‘People get nabbed’: Ukrainian refugees tell of life under Russian occupation

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Those willing to squeeze into Yuri’s yellow school bus have made a choice not just to leave Russian-occupied Kherson, but also to leave nearly everything they have.

Many stand for the 135km journey in the vehicle that is as crammed full as a lifeboat on the Titanic: There are few drivers, like Yuri, who are willing to shuttle across enemy lines.

Cats cling to their owners, children cling to that one special toy – but hardly anyone has even a suitcase as they arrive in the small Ukrainian held town of Bashtanka.

Residents of Kherson, Ukraine tell Sky's Jason Farrell of life under Russian occupation. Pictured here: Anastasia Alokaina 37, Maria 9, and Ksusha 12
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Mother Anastasia Alokaina 37, fled with her children Maria 9, and Ksusha 12

Schoolteacher Anastasia Alokaina and her two children Ksusha, 12 and nine-year-old Maria, just carry small rucksacks and a soft toy each.

“What did you leave behind?” I ask.

“My whole life” says Anastasia. “Our pets were left with our parents. My parents, my sister and niece are still in Kherson.”

Very little news comes out of Kherson. Refugees are one of the few sources of information. Anastasia says life is difficult, food is hard to come by and expensive, and that sometimes people “get nabbed from their homes, from their work, or in the street”.

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She’s particularly concerned about a Spanish man who seems to have disappeared.

A total of 4.5m people have fled the country since the invasion begun and like two million Ukrainians before them, Anastasia, Ksusha and Maria will head to Poland.

Bus driver Yuri Kajuta, 49 has made the trip twice a day for the past month. He claims to have transported nearly 2,000 people to safety. He says the Russian checkpoint guards have got used to him, and the authorities don’t mind.

Yuri Kajuta 49, a bus driver from Kherson. Residents tell Sky's Jason Farrell of life under Russian occupation
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Yuri Kajuta keeps on driving his bus through Russian checkpoints, risking his life with every journey

He told me: “They said ‘we don’t hold anyone, you can leave, we’ll just change the lock on your door and Crimean people from villages will come and live in Kherson and there will be a Kherson people’s republic’.”

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For the refugees, Bashtanka is the first staging post in the journey to an uncertain future. But the small town isn’t safe. Many fled from here when the Russians tried to take the town last month, destroying dozens of homes.

Smaller towns don’t have the same levels of defence as Ukraine’s bigger cities. But when the Russia’s tried to take it last month, they suffered a surprising and convincing defeat.

Residents of Kherson, Ukraine tell Sky's Jason Farrell of life under Russian occupation. A home in the town is shown bombed out
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Small towns like Bashtanka and Kherson do not have the defences to withstand war

The talk in town is of Russians massing for another attempt, but pregnant mother of six, Iryna Mohylevska, who lives in a home that nearly crumbled from the bombing, doesn’t know what to do

She told me: “I’m worried. I don’t know where to go and what will happen. When we heard the explosion, we were scared it might hit us, because on our street there are many people with children.”

Three houses opposite hers have been crushed by a bombing in March. Another seven had roofs blown off, and shrapnel has peppered Iryna’s front gate.

Three young children play in the house which has cracks in the walls and windows smashed out. She had to repair the roof.

To stay or to go is the question for so many. But for bus driver Uri, there’s only one choice – to go back through the Russian checkpoints, and get more people.

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