Every day, hundreds and even thousands of people are trying to flee the Russian-occupied region of Kherson in southern Ukraine, gathering up whatever they can cram into their cars, or even piling onto tractors.
And every day, they run into a gauntlet of harassment and worse from Russian troops.
They are leaving for many reasons: to avoid being detained or to escape the heavy-handed actions of Russian forces, or because of the chronic shortages of medicine and other basics in Kherson, which fell under Russian control soon after the invasion.
One of the nearly 5,000 people trying to leave was Arkadiy, who had been previously detained by the occupying forces. CNN is not publishing his last name for his safety.
Last week, he was a part of a convoy of no fewer than 1,000 vehicles trying to leave Kherson. The Russians ultimately let the convoy move in batches — but only after holding it in one place for most of the day.
“For me, this was already the fifth attempt to leave the controlled territory. The previous four times it didn’t work out,” he told CNN. “What surprised me was that suddenly Russians let us go through checkpoint without any examination.”
He had heard stories of extensive checks, phones being examined and property stolen.
Yulia Bondarenko was also in the convoy, and she also expected the Russians to take things.
“Evacuated people know about this from Telegram chats and don’t even take anything valuable with them,” she said. “Russians almost always ask for cigarettes and lighters.”
Electronics were often confiscated too — power-banks and memory cards, for example. But “smartphones are generally not taken away by Russians,” Bondarenko said. “Although they are closely inspected: they check messages and photo galleries.”
Bondarenko said that others had told her the Russians would often force people to take off their clothes because they “are looking for tattoos of nationalist content. Everyone is well aware of this and it is unlikely that nationalists with tattoos will try to leave the region this way, it is a very big risk.”
The convoy leaving Beryslav had some 200 vehicles — one minibus for a dozen people were crammed with double that number, Arkadiy said.
The journey was through open, flat countryside on minor roads. But just after it passed the final Russian checkpoint the column of some 200 vehicles came under fire near a place called Davydiv Brid, where Russian control ends.
Arkadiy said two shells landed simultaneously. Vehicles ahead of him were peppered with shrapnel - tires shredded and windshields shattered. Seven or eight cars were badly damaged but trees at the side of the road absorbed some of the impact.
“Everyone immediately began to hide behind the cars. Everyone was scared, people with children in their arms. The children screamed, even the men were panicking.”
Yulia Bondarenko was in the same convoy. She also told CNN that they’d just cleared the last Russian checkpoint. “People started running and hiding. But we stayed in the car, we had a lot of animals. We couldn’t take them all out at once.”
Yulia’s menagerie included dogs, cats and two meerkats that were rescued after a petting zoo in Kherson was shelled.
It’s still unclear where the shelling came from. Oleksandr Vilkul, head of the Kryvyi Rih military administration, said on Thursday that Russian artillery had fired on the column and two people had received shrapnel wounds.
Others have related similarly harrowing escapes from Kherson. Katerina Torgunova lived with her husband and three-year old daughter in the town of Oleshky.
The day they left, she said, “We passed the first two checkpoints relatively calmly, and at the third checkpoint we had huge problems. The Russians started firing flash flares into the air as we approached them.”
“Then we were pulled out of the car, they started to curse us. My husband was searched for a long time.”
Others speak of being on the road for two days trying to find a way out of Kherson.
Julia Kartuzova and her two children had to sleep overnight in a kindergarten as they tried to find an escape route.
Then came what she and others call the ‘grey zone’ — the no-man’s land between Russian and Ukrainian control. “There are fights going on. It was very dangerous there, because the shells fell right there, a hundred meters from our car.”
“We lost count of how many checkpoints we had to go through. There must have been more than a hundred in total.”
Arkadiy says the main routes out of Kherson to Mykolaiv, which is still in Ukrainian hands, are heavily damaged and often impassable.
Hennadii Lahuta, head of the Kherson regional military administration, says the Russians have not approved a single evacuation corridor from Kherson since the beginning of the occupation. For a week at the beginning of May, Lahuta said, the Russians had blocked the route taken by Arkadiy and others.
On May 11, the Russians allowed people to use that route again, which explains the sudden mass exodus.