Kyiv, Ukraine – A minibus with 16 Ukrainian civilians, including two children, left a checkpoint manned by Russian soldiers on a hot May afternoon.
The driver took a zigzagging dirt road paved in the steppe by hundreds of cars that had swerved off the asphalt damaged by shelling.
The bus was leaving the Russia-occupied part of the southern Ukrainian region of Zaporizhia after days and nights of driving and waiting at countless checkpoints.
The soldiers made lewd remarks as they were checking IDs, going through bags and phones and ordering the Ukrainian men in each vehicle to take their shirts off to check for bruises left by recoiling firearms.
And then the soldiers ordered the drivers to wait, for hours on end.Local Valentyna Buhaiova embraces Ukrainian marines in the retaken village of Kyselivka, outside Kherson, Ukraine, November 12, 2022 [File: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters]
Close to freedom
On May 20, the sweltering minibus and its hungry, distressed passengers were maddeningly close to the Ukrainian-controlled side – and freedom.
But as the bus moved away, the Russian soldiers opened fire on it – the way their brothers-in-arms often did in every occupied Ukrainian region, according to officials and survivors.
“I looked at the driver, saw how tense his face was. He stepped on gas, and just took off,” Alyona Korotkova, who fled the neighbouring Kherson region with her eight-year-old daughter Vera, told Al Jazeera.
“We heard explosions behind us. They were shooting at us,” she said in a telephone interview from the safety of Marl, a tranquil, forested town in western Germany, where she and Vera have settled.
Temporarily, they hope.
Treason and takeover
Kherson, a region the size of Belgium with grassy steppes and fertile farmland crisscrossed by rivers and irrigation canals, was the only Ukrainian province Russia fully occupied shortly after the invasion began on February 24.
On that cold, gloomy day, just before dawn, Korotkova heard the first explosions.
Several hours later, Russian tanks and armoured personnel carriers that had crossed from annexed Crimea rolled through her town of Oleshki with an earth-shattering roar.
Framed by sand dunes, farmland and orchids, Oleshki sits on the left, lower bank of the Dnieper River, Ukraine’s largest.
Across the water from it stands the regional capital, also named Kherson, which became the largest urban centre Russia seized before the fall of Mariupol.
“Of course, we were asking ourselves why they got to us that quick,” Korotkova said.
Ukrainian leaders and analysts accused some Kherson officials and intelligence officers of treason, claiming they had not blown up explosives-studded bridges and roads near Crimea.
“They surrendered on the very first day,” Halyna, a Kherson resident who withheld her last name, told Al Jazeera in May.
Within days, the troops crushed under their tanks the Ukrainian servicemen and barely-armed volunteers defending the 1.4km-long Antonovsky Bridge, the only direct link between the city and the left bank.
By March 2, the Russians stormed into the city and began settling in.
“Russia is here forever,” was the mantra repeated by the Kremlin and pro-Moscow officials.A Russian soldier stands guard as a family walks on a promenade along the Dnieper River in Kherson, Ukraine, May 20, 2022 [File: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA-EFE]
Self-isolating to survive
Korotkova, her daughter and her mother self-isolated in their house surrounded by fruit trees and vegetable patches.
The house had a firewood-fuelled stove and a cool, dark basement with glistening jars of pickles and a freezer filled with meat.
The fruit, pickles and meat – along with packages from friends – helped Korotkova, who used to organise exhibitions and moonlighted as a babysitter, survive.
In the first weeks, Russian soldiers were barely visible in Oleshki, but the town felt the occupation in myriad other ways.
Moving around was perilous because Russian soldiers checked IDs and mobile phones.
Grocery shopping took hours as food, medicines and basic necessities slowly disappeared or became exorbitantly priced.
The volunteers who brought the drugs and other essentials from the Ukrainian side began disappearing too – or were abducted and never heard of again.
Protest rallies were initially massive and ubiquitous throughout the region.
Kherson is the only land bridge to Crimea, and its residents witnessed the exodus of tens of thousands of fugitives from the annexed peninsula.
“We understood what had happened to Crimea, we didn’t want it” in Kherson, Korotkova said.
But Russian soldiers and turncoat Ukrainian police officers quelled the rallies with smoke bombs, beatings, arrests, abductions, torture and extrajudicial killings.
Atrocities and destruction
“In the Kherson region, the Russian army has left just as many atrocities as in other regions it had entered,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on November 14. “We hope to find and hold accountable every killer.”
Hundreds are believed to have been abducted and tortured in makeshift prisons known as “basements”, and some ended up there simply because they seemed worth a ransom.
“Farmers were taken to the basement and beaten so that they would pay,” Korotkova said.
The occupiers treated Kherson like a war trophy, squeezing as much as they could out of it – and trying to leave nothing valuable behind when they began retreating earlier this month.
“They destroyed many infrastructure sites – bridges, heat generators, transmission stations, cell communication towers,” Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.
Apart from washing machines, toilet seats and electronics, they took away bronze monuments to czarist generals and raccoons from the city zoo.
“Their plunder looked like a robber’s wagon,” Kushch said.
From the get-go, the Kremlin-installed “authorities” tried to create an illusion that the majority of Khersonites were pro-Russian.
But no one around Korotkova was – except for a driver she met once. The man was in his 60s and was nostalgic about his Soviet-era youth, collective farms and cheap sausages, she said.
A 90-year-old woman who had moved to St Petersburg in Russia years ago, called her granddaughter in Oleshki telling her how great Russian President Vladimir Putin was.
When the granddaughter told her about the occupation’s realities, the grandma replied, “You’re making it all up”, Korotkova said.
Life amid the dogs of war
Meanwhile, the cacophony of war became part of daily life.
“I planted potatoes to the sound of explosions. I replanted strawberries to the sound of gunshots. You get used to it because you have to keep on living,” she said.
Depression wore her and Vera down as they felt trapped inside the house and longed for a simple walk or a look at the starry sky.
“There is fear, but you keep on living somehow. You don’t stop breathing because of fear,” Korotkova said.
If gunfire or explosions began when Korotkova was not home, Vera was instructed to hide inside the room with the stove and cover her head.
But the child showed no fear. “She grew up so quickly, became so responsible, serious,” Korotkova said.
They decided to flee in May, even if it meant leaving behind the 69-year-old grandmother who said she would not survive the days-long trip.
It took them two attempts and almost a week of driving, waiting, and sleeping in generous strangers’ homes or on the bus.
The first minibus driver turned around after days of waiting, and they found another one.
On their last night on the occupied side, rain and thunder deafened the sound of artillery duels between Russian and Ukrainian forces.
And when the Russians started shooting at their minibus and the driver sped away, the Ukrainian soldiers just waved him in and signalled to keep moving.
Once on the Ukrainian-controlled territory, the passengers wept with relief – and were received like long-awaited guests.
There was hot food, medical supplies, showers and shampoo, shelter for the night and transport.
After getting to Kyiv, where Korotkova and Vera spent several weeks and received new foreign passports, they left for Germany.
And even though Vera has become used to the new school, picked up some German and befriended other refugee children, they ache to return to Oleshki.
“We really want to go home, but in the nearest future we won’t,” Korotkova said.
Russians planted landmines around the city and destroyed infrastructure, leaving people with no power, natural gas and mobile phone connections.
Last week, Ukrainian troops, police and relief workers began entering the de-occupied areas with power generators, fuel, food, medical drugs – and arrest warrants for collaborators.
But Kherson does not look as devastated and desperate as other areas in northern and eastern Ukraine from which Russian troops have withdrawn.
“It’s not as sad as other places I’ve been to,” a volunteer who brought insulin to the city told Al Jazeera on Thursday.
Khersonites in occupied areas struggle to survive, but hope that liberation is close.
“Prices are inhumanely high, but people wait and believe,” one resident told Al Jazeera.