remain Ukrainian. We will fight until victory”, says Viktor Tsukanov, the ousted head of the Berdyansk City Council. The 40-year-old, who served as mayor of the city before it was taken by Russian troops in February, plays down Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric. The Russian president plans to announce on Friday - unilaterally and without official backing from beyond Moscow - that the areas currently occupied by his soldiers in the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson will become part of Russia.
Nevertheless, thousands of Ukrainian citizens in the occupied zone, like Constantin and his family, are not waiting for Putin’s pronouncement. Long lines of vehicles trying to reach unoccupied soil resemble those of Russians fleeing their country to avoid being drafted and sent to fight in Ukraine after Putin ordered a partial mobilization in Russia, the country’s first since World War II. To reach Zaporizhzhia, refugees first have to navigate Vasylivka, where hundreds of vehicles are backed up. As dozens of interviewees attest, it is a kind of border hell of draconian controls where Russian troops go out of their way to make passage difficult for the population they have supposedly come to rescue from the “Nazism” of the Kyiv government. Constantin says he was forced to strip to his underpants so that the soldiers could examine his tattoos, as he has several that are clearly visible. It is the occupiers’ method of detecting patriotic or nationalistic symbolism not to their liking, and as such an excuse to make an arrest. Other men consulted by this newspaper described similar experiences.
Ina, 24, is Constantin’s wife. She deals as best she can with Danil, their four-year-old boy, while carrying little Vladislava, nine months old, in her arms. The family has arrived at a transit center set up in an abandoned factory, where they ill remain until they find a place to settle. There are several of these halfway houses in Zaporizhzhia, where refugees are organized according to their place of origin. At one point during the interview, Constantin gets up to help the rest of the volunteers unload a truck that has arrived carrying aid.
His wife recalles the hours they spent in Vasylivka with dread. They even tried to elicit sympathy from the Russian soldiers by pretending Danil had a broken leg. The worst of the four controls was the second, Ina says. There, the car was turned inside out and all of the family’s electronic devices were confiscated, even Danil’s tablet. The soldiers scanned social networks, phone contacts and Google and YouTube history, finding something they didn’t like on Ina’s cell phone. “One of the soldiers went crazy and starting shouting aggressively, telling me to get out of the car,” Ina recalls. “Please, I am a mother with two children, one with a broken leg. Let me go on,” she implored. Then came a moment that almost saw them turned back, as had happened to four of the cars that were part of their convoy of 16 vehicles. The Russians became suspicious of Artem, Constantin’s brother, because he wasn’t carrying a phone. In the view of the soldiers, that meant he had something to hide. The nightmare of fleeing through Vasylivka finally ended when they passed the last checkpoint, “which was controlled by Chechens,” says Ina with evident relief.
Also at the makeshift refugee center is Sergei Tatarnikov, a 36-year-old who walks leaning on an old wooden crutch with his left leg bandaged. He was wounded by shrapnel during an attack on August 24, Ukraine’s Independence Day, which was also the the six-month anniversary of the invasion. He was evacuated from Orikhiv, a town the Russians have not yet managed to capture but which is under a permanent state of siege. “It’s a war zone,” says Tatarnikov, who estimates that only 5% of Orikhiv’s 50,000 inhabitants remain there.
In the same facility where the former inhabitants of Berdyansk are receiving help, Irina, 44, recalls how in Vasylivka the Russian troops humiliated them by mocking the use of “Slava Ukaine!” (Glory to Ukraine) that the locals would greet each other with. Another Irina, a 69-year-old nursery school teacher, watched as her neighbor opened the door during the referendum, which the international community has branded a “farce,” and was forced to drop in a ballot. She was accompanied on the bus journey by her son-in-law, Oleksei, 38, a newspaper advertising employee who lost his job because of the war and is also fleeing the Russian draft. He recounts bitterly how “many” acquaintances and former classmates are now collaborating with the occupiers.
Night falls over the old Zaporizhzhia factory while dinner is distributed in the dining room provided by the NGO World Central Kitchen, led by the Spanish chef José Andres. Even at night the trickle of refugees arriving at the ten-storey high facility continues. Valentina, 65, a philologist with a doctorate in the Ukrainian language, managed to leave the city of Kherson by crossing the Dnieper River on a small ferry, one of few routes out after the bridge was bombed. Her group had to stop for two days in Vasylivka, where an old woman welcomed them into her home. “In Kherson most people are still with Ukraine. They are waiting for our army to arrive to liberate us”, says Valentina, a retiree who hopes that in Zaporizhzhia she will be able to recover her pension, which it is impossible to receive under the Russian occupying authorities. When she set out last Sunday, the ballot boxes of the illegal referendum were still being carried from house to house, with a military escort. “Only a few people opened the door to vote,” Valentina says, making it abundantly clear she was not one of them: “Of course I didn’t vote, damn them!”