Since Russia invaded Ukraine, thousands of people have fled occupied regions of the country over myriad routes
SUMY, Ukraine — Whenever 52-year-old Anna is agitated, she senses the chilling touch of a gun barrel between her brows — a haunting reminder of an encounter with a group of Russian soldiers on her street about a year ago.
On that day, amid tears and screams, the soldiers threatened to kill her and her husband, fired bullets on the ground between their feet and then dragged her brother-in-law to an unknown location, apparently furious that he couldn’t guide them to where they could find alcohol.
Two weeks later, Anna’s husband, who himself had been hospitalized previously because of heart problems, found his brother’s body in the forest, not far from the village where they lived, in a Russian-occupied area of Ukraine’s southeastern Zaporizhzhia region. Two weeks after that, he died.
“His heart couldn’t bear it,” Anna said.
Alone and afraid, Anna sank into a depression.
“I don’t know how I coped with it,” she says, repeating the phrase over and over as tears run down her face. On Nov. 22, she finally fled her home, joining a trickle of refugees on “the corridor,” a 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) trek along a front line of the fighting that Ukrainians also refer to as the “gray zone,” situated between the Belgorod region of Russia and Ukraine’s Sumy region.
Since the war in Ukraine began, thousands of people have fled Russian-occupied areas over myriad routes. Now, nearly two years in, “the corridor” is their only option to cross directly into Ukraine.
Allowed to move freely through Russian-controlled zones, most take buses to the corridor from homes throughout the country: Zaporizhzhia and Kherson in the southeast, Donetsk and Luhansk in the northeast, and Crimea, the southern peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014.
Once they get to the corridor, they must proceed on foot, traipsing through an open, treeless no man’s land, the whir of artillery and the whine of drones from nearby battles echoing in their ears. They are warned before they go that no one will be able to guarantee their safety as they cross. Some travel with children or elderly parents.
By the time they arrive in Sumy, they are exhausted, barely finding the strength to carry the few belongings they were able to grab before they fled. And yet, for many, to remain in the occupied zones is not an option.