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In southern Ukraine, Kherson residents live in fear — and hope — as battle looms

A Ukranian woman sits in a car with her family in Zaporizhzhia on Saturday, after they fled from the Russian-occupied territory of Kherson.
Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images
A Ukranian woman sits in a car with her family in Zaporizhzhia on Saturday, after they fled from the Russian-occupied territory of Kherson.

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — The brewing fight for the southern port city of Kherson is one that could change the trajectory of the war.

It's also one that U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said the Ukrainians could win.

A majority of the city's residents have fled. Government offices have been cleared. Banks are closed.

Even the Moscow-installed officials evacuated.

"I still can't believe that I left there," says Viktor, while pulling a red suitcase from the black car he rode to Zaporizhia, about 25 miles from occupied territory. "The madness."

His home is just outside Kherson. He and his wife Nadiya raised their three daughters there. The Russians broke into their house within hours of them leaving, Viktor says a neighbor told him.

"I never saw such a Gestapo in my life," says Nadiya. "They executed a whole street. They killed a 9-year-old girl."

NPR could not verify her claims.

Still shaking, Nadiya's eyes dart nervously around the parking lot as Ukrainian officers check their passports and take photos.

She asks that their last name 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's happening inside. But those who 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 the constant shelling that keeps them on edge also means Ukrainian forces are arriving.

The Ukrainian artillery battery attached to the 59th Mechanized Brigade shoots a howitzer toward points controlled by Russia in the Kherson region on Saturday.
/ Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
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Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
The Ukrainian artillery battery attached to the 59th Mechanized Brigade shoots a howitzer toward points controlled by Russia in the Kherson region on Saturday.

At a Zaporizhzhia shelter, a volunteer who asks that he be called by his middle name, Artyom, helps care for Kherson evacuees as if they were his own family. Artyom asked that we not use his full name to protect his relatives in Kherson.

He says his wife and her mother are stuck there.

Arytom and his wife fled Kherson in the spring. But she worried about her mother, so she went back to get her in September.

His wife generally stays home as much as she can. But to earn money, she sells potatoes and vegetables 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 fine. He counts his fingers as he lists off his various fears: He worries that the Russians will stop his wife. He worries that she'll get sick. She's four months' pregnant. He worries about the baby.

"This will be my first child," he said. "A girl."

They've already chosen 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 to the Russians.

Roman Holovnya, the exiled deputy mayor of Kherson, in Kyiv on Wednesday. He estimates there are only about 50,000 residents left in Kherson city.
Franco Ordoñez / NPR
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NPR
Roman Holovnya, the exiled deputy mayor of Kherson, in Kyiv on Wednesday. He estimates there are only about 50,000 residents left in Kherson city.

Its exiled deputy mayor, Roman Holovnya, estimates there are only about 50,000 people left.

Holovnya, who is living 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 walk into their home, carjack them — or worse.

"If you have a patriotic tattoo, it's 90% likely you're going to be detained," he says.

What little public interaction there is now in the city revolves mostly around the local street markets that popped up since the war began. Most of the stores in Kherson are either closed or have empty shelves, so local farmers and bakers have been selling and trading items at the street markets.

"You can buy most things, from starting with medicine and finishing with meat," says Natalyia Schevchenko, 30, who fled Kherson this summer. "But it's terrible to observe. On one car, they sell medicine on the hood and on the side they cut meat."

Natalyia Schevchenko, a Kherson resident who evacuated to Odesa, volunteers for an Odesa nonprofit called Side-by-Side to evacuate residents from Kherson and other occupied territories.
Franco Ordoñez / National Public Radio
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National Public Radio
Natalyia Schevchenko, a Kherson resident who evacuated to Odesa, volunteers for an Odesa nonprofit called Side-by-Side to evacuate residents from Kherson and other occupied territories.

Schevchenko, who is volunteering at an Odesa nonprofit called Side-by-Side to evacuate residents from Kherson and other occupied territories, remains in contact with those in the city. She says her grandmother, who refused to leave, gives her regular updates.

"The city is dying," Schevchenko says.

Artyom and his wife talk whenever they can get a decent connection. They generally try to keep their conversations light; they worry that Russians are listening in.

They talk a lot about baby stuff. She tells him when the baby kicks.

But it's hard to ignore the shelling.

It's scary — but they agree it's a good thing. They think it means the Ukrainians are getting closer — and that means Artyom may be able to go home soon.

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

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Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.