A steady flow of people make their way across fields and rivers dotting southern Ukraine’s countryside through the day. As night falls, the crowds swell. They travel on foot, by bicycle, or wheelbarrow.
They are desperate to leave behind the Russian occupation of their hometown, Kherson, and are willing to take – and risk – any route possible out of the city to the rest of the country.
Over a hundred miles away, at a central hall in Kryvyi Rih, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s hometown, local authorities welcome the resettled.
A man and his son speak of their wife and mother being killed by a bomb that hit her spine and back in several places.
Even here, in comparative safety, they did not want to be identified for fear that the Russians might target other family members they left behind.
“If they see us, they’ll shoot everyone left there,” the son told CNN. “We left on foot, over the water in the river.”
The occupied areas around the city of Kherson – the first to be taken by advancing Russian forces in the opening days of the war – have been terrorized in the past week by both the advancing second phase of Moscow’s offensive, but also fears of a referendum on Wednesday.
Ukraine has said Russia plans to hold a vote in the region – widely viewed there as a sham referendum – to try to show popular support for the creation of a new entity called the Kherson People’s Republic, which would mirror similar entities in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. (Moscow sent in troops to the self-declared republics – and began its war in Ukraine – after Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized their independence.)
Multiple locals and several Ukrainian officials told CNN the vote had been scheduled for April 27.
Yet the day before, Russian-backed officials announced a series of new government officials in the occupied city, leading some observers to think the referendum may have been postponed in favor of these new appointments.
Fear of the impending vote and its implications – a possible strengthening of Russia’s control – has led many residents to flee fast.
Cmr. Oleksandr Vilkul, the head of Kryvyi Rih’s military administration, told CNN that the Ukrainian military have managed to help evacuate around 7,000 people from the area across “100 miles of front line, some by bicycle, some by wheelbarrows, or by foot.”
“People don’t want and cannot live under occupation,” Vilkul said.
Passage out of Kherson and the surrounding villages in the region has been treacherous.
Over the last week a long line of cars – estimated to be in the hundreds by several locals – snaked its way towards the occupied town of Snihurivka, as Kherson residents who had managed to flee their own town were yet again blocked by Russian troops.
In another video shot by a Kherson resident who was fleeing, seen by CNN, a long line of cars stood at a standstill on another exit road, to the city’s northeast, towards Kryvyi Rih.
Over the Easter weekend, the pace of evacuations rose, officials told CNN. They began to drop on Tuesday when locals said that Russian checkpoints stopped permitting crossings out of occupied territory. Some desperate evacuees left behind their cars and set out on foot across fields, locals said.
Bicycles were abandoned in large numbers when locals reached Ukrainian-manned checkpoints, according to multiple locals CNN spoke to.
One mother from Kherson, who asked to stay anonymous for safety concerns, told CNN she had whisked her two sons and daughter out “as fast as possible” ahead of the referendum, fearing that the widespread conscription of men aged 18 to 60 would follow.
“We are completely occupied. There is no food, no money. We have nothing, they’ll do a referendum and take our children. My son is 18 and they will take them as cannon fodder.” She said it took two attempts to flee. The first time, Russian troops shot at the cars in their convoy, she said.
In the busy hum of the Kryvyi Rih hall, food and medicine are dispensed, with evacuees able to access generous coat racks of donated clothes. In this safe space, evacuees recount the horror and brutality of the occupation.
Mykhaylo, a Kyiv resident who went to the village of Velyka Oleksandrivka to collect his wife and child, said he had been tortured over several days by Russian troops after he entered the village.
Mykhaylo said that the soldiers had been looking for Ukrainian men with possible military experience and mistook his rough hands, from his work in construction, as a sign he had been a soldier.
In a basement, he was subjected to torture he said, showing CNN a medical report corroborating his injuries.
“One got out a gun,” Mykhaylo said of two soldiers who beat him. “A real one. I saw it was cocked. Two shots. They hit the concrete wall. I think it was a starting pistol,” he said.
After the mock execution, two other soldiers came in, Mykhaylo said.
“They talked less. They were drunk – one must have been a boxer as he beat me in the same place. On my ribs, breaking six of them, rupturing a lung.”
Mykhaylo chuckled to himself as he recounted the answers he gave to the soldiers who he said believed they could obtain Ukrainian military intelligence from him. He told them that they could expect at least 150 checkpoints from his village all the way to the next city, and that there were few roads in the rural areas to the south of Kryvyi Rih – saying it was just endless mud and fields. After several days, Mykhaylo said his parents came and successfully demanded his release.
The exodus from Kherson is not just about the referendum. Russia’s advance in the wide expanse of rural villages to the north and east of Kherson city is also fuelling residents to move north.
Over two days in and around the villages south of Kherson, CNN saw the impact shelling is having, pushing locals to flee villages that they have proudly remained over the course of the war, now in its second month.
In the village of Kochubeivka, a man who was helping to evacuate his 74-year-old mother Antonina, pulled over to explain that shelling had intensified in his home settlement of Nova Shestirnya just over the past two hours.
“We wanted to stay, but Grad rockets changed that,” he said, adding that one woman was injured in the attack.
The once bucolic southern Ukraine countryside has become an escape route, where a slow stream of lives upended are now on display, as Russia’s brutal advance changes the landscape they have known for decades in a matter of hours.