Ukrainian villages grappling with the effects of Russia’s mock referendum: NPR
TAVRIISKE, Ukraine – Andrii Boiarskyi stands outside a mini market on the side of the main road out of town. He leans against his car and scrolls his phone. It is full of videos and photos he took of explosions in his hometown of Orikhiv, a few miles away.
Orikhiv is on the front line in the Zaporizhzhia region. It is still under Ukrainian control, but the areas just beyond are under Russian occupation.
“It’s like that every day,” he says, as a video of a missile strike on a building plays.
Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed four regions of Ukraine last week, including the Zaporizhzhia region, after holding referendums widely seen as a sham by the international community. And although Ukraine and its Western allies refuse to recognize the annexation, it has real implications for people in the region. Putin said residents of the four regions are now considered Russian citizens and any attempt by Ukraine to take back the land will be seen as an attack on Russian soil itself.
Boiarskyi’s sister lives on the other side of the front line, in the far south, under Russian control. He says it’s already difficult to be in touch with her – cellphone signals are scrambled and the internet is down. He fears that annexation will make things even more difficult.
He says she managed to text him the other day, telling him that Russian soldiers came to his apartment with guns during the referendum, intimidating her into voting yes. She then watched them walk over to her neighbor and kick down the door after the family failed to respond.
As he speaks, another car pulls up on the side of the road. Five people pile in, open the tailgate and prepare a kind of picnic: bread and cans of meat, cucumbers and tomatoes.
Hennadii Kachan, 48, says it is a group of neighbors from Orikhiv. They must have stopped to calm down and stop shaking after going through all the bombardment, he said, pointing at the road as booms echoed in the distance.
Kachan says they all fled Orikhiv months ago, but they return when they can to check their homes and bring supplies for people. His mother still lives there: he says she wouldn’t leave, but it’s a hard life.
“There is no water, no electricity, no gas. Nothing,” he says. It was cut with the fighting.
He thinks that with the so-called annexation – which he calls fake – life there is about to get even harder. He heard that the roads to the city are going to close.
“This may be the last time we can go back there,” Kachan said.
About 100 kilometers to the west, across the Dnipro River, is the town of Zelenodolsk, near the border of the Kherson region, which was also illegally annexed last week.
Zelenodolsk is also still in Ukrainian hands, but the fighting is close here too.
At a makeshift humanitarian aid center in town, Mykola Vasyliovych, 66, jumps off her bike and lights a cigarette before going to get some food. His wife and daughter are in Poland, but he stayed here all the time.
Vasyliovych says he paid no attention to the referendums, or to any of Putin’s claims that his southern neighbors are now Russian.
“The more harm Russia brings, the more united Ukraine becomes. I am one hundred percent sure that our troops will win everything back soon,” he says. He puts out his cigarette and enters.
At a bakery down the street, Liubov Samohvalova is drinking coffee and eating cake with a friend. She says her son and his family recently managed to leave Kherson – the first major city to fall to the still firmly occupied Russians. They worried about forced conscription to fight for the Russians during Putin’s annexation.
“He told me the city is dying,” she says, literally, but also in spirit. “Completely dying.”
There is a lot of hope in Zelenodolsk that Ukraine will soon take over Kherson. The Ukrainian army made slow but steady progress in the area, liberating a strip of land directly south of the town and pushing the front line further.
There is evidence of those gains here, in a small warehouse on a dirt road on the outskirts of town. Earlier in the war, people fled Kherson on bicycles and passed through Zelenodolsk, often leaving their bicycles behind to take a ride west. Nikolai Stadnick, 45, started collecting as many bikes as he could and putting them away. There are hundreds of them, stacked row after row.
Stadnick says that recently people have started coming back through the city to return to the liberated villages on the outskirts of Kherson.
“When they come back, they are so happy to see their bike again,” he says, a big smile on his face.
Stadnick calls the referendums – and subsequent annexation – the “last gasp of a dying Russian army.”
“Kherson will be released soon. I know that,” he said.
And when they do, he says he’ll make sure everyone’s bike is waiting for them here, to take them home.