KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — It was early one morning when life under Russian occupation became too much for Volodymyr Zhdanov: Rocket fire aimed at Ukrainian forces struck near his home in the city of Kherson, terrorizing one of his two sons.
Her 8-year-old daughter “ran into the basement in a panic. It was 2 in the morning and (she) was very scared,” said Zhdanov, who later fled the city to the Black Sea and has been living in Kyiv , the capital, during the last three weeks.
Kherson, located in the north of the Crimean peninsula that was annexed by Moscow in 2014, was the first city to fall after Russia’s February 24 invasion. The port remains at the center of the conflict and Ukraine’s efforts to preserve its vital access to the sea. . For Russia, Kherson is a key point along the land corridor from its border to the peninsula.
Zhdanov and others who made the perilous journey to escape the region describe increasingly unpleasant conditions there, part of a tough effort by Russia to establish permanent control.
The streets of the city, which had a pre-war population of about 300,000, are mostly deserted. There are rumors of acts of armed resistance and the sudden disappearance of officials who refuse to cooperate with the Russian authorities.
Occupation forces are patrolling the markets to warn those trying to use the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, in transactions. Pro-Moscow officials have been installed in local and regional governments, as well as in the police force. Workers in various municipal services face pressure to cooperate with Russian managers. Most schools have closed.
Supplies of essential goods are uneven, halting most commercial activity. There are shortages of medicines and spikes in the price of other basic goods.
Many residents were determined to hold out for as long as possible a promised Ukrainian counterattack that has not materialized.
“There was physical danger in the city, because there were many soldiers,” Zhdanov said.
Officials based in Moscow have announced a referendum for the region to become part of Russia, although no date has been set. Meanwhile, officials are pressuring those who remain to take Russian citizenship.
Income from Zhdanov’s family flower business dried up after the currency change, although he continued growing plants anyway.
“It’s hard to survive without money and without food,” he said. “Who would want a Russian government if they take away your life, your business and your children’s education? They’re all gone.”
When he left Kherson with his family, Zhdanov risked arrest by hiding a Ukrainian flag in the bottom of his backpack. He had kept the flag of a public protest against the presence of Russian troops.
Journalist Yevhenia Virlych also stayed for five months and continued to work, writing about officials who had allegedly cooperated with the Russians. But he worked while in hiding and feared for his safety, frequently changing apartments and posting pictures of Poland on social media to give the impression he had already fled.
“They’ve made a knot around Kherson and it’s getting tighter,” Virlych said, adding that locals are being pressured to accept Russian passports. “Russia, which passed under the banner of liberation, but came to torture and take us captive. How can anyone live like this?”
Last month, Virlych finally fled to Kyiv with her husband.
Those wishing to leave Kherson must pass a series of Russian military checkpoints. Soldiers search belongings, identity documents and mobile phones, and anyone suspected of supporting the resistance faces interrogation in so-called infiltration camps.
As Kherson sinks into poverty, it becomes increasingly difficult to leave. A bus ticket to Zaporizhzhia, a city 300 kilometers (185 miles) to the northeast, now costs the equivalent of $160. Before the war, it was $10.
Virlych said he admired the bravery of those staying behind, as well as those who risked their lives to join anti-Russian protests in the early stages of the occupation.
He recalled a large demonstration on March 5 attended by more than 7,000 people.
“In my entire life, I have never seen people take such actions,” he said.
By April, the protests had stopped when occupation troops began responding with lethal force, Virlych added, saying: “The Russians were opening fire (on the crowds) and people were getting hurt “.
Moscow wants to keep control of Kherson, which is strategically located near the North Crimea Canal that supplies water to the Russian-occupied peninsula. Ukraine had closed the canal after annexation eight years ago, but the Russians reopened it after taking control of the region.
Like Zhdanov, Virlych still holds out hope for a Ukrainian counteroffensive to push the region away from Russia.
“I only believe in God and the Ukrainian armed forces,” he said. “I have no faith in anything else.”
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