A young man attempts to escape Russian-occupied Ukraine — then he goes silent
Back in early February, I traveled to southern Ukraine with a team from NPR, where we met a 22-year-old Ukrainian college student who spoke nearly perfect English.
His name is Vitaliy — we're not using his last name for his safety — and he told us how nervous he was getting about a Russian invasion, especially as troops gathered in Crimea just miles away.
Weeks later, Kherson became the first major city occupied by Russia. It happened so quickly, civilians barely had time to process it, let alone flee.
I have stayed in touch with Vitaliy while his city has remained occupied, and he sends me voice memos through the encrypted messaging app Telegram about what life is like under occupation: What he is worried about, what he is hearing from his friends — anything really.
His messages come almost daily.
For a while, Vitaliy was fairly upbeat. He was worried, of course, but aware that the fighting was worse in other parts of the country, and that Kherson was relatively calm since it was already occupied and the battle had moved on. But as the war drags on, his messages have been getting more desperate.
"I definitely gotta get out of here before June," he tells me in early May. "Because when June comes, I think it will be hell in here, with heavy battles."
Civilian massacres in places like Bucha and Borodyanka have been coming to light. He tells me that he wants to leave Kherson with his mom and go west where he has relatives.
"In June or July, I think our military is going to take action here. I'm afraid that Kherson could be the next Mariupol or Kharkiv," he says.
Vitaliy has heard rumors that the Ukrainian army is moving in, and that they're planning to launch a major offensive to retake the city. He's worried that he will be mobilized to fight — for the Russians.
But then I lose contact with Vitaliy for four days.
When he finally pops back up again, he says Russia has been cutting the internet and cell service, trying to force everyone to switch to Russian SIM cards and networks. This is part of the playbook in areas after Russia takes over.
"That's, like, really horrible. I don't know. I felt like I was stranded on an island," he says.
Vitaliy has been getting around it, finding weak Wi-Fi signal where he can — the corner store down the street, his mom's office when she goes into work. And he tells me he's still making plans to leave. He has heard rumors that the Russian military will open up the roads leading out of the city in mid-May.
"So, going through the checkpoints, I've heard the Russians are actually stealing phones and computers," he says. "And I have, like, a decoy phone. Just my very old phone, I'd say from 2016. So I'm going to use that, and hide my iPhone."
But weeks pass. Russian troops never open the roads. Vitaliy hears rumors that cars have been shot up trying to leave. He doesn't want to risk it.
And then, Vitaliy goes silent again.
I check in.
"Hey there, I'm sorry, I'm here," he finally responds one day with a new voice memo. "I have a horrible experience that I went through."
He tells me that he and his mom went outside the city to a village to visit his grandma.
"Well, that was a really stupid idea. And I knew that was a stupid idea," he says.
The way there was smooth. But on the way back, they were stopped by Russian soldiers. This is the first time Vitaliy has been so close to them.
"He wanted me to give him my phone. And yeah, so I gave him. But I had my decoy phone. And I did not have anything there, no social media, no photos. And, you know, he thought it was pretty suspicious," Vitaliy says.
The soldier had him get out of the car, and started going through his whole phone.
"He was asking, 'What the hell is this?' He was looking for a reason to detain me. And I remember, I thought, that this is it. I thought that I might die today or something. I don't know," Vitaliy trails off. "It's just a crazy feeling. I don't know. I've never felt that before."
The soldiers finally let him go. But Vitaly was clearly shaken. You can hear it in his voice.
"Yeah, but anyway," he says with a nervous laugh, "there's no way that I'm going anywhere right now."
Vitaly tells me he and his mom have decided they're just going to wait it out until the fighting is over and Kherson is hopefully liberated by Ukraine.
"We have our basement we can go to, and we'll just do our best to do anything we can to survive," he says.
But then a little over a week ago, Vitaliy pops back up. He seems excited. He says they've changed their minds again.
He tells me he has a classmate who recently decided to go the other way out — south, through Crimea and into Russia and across the border into Georgia, a place friendly to Ukrainians.
"And he says that you guys got nothing to worry about. I thought it was pretty dangerous, but he kind of, like, convinced me to go," Vitaliy says.
Vitaliy is acutely aware that he is a 22-year-old man — just the right age to be fighting in the army. And the battle is moving closer and closer. So he and his mom pack up and find a friend who is also leaving and can drive.
He clears his phone, deletes our chats, removes me and the other NPR journalists from his contacts.
"Because I know the Russians are looking for people with a pro-Ukrainian side," he explains. "But if they're going to find out that I interact with Americans, I mean, they're going to kill me."
They make one more trip to the village to say goodbye to his grandma — she's going to stay — and they go for it.
"Pretty sure this whole experience is going to look like the movie Argo, if you've ever watched it? Like, starring Ben Affleck," he messages.
Vitaliy is really nervous for the trip.
"It's probably going to be, like, the scariest, the hardest experience that I would go through," he says before he leaves.
Vitaliy tells me not to text him. He'll reach out when it's safe.
And yet again, days go by.
And then last week, an audio message pops up in my Instagram.
"Hey Kat, I got through Russia, and I'm in Georgia now," says a familiar voice.
They made it. Vitaliy is exhausted. They drove mostly at night, were interrogated at checkpoints and waited for hours at border crossings.
But they're finally out of Kherson right as it becomes the center of the next phase of the war. And now the next phase of Vitaliy's life — as a refugee — can begin.
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