ZAPORIZZIA, Ukraine, Sept 28 (Reuters) – “It’s funny. Nobody voted, yet the results are in,” laughed Lyubomir Boyko, 43, from the village of Golo Priston in Russian-occupied Kherson province, as he waited outside United on Wednesday. Office of National Aid with his family at the Refugee Reception Center.

Hundreds of Ukrainians fled the last Russian checkpoint, as Russia prepares to annex a swath of Ukrainian territory the size of Portugal after a referendum in four provinces. Many said they fled when they could.

“A lot of people leave everything behind. There are places that are completely deserted,” Boyko said. “Everyone wants to stay in Ukraine, and that’s why everyone is leaving. It’s an illegal place. Whole villages are leaving.”

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He, his wife and their two children had arrived at an aid station in the parking lot of a reformatory in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhia when Russian forces suddenly let them out after two days of waiting.

Those fleeing Russian-held territory say men with so-called referendum guns have forced people to vote in the streets.

“They can announce whatever they want. Nobody voted except for a few people who switched sides in the referendum. They went door to door, but nobody came out,” Boyko said.

For now, the Russian army has allowed some people from Kherson and Zaporizhia provinces to exit the occupied areas through a checkpoint. No one knows how long the route will remain open.

The biggest fear is that once Moscow declares it a Russian territory, combatant older men will be pressed into the Russian army. Boyko said it is not known if the draft-aged men are still able to leave.

“Russian soldiers asked us, ‘Why are you fleeing from Russia,'” said Tatiana Gorobets, a 46-year-old nurse from Velika Lepyatikha in Kherson province, who responded that she and her husband were visiting their two children. to safety in Lviv two months ago. “You can’t say any more.”

The doors are closing

A Russian flag is seen flying in a square during a five-day referendum on Zaporizhia region’s separation from Ukraine and joining Russia, in the Russian-controlled city of Melitopol, Zaporizhia region, Ukraine, on September 26, 2022. REUTERS/ Alexander Ermochenko

The couple gathered their clothes, left their house and left their city early on Sunday. Russian forces initially prevented them from crossing but let them out after three nights, he said.

“We left because we felt the pressure, the doors were closing and we wouldn’t be able to leave,” said shopkeeper Lyudmila Sapronov, 48, whose family was traveling in another car with the Gorobets family.

With public schools ordered to switch to a Russian curriculum and Russian-language classes next month, she did not want her 13-year-old son Bogdan to return to the local school.

“You can imagine how I feel now,” she added, her eyes welling with tears. “As soon as we crossed the checkpoint, the first photo I took was of the Ukrainian flag. I’m happy.”

Air raid sirens blared and torrential rain drenched the parking lot of the Epicenter home improvement store that hosts the reception center in plastic shelters. A US-based charity, World Central Kitchen, was providing hot meals in the tents.

“The line of vehicles was so long that you couldn’t see the end of it,” said Andrey, 37, another man who declined to give his last name, standing next to the yellow, mud-splattered minibus in which he had arrived with his wife. , two children and parents.

“Seventy percent of people are leaving because of the referendum. There was no light, no gas and no work, and suddenly, you get a referendum,” said an agricultural worker in Berislav, Kherson province. “This is complete nonsense. I don’t know a single person who voted for me.”

He said he saw passers-by being forced to fill in ballots on their knees at the Bereslav crossroads.

Russia says the vote is voluntary and that the turnout was high. Pro-Russian officials published what they described as results showing overwhelming support for annexation. Kyiv and the West have called the practice a total sham, aimed at justifying the annexation of territory occupied by force.

“If I came to your house and told you, ‘This place is mine now,’ what would you do?” Andrey’s 60-year-old father pinched into Victor.

“Would you hand it over? No, you’d go after them with a pitchfork. The Russians are morally ugly. It’s all covered in blood.”

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Reporting by Jonathan Lande, Editing by Peter Graff, Angus McSwan, Alexandra Hudson

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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