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On the edge of Russia's illegal annexation, Ukrainians grapple with uncertainty

Yurii Skubin, 65, shows pieces of spent ammunition collected in a vacant lot in Tavriiske, a village just a few miles from Russian-occupied areas in Zaporizhizhia. The annexation, largely dismissed by the international community as a sham, will likely have real implications for Ukrainians on the front lines who are staring down Russian forces.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
Yurii Skubin, 65, shows pieces of spent ammunition collected in a vacant lot in Tavriiske, a village just a few miles from Russian-occupied areas in Zaporizhizhia. The annexation, largely dismissed by the international community as a sham, will likely have real implications for Ukrainians on the front lines who are staring down Russian forces.

Updated October 3, 2022 at 12:50 PM ET

TAVRIISKE, Ukraine — Andrii Boiarskyi stands outside a mini-mart on the side of the main road out of town. He leans against his car and scrolls through his phone. It's full of videos and photos that he took of explosions in his hometown of Orikhiv, just a few miles down the road.

Orikhiv is right on the front line in the Zaporizhzhia region. It's still in Ukrainian control, but the areas just beyond it are under Russian occupation.

"It's like this every day," he says, as a video of a missile strike on an apartment building plays.

Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed four regions of Ukraine last week, including the region of Zaporizhzhia, after holding referendums that were largely considered a sham by the international community. And while both Ukraine and its Western allies refuse to recognize the annexation, it does have real implications for people in the areas. Putin has said the residents of the four regions are now considered Russian citizens, and that any attempt by Ukraine to take back the land will be seen as an attack on Russian soil itself.

Boiarskyi's sister lives on the other side of the front line, far south, under Russian control. He says it's already hard to be in contact with her — cellphone signals are jammed and the internet is down. He worries that the annexation will make it even harder.

A group of people coming from the frontline village of Orikhiv stop to calm down, snack, and have a drink, on their drive away from the village.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
A group of people coming from the front-line village of Orikhiv stop to calm down, snack, and have a drink, on their drive away from the village.

He says she did manage to text him the other day, telling him that Russian soldiers came to her apartment with guns during the referendum, intimidating her into voting yes. She then watched them walk to her neighbor's and kick down the door after the family didn't answer.

As he talks, another car stops on the side of the road. Five people pile out, opening the hatchback and setting up a picnic of sorts: bread and tins of meat, cucumbers and tomatoes.

Hennadii Kachan, 48, says they're a group of neighbors coming from Orikhiv. They had to pull over to calm down and stop shaking after driving through all the shelling, he says, pointing down the road as booms echo in the distance.

Hennadii Kachan talks to people still in Orikhiv who are hiding in their basement due to the constant shelling.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Hennadii Kachan talks to people still in Orikhiv who are hiding in their basement due to the constant shelling.

Kachan says they all fled Orikhiv months ago, but they go back when they can to check on their homes and bring supplies in for people. His mother still lives there: He says she wouldn't leave, but it's a hard life.

"There's no water, no electricity, no gas. Nothing," he says. It has been cut off with the fighting.

A crater made by shelling in front of a school in Tavriiske.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A crater made by shelling in front of a school in Tavriiske.

He thinks with the so-called annexation — which he calls fake — life there is about to get even harder. He's heard the roads into town will close.

"This might be the last time we can go back," Kachan says.

About a hundred miles west, across the Dnipro River, is the town of Zelenodolsk, near the edge of the Kherson region, which was also recently illegally annexed last week.

People walk by a sign that reads "I love Zelendolsk," a village near the southern occupied areas of Kherson.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
People walk by a sign that reads "I love Zelenodolsk," a village near the southern occupied areas of Kherson.

Zelenodolsk is also still in Ukrainian hands, but the fighting is close here, too.

At a makeshift humanitarian aid center in town, 66-year-old Mykola Vasyliovych hops off his bike and lights up a cigarette before heading in to pick up some food. His wife and daughter are in Poland, but he has stayed here the whole time.

Vasyliovych says he has paid no attention to the referendums, or any of Putin's claims that his neighbors to the south are now Russian.

"The more evil Russia brings, the more united Ukraine becomes. I'm a hundred percent sure our troops will win it all back soon," he says. He puts out his cigarette and walks inside.

Mykola Vasyliovych stands outside a humanitarian aid center where he goes to get food.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Mykola Vasyliovych stands outside a humanitarian aid center where he goes to get food.

At a bakery down the street, Liubov Samohvalova is drinking coffee and eating cake with a friend. She says her son and his family recently managed to leave Kherson — the first major city to fall to the Russians, still firmly under occupation. They were worried about forced conscription to fight for the Russians under Putin's annexation.

"He told me the city is dying," she says, meaning literally, but also in spirit. "Completely dying."

Liubov Samohvalova (right, 65) with her friend Valentyna Tsybulska, 60, is from a small village that was occupied in the beginning of the war and was recently liberated by Ukraine.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Liubov Samohvalova (right, 65) with her friend Valentyna Tsybulska, 60, is from a small village that was occupied in the beginning of the war and was recently liberated by Ukraine.

There is a lot of hope in Zelenodolsk that Ukraine will soon take back Kherson. The Ukrainian army has been making slow but steady gains in the region, liberating a swath of land directly south of the town and pushing the front line further away.

There is evidence of those gains here, in a small storage lot down a dirt path on the edge of town. Earlier in the war, people fled Kherson on bikes and crossed into Zelenodolsk, often leaving their bikes behind to grab a ride west. Nikolai Stadnick, 45, began collecting as many bikes as he could and putting them in storage. He has hundreds, stacked row after row.

Nickolai Stadnick stands amongst bikes left in in Zelenodolsk by people fleeing Kherson.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Nickolai Stadnick stands amongst bikes left in in Zelenodolsk by people fleeing Kherson.

Stadnick says recently, people have started to come back through town to go back to the liberated villages on the edge of Kherson.

"When they come back, they're so happy to see their bike," he says, a big smile on his face.

Stadnick calls the referendums — and the ensuing annexation — the "final breath of a dying Russian army."

"Kherson will be liberated soon. I know it," he says.

And when it is, he says he'll make sure everyone's bike is waiting for them here, to take them home.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stadnick keeps hundreds of bicycles in storage in Zelendolsk, left behind by people who fled Kherson by bike.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Stadnick keeps hundreds of bicycles in storage in Zelenodolsk, left behind by people who fled Kherson by bike.