Kyiv, Ukraine – A minibus with 16 Ukrainian civilians, including two children, left a checkpoint controlled by Russian soldiers on a hot May evening.
The driver took a winding dirt road built into the mountain and many cars veered off the tarmac damaged by bullets.
The bus was traveling from the Russian-controlled Zaporizhia region of southern Ukraine.
The soldiers shouted profanities while checking IDs, going through bags and phones and ordering the Ukrainian men in each car to take off their shirts to check for gunshot wounds.
Then the soldiers ordered the drivers to wait for several hours.
Close to freedom
On May 20, a well-traveled minibus with hungry, stressed passengers was one step closer to the Ukrainian-controlled side – and freedom.
But as the bus took off, Russian soldiers opened fire – as their brothers do so often throughout Ukraine, according to officials and survivors.
“I looked at the driver, and I saw how hard his face was. He stepped on the gas, and he just took off,” Alyona Korotkova, who fled the nearby Kherson region with her eight-year-old daughter Vera, told Al Jazeera.
We heard an explosion behind us. They shoot at us,” he said in a telephone interview from Marl, a quiet, forested town in western Germany, where he and Vera have settled.
For a while, they hope.
Conspiracy and extortion
Kherson, a large Belgian region of grasslands and fertile fields criss-crossed by rivers and irrigation canals, was the only part of Ukraine occupied by Russia after the February 24 invasion.
On that cold and miserable day, just before dawn, Korotkova heard the first explosion.
A few hours later, Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers crossed from Crimea and entered his town of Oleshki with a loud roar.
Made up of sand dunes, fields and flowers, Oleshki sits on the left bank of the Dnieper River, the largest in Ukraine.
On the shores of the lake is the regional capital, also called Kherson, which was the capital of the largest Russian city occupied before the fall of Mariupol.
“Of course, we wonder why they came to us so quickly,” Korotkova said.
The work begins
Ukrainian leaders and experts have accused some Kherson officials and law enforcement officers of being traitors, saying they did not blow up bomb-filled bridges and roads near Crimea.
“He surrendered on the first day,” Halyna, a resident of Kherson who did not give her last name, told Al Jazeera in May.
A few days later, the army crushed its Ukrainian army tanks and unarmed volunteers defending the 1.4km long Antonovsky Bridge, which is a direct link between the city and the left bank.
By March 2, Russian troops entered the city and began to settle there.
“Russia is here forever,” was a phrase repeated by Kremlin officials and Moscow officials.
Isolation to live
Korotkova, her daughter and her mother isolate themselves in their house surrounded by fruit and vegetable trees.
The house had a wood-burning stove and a cold, dark basement with shiny pickle jars and a refrigerator full of meat.
Fruits, pickles and meat – along with packages from friends – helped Korotkova, who used to organize shows and moonlight as a babysitter, to survive.
In the first few weeks, the Russian army was barely visible in Oleshki, but in the town you could see that the town was in the town in many other ways.
Traveling was dangerous because Russian soldiers searched IDs and cell phones.
Shopping took hours as food, medicine and other essentials became scarce or expensive.
Volunteers who brought the drugs and other essentials from Ukraine began to disappear again – or were kidnapped and never heard from again.
Demonstrations were once large and spread throughout the region.
Kherson is the only land bridge to Crimea, and its residents have seen the exodus of thousands of people fleeing the island.
“We understood what happened in Crimea, we didn’t want it” in Kherson, Korotkova said.
But the Russian military and the Ukrainian police who chased the police put an end to the rallies with smoke bombs, beatings, arrests, kidnappings, torture and extrajudicial killings.
Violence is destruction
“In the Kherson region, the Russian army has stopped as much brutality as it did in other areas,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on November 14. “We hope to find and hold everyone responsible for the murders.”
Hundreds of people are believed to have been abducted and tortured in makeshift prisons known as “cellars”, and some ended up there because they were deemed worthy of a ransom.
“Farmers were taken to the basement and beaten to pay,” Korotkova said.
The hosts treated Kherson like a war race, squeezing as much as they could – and trying to leave behind everything of value as they began their comeback this month.
“They destroyed a lot of infrastructure – bridges, thermal generators, transmission stations, cell towers,” Kyiv expert Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.
Besides washing machines, toilet seats and electronics, they took bronze statues of czarist ambassadors and raccoons from the city zoo.
“Their booty looked like a bandit wagon,” said Kushch.
From the get-go, the “authorities” established by the Kremlin tried to create the illusion that the majority of Khersonites were pro-Russian.
But no one was close to Korotkova – except for the driver whom she met once. The man was in his 60s and did not enjoy his Soviet-era youth, collective farms and cheap sausages, he said.
A 90-year-old woman who moved to St Petersburg in Russia years ago, called her granddaughter in Oleshki to tell her how great Russian President Vladimir Putin was.
When the granddaughter told her about the reality of the work, the grandmother replied, “You’re making everything up,” Korotkova said.
Life among the dogs of war
Meanwhile, the cacophony of war became part of everyday life.
“I planted potatoes until I heard an explosion.” I planted strawberries again when the gunfire was heard. You get used to it because you have to live,” he said.
Depression hurt him and Vera as he felt at home and longed to take a walk or look at the stars.
“There is fear, but you will continue to live. “You don’t stop breathing because of fear,” said Korotkova.
If a gunshot or an explosion started when Korotkova was not at home, Vera was advised to hide inside the room with the stove and cover her head.
But the child showed no fear. “He grew up quickly, he became confident, calm,” Korotkova said.
He decided to flee in May, even if it meant leaving behind his 69-year-old grandfather, who said he would not survive the multi-day journey.
It took them two trips and almost a full week of driving, waiting, and sleeping in generous guesthouses or on the bus.
The first minibus driver turned around after waiting for several days, and found another one.
On their last night in the residential area, rain and thunder caused the gunfire between the Russian and Ukrainian soldiers to break.
And when the Russian soldiers started shooting at their minibus and the driver ran away, the Ukrainian soldiers just let him inside and told him to keep walking.
Once on the Ukrainian-controlled territory, the passengers wept with relief – and were welcomed as long-awaited guests.
There was hot food, medicine, shower and shampoo, overnight accommodation and transport.
After arriving in Kyiv, where Korotkova and Vera spent several weeks and received new foreign passports, they left for Germany.
And although Vera got used to the new school, she learned German and talked with other refugee children, she is aching to return to Oleshki.
“We really want to go home, but soon we won’t,” said Korotkova.
The Russians planted bombs around the city and destroyed infrastructure, leaving people without power, natural gas and cell phones.
Last week, Ukrainian soldiers, police and aid workers began entering the unoccupied areas with electricity generators, fuel, food, medical supplies – and handing over documents to the workers.
But Kherson does not look as desperate and desperate as other areas in the north and east of Ukraine where Russian troops have withdrawn.
“It’s not as sad as other places I’ve been,” a volunteer who brought insulin to the city told Al Jazeera on Thursday.
The Khersonites in the occupied territories struggle to survive, but I hope that liberation is near.
“The prices are brutally high, but people wait and believe,” one resident told Al Jazeera.