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ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — The struggle brewing for the southern port city of Kherson is one that could change the trajectory of the war.
It’s also the one that US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the Ukrainians could win.
The majority of the town’s inhabitants fled. Government offices were evacuated. The banks are closed.
Even officials based in Moscow evacuated.
“I still can’t believe I went there,” Viktor said, pulling a red suitcase from the black car he drove to Zaporizhia, some 25 miles from the occupied territory. “Madness.”
His house is just outside Kherson. He and his wife Nadiya raised their three daughters there. The Russians broke into their house hours after they left, Viktor says a neighbor told him.
“I have never seen such a Gestapo in my life,” Nadiya said. “They executed an entire street. They killed a 9-year-old girl.”
NPR could not verify its claims.
Still shaking, Nadiya’s eyes scan the parking lot nervously as Ukrainian officers check their passports and take photos.
She asks that their surname not be used to protect loved ones still in Kherson.
Russian forces have cut off most communications in the city, making it difficult to know precisely what is going on inside. But those who have recently left and others with loved ones still there paint a harrowing picture of a community living in fear of the Russian occupiers, while hoping that the constant shelling that keeps them on edge also means the arrival of Ukrainian forces.
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At a shelter in Zaporizhzhia, a volunteer who asks to be called by his middle name, Artyom, helps treat Kherson evacuees as if they were his own family. Artyom requested that we not use his full name to protect his relatives in Kherson.
He says his wife and mother are stuck there.
Arytom and his wife fled Kherson in the spring. But she was worried about her mother, so she went back to pick her up in September.
His wife usually stays home as much as she can. But to earn money, she sells potatoes and vegetables that she grows in her own garden at a local street market.
“She tells me, ‘Relax, don’t worry,'” Artyom says. “‘I understand. Calm down. Breathe. I’m fine.’ “
But Artyom says it’s not okay. He counts his fingers as he lists his various fears: He fears that the Russians will arrest his wife. He is afraid that she will fall ill. She is four months pregnant. He worries about the baby.
“It will be my first child,” he said. “A girl.”
They’ve already decided on a name — Eva.
Before the war, Kherson was a city of just over 320,000 people. Known as a shipbuilding center, it was the first major city to fall into Russian hands.
His deputy mayor in exile, Roman Holovnya, estimates that there are only around 50,000 left.
Holovnya, who lives in Kyiv, calls some of them collaborators. And he says some are people who just can’t leave. Many are older. Others have few resources. Their lives right now are “intense”, he says.
They live in a constant state of fear that Russians will enter their homes, carjack them – or worse.
“If you have a patriotic tattoo, there’s a 90% chance you’ll be detained,” he says.
What little public interaction there is now in the city mainly revolves around the local street markets that have sprung up since the start of the war. Most shops in Kherson are closed or have empty shelves, so local farmers and bakers sell and trade items in street markets.
“You can buy most things, starting with medicine and ending with meat,” says Natalyia Schevchenko, 30, who fled Kherson this summer. “But it’s terrible to watch. On a car they sell medicine on the hood and on the side they cut meat.”
Franco Ordoñez / National Public Radio
Schevchenko, who volunteers with an Odessa nonprofit called Side-by-Side to evacuate residents of Kherson and other occupied territories, keeps in touch with the city’s residents. She says her grandmother, who refused to leave, gives her regular updates.
“The city is dying,” says Schevchenko.
Artyom and his wife talk whenever they can have a decent connection. They usually try to keep their conversations light-hearted; they fear that the Russians are listening.
They talk a lot about baby stuff. She tells him when the baby kicks.
But it’s hard to ignore the bombings.
It’s scary – but they agree it’s a good thing. They think that means the Ukrainians are getting closer – and that means Artyom could be heading home soon.