KIEV, July 11 (AP) – For Rima Yaremenko, the 5,000-kilometer (3,000-mile) adventure to escape Russian occupation ended near where it started. The 68-year-old Ukrainian woman traveled across three countries in six days before finally settling across the river from her troubled hometown.
She traveled long distances by bus through Russia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to get this close. From the Ukrainian-controlled city of Kherson, where she now lives, Oreshki’s blurred silhouette can be seen in the distance. But this prewar community of 25,000 people can be isolated.
Yaremenko lived under Moscow’s rule for 15 months, enduring the rumble of constant shelling near her beloved home and blooming garden. It disappeared after the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam in early June, triggering catastrophic flooding that turned the land to clay.
She’s faced with a difficult choice: either endure a life of homelessness when war breaks out nearby, or take the only way out – a long, circuitous and uncertain journey across Russia. “We didn’t want to go, but once we got flooded, I decided there was nothing left,” she said.
Hundreds of others have also left, abandoning their flooded homes, crossing swaths of occupied land, past checkpoints requiring intense interrogation and through Russia’s urban heartlands, all to reach the EU’s borders.
Now that they are beyond the reach of Russian authorities, the fugitives have given The Associated Press rare first-hand accounts of their lives under occupation and their ordeal of fleeing Kremlin-controlled territory.
Some of them spoke on the condition that they be named only because they still have relatives living in the occupied territories.
As both sides blamed each other for sabotaging the dam, water levels dropped and thunderous artillery fire resumed. Fighting has intensified along the Dnieper River, which serves as the dividing line between the warring armies of Kiev and Moscow. An Associated Press investigation has cast doubt on Russia’s allegations that Ukraine was responsible for the dam collapse.
For those already homeless and without access to drinking water, the constant shelling is too much to bear. Most people don’t have the money to rebuild. The occupying authorities offered only 10,000 rubles ($100) in compensation.
“My house is uninhabitable. Everything is covered with mud. The pipes are broken and dirty. Lana, 43, left Oreshki on June 19 and arrived in Kherson more than a week later.” breathe. We are suffocating. “
Residents initially hoped that a quick Ukrainian counteroffensive would free them. But the longer they stay, the more they worry about the pressure to get a Russian passport.
“Although the floodwaters receded, the disaster continued,” said Yevhen Ryschuk, the exiled mayor of Oreshki, who was in touch with residents.
The Associated Press interviewed nine people who left Oreshki between June 13 and July 1. The only way out of the occupied Kherson region is through Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.
Travelers are subject to inspections in the administrative town of Amyansk, mobile phones are checked, email passwords are harvested, and those suspected of collaborating with the Ukrainian military are interrogated or detained, in some cases never to be seen again.
Nellie Isayeva, director of Help to Leave, said some people couldn’t get through simply because they had lost their documents and had no money. The group works remotely to help Ukrainians who are stranded on the East Bank and want to flee.
“Young people leave, pensioners stay,” said Nataliia Skakun, 54, who recently left Oleshky with her husband, Serhii, Settled in Mykolaiv, Kherson region.
A woman who remained in Olshki said life under the occupation had become increasingly difficult as time went on.
The Russians “started to take tougher action than before,” she said. She requested anonymity out of fear for her safety. For example, Russian soldiers now check the papers of locals when visiting markets.
Therefore, the woman and her family avoided leaving the home. Many survived on food left over after others had left. “They gave us their stock,” she said.
Most citizens who fled to Crimea continued across Russia’s Rostov-on-Don province to Moscow, eventually reaching the Latvian border and then on to Lithuania. Many continued on to Poland, from where they crossed into Ukraine or remained in refugee camps. The AP also interviewed two people who traveled directly to Belgorod, which borders Ukraine’s Sumy region.
In Amyansk, a 50-year-old woman named Alla was questioned: Do you support Russia’s special military operations? Do you have contacts in the Ukrainian government? Who do you think blew up the dam?
She thought carefully about how to answer.
Alla stayed because her 74-year-old arthritic mother didn’t want to go. She couldn’t take it anymore and took every possible precaution to delete potentially suspicious contacts and messages. She even told Russian soldiers that she was going to Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, and that was all.
The last 15 months were the most difficult of her life.
“Every day in Oreshki was dangerous. Every day I thought about leaving, but I couldn’t bring myself to make a decision. My mother was there, my house, what we loved, we gave Most of life was built,” she said.
A few months after the occupation, the ruble was enforced as currency. Ala must be exchanged for Ukrainian hryvnia at a fee of 10%. The last time she tried to buy diabetes medication at the hospital, she was told to show Russian documents next time.
She lost friends: some accepted offers to get Russian passports and housing permits to buy apartments in Russia. Two acquaintances of Yaremenko did the same. “For example, our friends had their passports taken away immediately. They said they felt life became easier.”
Flooding was the last straw. Dozens of houses were damaged. Many of the buildings that still stand are uninhabitable. Treatment of waterborne diseases is urgent.
At the checkpoint, Alla looked up at the Russian soldiers. I don’t know who blew up the dam, she said, I just want peace. He let her pass.
At the Latvian border, she was again taken aside for questioning in handcuffs on a chair in a room. why leave? they asked. Why not wait for compensation? Why not look for a house in Russia?
They then said they knew she had left her mother. They warned that if she dared to come back for her, they would not let her pass again.
“It’s psychological stress,” she said.
Those with a history of collaboration took greater steps to hide their past.
Yuri, a 28-year-old former journalist, buried his press credentials and deleted his phone contacts. For months, he has been relaying the coordinates of Russian military movements to friends with ties to the Ukrainian military.
In Oreshki, he said, he found work at a shawarma shop frequented by Russian soldiers. “Every day you leave the house, you don’t know if you’re going to come back,” he said.
To survive, he courteously accosted soldiers. Some told him they would fight to the death for the land. Others said they wanted to go home. He feigns sympathy.
He was allowed to pass in Aryansk. Like many others, he traveled to where he felt most at home. On the other side of the river, in the city of Kherson, Russian bombing continued.
“It’s ridiculous in a way,” he said with a laugh. Just weeks ago, he could see the occupied Ukrainian-controlled city from his building. “It’s only 20 minutes between Oreshki and Kherson. It’s been three days now.” (Associated Press)
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