People flee for their lives from Ukraine’s southern city of Kherson

Nick Paton Walsh, Natalie Gallón, Maryna Marukhnych and Brice Laine

A steady flow of people have been making their way across fields and rivers dotting southern Ukraine’s countryside through the day. As night falls, the crowds swell. They travel on foot, by bicycle, or wheelbarrow.

They are desperate to leave behind the Russian occupation of their hometown, Kherson, and are willing to take — and risk — any route possible out of the city to the rest of the country.

The occupied areas around Kherson — the first to be taken by advancing Russian forces in the opening days of the war — have been terrorized in the past week by both the advancing second phase of Moscow’s offensive, but also fears of a referendum on Wednesday.

Ukraine has said Russia plans to hold a vote in the region — widely viewed there as a sham referendum — to try to show popular support for the creation of a new entity called the Kherson People’s Republic, which would mirror similar entities in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Multiple locals and several Ukrainian officials told CNN the vote had been scheduled for April 27.

Yet the day before, Russian-backed officials announced a series of new government officials in the occupied city, leading some observers to think the referendum may have been postponed in favor of these new appointments.

Ukrainian officials also say Russia is running into trouble over plans to hold a poll as early as Wednesday.

Regardless, fear of the impending vote and its implications — a possible strengthening of Russia’s control — has led many residents to flee fast.

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