Kyiv, Ukraine — It was early in the morning when life under Russian occupation became too much for Volodymyr Zhdanov: rocket fire aimed at Ukrainian troops slammed near his home in the city of Kherson, frightening one of his two children.
His 8-year-old daughter ran into the basement in a panic. It was 2 am and (she) was really scared,” said Zhdanov, who later fled the Black Sea city and has been living in Kiev, the capital, for the past three weeks.
Kherson, located north of the Crimean peninsula annexed by Moscow in 2014, was the first city to fall after the Russian invasion on February 24. The port remains at the center of the conflict and Ukraine’s efforts to maintain its vital access to the sea. For Russia, Kherson is an important point along the land corridor from the border to the peninsula.
Zhdanov and others who made the perilous journey to escape the region describe the increasingly grim conditions there, as part of a heavy-handed effort by Russia to establish permanent control.
The streets in the city, which had some 300,000 inhabitants before the war, are largely deserted. There are rumors of armed resistance and the sudden disappearance of officials who refuse to cooperate with the Russian authorities.
Occupation forces patrol markets to warn those attempting to use Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, in transactions. Pro-Moscow officials are installed in local and regional governments, as well as the police. Employees of various municipal services are under pressure to cooperate with Russian managers. Most schools are closed.
Deliveries of essential goods are uneven, causing most commercial activity to cease. There are shortages of medicines and spikes in the price of other raw materials.
Many residents were determined to wait as long as possible for a promised Ukrainian counterattack that did not materialize.
“There was physical danger in the city, because there were a lot of soldiers,” Zhdanov said.
A referendum on the region’s accession to Russia has been announced by officials installed in Moscow, although no date has been set. Meanwhile, officials are pressuring those left behind to take Russian citizenship.
Zhdanov’s family flower business income dried up after the currency exchange, although he continued to grow plants anyway.
“It’s hard to survive without money and without food,” he said. Who would want a Russian government if your life, business and education of your children are taken away? They’re all gone.”
When he left Kherson with his family, Zhdanov risked arrest by hiding a Ukrainian flag at the bottom of his backpack. He had kept the flag away from a public protest against the Russian troop presence.
Journalist Yevhenia Virlych also stayed for five months and continued to work, writing about officials who had allegedly collaborated with the Russians. But she worked in hiding and feared for her safety, often changing apartments and posting photos of Poland on social media to give the impression that she had already fled.
“They’ve tied a knot around Kherson and it’s getting tighter,” Virlych said, adding that locals are being pressured to accept Russian passports. “Russia, which came under the banner of liberation, but came to torture and imprison us. How can anyone live like that?”
Last month, Virlych finally fled to Kiev with her husband.
Those wishing to leave Kherson must pass through a series of Russian military checkpoints. Soldiers search property, identity papers and cell phones, and anyone suspected of supporting the resistance is interrogated in so-called filter camps.
As Kherson sinks into poverty, it becomes increasingly difficult to leave. A bus ticket to Zaporizhzhya, a city 300 kilometers (185 miles) to the northeast, now costs the equivalent of $160. Before the war, it was $10.
Virlych said she admired the courage of those left behind and those who risked their lives to join anti-Russian protests in the early stages of the occupation.
She recalled a large demonstration on March 5 that was attended by more than 7,000 people.
“In all my life I have never seen people take such an action,” she said.
By April, the protests had stopped when the occupation forces began to respond to them with deadly force, Virlych added, saying: “The Russians opened fire (on crowds) and people were injured.”
Moscow wants to maintain its hold on Kherson, which is strategically located near the North Crimean Canal that supplies the Russian-occupied peninsula with water. Ukraine had closed the canal eight years ago after its annexation, but the Russians reopened it after taking control of the region.
Like Zhdanov, Virlych still holds hopes of a Ukrainian counter-offensive to tear the region away from Russia.
“I only believe in God and the Ukrainian armed forces,” she said. “I don’t trust anything anymore.”
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war and Hanna Arhirova
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