The Road to Freedom from Occupied Kherson

Desperate civilians are taking any opportunity to leave, cramming into private cars or extortionate fees to get through checkpoints.  

The Road to Freedom from Occupied Kherson

Desperate civilians are taking any opportunity to leave, cramming into private cars or extortionate fees to get through checkpoints.  

Thursday, 21 April, 2022

Thousands of people in the Kherson region continue to risk arrest, robbery or even death to escape Russian occupation and flee across the front line to Ukrainian-controlled territory.

Their escape is fuelled by the multiple detentions and disappearances of local civilians following the Russian invasion. Some have returned, describing ill treatment and torture at the hands of their Russian captors, while others have not been heard of since their arrest. All Ukrainians, but especially those with an active political position or a military background, remain at risk in the occupied territories.

With no passenger service running between the occupied territories and Ukrainian-government controlled territory, desperate civilians are taking any opportunity to leave.

Some cram into private cars or pay agents extortionate fees to get them through the Russian checkpoints. Others have resorted to taking the route through Russian-occupied Crimea, or even fleeing by boat across the Kakhovka reservoir.

Trying to leave the region by car entails multiple risks. Kherson city council deputy Yury Stelmashenko announced on his Facebook page that there had been no agreement over the status of the roads leading out of the region and the safety of people on the route could be guaranteed, because the entire territory was experiencing active hostilities.

He added that, given the Kyiv region and Kramatorsk tragedies, he understood why people were leaving, but that they did so at their own risk.

According to Kherson mayor Igor Kolykhaev, as of April 9 at least 50,000 residents had left the regional centre, its pre-war population almost 280,000 people. Stelmashenko said that the real number was much higher.

In March, the route through the village of Stanislav was a key route to freedom until the Russian forces stopped the flow of traffic on March 28. 

“On March 26, we managed to leave through Stanislav,” said one Nova Kakhovka resident, who asked to remain anonymous. “I was driving, in a convoy of ten cars, all with children. Everyone managed to get through, but it was a real challenge: life or death. On some sections of the steppe road, just along the front line, we had to travel at a speed of 130 km an hour. A shell fell and exploded near my car, about 30 metres away. We managed to drive through a totally black cloud of smoke literally at random.”

Many cars on this road subsequently came under fire. Drivers reported being forced to drive over corpses in what resembled an open-air morgue.

Those leaving the region have to travel through multiple checkpoints controlled by Russian soldiers.

“When we were driving from Novaya Kakhovka to Ukrainian-controlled territory via Kherson and Snigurivka, we had to pass 31 Russian checkpoints,” said Svetlana, a local resident who asked for her full name not to be published. “Very dirty 'warriors' from the so-called LPR and DPR [self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk], as well as very young Russian soldiers, manned them.”

She said these soldiers constantly asked for cigarettes and sometimes food.

“But the search at all checkpoints was standard: checking documents, personal belongings in the trunk and glove compartment of the car,” Svetlana continued. “Sometimes men were forced to strip to the waist, and some passengers and drivers were carefully checked for smartphones and laptops. They also asked about acquaintances in the Ukrainian military.”

Soldiers also went further in their demands.

“Several of my acquaintances at Russian checkpoints were extorted money,” said another local, the administrator of a social media channel dedicated to evacuation from the Kherson region. “My friends managed to keep all their savings: they paid them off with cigarettes and groceries. But one car was unlucky: people had to pay 400 US dollars. There were cases at checkpoints when the Russians tried to take away car keys. People managed to somehow negotiate with them.”

Finding the means of transport to leave was not always a simple matter.

The Kherson transport company Iksora recently announced the resumption of a regular, if unofficial, bus service to free Odesa. There was great excitement especially among the many locals who do not own their own cars, despite the fact the extraordinary price of 2,500 hryvnias (85 US dollars). Before the invasion it was possible to travel from Kherson to Odesa for only 250 hryvnias (8.5 dollars).

“The decision to leave for many is the most difficult,” the social media administrator said. “I myself was very scared, I did not understand how this would happen, how many Russian checkpoints I would have to pass. But the fear of staying at home was much stronger.

“Another problem is transport. Only those who have their own car or who can find one can leave the Kherson region. Many people found a way out and began to simply ask for cars, where there are empty seats, at the exit from Kherson. But for those who have large families or who have seriously ill loved ones, this option is not suitable. When looking for a car, they need to be very careful, because there are many scammers.”

Those who decide to go with an unfamiliar driver are advised not to make any advance payments. There were many cases when people paid a huge sum of money to a driver who then disappeared.

The fare from Kherson to Mykolaiv or Odesa is now between 3,000 and 5,000 hryvnias (100-170 dollars). Previously, this route cost no more than 100 hryvnias (four dollars).

Other so-called "black drivers" charge much more, but supposedly guarantee a smooth passage through Russian checkpoints. In fact, their clients have to go through the same screening as everyone else, except a bribe is paid to the relevant soldiers.

Some Kherson residents are trying to leave via the Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula. There, bus routes operate, agreed with the Russian occupiers. 

“Some people manage to go through the Crimea to Georgia, Poland - making a big circle through Moscow and Belarus,” said one resident of Nova Kakhovka who left through this route. “It is very expensive. There are cases when the Russian authorities forced residents of the Kherson region in Crimea to sign documents registering their refugee status in Russia. Then such people are no longer allowed out of the Russian Federation.”

In desperation, some have resorted to taking boats across the Kakhovka reservoir. On April 7, Russian troops fired on a boat carrying civilians trying to leave the village of Pervomaevka to sail over to Dnipropetrovsk on the opposite bank. They were unable to leave by car because one of their family members was a former Ukrainian soldier; soldiers at Russian checkpoints hunt for such people and their relatives.

There were 14 civilians in the boat, three of them children. Three adults and a 13-year-old child died on the spot. Seven more were taken to the hospital with injuries and two people remain missing

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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