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

TOPSHOT - A Ukranian woman sits in a car with her family after they managed to flee from the Russian occupied territory of Kherson, on November 5, 2022, in Zaporizhzhia. (Photo by BULENT KILIC / AFP) (Photo by BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A Ukranian woman sits in a car with her family after they managed to flee from the Russian occupied territory of Kherson, on November 5, 2022, in Zaporizhzhia. (Photo by BULENT KILIC / AFP) (Photo by BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images)

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.

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.

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."

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.