A young Ukrainian man's journey to get himself and his mother to safety
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Back in early February, our correspondents met a 22-year-old Ukrainian college student who spoke English with an American accent.
VITALY: OK. I'm a bit nervous myself because, well, tension is really growing right now. Everybody knows about it.
CHANG: His name is Vitaly. We're not using his last name for his safety. And we met him in Kherson, in southern Ukraine. Weeks later, it became the first major city occupied by Russia. Now Ukraine's army is waging its first major offensive to retake Kherson, and the fighting is brutal. All the while, NPR's Kat Lonsdorf has been keeping in touch with Vitaly. He sends her voice memos almost every day, though lately he's had to go silent a few times. Here's Kat with more.
KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: As the war drags on, Vitaly's messages start to become more desperate.
VITALY: Honestly, like, I'm doing not that great, I'd say.
LONSDORF: Civilian massacres in places like Bucha and Borodyanka have been coming to light. And in early May, he tells me that he wants to leave Kherson with his mom - go west where he has relatives. He's afraid that the fighting will start up again, and he might be mobilized to fight for the Russians.
VITALY: I definitely got to get out of here before June because when June comes, I think it'll be hell in here. I'm afraid that Kherson could be, like, the next Mariupol or Kharkiv.
LONSDORF: But then I lose contact with Vitaly for four days. When he finally pops back up again...
LONSDORF: He says Russia has been cutting the internet and cell service, trying to force everyone to switch to Russian SIM cards and networks.
VITALY: And that's, like, really horrible. I don't know. I felt like I was, like, stranded on an island.
LONSDORF: This is part of the playbook in areas after Russia takes over. Vitaly has been getting around it, finding weak Wi-Fi where he can - the corner store down the street, his mom's office when she goes into work. And he's still planning to leave.
VITALY: Also going, like, through the checkpoints, I've heard the Russians are actually stealing phones and computers. And I have, like, a decoy phone - just, like, my very old phone, I'd say from, like, 2016.
LONSDORF: But weeks pass. Russian troops never open the roads out. Vitaly hears rumors that cars have been shot up trying to leave.
VITALY: There, people actually died.
LONSDORF: He doesn't want to risk it. And then Vitaly goes silent again. I check in.
VITALY: Hey. Yeah, I'm here. I'm sorry. Actually, I didn't check Telegram for, like, couple of days. Anyway, I have a horrible experience that I went through. It was a Sunday.
LONSDORF: He tells me he and his mom went outside the city to a village to visit his grandma.
VITALY: Well, that was a really stupid idea. And I knew that was a stupid idea.
LONSDORF: The way there was smooth - no problems, he says. But on the way back, they were stopped by Russian soldiers. This is the first time Vitaly has been so close to them.
VITALY: He wanted me to give him my phone. And yeah, so I gave him. But I had my, like - kind of, like, a decoy phone. And I did not have anything there - like, no social media, no photos. And, you know, he thought it was pretty suspicious. He was, like, asking, what the hell is this? He was, like, looking for a reason to detain me. And I remember I thought that this is it. Like, I thought that I might die today or something - or tortured. I don't know. It's just a crazy feeling. I don't know. I've never felt that before.
LONSDORF: The soldiers finally let him go. But Vitaly was shaken. You can hear it in his voice.
VITALY: Yeah, but anyway - but there's no way that I'm going anywhere right now.
LONSDORF: He tells me he and his mom - they've decided they're just going to wait it out till the fighting is over, until Kherson is hopefully liberated by Ukraine. He sounds depressed.
VITALY: I just sit at home all the time, so...
LONSDORF: But then a little over a week ago...
VITALY: There's a classmate of mine. He went through Crimea to Georgia.
LONSDORF: Vitaly tells me that they've changed their minds and have decided to go the other way out - south, through Crimea and into Russia and across the border into Georgia, a place friendly to Ukrainians.
VITALY: And he says that you guys got nothing to worry about. I thought it was pretty dangerous, but he kind of, like, convinced me.
LONSDORF: Vitaly is acutely aware that he is a 22-year-old man - just the right age to be fighting in the army. But the battle is moving closer and closer. So he and his mom pack up. They find a friend who is also leaving who can drive. He clears his phone, deletes our chats, removes me from his contacts.
VITALY: Because I know the Russians are, you know, looking for people with a pro-Ukrainian side. And - but if they're going to find out that I interact with Americans, I mean, they're going to kill me.
LONSDORF: They make one more trip to the village to say goodbye to his grandma - she's going to stay - and they go for it.
VITALY: Pretty sure this whole experience is going to look like the movie "Argo," if you've ever watched it, like, starring Ben Affleck. It's probably going to be, like, the scariest, the hardest experience that I would go through.
LONSDORF: It's worth noting here that Vitaly speaks English the way he does because he learned by watching American movies and YouTube channels. Vitaly tells me not to text him. He'll reach out when it's safe. And yet again, days go by. And then this past weekend...
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CHIMING)
LONSDORF: A message pops up on my Instagram.
VITALY: Hey, Kat, I got through the Russia, and I'm in Georgia now.
LONSDORF: They made it. Vitaly's exhausted. They drove mostly at night, were interrogated at checkpoints and waited for hours and hours at border crossings.
VITALY: And he was, like, typing things in the computer. I think maybe...
LONSDORF: But they're finally out of Kherson right as it becomes the center of the next phase of the war. And now the next phase of Vitaly's life as a refugee can begin. Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.