About an hour before curfew, a bus with only four passengers pulls up at the curb in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine.
It’s dark and summer nights in central Ukraine have started to get an autumn chill. Two men and two women get off the bus with large plastic bags containing their only belongings.
Their home is just 70 kilometers away in the village of Petrivka in Donetsk Oblast in eastern Ukraine. But the four have been out for about 17 hours because shelling along the route prevented them from taking a direct route.
We were in the crew for half a year and now we don’t have the strength to stay longer.– Valery Baluta
“It was very dangerous… we barely got to that place,” Sofia says through a translator. “The road is very dangerous. We were almost completely shelled. It was horrible.”
Sofia is just one of many internally displaced people in Ukraine who are on the run now, more than six months after the start of the Russian invasion. Many people in Ukraine endured these months and hoped to be able to stay in their homes. However, as Ukrainian forces try to regain ground in the country’s southern areas, the shelling has intensified and many feel they have no choice but to leave.
Sofia spoke to CBC to share her story, but doesn’t feel comfortable giving her full name. The rest of her family is too devastated to be interviewed.
Fear of death caused her to leave
When Sofia enters a city shelter, she nearly trips, weak from exhaustion and stress. The director of the shelter immediately calls for a chair and water. She takes big gulps from the bottle.
She describes the past few weeks in her village as “three times worse than before,” with constant shelling. She says she and the others on the bus were the only ones who survived, but if they stayed there any longer “we would die”.
“When we first saw it [Ukrainian] “I can’t express the joy I felt when we crossed the border,” she adds, thanking the Ukrainian soldiers who helped them get out safely.
On September 3, the War Research Institute said several Russian sources reported that Ukraine had attempted to advance into a number of villages in northern Cherson, including the village of Petrivka in Sofia.
Sofia says her family were among the last to leave the village where she has lived all her life. She says her home was destroyed after spending months in her basement eating canned goods.
“We raised money, raised money, built [our] house and in a moment it was all gone.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday that two southern villages had been recaptured. A photo circulating on social media shows a soldier raising a Ukrainian flag in Vysokopillia, in the southern Kherson region.
“Ukrainian flags are returning to the places where they should be,” Zelenskyy said, adding that two settlements were liberated without naming them.
The regional capital, Kryvyi Rih, has taken in much of the people fleeing the mounting fighting in Kherson. The city hosts 70,000 people from other areas; about half of them are from the Cherson region.
In addition to providing shelter for those in need, the city gives them three meals a day, says the head of the military administration in Kryvyi Rih.
“Russians act like barbarians, like terrorists. They regularly bomb peaceful villages, hamlets and small towns,” says Oleksandr Vilkul.
In the past two weeks, the number of people leaving the surrounding villages has increased, he says.
“We are evacuating people from the frontline and areas near the frontline. We send our buses, our ambulances, to get people to evacuate. At least 10 or 30 percent stayed [in the] occupied territory.”
According to Vilkul, the city needs help feeding the new arrivals and help equipping the 18,000 new students they will be teaching.
Families are also fleeing the Russian-occupied territories
It’s not just people in Kherson who are leaving.
Families are trying to evict from Russian-held areas in the south, such as Melitopol in the Zaporizhia region.
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“We were in the occupation for half a year and now we have no strength to stay longer,” says Valeriy Baluta through a translator.
Baluta and his wife Viktoria Baluta set out for safer ground on August 30 with their sons, eight-year-old Konstantyn, five-year-old Oleksandr and 11-month-old Mykhail. As with Sofia, her journey to Zaporizhia was stopped by shelling.
“The explosions started immediately on the field,” says Viktoria. “So where are we supposed to hide? So we got pinned against the car.”
The couple said the ride was far worse than what they had read about, through reports from other people who had left Melitopol on social media and news sites.
“Oh, you can’t imagine that — it got my adrenaline pumping,” she says.
“I was shocked. When you hear that, it’s not comparable to seeing the spent military equipment, the holes in the asphalt. The mines are on both sides. Horror, horror.”
It was a relief to see Ukrainian soldiers as they passed a checkpoint that welcomed them back onto the country’s territory.
“My impression was that even the sky is bluer here,” says Viktoria, whose family hopes to be able to end up in Poland at some point. “It’s a physiological feeling, it even makes it easier to breathe straight away.”