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Whenever 52-year-old Anna is agitated, she senses the chilling touch of a gun barrel between her brows — a haunting reminder of an encounter with a group of Russian soldiers on her street about a year ago.
On that day, amid tears and screams, the soldiers threatened to kill her and her husband, fired bullets on the ground between their feet and then dragged her brother-in-law to an unknown location, apparently furious that he couldn’t guide them to where they could find alcohol.
Two weeks later, Anna’s husband, who himself had been hospitalized previously because of heart problems, found his brother’s body in the forest, not far from the village where they lived, in a Russian-occupied area of Ukraine’s southeastern Zaporizhzhia region. Two weeks after that, he died.
“His heart couldn’t bear it,” Anna said.
Alone and afraid, Anna sank into a depression.
“I don’t know how I coped with it,” she says, repeating the phrase over and over as tears run down her face. On Nov. 22, she finally fled her home, joining a trickle of refugees on “the corridor,” a 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) trek along a front line of the fighting that Ukrainians also refer to as the “gray zone,” situated between the Belgorod region of Russia and Ukraine’s Sumy region.
THE LAST CORRIDOR OUT
Since the war in Ukraine began, thousands of people have fled Russian-occupied areas over myriad routes. Now, nearly two years in, “the corridor” is their only option to cross directly into Ukraine.
Allowed to move freely through Russian-controlled zones, most take buses to the corridor from homes throughout the country: Zaporizhzhia and Kherson in the southeast, Donetsk and Luhansk in the northeast, and Crimea, the southern peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014.
Once they get to the corridor, they must proceed on foot, traipsing through an open, treeless no man’s land, the whir of artillery and the whine of drones from nearby battles echoing in their ears. They are warned before they go that no one will be able to guarantee their safety as they cross. Some travel with children or elderly parents.
By the time they arrive in Sumy, they are exhausted, barely finding the strength to carry the few belongings they were able to grab before they fled. And yet, for many, to remain in the occupied zones is not an option.
“Staying there is equal death for them,” said Kateryna Arisoi, director of the nongovernmental organization Pluriton, which set up a volunteer-staffed shelter in Sumy. “They are struggling because of torture, kidnapping, killing. They simply cannot stay there.”
A GRIM AND DANGEROUS LIFE IN OCCUPIED UKRAINE
Civilians in occupied territories are detained for minor reasons, such as speaking Ukrainian or simply for being a young man, according to an an investigation The Associated Press conducted earlier this year. Thousands are being held without charge in Russian prisons and areas of the occupied territories.
Ukraine’s government estimates at least 10,000 civilians are detained.
On both sides of the corridor, refugees are subjected to rigorous searches and questioning. On the Russian side, some, especially men, are not allowed to cross.
Many are afraid and agreed to speak to the news media only on condition of anonymity. Anna declined to provide her last name for fear of repercussions against relatives who still live in the occupied area of her province.
“They don’t consider us human,” Anna says of the Russian soldiers.
Also prompting many to flee are new laws forcing residents of occupied areas to acquire Russian citizenship. A report by the Humanitarian Research Lab at Yale University’s School of Public Health says they must do so by July 2024 or they could be deported, including to remote areas of Russia.
At the shelter, those who were able to avoid being issued a Russian passport speak with evident pride. No one speaks aloud about receiving one.
A STEADY FLOW OF REFUGEES
The rate at which people cross the corridor depends on the weather and the situation at the front line. Recently, with temperatures steadily dropping ahead of winter, an average of 80-120 people have been returning daily, Arisoi said. She said the highest numbers were recorded after the collapse of the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine earlier this year, when about 200 people a day were fleeing.
More than 15,500 people have passed through the Pluriton shelter since it opened in March, said Arisoi, herself a refugee who fled her home in the eastern city of Bakhmut after it was reduced to rubble and taken over by Russian military forces in May.
“I also lost everything. … I know the feeling when you lose your home, your life, your status, when you become like a zero,” she said.
A LENGTHY JOURNEY TO A PLACE CLOSE BY
Before the war, 73-year-old Halyna Sidorova left Zaporizhzhia city, where her children and grandson are located, to care for her elderly mother in a village outside of Polohy, another city in Zaporizhia province about two hours away by car.
During the war, the two areas were divided by a front line that Sidorova could not cross, and she suddenly found herself in occupied territory, isolated from the relatives she had left behind.
Sidorova made a decision. Shortly before her 93-year-old mother’s death, she told her, “Mom, when you pass away, I’ll stay here for up to nine days, come to your grave to say goodbye, and then I’ll go home.”
When the time came, she silently packed her things, grabbed a walking stick, and embarked on the challenging journey: a full day’s bus ride through other occupied territories and into Russia, where she set out on foot along the corridor.
Sidorova told no one that she was leaving. Throughout the difficult journey, she found solace in a prayer.
“I read the prayer the whole way … the entire journey, even when falling asleep, I continued reading,” she said while sitting in the shelter in Sumy.
When she finally arrives back home in Zaporizhia city, Sidorova’s journey will have taken her nearly full circle.
A CONFLICTED DECISION
Anna and her husband initially resisted leaving.
But as the days passed, more Russian troops began occupying empty houses and forests, a situation that she said became “terrifying to the core.”
In January, they intercepted her husband’s brother as he was returning home from work, asking him where they could get alcohol. He told them the truth: He didn’t know. When he got home, two armed Russians came to his house and started beating him with a rifle in his yard, Anna said.
When she and her husband, who lived opposite the brother’s house, ran out to see what was happening, the Russians started shooting at their feet.
She said one of them pointed a rifle at her forehead, and remarked: “I’ll kill you now.”
The Russian soldier alternated between aiming the pistol at her chest and shooting at her and her husband’s feet before eventually letting them go. The brother-in-law would not be spared. Two weeks later, her husband would be dead.
But it wasn’t until 10 months later, on her 10-year-old grandson’s birthday, that Anna finally decided to leave.
The grandson had fled with Anna’s daughter to Poland in the early days of the war. When Anna called to wish him a happy birthday, he said to her, „Why are you there? We need you.”
Less than a week after the call, she left.
The minute she departed, she was homesick, missing the flowers she had planted in the yard of her home and the little fence and pathway she had built with her husband.
„We always did everything together,” she said.
As she entered the corridor on the Russian side, soldiers shouted at her to “get out of here!” and she burst into tears.
The journey was not easy. The weather was cold and she fell and bruised her knees while dragging a few bags containing her meager belongings.
At the shelter in the Sumy region, she sits on a lower bunk, her head leaning against the edge of the bed above her. Still ahead of her is the trip to Poland.
Adorning her frostbitten hands are two wedding rings: Hers on the left, her deceased husband’s on her right.
“I want to go home already,” she says, her voice trembling.
Associated Press writer Volodymyr Yurchuk contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine