“There are soldiers with dogs and machine guns on every street corner”: exit routes are closing on the new Ukrainian front

The newborn baby wrapped in a pink blanket in a hospital on the north bank of the Dnieper River in Ukraine may never see his grandparents in the Russian annexed south.

His mother fled, opting for the relative safety of Zaporizhia, a city controlled by the Ukrainian government, where the baby was born a Ukrainian citizen in a country invaded by the Russians eight months ago. The grandparents stayed on the other side of the river.

“It may be too late for them to escape,” laments Anastasia Skachko, 19, looking down at her still nameless daughter.

“I don’t even want them to try. The roads are mined, either bombed,” she slips.

The Ukrainian counter-offensive, which saw the Russians ceding most of the conquered lands in the north, reached the very strategic south.

Hang on

Disheartened Russian forces clung to the southern region of Kherson – a land bridge that gave the Kremlin access to the annexed Crimean peninsula – and bombarded the Ukrainians, who advanced with renewed might.

The fighting destroys the towns placed along the river and blocks the escape routes used by the families at the start of the war.

Anastasia Skachko says she managed to reach her mother on WhatsApp to tell her that she was now a grandmother. But the phone number started with the Russian international dialing code +7 instead of the Ukrainian dialing code +38.

The Russians have indeed disconnected the existing lines of the Ukrainian system to establish their authority and cut off the flow of information.

“It’s hard to say if she will ever see the little one,” Anastasia says. “We both know that. But neither of us wanted to talk about it on the phone.

An open prison

Martial law imposed by Kremlin forces on lands Russia claims as its own makes daily life even more unpredictable. Russia has closed the last checkpoint in the south to prevent people from fleeing to Ukrainian government-held territory.

Some civilians are being bussed further from the front to areas under Russian control, a move the Ukrainians disinfect as forced deportation.

The handful of people who managed to reach the town of Zaporizhia, negotiating with the soldiers, described life back home as an open prison.

Journalists can only travel to the region on strictly Kremlin-led visits.

“There are soldiers with dogs and machine guns on every corner,” said Oleksandra Boyko, from the occupied city of Melitopol, who escaped with her baby daughter. “Most of them are Chechens.”

The Kremlin relied on Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s army to hold some of the conquered lands.

The people who fled these soldiers as outlaws. “The guys from (neighboring) Dagestan are a bit nicer, but Kadyrov’s men are just brutal,” described Natalia Voloshyna, from occupied Berdyansk.

Psychological pressure

Many refer to the psychological pressure linked to the invasion. Women interviewed by AFP point out that Kremlin-installed leaders only hire or help people who renounce their Ukrainian citizenship to adopt Russian citizenship.

“They tell you, either you work with us or you have nothing. I immediately told them no,” says Natalia Voloshyna.

Oleksandra Boyko has been offered ‘huge sums’ if she registers her four-month-old baby as a Russian citizen. “I said no on principle. I am Ukrainian. She should be Ukrainian”, specifies the native of Melitopol.

“Some accept because there is almost no work and they will not hire you without a Russian passport,” she adds. “If there is nothing to eat, what else can you do?”.

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