Ukrainians have told how people, including pensioners, were abducted at gunpoint from their homes, held in solitary confinement and tortured for refusing to vote in Russia’s “sham” referendums.
As President Vladimir Putin prepares to announce the annexation of four areas of southern and eastern Ukraine - a land grab which the West and Kyiv says it will refuse to recognise - terrified residents in the occupied areas of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, have told The Independent how separatist troops and local supporters tried to force people to vote.
They said volunteers carrying pro-referendum leaflets were physically dragging people to polling stations and spoke of large networks of “informers” who reported any citizen believed to be against annexation to the occupying forces.
Those fleeing also claimed many men were desperately heading to Ukrainian-held territories because of fears that conscription in occupied areas would start as early as next week once Moscow formalises annexation.
“Gunmen came to my house and arrested me and took me to a solitary confinement cell in a detention centre for three days,” says Olena, a 70-year-old woman from the occupied town of Melitopol, in the Zaporizhzhia region.
She says women with leaflets who arrived at her door tried to physically drag her to a polling station and reported her to the police when she refused to go with them to vote.
“[The soldiers] put a bag on my head and taped it,” she continues, explaining that she was then put in front of a Russian TV crew where the alleged charges against her were read out.
“The reasons given were disrupting the referendum and after that such a long list of accusations, like I’m a chief terrorist.”
She was eventually expelled from the occupied territory for Ukrainian-held areas but then the OAP had to walk 20 kilometres and had no access to food for three days.
“I think [The women] informed on me because the Russian-installed governor of Zaporizhzhia declared that there would be a 500,000 ruble [£7,900] bounty for every “spy or saboteur” that was caught. There is an atmosphere of fear, people are not sure who they can trust,” she adds.
Maksym, 39, from neighbouring Kherson, who was also detained for avoiding the vote said informing was now rampant terrorising local communities.
“People are afraid of everything, and now only speak to their closest relatives,” he tells The Independent from a reception centre for internally displaced people after escaping.
“The administration of the youth centre where I work was collaborating with the occupying authorities and got me arrested for allegedly stealing backpacks.
“I was detained and beaten, accused of all sorts of ‘crimes’ and was forced to sign a confession. I spent three days there,” he adds.
A huge celebration will take place in Red Square, Moscow on Friday where Russia will announced it is incorporating the regions into its federation, despite not having full control of the regions and suffering major military losses in recent weeks.
Russia claims that support in the regions for annexation has reached as high as 99 per cent in some areas.
Gunmen came to my house and arrested me and took me to a solitary confinement cell in a detention centre for three days
Olena, 70 held in solitary in Melitopol for refusing to vote
After announcing the annexation, President Putin is expected to give a major speech.
The announcement is almost certain to increase tensions between Russia and Ukraine and the West, providing a new flashpoint in the seven-month long war.
Western officials have denounced the votes as illegal and rigged and Ukraine has called it a “Kremlin freak show”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called an emergency meeting on Friday of his National Security and Defence Council where “fundamental decisions” will be taken.
Russia has also made opaque threats that the conflict could turn nuclear if the annexed lands are attacked.
Maksym said many men in the regions are fleeing before being conscripted.
His wife Victoria says after he was released they fled fearing both the husband and their son, who is 18, would be drafted soon.
“Men are leaving occupied territories en masse. Up until now there has been no forced conscription yet but it will start. We also defied the so-called “referendum”.
“People being persecuted for likes and posts on social media,” he adds.
Igor, 53, from Tokmak in Zaporizhzhia whose wife is a Ukrainian language teacher and who also fled to Ukrainian-held territory, says his family were so afraid during the first few days of the referendum they hid in their house pretending as if “no one was at home”.
“But when we saw vehicles full of soldiers coming, we decided to leave,” he continues as his wife sobs in the background.
The United States and the European Union are set to impose additional sanctions on Russia over the annexation. Even some of Russia’s close traditional allies, such as Serbia and Kazakhstan, say they will not recognise the move.
President Zelensky has meanwhile promised a strong response and summoned his defence and security chiefs for an emergency meeting on Friday where “fundamental decisions” will be taken.
Russian government officials have said that the four regions will fall under Moscow’s nuclear umbrella once they have been formally incorporated. It comes after President Putin said he could use nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory if necessary.
With additional reporting by Elizabeth Pashkova