“We can hear more fighting, more shelling,” he said. “The Russians are right over there.”
The lane is one of the routes that allows them to avoid areas controlled by Russian invaders, who now occupy almost all of this strategically vital 11,000 square mile region, including its capital, the port city of Kherson. on the Black Sea.
The track skirts forests and pastures and leads to an improvised gravel and pipe bridge over the Inhulets River, which separates Kherson from Ukrainian-controlled areas to the north and west. In recent days, residents of Kherson have used the crossing to flee the fighting, with most of them heading for the nearby town of Kryvyi Rih.
“They are crossing every day,” said Oleksander Pokusayev, who lives in the nearby village of Shestirnya, just inside Free Ukraine. He had driven his Soviet-era Voskhod motorcycle to the Kherson side of the bridge, where he frequently fished. “I saw two minibuses full of people earlier today,” he said.
With the only official crossing over 100 miles to the north at Zaporizhzhia — an abandoned village whose access is controlled by opposing armies at either end of a tense no man’s land — evacuees increasingly have to find other options. Some swim in the Inhulets, which Pokusayev’s sister-in-law did when she fled the Russian occupiers in the village of Borozenske.
“She had to walk through forests for two days. She swam across and the Ukrainian soldiers helped her to safety,” he said. “Her husband is always on the busy side.”
As he spoke, a Ukrainian patrol arrived, stopping to check on the safety of four Washington Post reporters. Due to the increasing offensive and maneuvers from both sides, Ukrainian soldiers said the Kherson side of the river was increasingly dangerous.
“It’s very risky here now,” said one soldier, who asked not to be identified by name or unit. “The Russians are very close and their weapons are not very accurate. Their rockets can go anywhere.
Kherson was the first strategically important city captured by Russia at the start of the invasion in late February, and the wider Kherson region helps form Russian President Vladimir Putin’s coveted “land bridge” to Crimea, which Russia has invaded and annexed in 2014.
The people of the region saw the control of the villages of Kherson oscillate. After the Russians captured many communities in the first weeks of the invasion, Ukrainian forces moved through the Inhulets in May, liberating several of them. Ukrainian troops used the village of Pokusayev as a base for over a month of shelling prior to this push.
Now locals hope the new offensive will push the Russians out of artillery range. So far, however, the shelling has only gotten worse.
“They hit a lot of houses again; they’re trying to hit the church,” he said, pointing to the golden dome visible across the river. “My house was shot down twice.”
For months Western intelligence and military analysts have said Ukraine was preparing a major campaign to retake Kherson and the surrounding territory. The regional capital, gateway between the Dnieper River and the Black Sea, is a major economic hub.
Ukraine hopes that retaking the region from the Russians – who reportedly planned to hold a referendum before annexing it to Russia – will give fresh impetus to what has become a stalemate war.
It is unclear whether the operation launched on Monday is the planned large-scale campaign.
Information from inside Kherson is scarce. Military officials have banned journalists from frontline areas across the country until at least Monday, a level of restrictions unprecedented in the six months since the Russian assault began. They asked Ukrainians to be patient and warned that operational security means information about the campaign will be slow to emerge.
“It’s going to take as long as it takes and no one is going to rush because people are expecting something dramatic and exciting,” said Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defense minister who now heads the Center for Defense Strategies, a military think tank in Kyiv. “They’re going to do it safely no matter how long it takes,” Zagorodnyuk said.
Ukrainian officials said “difficult battles” were raging in the area and their forces had destroyed many arms depots and command posts. Early in the campaign, Ukraine said it had demolished major bridges over the Dnieper, cutting off Russian supply routes.
Russia acknowledged that a major campaign was underway, but said it had already taken a heavy toll in Ukrainian lives, tanks and equipment. Wounded soldiers have reportedly started arriving in Mykolaiv, a coastal town just outside the region’s western border.
A Pentagon official on Monday confirmed an “uptick” in fighting inside Kherson, including artillery and rocket attacks, but could not confirm that a major counteroffensive was underway.
The information void has left Kherson residents inside and outside the territory scrambling for more. In Kryvyi Rih, where the city government has set up 89 shelters to house more than 35,000 Kherson evacuees, people who fled the fighting are browsing Telegram channels and chat groups to find out what’s going on at home .
Svetlana Kulybanych, 60, and her family live in an orphanage in Kryvyi Rih that has been turned into a shelter. She regularly telephones one of the few friends left in their hometown of Nova Kakhovka, 25 miles from the city of Kherson.
Something big is definitely happening, the friend reported on Wednesday.
“She said that the Ukrainians were shelling the city and they destroyed many depots and places where the Russians stored their equipment,” Kulybanych said. “Now the Russians are hiding between the buildings.”
If this is Ukraine’s big push to kick out the Russians, Kulybanych prays the troops will prevail soon. She and her husband, who is recovering from a heart attack he suffered the day of the invasion, want to return home.
“We want to start rebuilding while we’re still young and strong enough to do it,” she said.