Ukrainian villagers flee Russian-occupied Kherson on foot, bike and wheelchair Ukraine lost territory to Russia in the southern Kherson region early in the war. Residents fleeing rural villages there describe their desperation under Russian military control.

Ukrainian villagers flee Russian-occupied Kherson on foot, bike and wheelchair

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AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In Eastern Ukraine, advancing Russian forces have taken over dozens of towns and villages. That sent thousands of Ukrainians fleeing on foot to escape hostile treatment by Russian soldiers. NPR's Emily Feng has the story of some of the refugees who've made it to safety.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: They emerge, one by one, in the morning light - the most desperate on foot, but mostly they come by bike or wheelchair on a single dirt road - exhausted Ukrainian villagers fleeing Russian-occupied territory.

INNA KRAVCHENKO: (Through interpreter) We made our way over slowly. We left at 3:30 in the morning. The road is terrible. You can't drive it. Sometimes we walked. Sometimes we pushed our bikes. I was dragging my mother.

FENG: We meet Inna Kravchenko, aged 52, and her 75-year-old mother just minutes after they've crossed into Ukraine-held land. Their bikes join a pile of about 30 others on the side of the dirt road, many tied with strips of white cloth to indicate they're civilians. They're a reminder of how many have come to this town, Zelenodolsk, in recent weeks. Inna says she had no choice but to flee.

KRAVCHENKO: (Through interpreter) We couldn't even go outside to cook or make tea. I got hit by a shockwave while outside and lost my hearing. They're shelling intensely all the time.

FENG: They've just come from the village, Vysokopillia, now under Russian control. Of the town's 4,000 original inhabitants, only about 200 are left, she says. And most have ended up here in Zelenodolsk, about 10 miles away.

LUBOV IVANIVNA: (Through interpreter) We left our souls behind. We don't even know if our house is still standing.

FENG: That's Lubov Ivanivna. She only managed to leave a neighboring village in July, just hours before NPR met her. She left as soon as Ukrainian volunteers could smuggle her out. She says the Russian military made her home hell on earth.

IVANIVNA: (Through interpreter) There was one soldier in particular. He would come to our yard and sit down with a grenade in hand. He would say, give me coffee, wine, vodka or liquor.

FENG: Another former Vysokopillia resident, Lilya Navoyenko, aged 55, says the Russian military tightly controlled information going out of the village.

LILYA NAVOYENKO: (Through interpreter) At the beginning of the occupation, someone published a photo of a bombed street in Vysokopillia. The Russians began seizing smartphones the next day, even flip phones.

FENG: So residents said they started to climb onto tall houses and trees, trying to catch a signal. But Russian soldiers shot at them. And for those who managed to keep their phones, four months of no electricity or gas or running water made it nearly impossible to keep them charged. A few used their cars to generate electricity, but then the Russians took the cars, too, and almost everything else.

NAVOYENKO: (Through interpreter) We had a prosperous village. The roads were newly paved. Now it's all in ruins.

FENG: Vysokopillia's Nina Mykhno says for four months, she hid in her basement.

NINA MYKHNO: (Through interpreter) I hadn't seen bread for four months.

FENG: But when Russian missiles destroyed the library, she says she finally ventured out to see what books were left. As we talk, an air raid siren goes off in the background.

MYKHNO: (Through interpreter) I saw new books by Stephen King. I had never read him before, so I got interested. They had lots of his books, maybe 10. I read one book, and I liked it.

FENG: Mykhno managed to flee by foot earlier this month. It wasn't always like this. Dmytro Neveselyi remembers the village of Vysokopillia before the Russian occupation.

DMYTRO NEVESELYI: (Through interpreter) It was very kind and friendly. People were welcoming. You could come to every yard and ask for food or water and no one would refuse. It was like one big commune.

FENG: Today, Neveselyi is mayor of Ukraine-held Zelenodolsk. Once a desk job, now it means receiving refugees and helping defend the town. And being so close to the front lines, Neveselyi knows Vysokopillia could be a glimpse into the future if the Russians come in his direction. On four hours of sleep each night, he's trying to keep this town running normally-ish (ph).

NEVESELYI: (Through interpreter) The Russians shelled a nature reserve, and 400 wild boars escaped as a result. They started to eat whatever they wanted. And now I have residents coming to me asking to control these wild boars, to protect their potatoes and onions from the boars.

FENG: He laughs in exasperation.

NEVESELYI: (Through interpreter) I'm telling them we have other pigs to deal with. Then we can deal with the wild boars.

FENG: Neveselyi's also been frustrated that his residents are still tending their fields of strawberry and dill, just two miles from Russian artillery positions. Kozlova Raisa (ph), a 75-year-old woman who's just escaped to Zelenodolsk, understands this impulse, though. Home is worth protecting. She's vowed to return to Vysokopillia when the war ends, if it ends.

RAISA KOZLOVA: (Through interpreter) We will be back. We want to come back. We lived all our lives there. I want it so much.

FENG: Even if there's nothing left.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Zelenodolsk, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MADONNA SONG, "GHOSTTOWN")

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