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In Kherson, tens of thousands have left homes that are now under Russian control

Tens of thousands have made the often dangerous escape from Kherson by car, bike or even boat. And the accounts of those who fled offer insight into what life has been like under Russian occupation in the first city to fall since the invasion of Ukraine.

Officials say upwards of 50,000 people have fled Kherson since Russia occupied the region in March

Denis Nikiforov and his wife Olya biked out of Kherson Oblast along with their two children and their elderly mothers. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

After months of hearing explosions rumble near their rural village in southern Ukraine, Denis Nikiforov and his wife Olya decided it was time to flee Kherson Oblast — a region that's been overrun by Russian troops since the early day of the war. 

They wanted to escape, but the question was how.

They didn't have a car. With a two- and four-year-old in tow, along with the children's grandmothers, the family needed to find a fast and safe way out of their community, Kalynivske, and make their way north.

So Nikiforov, 31, rounded up three bicycles, and the group of six spent Friday morning cycling over the front line now dividing southern Ukraine. 

"We decided to take bicycles so we could see better what was under our feet. It's more safe this way," Nikiforov said in an interview with CBC News. 

 "In the car, you won't see any landmines."

Escaping by bike, car or boat

The family said they didn't come across any soldiers until they crossed over into an area still controlled by Ukraine's military. 

They eventually boarded a bus and were taken to a reception centre in the industrial city of Kryvyi Rih, a place where tens of thousands have arrived after making the often dangerous escape from Kherson by car, by bike and even by boat these last few months — and their accounts offer insight into what life is like for those in a region now occupied by Russian soldiers. 

Demonstrators, some displaying Ukrainian flags, chant "go home" while walking towards retreating Russian military vehicles at a pro-Ukraine rally amid Russia's occupation of Kherson, Ukraine, on March 20. (Reuters)

Occupied territory 

While it is difficult to verify what is happening inside the occupied territory, residents who spoke with CBC News reported food and medicine shortages, as well as a widespread climate of fear, fuelled by Russian soldiers determined to root out those opposed to their presence. 

Their accounts stand in stark contrast to the images promoted by Russia and its state media, which have published videos of Russian troops clearing away landmines and handing out aid to grateful residents.

Kherson Oblast, which lies just north of Crimea, straddles the Dnieper River and includes the port city of Kherson on the Black Sea. 

Its location makes it strategically important, and it was one of Russia's first targets. 

On Feb. 24, security cameras at the checkpoint between Ukraine and Crimea captured Russian tanks rolling through. One week later, Russian troops seized Kherson, a city of 300,000.

Nikoforov and his family spent much of those first few weeks sheltering in a basement where the ceiling was starting to cave in. 

"We couldn't believe this was happening," Olya said. "It was hell."

Every time her husband went out, she said she feared he might not return. She said she had heard about other men being dragged from their homes with bags on their heads. 

Valentin Semko, 33, volunteers at the evacuation centre after fleeing his village of Ivanivka in Kherson Oblast in April. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Fear is a common thread among the different stories.

When Valentin Semko, 33, fled by car with his three children in April, he said his knees were shaking the entire way. 

"At any moment they could come up and they would not let us leave," he said of escaping the village of Ivanivka.

Semko, who now volunteers at the evacuation centre where people can register for housing in school dormitories, said the Russian soldiers were often drunk. They would go from house to house, stealing televisions and computers, while shooting up couches and other things they couldn't move, he said. 

Civilian deaths 

The office of Ukraine's prosecutor general has reported at least two instances of Russia's military firing rockets at a convoy of civilian cars trying to move through the Kherson region. 

Officials said that on May 17 at least three people were killed and six injured when their vehicles were hit. 

Oleksander Vilkul, the mayor of Kryvyi Rih, told CBC News that there are no humanitarian corridors for civilians wanting to leave the region, and said that Russian soldiers frequently block cars from going through checkpoints. 

Pointing to a map in his office, he traced a finger along the front line which he said spans 120 kilometres through Kherson Oblast. 

He said people prefer to use remote back roads or go through the forest, hoping to avoid the Russian military. 

According to Vilkul, upwards of 50,000 people from the region have come through Kryvyi Rih, a sprawling industrial city built on iron ore extraction and lined with Soviet-style apartment blocks.

Russian military vehicles drive along a street after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in the town of Armyansk, Crimea, on Feb. 24. (Reuters)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was born here, but Vilkul said Russia had hoped the city, which sits about 50 kilometres from the current front line, would embrace Russian occupation.

The mayor, who comes from a well-known political family, was long considered to hold pro-Russian views. 

He was a deputy prime minister in Viktor Yanukovych's government. The former Ukrainian president was ousted from power in 2014 and fled to Russia. 

Vikul said he received a call on Feb. 25, the day after the invasion, from one of Yanukovych's former ministers asking him to sign an agreement for "friendship and mutual understanding" with Russia. 

He was promised he would be a great man in the "new Ukraine," but his answer, he said, was swift and laced with profanity. There would be no deal. 

Instead, he vows Ukraine will regain all its land. 

"People living in the occupied territories in the Kherson region pass on information to us about how difficult it is there, " he said. 

"We will only know the full truth when the army liberates these territories."

Oleksander Vilkul, the mayor of Kyrvyi Rih, said he was asked to sign an agreement with Russia to co-operate during the early days of the invasion, but he said he rejected the offer. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Living under Russian occupation 

CBC News spoke with two residents living in Kherson Oblast, who agreed to interviews on the condition their names not be published as they feared for their personal safety.

One woman said the security situation has stabilized in the area, but Russian soldiers were frequently checking documents and questioning residents. 

It's not uncommon, she said, for a Russian soldier to board a bus and ask passengers whether they are happy to see them solely to judge their reaction. 

She told CBC News that a soldier searched through her friend's text messages. When he saw the word "occupier," she said that he took her friend's phone away and then threatened her family. 

In March, a video posted on social media showed sporadic protests against the Russian occupation in Kherson, including crowds gathered with Ukrainian flags. In at least one instance, protesters appeared to be dispersed by tear gas. 

WATCH | Life for Ukrainians under Russian occupation: 

Residents of Russian-controlled city of Kherson describe strict conditions

2 months ago
Duration 3:03
Tens of thousands of residents of Russian-controlled city of Kherson in southern Ukraine have fled since the beginning of Moscow's invasion. Those who remain say there are consequences for defying Russia.

But the other woman who spoke to CBC News confidentially said that the streets in the occupied region are now mostly empty. People go to the market if they need to buy something, but they otherwise stay at home, she said. 

There were widespread food and medicine shortages in the beginning, but she said Russia has started to bring in products through Crimea. 

Getting cash is often the biggest problem, she said, as several banks have shut down and there are long lineups at ATMs.

A few senior Russian officials have recently visited Kherson, including Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin who spoke about how the area has "great prospects," according to Russian state media.

Russian media report that at the end of February Russian troops blew up a concrete dam in Kherson that was erected after Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014.  Before the dam was built, Crimea received 85 per cent of its water from the canal, which redirected water from the Dneiper River.

Russian officials have arranged press tours of the Kherson region for the media and have put out videos showing farmers planting crops, while Russians take care of the local hydroelectric power plant. 

Halyna Kharchenko, 26, left Kherson by car along with her two daughters, Lily, 5, left, and Diana, 6, as well as her father and with her husband Yuri, 29. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

Halyna Kharchenko, 26, said Russian soldiers came to her house once to drop off food and medication after they discovered the pregnant mother of two didn't have much to eat.

Her house no longer had gas or electricity, so she said the family was tearing off pieces of their barn in order to build a fire and cook food. 

She spoke to CBC News at a school in Kryvyi Rih that had been turned into a dormitory to house displaced families.

Kharchenko and her husband made their way out of Kherson recently after connecting with someone who was helping people to evacuate. 

At six months pregnant, Kharchenko said her priority is to get a doctor and find somewhere more permanent to settle before she gives birth. 

"It seems to me that it is impossible to rebuild that area," she said. 

"But I want everything to become normal again and I can come back." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Briar Stewart is the Moscow correspondent for CBC News. She has been covering Canada and beyond for more than 15 years and can be reached at briar.stewart@cbc.ca or on Twitter @briarstewart

with files from Corinne Seminoff, Reuters

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