Zaporizhia, Ukraine – Every day, convoys of cars and vans roll into a processing center on the edge of Zaporizhia, packed with civilians fleeing Russian-occupied southern Ukraine while they still can.
It was a large area of southern Ukraine, including almost all of the Kherson region and most of the Zaporizhzhya region, Under Russian military rule Since early March.
The Russian occupation authorities are rapidly integrating these areas into Russia, appointing cooperating departments and providing documents, educational programs and Russian currency. On Saturday, Russian authorities cut off most of the occupied areas in southern Ukraine from Ukrainian mobile phone services and Internet service providers by cutting fiber-optic cables and turning off power at base stations to hide “real information about the course of the war”. Ukrainian government said.
The greatest fear, especially among men, in the areas under Russian control is that they will soon be forcibly conscripted to fight other Ukrainians. It happened earlier this year to men up to 65 years old in parts of eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Moscow has been in control since 2014..
If they recruit you and leave your family hostage, what can you do? “This was one of the main reasons we got out,” said Mykola Murashko, 46, who drove to Zaporizhia on Wednesday with his wife and children from the Russian-occupied town of Vasylvka.
He said that the Russian soldiers at the checkpoint were turning around people who admitted that they were heading to the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhia. Mr. Murashko told them he was driving on a business trip to another Russian-controlled village near the front line. “Every morning for weeks,” he said, “I’ve been waking up from sleep with an idea: Let’s try to leave.” “And today, we made it.”
The Russian occupation authorities in southern Ukraine have not yet announced plans for mobilization. But, signaling a return to Soviet-style totalitarian rule, they began returning to the central squares, the monuments to Lenin that had been dismantled by Kyiv after 2014. They also removed and repainted Ukrainian icons, and hoisted Soviet flags along with the ensign. Russian public buildings.
“The pressure on people has become systemic in recent weeks,” said the Ukrainian governor of the Zaporizhzhya region, Oleksandr Starukh. “It’s really like the Soviet Union is back there, and people are forced to live in fear.”
Although there were no agreed evacuation routes, and people trying to flee had to brave the shelling and exchanges of fire, about 150,000 residents of the occupied areas moved from the Zaporizhzhya region to Kyiv-controlled parts of Ukraine Since the start of the war on February 24, Gov. Staruch said, out of an estimated pre-war population of 700,000. He said an additional 100,000 people had fled via Zaporozhye from the devastated city of Mariupol, part of the nearby Donetsk region.
Signs of Russia consolidating its rule are everywhere. The Russian ruble became legal tender in Melitopol, Russia’s largest controlled city, Zaporizhia, on Sunday, according to the Russia-appointed temporary mayor there. The city-run wedding hall in the coastal city of Berdyansk, also in the Zaporozhye region, began issuing wedding certificates from the Russian Federation to newlyweds.
The message from Moscow is that the occupied areas of southern Ukraine, which form a land bridge to Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, will remain under Russian control forever.
“It is out of the question to return the Kherson region to Nazi Ukraine….” Deputy Head of the Civil Military Administration of the Kherson region, Kirill Strimosov, told RIA on Thursday that Kyiv will no longer be able to impose its ugly Nazi policies on our land.
In his recent appearance on Russian state television, Mr Strimosov, a Donetsk-origin blogger who was famous before the war for campaigning against Covid-19 vaccines, acknowledged that many Kherson residents still expect the Ukrainian state to return, and thus refrain from cooperating with his administration.
Peaceful pro-Ukrainian protests in Kherson and other occupied cities have faded in recent weeks, as they did repeatedly in March. “Initially, the Russian intelligence services allowed these protests so that they could see the structure of the networks of activists,” said Governor Staruch. “But then they detained the real organizers – either to beat them, or to pressure them to leave for the territory controlled by Ukraine.”
Some pro-Ukrainian activists were forced to go to Russian-controlled television in the occupied areas to repent for their participation in the protests, and to call for cooperation with the Russian authorities. Those who did so were released. Hundreds of others remain in detention.
“Every night when you go to bed, you expect that they will come to pick you up. People who do not live in the occupied territories cannot understand the situation,” said the owner of a company from the town of Tokmak, Vitaly, who crossed to Zaporizhzhia so that his family could leave the area.
The local businessman, Ivan, said that the occupation authorities in the city of Enerhodar, which is part of the Zaporizhzhya region, are striving to force business owners to reopen shops, restaurants, hotels and nightclubs. “They lock up everyone who has money and keep it in their cellars,” he said. “I know I lost my business anyway, so I won’t reopen it for them.”
With Russian repression making peaceful protests impossible, the armed struggle behind Russian lines is showing signs of emerging.
On Thursday, a major railway bridge on the line connecting Melitopol and Russian front-line positions of supply bases in Crimea was destroyed, in an operation claimed by Ukrainian special operations forces. A few residents of southern Ukraine known to have cooperated with Russian forces have been killed in recent weeks by unknown assailants, according to Ukrainian officials and local residents.
Almost all elected mayors of occupied towns and villages in southern Ukraine were replaced by Russian military appointees. The mayor of Kherson, Ihor Kulekhaev, was the last elected official to be removed, and he was replaced on April 25 by a cooperative member of the municipal council.
The Russians also on that day appointed the former mayor of Kherson, Volodymyr Saldo, who served as a member of the Verkhovna Rada from the pro-Russian Party of Regions until 2014, as head of the Regional Civil Military Administration. After the appointment, Mr. Saldo said Russian language schools would return, as would the education system “which was perfected in Soviet times”.
For both sides, education is a critical battleground. In the Zaporizhzhia region, the Ukrainian authorities have ordered the early closure of schools from May 2. Russian forces are trying to reopen schools as part of Moscow’s project to “re-educate” the population of Ukraine and eradicate patriotic sentiment.
For Serhiy Oleksenko, a geography teacher, and his wife, Titiana, a primary teacher, this pressure prompted them to pack all their belongings in a small trailer and leave their home in Chernihivka, in the Zaporizhia region, on Saturday.
“We hoped we could hold out, but the psychological pressure is too great. We did not wait until we were forced to teach in Russian,” said Mr. Oleksienko.
He said that nine of the 16 teachers at Mr Oleksenko’s school had also fled to Ukrainian-controlled areas. Mr Oleksienko said their city, like others in southern Ukraine, had its share of pro-Russian collaborators, including the district education director now working with Russian authorities.
In a processing center outside a shopping center in Zaporizhia, arrivals like Mr. Oleksenko are briefly interrogated by police officers, who take pictures of documents with mobile phones and run names through databases. Investigators go from car to car to gather any evidence of Ukrainian officials’ cooperation with the Russian occupation authorities. Under the recently amended Ukrainian law, these collaborators face 15 years in prison. Those found guilty of treason could be sentenced to life imprisonment. Ukraine does not have the death penalty.
When Ukrainian policemen examined, on Friday, the passport of Zakid, an Azerbaijani citizen residing in the occupied town of Kakhovka, his wife Zemfira could not hide her relief. She said their trip to government-controlled Ukraine took two days, with a night in a church in Tokmak and a close call when drunk Russian soldiers tried to confiscate their wrecked car. She left her bedridden father behind.
Zemfira said civilians moving around Kakhovka should wear white armbands, local stores ran out of food, and most medicine was no longer in pharmacies.
“We are like foreigners in the city where we were born. We look at these Russian flags everywhere, at those white ribbons. Russians tell us there is no more Ukraine. How can it be?” She shook her head. “This morning, at the crossing, when we first saw our Ukrainian flag, we couldn’t help but cry.”
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