More than a hundred miles away, in a central hall in Kryvyi Rih, the birthplace of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, local authorities welcome resettlement.
A man and his son talk about the killing of his wife and their mother in a bomb explosion that hit her back and spine in several places.
Even here, in comparative safety, they did not want to reveal their identity for fear that the Russians might target other family members they left behind.
“If they see us, they will shoot everyone who remains there,” the son told CNN. “We left on foot, over the water in the river.”
Ukraine said Russia plans to hold a vote in the region – Widely seen as a phony referendum – To try to show popular support for the creation of a new entity called the Kherson People’s Republic, which would mirror similar entities in the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine. (Moscow sent troops into the self-declared republics — and began its war in Ukraine — after Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized their independence.)
Several local residents and several Ukrainian officials told CNN that the vote was scheduled for April 27.
However, the previous day, Russian-backed officials announced a series of new government officials in the occupied city, leading some observers to believe that the referendum may have been postponed in favor of these new appointments.
Fear of the impending poll and its aftermath – a possible strengthening of Russian control – prompted many residents to flee quickly.
Summer. Oleksandr Velkul, head of the military administration in Kryvyi Rih, told CNN that the Ukrainian military was able to help evacuate about 7,000 people from the area across “100 miles of the front line, some by bicycle, some by wheelbarrows, or on foot.”
“People do not want and cannot live under occupation,” Failcol said.
The crossing from Kherson and neighboring villages in the area was treacherous.
Over the past week, a long line of cars – estimated to number in the hundreds by many locals – has made its way towards the occupied city of Snehorivka, where the Khersons who managed to flee their town were again prevented by Russian forces.
In another video filmed by a fleeing Kherson resident, and seen by CNN, a long line of cars stood at a standstill on another exit road, to the northeast of the city, towards Kryvyi Rih.
Over the Easter holiday, the pace of evacuations increased, officials told CNN. It began to decline on Tuesday when local residents said that Russian checkpoints had stopped allowing passage from the occupied territories. Locals said some of the desperate evacuees left their cars and walked out through the fields.
Bicycles were abandoned in droves when locals arrived at Ukrainian manned checkpoints, according to several locals CNN spoke to.
One mother from Kherson, who asked not to be identified for safety reasons, told CNN she had her two sons and daughter removed “as quickly as possible” ahead of the referendum, fearing that widespread conscription for men between the ages of 18 and 60 would follow.
“We are quite busy. No food, no money. We have nothing, and they will do a referendum and take our children. My son is 18 and they will take them as cannon fodder.” She said it took two attempts to escape. The first time, she said, Russian forces fired at cars in their convoy.
In the hustle and bustle of the Kryvyi Rih hall, food and medicine are distributed, so that evacuees can reach large coat racks of donated clothes. In this safe space, evacuees recount the atrocities and brutality of the occupation.
Mikhailo, a resident of Kyiv who went to the village of Velika Oleksandrievka to collect his wife and child, said that he was tortured over several days by Russian forces after entering the village.
Mykhailo said the soldiers were looking for Ukrainian men with possible military experience and mistakenly thought that his rough hands, from his construction work, indicated he was a soldier.
He said he was tortured in a basement, and showed CNN a medical report confirming his injury.
“One of them pulled out a gun,” Mikhailo said of two soldiers who beat him. “One is real. I saw it boiled. Two bullets. It hit a concrete wall. I think it was a trigger gun,” he said.
Mikhailo said that after the mock execution, two more soldiers came.
“They talked less. They were drunk—one of them must have been a boxer hitting me in the same spot. On my ribs, six of them broke, and a lung ruptured.”
Mykhailo laughed to himself as he recounted the answers he gave to the soldiers who he said they believed could get Ukrainian military intelligence information from him. He told them that they could expect at least 150 checkpoints from his village all the way to the next town, and that there were quite a few roads in the countryside south of Kryvyi Rih – saying it was just mud and endless fields. Several days later, Mikhailo said his parents came and succeeded in demanding his release.
The mass exodus from Kherson is not only related to the referendum. The Russian advance over a large area of rural villages to the north and east of Kherson is pushing the population to move north.
Over two days in and around villages south of Kherson, CNN saw the effect of the bombing, causing locals to flee the villages they had proudly stayed in over the course of the war, now in its second month.
In the village of Kochupivka, a man who was helping to evacuate his 74-year-old mother, Antonina, stopped by to explain that the bombing had intensified in the settlement of his home in Nova Cisternya over the past two hours.
“We wanted to stay, but the Grad missiles changed that,” he said, adding that a woman was wounded in the attack.
The once rustic southern Ukrainian countryside has become an escape route, displaying a slow stream of upside-down souls, as Russia’s brutal advance transforms the landscape they’ve known for decades in a matter of hours.