Ukraine war: Zaporizhzhia locals flee Russia annexation

Every day, convoys of people arrive in a supermarket car park in Zaporizhzhia city, escorted in by police vehicles.

They’ve made the hazardous trip out of Russian-occupied territory in southern Ukraine, finally reaching the relative safety of this regional capital still firmly under Ukrainian control.

And yet this is one of four Ukrainian regions that Russia is formally annexing, after a five-day exercise it called a referendum and Ukraine and the West condemned as a sham.

Among those handing their papers to police is Anton Osenev, who says the Russians tried to mobilise him twice to fight against his own country, around his home city of Melitopol.

“We weren’t home for the first attempt,” he says. “On the second occasion they stayed at our house for some time”.

Had it not been for his pregnant wife being in the room, they would have taken him, he believes. His father is in the Ukrainian army, and if he had been seized he would have been on the opposite side.

“I still don’t understand what’s happening, we need some rest.”

Few here care about Moscow’s declaration of annexation.

What they are afraid of is what the occupiers will do now to defend what they’ve taken – whether that is being forced to fight for Russia, or Moscow resorting to more lethal weapons.

Last week Vladimir Putin threatened to use all resources at his disposal, even nuclear weapons.

For the Kremlin, that’s the very point – to create uncertainty over what comes next.

A Ukrainian mother holding her baby
Image caption,

Officials in Zaporizhzhia say they’ve seen a recent increase in more people trying to leave occupied areas

As you drive south towards the front line from Zaporizhzhia city, the roads seem to empty.

Fewer people walk along the roadside. A car or military vehicle occasionally speeds by. You don’t go for leisurely drives around here.

What you do get more of are military checkpoints. Ukrainian forces use them to control who gets through, and work out who is coming from the direction of Russian-occupied territory.

After our military escort gets us through, we’re met with an open, straight road.

Half an hour later we arrive at the village of Komyshuvakha, a small settlement in the Ukrainian outback.

A handful of damaged buildings hug a wide, straight highway. Most windows are boarded up. On this autumnal afternoon it’s almost silent.

If we carried on driving for 11 miles, we’d encounter a Russian checkpoint. An area Moscow now sees as its new “border” with Ukraine.

Despite the region’s capital staying under Ukrainian control, Russian forces control most of the Zaporizhzhia region. Today’s annexation announcement is a continuation of their attempts to make their presence seem just.

For those we meet in Komyshuvakha, nothing seems fair.

One of them is Liubov Smyrnova. She tearfully takes us to a burnt-out shell which was once her home.

It was hit by a missile in May. She’s only just felt able to return.

“I think that Putin’s politics is to destroy us, it’s a genocide of our people,” she tells me, while sifting through fragments of shrapnel.

“We are under constant pressure. I can’t even describe it with words. Komyshuvakha is shelled almost every day.”

Liubov Smyrnova standing in her destoyed home
Image caption,

Liubov Smyrnova’s destroyed home sits eleven miles from Russia’s attempted “new border”

Most people are inside because strikes tend to happen in the middle of the day, we’re told. For now, the sound of birdsong and the occasional bark of a dog masks what has happened to this small community.

It dawns on you that it’s mostly women left here. The men of Komyshuvakha are mostly fighting, or just elsewhere.

Around the corner, we speak to three women outside the building they’ve lived in for 70 years. Their eyes moisten as the strain of life here bubbles to the surface.

“Winter is coming and there’s not a single window in the house,” they explain, often talking over each other. “It’s like we’re sitting on a powder keg.”

So, what do they make of Russia’s claim to half of the region they live in?

“There should be a free and independent Ukraine,” they say. “We didn’t attack anyone, didn’t hurt anyone, and didn’t want anything. We want to live the way we did before.”

Behind a fire escape door in an empty kindergarten, there’s activity. Through it are three women busily washing potatoes and cooking pancakes.

They don’t know who they’re cooking for, they say, just that the Ukrainian military instructs them to.

A woman in Komyshuvakha making pancakes
Image caption,

The women in Komyshuvakha say they’ve been instructed by the Ukrainian army to prepare food

As she stirs batter in a large bowl, I ask Anzhela whether she cares that Russia now sees her village as being close to its new “border”.

“We don’t want that,” she says. “We want to live the way we lived. Everything was fine, everything was all right.”

She whisks with a bit more vigour.

“We grew up this way. Our children grew up this way and our grandchildren too.”

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