The newborn baby wrapped in a pink blanket in a hospital on the north bank of the Dnieper River in Ukraine may never see his grandparents in the Russian-annexed south.
His mother fled, opting for the relative safety of Zaporizhia, a city controlled by the Ukrainian government, where the baby was born a Ukrainian citizen in a country invaded by the Russians eight months ago.
The grandparents lived on the opposite side of the river.
“It may be too late for them to escape“, complains Anastasia Skachko (19) as she looks at her still unnamed daughter.
“I don’t even want them to try. Roads are either mined or bombed“, she slips.
The Ukrainian counter-offensive, which made the Russians cede most of the conquered lands in the north, reached the very strategic south.
Demoralized Russian forces clung to the southern region of Kherson – a land bridge that gave the Kremlin access to the annexed Crimean peninsula – and bombarded the Ukrainians, who advanced with renewed force.
The fighting destroys towns along the river and blocks escape routes used by families at the start of the war.
Anastasia Skachko says she managed to reach her mother on WhatsApp to tell her that she is now a grandmother. But the phone number started with the Russian international dialing code +7 instead of the Ukrainian dialing code +38.
Indeed, the Russians disconnected the existing lines of the Ukrainian system to establish their authority and cut off the flow of information.
“It’s hard to say if she’ll ever see the little one,Anastasia said.We both know it. But neither of us wanted to talk on the phone.
An open prison
Martial law imposed by Kremlin forces on countries Russia claims as its own makes daily life even more unpredictable. Russia has closed the last checkpoint in the south to prevent people from fleeing into Ukrainian government-held territory.
Some civilians are being transported further away from the front to areas under Russian control, a move Ukrainians describe as forced deportation.
The handful of people who managed to reach the town of Zaporizhia, negotiating with the soldiers, described life at home as an open prison.
Journalists can only travel to the region as part of visits closely supervised by the Kremlin.
“There are soldiers with dogs and machine guns on every corner“describes Oleksandra Boyko, from the occupied city of Melitopol, who escaped with her baby daughter.”Most of them are Chechens“.
The Kremlin has relied on Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s military to keep some of the conquered lands.
Those who fled describe these soldiers as prisoners. “Guys from Dagestan (neighbor) are a bit nicer, but Kadyrov’s men are just brutal“, describes Natalia Voloshyna, a native of occupied Berdyansk.
Many refer to the psychological pressure linked to the invasion. Women interviewed by AFP point out that leaders installed by the Kremlin only appoint or help people who renounce their Ukrainian citizenship to take on Russian citizenship.
“They tell you, either you work with us or you have nothing. I immediately told them no“, Natalia Voloshyna explained.
Oleksandra Boyko was presented “large amounts“if she registered her four-month-old baby as a Russian citizen.”I said no on principle. I am Ukrainian. She must be Ukrainian“, specifies the native of Melitopol.
“Some accept because there are almost no jobs and they won’t hire you without a Russian passport“, she adds.”If there is nothing to eat, what else can you do?“.