By Jonathan Landay
ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (Reuters) – Although he exceeds draft age, Dmytro Rossuzhday was certain he would be press ganged into Moscow-backed Ukrainian rebel forces when his bus was stopped at the last checkpoint of the Russian-held part of Zaporizhzhia province.
But after he and his elderly mother spent the night on the bus with 16 others, Russian forces on Tuesday finally allowed them and hundreds of other people to cross into Ukrainian-controlled territory in the southeast.
“I was 100 percent positive I would be mobilized,” recounted the 48-year-old farmer from Zeleny Pot, choking back tears of relief at a refugee reception centre in a home improvement store parking lot outside the provincial capital.
Many of those in the centre on Tuesday were draft-age men aged 18-35 who had been previously prevented from leaving Russian-held areas by Russian forces, the new arrivals told Reuters, unable to explain the change.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the situation in Russian-held Zaporizhzhia and whether there had been a change in policy.
Filip, a 23-year-old student from Berdyansk who declined to give his last name, said he and his girlfriend first tried driving to Ukrainian-held territory last week.
“The first time we tried they would not allow men 18-35 (years old) to leave. ‘You will be fighting for (Russian President Vladimir) Putin,'” he quoted a checkpoint guard as telling him. “This is the second time we tried leaving. The conditions for life became very complicated. It was too scary to stay.”
More than 400 people had streamed into the centre by early afternoon on Tuesday, said aid workers, the final day of what Ukraine and its Western allies denounced as bogus referendums with pre-determined results mounted by Putin as a pretext to annex Zaporizhzhia and three other Ukrainian provinces.
Putin says the votes were designed to protect people from what he has called the persecution of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers by Ukraine, something Kyiv denies.
“We don’t know anyone who supports this,” said Nataliya Kazidub, echoing widespread disdain for the voting expressed by others who have fled from Russian-held parts of Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Luhansk, and Donetsk provinces.
Putin is expected to declare them part of Russia later this week.
Cars, vans and buses churned into the parking lot as the afternoon wore on, women cradling babies, children holding pets, local police registering newcomers clustered around their vehicles.
The voting followed a “partial mobilization” that Putin declared on Sept. 21 after a lightning Ukrainian counterstrike reclaimed more than 8,500 square kilometres of the country’s northeast taken by Russian forces since their invasion in February.
Ridwan Ramazov, 30, said he left his village of Novo Alekseyeva in Kherson province on Saturday with his wife and two infant children, but was barred from driving to Ukrainian-held Zaporizhzhia until Tuesday.
Not only did guards allow them through, he said, but they showed sympathy for his five-month-old son by escorting the family to the front of an “enormous” line of waiting vehicles.
Locals in Zaporizhzhia city, the capital of the province, said Russian forces had fired missiles on the city on Tuesday even before the referendums had ended.
One projectile dug a massive crater next to the Zaporizhzhia Sich restaurant, said its owner Sergiy, who did not give a surname. The restaurant is on Khortytsia, a huge island in the Dnipro River famed for its derelict Cossack fortress.
The missile severed power lines and trees, smashed windows, and flung from the restaurant’s walls photographs of famous Ukrainian, Russian, and Soviet personalities who dined there, Sergiy said.
He said he removed a picture of Putin after the Russian leader seized Crimea in 2014.
Another missile crashed into the rear of the Sunrise Hotel, a hotel, restaurant, and spa in a leafy park in downtown Zaporizhzhia, the second time it was hit in four days, said one of its owners, Vitali, 59, who declined to give his last name.
“It’s empty. There was only a security man inside,” he said, adding that there were no casualties on Tuesday and one dead and four injured in Saturday’s strike.
Russia denies targeting civilians in what it calls a “special military operation” to demilitarise Ukraine.
The hotel’s mascot, a dog named Stepa, survived both attacks, said Dmitri Kolobova, who was helping clear rubble.
“He’s a rocket-proof dog,” Kolobova chuckled as Stepa pranced nearby, wagging his tail.
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Tom Balmforth and Alexandra Hudson)