ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — A long line of cars pulls into the parking lot of a home goods store set up as a makeshift welcome center. People pile out of the cars, looking exhausted but relieved, some are crying, many are smiling. Officials stop at each car, checking documents.
This convoy is coming from the south, from places like Melitopol and Kherson, areas that have been occupied by Russia for months now.
"We were waiting, hoping that the Ukrainian army would come, and the battle for our city would begin," said 55-year-old Viktoria Yermoleny, who left Melitopol with her husband and their dog. "But then we heard about the referendum, and we just couldn't risk it anymore."
Controversial Russian referendums have begun in the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson — some of which are only partially controlled by Russia. The voting is illegal under both Ukrainian and international law and is largely seen as a sham, as it's almost certain to result in Moscow's favor. But still, it could pave the way for the Kremlin to annex the areas, bringing them in to join the Russian Federation.
It could also begin a dramatic escalation in the seven-month war, as Russia could use the referendums to illegitimately claim that any attempt by Ukrainian forces to retake land is an attack on Russia itself. The voting is set to run for five days, until Sept. 27.
"It's all staged, and it's all fake," Yermoleny said of the voting, as her husband nodded beside her. She said that their neighbors who stayed behind had plans to hide if Russian soldiers came to their home to get them to vote.
"But that's not going to help anyway," she said. "The Russians are just going to write the numbers that they need and be done with it."
Russian news outlets confirmed that door-to-door voting is how most of the referendums would be held. The Kremlin announced the vote so quickly that there was no time to put together key voting infrastructure, according to the Russian news site TASS. Rather than electronic voting, authorities will hand out paper ballots to residents at home.
Ninel Lysenko, 67, was also fleeing Melitopol. She's originally from Donetsk and was there when a similar referendum was held back in 2014.
"I saw what they did there, and it was all staged," Lysenko said. "I mean, what can you do when they come to your home? How can you vote when they have guns?"
When asked, Lysenko admitted that there is some support for Russia inside the areas where votes are being held — mainly among older people who have fond memories of the Soviet Union — but that it was nowhere near a majority, and many are being bribed with humanitarian aid or double pensions.
But she said even pro-Russian support is waning dramatically. "With this war, many people have realized what Russia really is," she said.
The referendums come alongside President Vladimir Putin's recent announcement of the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Russians, which has set off significant protests in Russia.
Pro-referendum rallies are taking place across Russia as the voting starts up in Ukraine, but local media report that Pro-Kremlin activists, students, and pensioners were bused in for the rallies, sometimes for pay. Voting is also happening at sites in Russia to accommodate Ukrainian refugees who have crossed the border, according to the Kremlin.
In the convoy of cars coming from Russian-held Ukrainian territory, all men aged 18 to 35 were reportedly removed by Russian forces and sent back to the occupied areas. Ablamit — who only wanted to give his first name for fear of his family members who were left behind — said his 34-year-old son was taken out of their car and told he needed to return, leaving the son's wife and small child to carry on without him.
"I tried to demand that they tell me why he was being sent back, and they said it was because he would fight for Ukraine if they let him pass," said Ablamit, 62.
When asked if he was worried that his son would be forced to fight for Russia if the referendum goes through and annexation occurs, Ablamit just sighed.
"I haven't even let myself think about that yet," he said.
The referendums and looming annexation are worrying to those in Ukrainian-held territory as well, especially given the huge numbers of internally displaced people throughout the country. Many have left the areas where voting is now being held and are watching, worried about friends and family left behind. Others have been separated from their neighbors, counting themselves lucky that Russian forces haven't reached them yet.
In the village of Maksymivka, across the Dnipro River from Russian-controlled areas, villagers are now separated from friends and family, unable to see them for months. Oksana Zelenyuk, 34, who works in the local mini-mart, says practically everyone in the village knows someone on the other side of the river. If annexation occurs, she wonders what it could mean for those relationships.
"We are in touch with them all the time, constantly worrying about what life is like for them over there," Zelenyuk said. "This situation isn't good for anyone."