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 near-perfect English.
His name is Vitaliy – we won’t use his last name for his safety – and he told us how nervous he was about a Russian invasion, especially when troops gathered in Crimea just miles away.
Weeks later, Kherson became the first major city occupied by Russia. It happened so fast that civilians barely had time to process it, let alone flee.
I kept in touch with Vitaliy while his city was occupied, and he sends me voice notes through the encrypted Telegram messaging app about what life is like under occupation: what worries him, what he hears from his friends, any thing really. .
His messages arrive almost daily.
For a time, Vitaliy was quite optimistic. He was worried, of course, but aware that the fighting was worse in other parts of the country, and that Kherson was relatively calm because he was already occupied and the battle had progressed. But as the war progresses, the messages from him have become more desperate.
“I definitely have to get out of here before June,” he tells me in early May. “Because when June comes, I think it’s going to be hell here, with heavy fighting.”
“In June or July, I think our army will take action here. I am afraid that Kherson could be the next Mariupol or Kharkiv,” he says.
Vitaliy has heard rumors that the Ukrainian army is closing in and is planning to launch a major offensive to retake the city. He worries that he will be mobilized to fight, by the Russians.
But then I lose contact with Vitaliy for four days.
When he finally reappears, he says that Russia has been cutting off internet and cellular service, trying to force everyone to switch to Russian networks and SIM cards. 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.
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Vitaliy has been getting around it, finding a weak Wi-Fi signal where he can: the corner store down the street, his mother’s office on the way to work. And he tells me that he is still making plans to leave. He has heard rumors that the Russian army will open the roads leading out of the city in mid-May.
“So, going through the checkpoints, I heard that 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 the weeks go by. Russian troops never open the roads. Vitaliy hears rumors that the cars have been shot at while trying to leave. He doesn’t want to risk it.
And then Vitaliy falls silent again.
“Hi, sorry, I’m here,” he finally replies 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 out of town to a town to visit his grandmother.
“Well, that was a really stupid idea. And I knew it was a stupid idea,” he says.
The road was smooth. But on the way back, they were stopped by Russian soldiers. This is the first time that Vitaliy has been so close to them.
“He wanted me to give him my phone. And yeah, so I gave it to him. But I had my decoy phone. And I had nothing on it, no social media, no pictures. And, you know, he thought it was cute.” suspicious,” says Vitaliy.
The soldier made him get out of the car and started going through all his phone.
“I was asking, ‘What the hell is this?’ He was looking for a reason to stop me. And I remember, I thought, this is it. I thought he might die today or something. I don’t know,” says Vitaliy. “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 I’m going anywhere right now.”
Vitaly tells me that he and his mother have decided that they will wait until the fighting is over and hopefully Kherson is liberated by the Ukraine.
Aris Messinis/STF/AFP via Getty Images
“We have our basement that we can go to, and we’ll do everything we can to do everything we can to survive,” he says.
But then, just over a week ago, Vitaliy shows up again. He seems excited. He says they have changed their minds again.
He tells me that he has a classmate who recently decided to go the other way: south, through Crimea and into Russia and across the border to Georgia, a Ukrainian-friendly place.
“And he says that you guys have nothing to worry about. I thought it was quite dangerous, but he convinced me to go,” says Vitaliy.
Vitaliy is well aware that he is a 22-year-old man, just the right age to fight in the army. And the battle draws ever closer. So he and his mom pack up and find a friend who is also leaving and can drive.
He deletes his phone, he deletes our chats, he deletes 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 I’m interacting with Americans, I mean, they’re going to kill me.”
They make one more trip to town to say goodbye to their grandmother —she is staying— and they go all out.
“I’m pretty sure this whole experience will look like the movie Argo, have you ever seen it? Like, starring Ben Affleck,” he texts.
Vitaliy is very nervous about the trip.
“It’s probably going to be, like, the most terrifying experience, the most difficult experience I’d ever go through,” he says before leaving.
Vitaliy tells me not to text him. He will contact you when he is safe.
And once again, the days go by.
And then last week, an audio message appeared on my Instagram.
“Hi Kat, I passed through Russia and now I’m in Georgia,” says a familiar voice.
They did it. Vitaliy is exhausted. They mainly drove at night, were interrogated at checkpoints and waited for hours at border crossings.
But they are finally out of Kherson just as it becomes the center of the next phase of the war. And now the next phase of Vitaliy’s life can begin, as a refugee.