Russia’s monstrous new tactic: This week, Moscow rigged polls to claim vast swathes of Ukraine. Now, families fleeing for their lives reveal Vladimir Putin’s latest act of barbarism – forcing Ukrainians to fight against their own side
- Ukranian woman kept her children at home as schools teach Putin propaganda
- Oksana, 39, from Kherson was threatened with her children being taken away
- She left behind her husband when fleeing fearing he might be forced to fight for Putin if caught
- Putin claims to have captured areas of southern Ukraine following bogus ballots
Oksana did not want her children indoctrinated by Russia after Vladimir Putin’s invading troops took over her village in southern Ukraine, and then imposed their school curriculum at the start of this month.
So she kept them at home — her stance hardening after seeing many teachers flee to avoid becoming tools for Kremlin propaganda and a local school being used to shield enemy soldiers from attack in Ukraine’s advancing counter-offensive.
First, she was threatened with a big fine — equivalent to almost £500. Then she was given a chilling warning: her three children, aged between two and 16, would be taken away and sent to Russia for adoption if she continued refusing to send them to school.
‘I had to leave at that point,’ said Oksana, 39, a former cook. ‘I could not take the risk of finding out if their threat about my children was real or not.’
Russian forces escort Ukrainians to vote in the bogus ballots at gunpoint
Fortunately, she and her offspring managed to escape Russia’s clutches — joining the last convoys of cars leaving Kherson before Moscow blocked all roads from the region on Tuesday as voting ended in sham referendums being used to steal chunks of Ukrainian soil.
She left behind her husband, however, since the couple feared he might be forced to fight for Putin if caught fleeing, as the Kremlin rounds up vast numbers of men to throw as ‘fresh meat’ into the front-line ‘grinder’ of its disastrous invasion of Ukraine.
Freedom: Refugees Polad, his pregnant wife Liudmyla and daughter Milana, two
Oksana hopes he can slip through Russia to safety in Europe after Putin’s formal annexation of Kherson — along with three other partly occupied regions — which is expected to be confirmed later this week, following faked referendum results. I met her in a shopping centre car park on the outskirts of Zaporizhzhia, which is being used to vet, feed and assist desperate Ukrainians managing to flee Putin’s land grab.
‘No one supports the vote — not even one per cent in my village,’ she told me.
Yet according to declared results from the referendum — hastily called by Putin after a rapid Ukrainian advance grabbed back a substantial slab of land — 87 per cent of citizens in her home region support leaving Ukraine to join Russia.
The stage-managed ballots to claim captured land, accompanied by a mobilisation that has sparked fury, protests and panic across Russia, will allow the Kremlin to assert that it is protecting its own territory.
As darkness fell on Monday evening, two convoys of about 60 vehicles each — packed with people, pets and possessions — arrived in the car park from occupied parts of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.
Some were greeted with hugs, kisses and tears in highly emotional scenes. Others simply looked exhausted after taking up to six days to pass Russian checkpoints, telling me sorry tales of shattered lives, homes and families.
One jubilant mother took selfies with her son draped in a Ukrainian flag, explaining that she’d managed to get the 18-year-old out after persuading a friendly doctor to give him a faked medical certificate. ‘We were very lucky they let us pass,’ said Anna, 51, adding that her son, Vladislav, had hidden in their house for a week. ‘I was afraid they would not let him go. It was as if God smiled at us.’
Once Putin claims the captured areas of southern Ukraine to be Russian, a move anticipated when he speaks to his parliament on Friday following the bogus ballots, he is likely to press-gang many of their unfortunate male inhabitants into combat against their own countrymen.
Around 100,000 Ukrainians have already been conscripted in the eastern ‘republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk, which were seized by Russian proxies in 2014. They have been sent to fight with little training and outdated weapons, resulting in terrible casualty rates.
But for all her joy at saving her son, Anna had to leave behind her mother: ‘She is 83 years old and said she would not leave.’
Most of those arriving in this regional capital — once home to fiercely independent Cossacks until they were crushed into subservience by the 18th-century Russian empress Catherine the Great — were women, elderly people or children. Yet some men had succeeded in the high-risk lottery of attempting to escape the mobilisation —including Andriy, 41, a businessman who had fled without his family and told me of the rising sense of alarm among his fellow male residents.
A Russian mercenary wearing the symbol of the notorious Wagner military group stands guard outside a polling station in occupied Ukraine
He said they had been afraid to leave their homes since armed groups started prowling the streets. ‘One time a man went to the shop and was shot dead because he had green trousers — maybe they thought he was a soldier or something.
‘It got worse over the past couple of weeks. There was an announcement that the Russians would be forming volunteer battalions to go and fight. They said they would recruit 8,000 men from Kherson region. Everyone started panicking.’
Another group looked dazed as they drank tea in a tent erected by volunteers. ‘It’s horrible there, just a nightmare,’ said one 33-year-old man, sitting with his sister, wife and their four young children. ‘The Russians treat us like dogs.’
He explained that his brother had been wounded in a missile attack last week, but when they took him to hospital they were ordered to dump him on the floor and leave. When they returned the next day, they were given his corpse to bury.
The family crossed the front line after the funeral, fearing the military round-ups that followed the referendum result.
‘What am I going to do if they take my husband away — I have four children?’ said the wife with tears in her eyes. She was among 1,530 civilians, including 353 children, who arrived that day. Local volunteers said the numbers were falling even before it emerged the following day that Putin’s stooges had banned any people from entering or leaving Kherson.
Election officials carrying a clear ballot box (left) are let into an apartment block in occupied Ukraine accompanied by armed Russian cops (right)
One teacher, who arrived with her autistic teenage son, had continued Ukrainian classes online. ‘It was very dangerous since it was forbidden to teach our lessons, especially when my son was not attending a Russian school,’ she said.
Among those on the final convoys out were three female generations of one family who had abandoned their village home after Russian tanks parked on one side, missile launching systems were placed on the other and then a neighbour was killed by an incoming shell.
Antonia, 39, told me they had moved to stay with relatives in Kherson. Then her uncle was arrested after searching for a missing friend and Russian soldiers arrived to smash up their home and phones, accusing them of passing information to Ukraine.
‘I told them we would if we could, but there was never any connection,’ she told me. ‘They said we would never see my uncle again and that we had one week to leave or we’d be detained, too.’
The family said the occupiers locked down Kherson ahead of the ballot, putting up posters saying Russians and Ukrainians are brothers and forcing people to vote. ‘I can’t stand them,’ said Antonia. ‘I’m so glad to get out.’ Her words and joy at escaping Russian occupation caused her 12-year-old daughter, Daria, to weep with relief. ‘It’s going to be OK now,’ reassured her mother.
Other refugees and local politicians described how armed men in balaclavas had forced people to fill in ballot papers as they watched, even making them vote for everyone in their household and threatening deportation if they opposed unification with Russia.
‘Such actions are used to intimidate the local population,’ said Aleksander Starukh, the governor of Zaporizhzhia region. ‘The entire performance has a simple goal: to justify the mobilisation.’
Zaporizhzhia is the last-remaining capital still held by Ukraine in the four occupied regions. The front line is about 20 miles away after Russian forces captured more than three-quarters of the oblast (county), including Europe’s biggest nuclear plant.
In recent days, it has been subjected to intense Russian attacks in a bid to weaken resistance as Kyiv’s forces make advances in next-door Kherson, including one missile attack thought to have been targeting a major dam.
Shortly after 5am on Tuesday morning, I was woken by ten missiles slamming into the city. Analysts say the weapons used — long-range S-300 surface-to-air missiles designed in the Soviet era to hit aircraft — highlight the depleted state of Moscow’s munitions.
Certainly, if they were aiming at military targets, then the damage I saw to a cluster of garages and small workshops, a hotel and a block of flats demonstrates the erratic nature of such weaponry.
‘Maybe they thought we were hiding the Himars here,’ joked Sergei, the owner of a workshop making door handles, referring to the U.S.-donated missiles that helped Ukraine turn the tide of the war. At some flats beside a small military base, one resident said they had been hit four nights in a row, with the most recent missile landing 30 metres from his home.
‘They are trying to turn our houses into ruins,’ said Alexander, 65, a retired bus driver. ‘Russia is targeting us to terrorise people, to take revenge for our advances. They cannot stop us, so they are just firing at us to make us suffer.’
Yet not everyone is a patriot. ‘Ukraine is just ridiculous,’ said an elderly shopkeeper, overhearing our conversation as she smoked on a doorstep. ‘It was better in Soviet times. People did not have to work after retirement — they had proper pensions.’
Much more common, however, were the sentiments expressed by a young couple with their toddler daughter, who had arrived on that convoy from Kherson, passing through Russia’s checkpoint when the guards surprisingly relented after six days of trying.
‘I’m so happy to feel free again,’ said Polad, 25, an agricultural worker, who told me four of his friends have not been seen since disappearing into detention five months ago.
‘We were waiting for our armed forces to liberate us, but we had to go when Russia announced the referendum.
‘I knew that I could be drafted, but even if they forced me to take up arms I could never fight against Ukrainians.’
His wife, Liudmyla, 22, is seven months pregnant. ‘Now my child will be born in Ukraine,’ she said with a big smile. ‘That is the most important thing for us.’
Additional reporting: Kate Baklitskaya
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