Every day, hundreds, or even thousands, of people are trying to flee the Russian-occupied region of Kherson in southern Ukraine, gathering up whatever they can cram into their cars, or even piling onto tractors.
And every day they run a gauntlet of harassment and worse from Russian troops.
They are leaving for many reasons: to avoid being detained or to escape the heavy-handed actions of Russian forces, or because of the chronic shortages of medicine and other basics in Kherson, which fell under Russian control soon after the invasion.
Last week, a convoy of no fewer than 1,000 vehicles tried to leave Kherson. The Russians ultimately let the convoy move in batches – but only after holding it in one place for most of the day.
One of the nearly 5,000 people trying to leave that day was Arkadiy, who had been previously detained by the occupying forces.
“For me, this was already the fifth attempt to leave the controlled territory. The previous four times it didn’t work out,” he told CNN.
Arkadiy (whose second name CNN is not publishing for his safety) said the column of vehicles that gathered at the town of Beryslav on the banks of the Dnieper river was more than a mile long. It stayed there overnight and was then allowed to leave on May 12.
“What surprised me was that suddenly Russians let us go through checkpoint without any examination,” he said. He had heard stories of extensive checks, phones being examined and property stolen.
Yulia Bondarenko was also in the convoy and she also expected the Russians to take things. “Evacuated people know about this from Telegram chats and don’t even take anything valuable with them,” she said.
“Russians almost always ask for cigarettes and lighters,” she said. Electronics were often confiscated too – power-banks and memory cards, for example. But “smartphones are generally not taken away by Russians,” Bondarenko said, “although they are closely inspected: They check messages and photo galleries.”
Bondarenko said that others had told her the Russians would often force people to take off their clothes because they “are looking for tattoos of nationalist content. Everyone is well aware of this, and it is unlikely that nationalists with tattoos will try to leave the region this way. It is a very big risk.”
The convoy leaving Beryslav had some 200 vehicles – one minibus for a dozen people was crammed with double that number, Arkadiy said.
The journey took them through open, flat countryside on minor roads. But just after it passed the final Russian checkpoint, the column of some 200 vehicles came under fire near a place called Davydiv Brid, where Russian control ends.
Arkadiy said two shells landed simultaneously. Vehicles ahead of him were peppered with shrapnel – tires shredded and windshields shattered. Seven or eight cars were badly damaged, but trees at the side of the road absorbed some of the impact.
“Everyone immediately began to hide behind the cars. Everyone was scared, people with children in their arms. The children screamed, even the men were panicking,” Arkadiy said.
Bondarenko, who was in the same convoy, told CNN that they had just cleared the last Russian checkpoint when “people started running and hiding. But we stayed in the car, we had a lot of animals. We couldn’t take them all out at once.”
Bondarenko’s menagerie included dogs, cats – and two meerkats. The meerkats had been rescued after a petting zoo in Kherson was shelled.
After the shelling, Bondarenko said: “We drove very quickly. People from the cars that were hit were picked up by other people from the column.”
It’s still unclear where the shelling came from. Oleksandr Vilkul, head of the Kryvyi Rih military administration, said on Thursday that Russian artillery had fired on the column of vehicles and that two people had received shrapnel wounds.
Others have related similarly harrowing escapes from Kherson. Katerina Torgunova lived with her husband and 3-year old daughter in the town of Oleshky.
The day they left, she said, “We passed the first two checkpoints relatively calmly, and at the third checkpoint, we had huge problems. The Russians started firing flash flares into the air as we approached them.”
“Then we were pulled out of the car, they started to curse us. My husband was searched for a long time,” she said.
Some spoke of being on the road for two days trying to find a way out of Kherson.
Julia Kartuzova and her two children had to sleep overnight in a kindergarten as they tried to find an escape route.
Then came what she and others call the “gray zone” – the no man’s land between Russian and Ukrainian control.
“There are fights going on. It was very dangerous there because the shells fell right there, 100 meters from our car,” Kartuzova said. “We lost count of how many checkpoints we had to go through. There must have been more than 100 in total.”
Arkadiy said the main routes out of Kherson to Mykolaiv, which is still in Ukrainian hands, are heavily damaged and often impassable. He had heard that 15 cars had been shelled on the main road, which has seen intense fighting.
Hennadii Lahuta, head of Kherson regional military administration, said the Russians have not approved a single “green corridor” for evacuation from Kherson since the beginning of the occupation. For a week at the beginning of May, Lahuta said, the Russians had blocked the route taken by Arkadiy and others.
On May 11, the Russians allowed people to use that route again, which explains the sudden mass exodus.
As for the lives they left behind, the evacuees said the situation in Kherson was becoming harder.
Arkadiy told CNN: “There’s still a large number of pro-Ukrainian people in Kherson.”
He attended protests there in March. The Russians had been on edge and had thrown stun grenades without provocation, he told CNN.
“At one of the bigger rallies in Kherson city, a column of armored vehicles had arrived to disperse the crowd. There was no specific leader of these protests, we all just wanted a better future for our children,” Arkadiy said.
Arkadiy said he had spoken at rallies and had then been detained and taken to a military base that the Russians had taken over.
“They try to co-opt everyone they catch. Their idea is: If the opinion leader is on their side, it is very profitable, it is much better than just shooting him,” he said.
“I managed to convince them that I would cooperate with them,” Arkadiy said, “and one of the officers told me, ‘Now you are supporting Soviet power.’ Imagine what’s going on in their head.”
The evacuees are trying to start over in areas beyond Russian control, but the war has followed them.
Kartuzova and her children ended up in Odesa, where they found themselves in a basement as cruise missiles struck the southern port city on May 9.
“During the bombing, I tried to find someone to message with. And people in Mykolaiv corresponded with me, supported me,” she said.
Hours later, Mykolaiv was shelled and Kartuzova said she “corresponded with them and supported them for the half night. It’s crazy.”
Not everyone has settled away from home. Torgunova said her husband had gone back to Oleshky despite his experience at the hands of Russian troops: “We have a house there, he went back to look after it.”
The meerkats, however, have adapted to a new life in Kyiv.