Whenever Alyaksei planned a trip from his home in the occupied Kherson region, he came with a “legend” prepared for the trip, a person who helped him avoid suspicion at Russian checkpoints.

He thought that playing the character of an elderly Russian farmer turned out to be the best.

He brought along props to back up his story – a flash drive with Russian songs he could play in his van, a shovel and a tractor license. The fact that he was born in Russia certainly helped him as well.

This came in handy during the three months of occupation while he ran errands helping his community, including delivering food and distributing medicine.

And in the end, the legend helped Oleksiy escape the occupied zone after he smuggled a veteran of the Ukrainian armed forces, who was being hunted by the Russians, through no man’s land to free Ukraine.

The Russians moved into the area around the village of Aleksey days after they invaded southern Ukraine in late February.

“For the first week after the Russian invasion, we did not leave our homes,” he told Sky News.

“I felt immense fear, animal fear for my life, family, friends and neighbors.”

That fear soon turned to anger at the invasion of Russia, the country where Alexei spent his childhood before moving to Kherson for naval college. Anger prompted him to leave the house for the first time, to run to the store and to his farm where he grew berries.

Aleksey was photographed a few weeks ago after escaping

As time went on, he did more, driving medical workers and delivering groceries, trips that included going through Russian checkpoints.

Speaking Russian helped him in these meetings, but he knew that the phone could be his downfall. Oleksiy started sending information about the positions of the Russian military, which he noticed during his travels, to the Telegram channel of the Ukrainian special service.

A friend was asked which knee he would like to get shot

“I thoroughly prepared for the checkpoints by cleaning my phone: deleted Viber, Telegram, Signal, YouTube, all photos and videos, cleared Google requests. But if the phone were checked by specialists, they would definitely find something.”

When the Russian military found an anti-Russian Facebook post on his friend’s phone, they put him against the wall for more than an hour and asked him which knee he would like to be shot at.

The soldiers eventually released the man unharmed, but it was a warning to Aleksey.

He also began to hear stories of Russian soldiers entering people’s homes to search for weapons and veterans of the Ukrainian armed forces. There were rumors that in the neighboring Zaporizhzhya region, the Russians were demanding that farmers register plots of land for them. Soon soldiers came to Aleksey’s farm.

“A large Kamaz armored truck, followed by an armored personnel carrier, drove right into my yard… eight soldiers with assault rifles poured out of the car. One approached and politely asked how I was feeling. I replied that it was much better. before they arrived.’

A Russian armored personnel carrier, such as the one that came to Aleksey's farm.
A Russian armored personnel carrier, like the one that arrived at Aleksey’s farm

The Russians got lost and were looking for a ranger with records of gun owners in the area.

These meetings, however, did not stop his acts of resistance.

When, for example, the morale in his village fell, he, while washing the car, turned on the sound system to sing a Ukrainian folk song, which became an anthem of defiance.

“I turned on “Oh, there’s a red viburnum in the meadow” very loudly and opened the door so that everyone around could hear it. My neighbors did not expect this, because it was dangerous if the Russians heard. But it worked, created a buzz. spirit in the neighborhood.”

“My patience has run out”

Despite Aleksei’s desire to resist the occupation, his family, including his son and daughter-in-law, who lived abroad, persuaded him and his wife Svetlana to leave the occupied zone. But Svetlana’s elderly mother needed care, and five people were employed full-time on his farm, which he created over 13 years. Without him by his side, he worried about their future.

“I was hoping that we would suffer a little and be able to save the employees and the factories. But every day it became worse and more disturbing. connection disconnection. My patience has run out.”

At the end of May, Alyaksei began planning his escape, hoping to join the roughly 50% of Khersons who had already fled to other parts of Ukraine and beyond.

He was aware of Telegram groups, a popular messaging service in social networks, where they shared tips on how to leave the occupied zone, as well as information about where Russian roadblocks are located.

When he was planning his trip, one of Alexey’s employees came to him with a request – she wanted him to take her husband and two children on the trip. Her husband, however, was a recent veteran of the Ukrainian armed forces, one of the men the Russians were looking for, and his van was already full.

Alexey had to make a decision; helping a friend and potentially risking your life or prioritizing the journey for yourself and your family.

“It was crazy to take another man and two children with me. We talked for a long time, I didn’t know how to say that I don’t have enough space in the car. We started discussing what to do if he was detained at the checkpoint. .. She sobbed, begged to save the children and take them to their relatives. I still can’t forget those sobs… in general, I realized that we will all go together, to hell, we will squeeze in somehow.”

Aleksey (front center) and the nine people he was transporting.  The face of a veteran of the Ukrainian armed forces is blurred to protect his identity.
Aleksey (front center) and the nine people he was transporting. The face of a veteran of the Ukrainian armed forces is blurred to protect his identity

Alyaksei has already promised transportation to three medical workers and their two children, which means that now 11 people will have to be loaded into his van.

“My requests that people take no more than one bag per person were in vain, it was all a mountain,” said Aleksey.

There was enough room to fit the last passenger, Otis the cat, who crawled through the sea of ​​blankets and bags after being thrown inside.

Otis the cat
Otis the cat climbed into the van among the luggage

When they moved on June 2, they headed east toward the front line at Vasilievka, more than 180 miles away.

There were about 25 checkpoints along the route, and Alexei made sure to play one of Putin’s favorite songs on the radio to show the Russians that he would have no problem.

The route to the east along the banks of the Dnieper.
The route to the northeast along the banks of the Dnieper

Approaching the front line, no one knew exactly what to expect. Some people reported that they passed in a day, others had to fight for several days in a queue of cars that stretched for kilometers.

“We arrived in Vasilievka at 3:00 p.m. There was a queue and we were the 73rd. They formed groups of 10 cars, and it was necessary to write down the surname, gender and year of birth of each person.”

It was a warm day and three generations of people – and a cat – were eating lunch and seeking shelter from the sun with the sound of a fight in the distance not knowing how long they would be.

The Russian guard allowed one of the children to play with a machine gun, and Alyaksei asked if it was possible to cross the Russian borders, stressing that his mother-in-law does not tolerate the heat well.

“I think they somehow remembered us. After 5:00 p.m., the inspection began, 10 cars were passed, after the inspection of things and documents.”

The miracle of crossing no man’s land

They moved forward accompanied by a Russian armored personnel carrier and approached the last checkpoint. The Russians were looking for evidence of tattoos on people that would indicate service in the Ukrainian army, and ordered the former veteran to get out of the van.

“He crawled out of a pile of bags. They checked whether he had any tattoos on his body, checked all his passports again.”

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Not knowing that this man was in the armed forces, the Russians let the group through.

“After that we were free and in no man’s land.”

After getting to the neutral lane between the front row, Aleksey pressed the accelerator. The bridge across the river that separated the Russians and the Ukrainians was broken, so they took a detour on a dirt road.

Artillery began firing overhead and a heavy rain began, turning the swampy terrain they were crossing into a quagmire. To drag the caravan of cars through the swamp, it was necessary to use a fire truck and two military tractors of the Ukrainian forces in front.

In the end, they made it across, a feat that Alexey called a miracle.

Once behind the Ukrainian front lines, police escorted them and other vehicles in a convoy to Zaporozhye, a city of 750,000 people about 20 miles behind the fighting.

On arrival, they checked in at the local office, had tea and coffee and were given a bed in a local nursery where more than 100 mattresses were spread out on the floor.

Children's room, where dozens of beds were laid out for the newly arrived immigrants.
Children’s room, where dozens of beds were laid out for the newly arrived immigrants

Now Alyaksei and his family are in Zaporozhye with relatives, and most of his passengers have moved to the west, to Lviv or Odessa.

He also returned as a volunteer, helping to deliver equipment to deliver Ukrainian troops and medical supplies to the Red Cross in Kherson.

Having grown up in Russia, Oleksiy may be the type of Ukrainian that Vladimir Putin expected to receive a warm welcome from his troops. His reaction to the invasion and his resistance shows how wrong the Russian president was.

“I overcame fear a long time ago, only anger remained.”


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