Kyiv, Ukraine – A minibus with 16 Ukrainian citizens, 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 veered off the tarmac due to shelling.
The bus left the Russian-occupied part of the south Ukrainian region of Zaporizhia after days and nights of driving and waiting at countless checkpoints.
The soldiers made lewd remarks as they checked IDs, searched bags and phones, and ordered the Ukrainian men in each vehicle to remove their shirts to check for bruises left by returning firearms.
And then the soldiers ordered the drivers to wait for hours.
Close to freedom
On May 20, the brooding minivan and its hungry, distressed passengers were maddeningly close to the Ukrainian-controlled side — and freedom.
But as the bus drove away, the Russian soldiers opened fire — as their comrades-in-arms often did in every occupied Ukrainian region, according to officials and survivors.
“I looked at the driver and saw how tense his face was. He stepped on the gas and just took off,” Alyona Korotkova, who fled the neighboring region of Kherson with her eight-year-old daughter Vera, told Al Jazeera.
“We heard explosions behind us. They shot at us,” she said in a telephone interview from the safety of Marl, a quiet, wooded town in western Germany where she and Vera have settled.
Temporarily, they hope.
Betrayal and takeover
Kherson, a region the size of Belgium with grassy steppes and fertile farmland, criss-crossed by rivers and irrigation canals, was the only Ukrainian province of Russia fully occupied shortly after the invasion began on February 24.
On that cold, gloomy day, just before dawn, Korotkova heard the first explosions.
A few hours later, Russian tanks and armored cars crossed over annexed Crimea rolled through her town of Oleshki with an earth-shattering roar.
Surrounded by sand dunes, farmland and orchids, Oleshki is located on the left, lower bank of the Dnieper River, Ukraine’s largest river.
Across the water is the regional capital, also called Kherson, which became Russia’s largest urban center before the fall of Mariupol.
“Of course we wondered why they got to us so quickly,” Korotkova said.
Ukrainian leaders and analysts accused some Kherson officials and intelligence officers of treason, claiming they failed to blow up explosive-strewn bridges and roads nearby. Crimea.
“They surrendered on the first day,” Halyna, a Kherson resident who withheld her last name, told Al Jazeera in May.
Within days, the troops under their tanks crushed the Ukrainian soldiers and barely armed volunteers defending the 1.4 km long Antonovsky Bridge, the only direct connection between the city and the left bank.
On March 2, the Russians stormed into the city and began to settle.
“Russia is here forever,” was the mantra echoed by the Kremlin and pro-Moscow officials.
Self isolation for survival
Korotkova, her daughter and her mother are isolated in their home surrounded by fruit trees and vegetable gardens.
The house had a wood-burning stove and a cool, dark basement with glittering jars of pickles and a freezer filled with meat.
The fruit, pickles and meat – along with packages from friends – helped Korotkova, who used to organize exhibitions and work as a babysitter, survive.
In the first few weeks, Russian soldiers were barely visible in Oleshki, but the city felt the occupation in countless other ways.
Moving around was dangerous because Russian soldiers checked IDs and mobile phones.
Grocery shopping took hours as food, medicine and basic necessities slowly disappeared or became exorbitantly priced.
The volunteers who brought the drugs and other supplies from the Ukrainian side also began to disappear – or were kidnapped and never heard from again.
Protest rallies were initially massive and ubiquitous throughout the region.
Kherson is the only land bridge to Crimea and its inhabitants witnessed the exodus of tens of thousands of fugitives from the annexed peninsula.
“We understood what happened to Crimea, we didn’t want it,” Korotkova said in Kherson.
But Russian soldiers and Ukrainian police defectors crushed the demonstrations with smoke bombs, beatings, arrests, kidnappings, torture and extrajudicial killings.
Atrocities and destruction
“In the Kherson region, the Russian army left as many atrocities as in other regions,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Nov. 14. “We hope to find and hold accountable every killer.”
Hundreds were allegedly abducted and tortured in makeshift prisons known as “basements”, and some ended up there simply because they seemed worth a ransom.
“Peasants were taken to the cellar and beaten so that they would pay,” Korotkova said.
The occupiers treated Kherson like a trophy of war, trying to squeeze as much out of it as possible – and trying to leave nothing of value behind when they began to withdraw earlier this month.
“They destroyed a lot of infrastructure sites — bridges, heat generators, broadcasting stations, mobile communication towers,” Kiev-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.
In addition to washing machines, toilet seats and electronics, they removed bronze monuments of tsarist generals and raccoons from the city zoo.
“Their loot looked like a robber’s car,” Kushch said.
From the beginning, the “authorities” installed by the Kremlin tried to create the illusion that the majority of Khersonites were pro-Russian.
But there was no one around Korotkova—except a driver she’d met once. The man was in his 60s and was nostalgic about his Soviet-era childhood, collective farms and cheap sausages, she said.
A 90-year-old woman who moved to St. Petersburg in Russia years ago called her granddaughter in Oleshki to tell her how wonderful Russian President Vladimir Putin was.
When the granddaughter told her about the realities of the occupation, the grandmother replied: “You are making it all up,” Korotkova said.
Life among the war dogs
Meanwhile, the cacophony of war became part of everyday life.
“I planted potatoes to the sound of explosions. I replanted strawberries to the sound of gunfire. You get used to it because you have to live,” she said.
Depression exhausted her and Vera as they felt cooped up in the house and longed for a simple walk or a look at the starry sky.
“There is fear, but somehow you live. You don’t stop breathing out of fear,” Korotkova said.
If gunshots or explosions started when Korotkova was not at home, Vera was ordered to hide in the room with the stove and cover her head.
But the child showed no fear. “She grew up so fast, became so responsible, serious,” Korotkova said.
They decided to flee in May, even if it meant leaving the 69-year-old grandmother behind, who said she would not survive the days-long journey.
It took them two tries and almost a week of driving, waiting and sleeping in lavish strangers’ houses 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 muffled the sound of artillery duels between Russian and Ukrainian forces.
And when the Russians started firing at their minibus and the driver quickly drove off, the Ukrainian soldiers simply waved him in and motioned to continue.
Once in the Ukrainian-controlled territory, the passengers cried with relief – and were welcomed as long-awaited guests.
There was hot food, medical supplies, showers and shampoo, lodging for the night, and transportation.
After arriving in Kiev, where Korotkova and Vera spent several weeks and received new foreign passports, they left for Germany.
And even though Vera has gotten used to the new school, learned some German and befriended other refugee children, they long to return to Oleshki.
“We really want to go home, but we are not going in the near future,” Korotkova said.
Russians laid land mines around the city and destroyed infrastructure, leaving people without power, natural gas and mobile phone connections.
Last week, Ukrainian troops, police and aid workers began entering the occupied territories with power generators, fuel, food, medicines and arrest warrants for collaborators.
But Kherson doesn’t 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,” a volunteer who brought insulin to the city told Al Jazeera on Thursday.
Khersonites in occupied territories struggle to survive, but hope that liberation is near.
“The prices are inhumanly high, but people wait and believe,” one resident told Al Jazeera.