Editor’s Note: Names of some people appearing in this article have been changed to protect the families of those escaping Russian occupation from possible retaliation.
ZAPORIZHZHIA– Two sisters quickly packed their stuff and rushed out the door when Russian troops stormed into their hometown Enerhodar.
They knew their lives would be in danger after having spent years working as volunteers to help supply the Ukrainian military on the eastern front during the eight-year-long war.
Maria, 48, and her older sister Anna, 52, went into hiding, trying not to settle in one place for too long.
The sisters were already frightened after the Russian troops began firing at Europe’s largest nuclear power facility standing within visible distance from where the sisters lived.
The attack on the plant led to international outrage with memories still fresh of the 1986 explosion at Ukraine’s Chornobyl nuclear power plant, the world’s worst nuclear accident.
Though paralyzed with fear after seeing the smoke rise in the sky, Anna and Maria didn’t know that the worst was yet to come. Shortly afterward, Russian troops surrounded and seized the facility in early March, then captured the city itself without much resistance.
The sisters' decision to hide from the incoming Russians was proven right. Weeks later, their friends told them that they were on the Russians’ list of wanted residents.
“These are the execution lists,” Maria told the Kyiv Independent.
The sisters knew that some people, particularly ex-military personnel, went missing after Russian soldiers came to search their homes and scare off their relatives.
Even as grocery shopping became a difficult task and cash was running low, their friends always found a way to bring them food so that Maria and Anna didn’t have to leave the house.
The variety of food was very limited, with open-air markets mostly selling Russian-branded grains and pasta brought from Russian-occupied Crimea, Maria said.
In late March, Russian soldiers kidnapped Enerhodar’s first deputy mayor Ivan Samoidiuk and began patrolling the city as though they owned it, according to Maria.
She added that they were mostly walking in groups of three, with a gun in their hands. “It was really hard to live there,” Maria added.
Residents continued to organize peaceful protests against the Russian occupation, but the invading troops would come and disperse such meetings by detaining activists or threatening them with weapons.
Despite that, Maria said that the residents were still hoping that “our army would come and free us” and this was only going to last for a couple of weeks.
“But then, we began to understand that it wasn’t so simple,” Maria admitted.
Once the sisters saw an opportunity to escape their hometown, they took the chance.
Getting to the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia wasn’t easy. The Russians were particularly aggressive near Enerhodar and they were all drunk, Maria said. They would check all belongings in the car and make everyone get out of the car at checkpoints, she added.
The sisters also saw how Russian troops forced a group of three women and two children (three and six-year-olds) to get out of the car and then just took the vehicle away. At another checkpoint, they saw the Russians taking away two buses, and “they were just looting,” Maria said.
What is usually a two-hour journey between their hometown Enerhodar and Zaporizhzhia turned into a nine-hour drive, but the sisters made it to the Ukrainian-controlled territory safely. Their phones were searched but they were allowed to keep their devices.
“We don’t know how we survived,” Maria said.
Fleeing to freedom
Maria and Anna are among hundreds of Ukrainians arriving in Zaporozhzhia’s reception center on a daily basis to escape Russian occupation.
The city has become a sanctuary for those fleeing the Russian occupation of southern Ukraine. At present, about 70 percent of Zaporizhzhia Oblast is in the hands of Russia, while neighboring Kherson Oblast is almost entirely controlled by Moscow.
Meanwhile, in Zaporizhzhia, a large white tent in a shopping center parking lot awaits evacuees, with volunteers handing out food, clothes, medicine, and other essential needs.
Further along, a noticeboard is filled with announcements offering to transport evacuees westwards and photos of missing relatives.
Behind the crowd of evacuees lining up for a plate of a warm meal is a man sitting in silence. Despite having spent a week in Zaporizhzhia already, he seems to have difficulty processing the horrors they lived through in his hometown Melitopol.
Melitopol, the second-largest city in Zaporizhzhia Oblast now in the hands of the Russians, has faced a similar fate as Enerhodar.
“It’s impossible to live there,” Dmytro, 41, told the Kyiv Independent.
The city of over 150,000 people lies on a stretch of southern Ukraine that Moscow has been eyeing since 2014 when it annexed the Crimean peninsula. Russian forces attacked Melitopol on the morning of Feb. 25 and captured it in early March after days of heavy fighting around the city.
As Russian troops began shelling administrative buildings of Melitopol, local residents took shelter to keep themselves safe. Like many others, Dmytro’s family lived in the basement during active hostilities, eventually returning to their own apartment once the fighting ceased.
The loud days faded away following Russia’s seizure of the city but occasional shelling continued, Dmytro said. He was especially worried about the safety of his family so his wife and daughters (7 and 11-year-olds) stayed at home while he would go out every single day to go buy food.
“We tried to survive and protect our children,” he said.
Like in other occupied cities, Russian soldiers patrol the streets of Melitopol in cars and armored vehicles marked with the “Z” symbol that denotes the Kremlin's occupying force.
The only place where residents could buy food was in open-air markets but there were only a few in Melitopol, Dmytro said. There was no more food left in grocery stores and it was difficult to live there, especially as medicine also became scarce, he added.
People could only use the little cash that they had left since it wasn’t possible to withdraw cash from ATMs anymore and credit card payments weren’t an option, according to the evacuees.
“We weren’t ready at all,” Dmytro admitted. “The war is spontaneous and like everyone, I had little (money) in my pocket.”
Ukrainian internet services and mobile networks have either been shut down or rarely appear in the occupied parts of Zaporizhzhia Oblast.
Dmytro said that he couldn’t access the internet at all during the first month of occupation, which left him perplexed about the events unfolding in Ukraine. Neither his mobile network nor TV worked, so he had no way of accessing information, he explained.
“For a whole month there was practically no mobile connection, nothing,” he said. “In March, there was no information at all.”
Amid the uncertainty, Dmytro didn’t know if it was even possible to escape Melitopol. But once the internet gradually came back, he began to have more hope.
A local volunteer, who made a Viber group chat to coordinate evacuation plans for remaining residents, persuaded Dmytro’s family and many others to leave together. Still, in awe of the act of kindness, Dmytro said the volunteer stayed behind to continue arranging evacuation plans for more people.
Dmytro, a former professor, remembers the escape with great pain.
“We were leaving at our own risk, with fear,” he said. “There are mines on the roads and they (Russians) could shoot you.”
Russian troops were especially hostile both physically and verbally towards Ukrainian men at checkpoints, he said. They were firing guns, while sometimes families had to wait for days inside the car or find shelter if heavy fighting suddenly broke out along the way.
“This was happening in front of children,” he said painfully.
Dmytro said that even when they saw vehicles burning, it was impossible to stop the car and step outside to have a look because “step left into the field, step right, it can be mined.”
Similar to the events unfolding in other occupied territories of Zaporizhzhia Oblast, Russian occupying forces have torn down Ukrainian symbols from all the buildings in Melitopol.
In a further attempt to fake pro-Russian sentiment in the Ukrainian city, Russians also tried to gather local residents to celebrate May 9 Victory Day but failed, the city’s mayor Ivan Fedorov said.
Russian troops instead forcibly moved about 3,000 people from occupied Crimea, Luhansk, and nearby villages to take part in the "Immortal Regiment" march to boast about the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany, according to a local publication.
Amid weeks of Russian oppression, local residents are taking risks to flee Melitopol even as Russian occupiers open fire on them and try to prevent them from leaving the city, according to Fedorov, who himself spent days in Russian custody.
The mayor, who was kidnapped by Russian forces in early March and held for five days, stressed that despite the “great demand” from civilians to be evacuated from Melitopol, Russians have not agreed to a coordinated evacuation for a month.
Fedorov said that it remains “a real challenge” for people to leave the city by private transport, with many of them driving over 10 hours while having to drive under fire. Some columns have to wait for a couple of days until they are allowed to pass through.
Over 60% of residents have fled Melitopol, which leaves about 60,000 to 70,000 people in the city, according to the official.
Back in April, Fedorov also reported that Russians began forcibly mobilizing Ukrainian men into their army and blocking them from exiting the city.
He said that a full-scale mobilization into the Russian army had begun and they were also offering Ukrainian men to join the Russian Armed Forces at checkpoints.
From one region to another
Zaporizhzhia has also become a safe haven for those fleeing Kherson Oblast.
Sitting at a long table under the marquee in Zaporizhzhia’s evacuation center is a family of five, eating warm soup prepared by volunteers. Originally from a small village in Kherson Oblast occupied by Russia since the early days of the war, the family still seems to have difficulty coming to terms with reality.
“We had good lives until they (the Russian occupiers) came,” 47-year-old mother Svitlana Ivanova told the Kyiv Independent.
Their peaceful village life was gone in just days since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Even after the Russians had seized most parts of Kherson Oblast, their village was “very loud” with the sounds of missiles and airplanes flying above them, Ivanova said. Living near the annexed Crimea where many actively-used Russian air bases are located, the family heard the planes almost every day and missiles being launched from there.
“At half-past five in the morning, you are sleeping at home and then hear a terrifying roar. You jump out and (learn that) four missiles hit somewhere in Ukraine.”
“It can be in the morning, in the evening,” she continued.
As a mother, Ivanova was worried that her four-year-old son would develop trauma after living weeks under constant threats. She said he was too little to understand the loud sounds of warplanes and missiles over his head, but “he was very scared when he saw (Russian) soldiers and saw (their) tanks.”
After long consideration, Ivanova’s family decided to leave their hometown. It was especially difficult during the first weeks when shops were empty and they were baking bread with the flour that they had left.
Thankfully, the family also raised chickens so they had plenty of eggs.
“We ate eggs every day, probably ate enough for the rest of our lives,” grandmother Vera Ivanova, 73, told the Kyiv Independent.
Eventually, Russian-produced goods began appearing and staple foods such as bread, grains, flour, and sugar were sold at open-air markets though they were highly overpriced and limited in variety, the family said. The prices were inflated sixfold, Ivanova said.
Banks no longer had cash for the locals to withdraw but some open-air markets were accepting credit card payments, according to Ivanova.
The former teacher, whose pre-war salary was also small, said the family struggled to remain afloat. Her husband is a driver, and neither of them could work since Feb. 24, yet they had two children to raise.
Amid the continuous sounds of warplanes and missiles reminding them of the war each day, the family soon headed to occupied Melitopol, about 80 kilometers from their hometown, before they eventually arrived in Zaporizhzhia.
“We left all our bags at home, took (some) things, and drove off,” Ivanova said. “It was difficult to decide whether to stay or not. They (both) were very scary.”
“Then, we decided that it was scarier to stay, so we left.”