Ukrainians reveal horrors of occupation as Russia's 'sham' referendums close

Seven months into the war, its cruelty retains the capacity to shock. ITV News' John Ray speaks to survivors in Ukraine.

"First there was the sound of shooting, and my daughter screamed," Valentina Balakan tells ITV News from Ukraine's Kherson region.

"As I ran to them I could see they were already dead, because there was such a huge pool of blood. And then I started screaming 'daughter, daughter' my neighbours came running, it was terrible."

In June her daughter Svetlana and her son-in-law Sergiy were on their way to celebrate Valentina's birthday, but got no further than the front door before they were killed by Russian forces.

Breaking down in tears, she said it was "too painful" to stay at the spot where her daughter and son-in-law died, describing their killers as "not human" and as "animals".

As she reflected on the brutality of occupation, another local named Maria said: "There was death everywhere I looked."

Now their neighbourhood is liberated, and Ukrainian forces continue to make advances and are taking back more and more territory in the east of the country.

With Russian forces on the back foot, Kremlin-orchestrated referendums that Moscow is expected to use a pretext to annex occupied regions of Ukraine concluded today.

The move has heightened tensions with Western countries that have already declared the votes illegitimate. Moscow-backed officials in the four occupied regions in southern and eastern Ukraine said polls closed on Tuesday afternoon after five days of voting, and the counting of ballots had started.

Marita tells ITV News how there was 'death everywhere' when Russian troops arrived. Credit: ITV News

Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to address Russia's parliament about the referendums, which started on Friday in the Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

Valentina Matviyenko, who chairs the parliament's upper house, said lawmakers could consider annexation legislation on October 4. The prospect of annexation sets the stage for a dangerous new phase in the seven-month war in Ukraine.

Already Russia is ramping up warnings that it could deploy nuclear weapons to defend its territory, and a mobilisation to bolster its military well underway.

After the balloting, “the situation will radically change from the legal viewpoint, from the point of view of international law, with all the corresponding consequences for protection of those areas and ensuring their security,” Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

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The referendums ask residents whether they want the areas to be incorporated into Russia, and the Kremlin has portrayed them as free and fair, reflective of the people's desire for self-determination.

Many Western leaders have called the referendum a sham, and the UN Security Council was scheduled to meet later on Tuesday in New York to discuss a resolution that says results will never be accepted. Putin has been talking up Moscow's nuclear option since Ukrainians launched a counteroffensive that has increasingly cornered his forces, and a top aide of his ratcheted up nuclear rhetoric today. “Let’s imagine that Russia is forced to use the most powerful weapon against the Ukrainian regime that has committed a large-scale act of aggression, which is dangerous for the very existence of our state,” said Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of the Russian Security Council.

“I believe that NATO will steer clear from direct meddling in the conflict.”

A Ukrainian soldier tells ITV News' John Ray he's not worried about nuclear strikes. Credit: ITV News

The United States has dismissed the Kremlin's nuclear talk as a scare tactic, and so have some troops on the ground.

One Ukrainian fighter in Kherson told ITV News: "It's only words, Putin speaks - that's all, no more."

He said Putin "likes his life" and suggested Russia wouldn't use nuclear weapons because "Great Britain and America kills them" in response.

Tens of thousands of residents had already fled the regions where the Moscow-backed referendums are being held, with Russia claiming 95% of voters have shown support.

Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko, who left the port city after the Russians seized it after a months-long siege, said only about 20% of the 100,000 estimated remaining residents cast ballots in the Donetsk referendum.

To put that into context, Mariupol's pre-war population was 541,000. “A man toting an assault rifle comes to your home and asks you to vote, so what can people do?” Boychenko asked during a news conference, explaining how people were coerced into voting. Western allies sided firmly with Ukraine, dismissing the referendum votes as a meaningless sham, with UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly calling the ballots "a desperate move".