Small settlement receives thousands fleeing occupied southern Ukraine

14 May, 08:29 PM
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Dmytro Neveseliy, the mayor of Zelenodolsk, collected bicycles that belong to residents of the occupied villages of Kherson Oblast, who were fleeing to safety. He plans to return these vehicles to owners (Photo:Kristina Berdynskykh)

Dmytro Neveseliy, the mayor of Zelenodolsk, collected bicycles that belong to residents of the occupied villages of Kherson Oblast, who were fleeing to safety. He plans to return these vehicles to owners (Photo:Kristina Berdynskykh)

At 0830, police and an ambulance are already keeping watch near a large tent, set up in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast by a local police station in the town of Zelenodolsk.

Every day, they receive displaced persons from the partially occupied Kherson Oblast, which is a few kilometers away.

There, in the south, fighting continues, and here, in the first town of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast from the administrative border, a hub has been set up to receive those fleeing from the enemy. The escapees come here every day to head north collectively – by bus – to the "bright lights" of the city of Kryvyi Rih.

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Inside the tent, journalists from NV met Halyna, a resident of the occupied Kherson Oblast village of Novovoznesenske. She is sitting on a bench and seems to be in a state of shock. "I don't know what day it is, just the number," she says quietly.

Five hours ago, at 0330, Halyna and her husband fled their village. The couple ran 15 km through the fields to the checkpoint on the territory controlled by the Ukrainian military. From there, the couple was taken to Zelenodolsk.

Volodymyr and Halyna ran 15 kilometers in the morning through the fields to get to the territory controlled by Ukraine (Фото: Kristina Berdynskykh)
Volodymyr and Halyna ran 15 kilometers in the morning through the fields to get to the territory controlled by Ukraine / Фото: Kristina Berdynskykh

Then Halyna breaks into tears, apologizes, and starts crying again. And then she explains that she had never given free rein to her feelings during the two months of the war.

Then comes her 60-year-old husband, Volodymyr, who has been talking to the police all this time, filling out papers. He had finally managed to call his children in Kyiv, as Russians seized his phone back in the village.

The husband looks more restrained than the wife. Emotions come through when he starts talking about what he lived with until the previous night – the occupation.

According to Volodymyr, the Russians banned people from leaving Novovoznesenske: "They would only let people out for bribes and only to Kherson or Crimea."

Natalia works at a thermal power plant and lives in a high-rise building, which was hit by a shell in mid-March (Фото: Kristina Berdynskykh)
Natalia works at a thermal power plant and lives in a high-rise building, which was hit by a shell in mid-March / Фото: Kristina Berdynskykh

So he and his wife decided to run away. "We ran through the steppes at night while they [the occupiers] slept, bypassing their checkpoints," says Volodymyr, adding that after three hours of hard travel he does not feel tired.

As the couple was fleeing, enemy shells flew over their heads toward Ukrainian positions.

Volodymyr explains that out of 200 residents of Novovoznesenske, 30 remained – the rest ran away: there are already more Russians there than locals.

There had been no power in the village for all of its 45 days of occupation, just like there’s no gas and mobile service. But that is a minor misfortune. The big problem is that there are occupiers who, in Volodymyr's words, are "taking" everything.

For example, local mobile phones are confiscated to check if people have relatives who serve in the Armed Forces. The Russians occupied the wealthiest village houses and a school, where, in the basement, they are holding and abusing prisoners of war, both military and civilian.

Residents of Zelenodolsk Oksana and Serhiy stayed in the city because they believe in the victory of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (Фото: Kristina Berdynskykh)
Residents of Zelenodolsk Oksana and Serhiy stayed in the city because they believe in the victory of the Armed Forces of Ukraine / Фото: Kristina Berdynskykh

Finally, Halyna joins the conversation. She says that as people were leaving the occupied territory, they set their animals free – and now hungry cows, pigs, and chickens are walking around the village.

Volodymyr and Halyna had lived in Novovoznesenske for over 30 years – they built a beautiful house and recently bought a new car. But they left everything behind, fleeing from the enemy. They took only a few bags with them, with documents and medicines.

Halyna explains that she could no longer bear to see Russian equipment firing at Ukrainian positions from their village.

"Tanks come, stand near the house, and shoot at our defenders, at the Armed Forces," the woman recalled.

She leaves the tent and goes to the ambulance to measure her blood pressure.

Only later, after talking to their children – who had advised their parents to head to Kryvyi Rih immediately and board the evening train to Kyiv – does Halyna recover from the state of shock.

"The main thing is that you survived," we tell Halyna and Volodymyr, leaving the couple to wait for the bus departing to Kryvyi Rih.

"The main thing is that the country survives," responds Volodymyr. He adds: "Ukraine will win in any case. They [Russians] will suffer more than we do. Russia can be written off. They wanted the Third Reich, and they will get what Hitler got."

In addition to Volodymyr and Halyna, several other people from the villages of Kherson Oblast came to the big tent in Zelenodolsk this morning. Although their settlements are under Ukrainian control, they are impossible to live in due to ongoing hostilities and constant shelling.

Bordering war

Such forced exiles as Halyna and Volodymyr are witnessed in Zelenodolsk on a daily basis.

Dmytro Neveselyi, the mayor, leads NV to the territory of one of the utility companies. There are over 300 bicycles with white ribbons in the yard and in the warehouse – it was on them that IDPs from the occupied villages of Kherson Oblast reached the Ukrainian checkpoints.

In two months, 2,000-2,500 such people passed through Zelenodolsk, says Neveselyi. "Bicycles are the primary means of transportation for rural areas," he adds. The Russians initially banned cars from leaving the occupied villages, and later exiting by any means. Therefore, people often went even on foot to the north, to the free lands, walking 10-12 km.

"Including people with disabilities and women with small children," explains the mayor.

In the warehouse, in addition to bicycles, you can, in fact, see both wheelchairs and strollers. All this was abandoned near the checkpoints from which refugees were taken to Zelenodolsk. Neveselyi decided to collect and look after all of this equipment.

"After the liberation of the villages, people will return home. It was their main means of transportation, we will keep and return them,” he explains.

In Zelenodolsk itself, which is located only 5 km from the front, 40% of the population remains – 6,000 citizens. People began to leave en masse after Russian shells hit local high-rises in mid-March. And in the suburbs, there are still daily shellings, and houses are being destroyed.

Near one of the high-rises, which was hit by a shell on March 19, NV met Natalia, who works at the Kryvyi Rih thermal power plant, Zelenodolsk’s primary industry. The woman lives on the first floor of the building, and the shell hit her apartment on the third, smashing windows throughout the building.

"I continue to live here. It's scary, but I go to work. We work to maintain electricity and heating,” she explains.

The city has electricity, water, and gas. The sound of shelling from neighboring villages can still be heard, but the situation here is calmer.

Zelenodolsk police keep remnants of Russian cluster munitions as evidence of Russian war crimes (Фото: Kristina Berdynskykh)
Zelenodolsk police keep remnants of Russian cluster munitions as evidence of Russian war crimes / Фото: Kristina Berdynskykh

"We thank the Armed Forces for not letting [Russians] in here," says Natalia.

Near the grocery store, locals are happy to talk about what it's like to live in a half-empty front-line city.

"During the shelling, everything in the store shakes. A mattress and blanket are set at home in the hallway. Persyk the Dog gets scared and hides. It’s not much fun,” says the store’s cashier, Oksana.

"No worries, everything will be fine," her husband Serhiy replies, joining the conversation.

"Yes, everything will be fine. We believe so, otherwise we would have gone too,” Oksana continues.

At this time, Vasyl Yanchuk, the deputy head of one of the local police departments, approaches the NV crew. He checks our documents and our accreditation of the Ministry of Defense, and invites us to go with him to the department.

Yanchuk had no complaints against us – he had something else on his mind.

At the department, the police officer removed the remains of cluster munitions used by the Russians from one of the premises. Law enforcement officers found them near Zelenodolsk.

The volunteer headquarters helps refugees who arrive in Zelenodolsk on a daily basis. (Фото: Kristina Berdynskykh)
The volunteer headquarters helps refugees who arrive in Zelenodolsk on a daily basis. / Фото: Kristina Berdynskykh

Yanchuk explained: "This is a banned weapon worldwide, but Russia continues to use it." And then he asked to "show it to the world."

 NV complied with Yanchuk's request: one of the photos illustrating this piece is a photo of cluster munitions found near Zelenodolsk.

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