After crossing the frontline in Ukraine, Iryna Tyshenko, a 35-year-old woman from the southern Kherson region, is recovering while holding a small toy kite she made herself.
Making stuffed animals helped her family stay sane during the long months of Russian occupation.
“It really saved us,” says Natalia Nelybyna, her 68-year-old mother.
The family spoke to AFP journalists hours after arriving in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia, about 250 kilometers from where they live.
After surviving three months with little food and no internet or phone connection, Iryna decided to go with her mother and 10-year-old daughter Veronika.
In the first days of the invasion, Moscow captured almost the entire Kherson region.
The capital – also called Cherson – is one of the few major Ukrainian cities occupied by Russia.
Kyiv has waged a counter-offensive in recent weeks aimed at retaking the city and is advising people to leave the city.
At a new center for internally displaced people from the Kherson region in Zaporizhia, Yaroslav Yanushevich, head of the regional administration, spoke Sunday and urged all remaining residents to evacuate.
“We call on the people (of Kherson) to leave. Military operations cannot be conducted there without posing a threat to the civilian population,” Yanushevich said.
According to Ukrainian officials, 24,000 residents of Kherson displaced by the mounting fighting traveled to Zaporizhia last month.
– ‘Hard winter is coming’ –
Speaking alongside Yanushevich, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said that “a harsh winter is coming, we need help to save ourselves from the cold and the enemy who will continue to increase the pressure on communities.”
As Vereshchuk visits the center, a woman holding a small Yorkshire dog with a pink hair tie collapses in her arms.
“Don’t cry,” Vereshchuk said as she wrapped her arms around her.
The center, called “Ya – Kherson” (I am Kherson), has already received hundreds of people.
On the bunk beds in the dormitories, the newcomers unpacked their belongings to take with them before setting off.
Volunteers filled out forms and placed water bottles on yellow tables in the blue-carpeted dining room.
Anastasia Protasova, a 25-year-old from Kherson, recounted life in the occupied city, where she said posters reading “Russia is here forever” had been put up.
“They keep finding bodies of civilians who have drowned in the river. And you don’t know what’s going to happen next, how it’s going to be. You don’t know if you’re going to make it to the end of the day or not.”
There have also been rumors of Russian plans to organize a referendum on the region’s annexation – plans Kyiv has vehemently opposed – another reason Ukrainian officials say more and more people are leaving the region.
But getting out of the region is not an easy journey.
Before the war, the journey took about four hours.
It takes at least a day now, people sometimes queue for several days.
Evacuees pass through checkpoints held by Russian soldiers before being allowed to cross.
Kateryna, 32, said Russian soldiers emptied her bag and checked all her laptops, flash drives and photos.
“They interrogated me, asked why I was leaving. I said, ‘Because I’m scared,'” she said.
“What are you afraid of? On the contrary, we don’t touch people like you. We protect you,” the soldiers replied, Kateryna said.
“I kept silent because I had my child with me.”
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