As thousands of Ukrainians continue to flee Russian-occupied parts of southern Ukraine, they run a gauntlet of harassment by Russian troops, sometimes coming under fire.
More than a dozen people have spoken to CNN at length about their harrowing journeys out of the Kherson region, which has been under Russian control since the beginning of the invasion in late February. They also tell of the unexplained disappearances at night, the climate of fear and the acute shortages that led them to flee.
Ukrainian officials said Friday that the Russians have now blocked exits from Kherson to areas controlled by the Ukrainian government and are trying to send everyone who wants to leave to Crimea.
They say the Russians have intensified patrols and increased the number of checkpoints.
Several people have been killed and many more injured when their convoys became stranded in what’s known as the “gray zone” between Russian and Ukrainian lines.
At least two convoys were marooned for days around Davydiv Brid, a village set in rolling farmland where the regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia meet.
One column was fired on a week ago: A man was killed and several people injured. This week, at least three people were killed and many more injured in the village when a convoy of about 100 civilian vehicles was fired on, according to witnesses.
The prosecutors’ office in nearby Kryvyi Rih told CNN that gathering evidence was difficult because the area was regularly under fire.
The convoy hit this week was actually trying to enter Kherson when it was fired on. People in the convoy told CNN that many were returning to deliver medicines; others to look after family members. Some could not afford higher rents in Ukrainian-controlled areas and had decided to go home.
Petro was one of those trying to get into Kherson. He told CNN how people had cowered by a river as “shells flew first in one direction, then in the other direction above us.”
CNN is using only the first names of witnesses, to protect them and their families from possible retribution.
The next afternoon – on May 17 – Petro said the column itself came under fire. “I heard a whistling sound in the sky. We ran to the nearest barn, fell to the ground and started praying.
“When I came out of the barn, I saw that the explosions had hit a place next to our column.”
There was worse to come. Another burst of shells landed even more closely. “Glass from the buses rained down on me, the buses themselves were slashed,” Petro said.
When he emerged, Petro found dozens of vehicles damaged, and several bodies. “There was a Volkswagen Polo, the car was torn apart. I don’t know where the people from that car went. I saw two male corpses.
“Lots of blood, lots of injured people, they were screaming.”
Petro fled to a Ukrainian checkpoint, where, he said, “there were ambulances, a lot of bloodied and bandaged people.”
Anatoliy was also in the convoy. “During the first salvo, there were 20 to 30 people at the epicenter of the shelling. Of this number of people, only five people remained unharmed, including me,” he said.
Later, Russian soldiers came to the site and took away seven of the injured, Anatoliy said. He heard the soldiers say they would be taken to a hospital in Nova Kakhovka, about 30 miles away.
Several days on the road
While some people are returning to Kherson, many more are trying desperately to leave. Video on Thursday showed a column of hundreds of cars trying to get into Ukrainian-held territory south of Zaporizhzhia. Ukrainian officials estimated there were 1,000 vehicles at the site by Thursday night.
People often spend several days on the road trying to find a safe escape route, negotiating dozens of roadblocks, not always successfully.
Daniil, who is 18, eventually did find a way out – along with his girlfriend and their parents. But on their first attempt, he said, the Russians fired at the wheels of the cars leading the convoy and told them to turn back.
The convoy included cancer patients in need of treatment, he said.
For eight days in a row, Daniil said, many in the convoy tried to move north and were sent back. “And on the eighth day we left the house at 4 a.m. and were the first in the column. And Russians let us go.”
CNN spoke to Lyudmila on Friday. By then her family of 12 were on their seventh day on the road. But they were still far from Ukrainian-controlled territory.
She said she knew people had been killed and injured trying to cross the “gray zone” but added: “There is no work in Kherson, our money is running out. We live on the seventh floor and we are afraid that a rocket will hit us.”
One man told CNN there were two-dozen Russian checkpoints between Kherson and Melitopol alone.
He said he and his family waited three days at a checkpoint, sleeping in their car. They ultimately gave up and traveled to another area, where they spent a night at a destroyed gas station before being able to cross near Zaporizhzhia.
Escaping ‘disappearances’ and shortages
Ukrainian officials estimate that about half the population of Kherson has now left the region. Some are motivated by shortages or lack of work, others by what they see as the oppressive Russian presence.
Sergey, who is in his 40s, told CNN that he and his family had decided to leave as a “pro-Russian way of life” was being introduced. “There are special passes they have implemented: if they don’t like you, they can take you away,” he said.
Daniil said he wanted to leave because he and his friends are all designers who had lost their jobs. “And we couldn’t work. And none of us wanted to live in the occupation.”
He also said screaming was often heard at night in Kherson. “And then it turns out that someone was abducted, killed, and so on. My friend was driving a car at midnight. His car was taken away. He was stripped and beaten.
“The Russians like to shoot,” he said. “They have nothing to do, they shoot in the air and find it funny that everyone is hiding. They also like to drive an armored personnel carrier, turn on the spotlight and shine through the windows until people leave the house.”
Mariya is now safe in Ukrainian-held territory, but she recalls recent weeks in Kherson with a shudder.
“We constantly lived in fear: There are many roadblocks around the city. They check passports and phones, especially for men.”
She had attended protests in Kherson in March. “I went to the rallies, filmed them, posted them on Instagram. Until Russians started shooting. And we stopped going to rallies.”
The conflict was never far away, Mariya said: “Lots of explosions – outside the city there is Chernobaivka, where hostilities are constantly going on.”
The Russians have established a base at Chernobaivka, where there is an airfield. It has come under frequent attack by the Ukrainians.
Living ‘under terror’
Many others think that trying to leave Kherson has become too dangerous. Elena says she and her children set out on May 12. Twice they got lost. Now, she says, “We want to wait, it’s scary to drive through the battle zone.”
But she is desperate to leave. “I’m nervous here. People with machine guns are on the streets, explosions are heard the whole day. Citizens here are under terror. We cannot speak to each other.”
She also said there was no work – those people who had not fled had no money. There were few doctors and a chronic shortage of medicines.
“Hospitals have run out of drip solutions. Now my father needs an operation, but the hospitals do not have the necessary medicines.”
Mariya also said there was an acute shortage of medicine. “Volunteers started trying to deliver drugs to Kherson. One shipment was worth $7,000 – and the Russians simply stole this cargo!”
CNN was unable to confirm that incident but heard other accounts of Russian troops pilfering from aid convoys.
Ruslan said he had spent years improving his property. “We understood that if we leave, then most likely there will be nothing left.”
His mother had refused to leave. “It’s somehow easier together,” he said.
But he said he went out as little as possible, “because they check documents, check phones. If they find something, you can get penned up in the basements. And they have some lists.”
But, he said that “just sitting at home all the time, waiting, emotionally, you start to go a little crazy, being in some kind of box.”
Inside Kherson there is little resistance but growing indications of dissent, with slogans spraypainted on walls and roads telling the Russians to leave in strong language. Posters have sprung up warning Russian troops they will have their throats slit at night.
“Kherson is Ukraine” is another popular slogan, and on Friday the Ukrainian flag was briefly hoisted at the city’s railway station.
But the Russian-appointed local government is gradually tightening its hold on all aspects of life. Ukrainian goods are disappearing from stores; checkpoints abound. The new rulers talk about federation with Crimea, introducing the ruble and allowing people to have Russian passports.
Elena feels a sense of desperation, trapped in Kherson against her will, with no school for her children.
“I really want to be free!” she told CNN. “To any city but controlled by Ukraine! Even if the Russians shell it. I’m suffocating here.”
Julia Presniakova contributed to this report.