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Elvira Zolotar, right, hugs her father, who recently arrived from the Russian-occupied territory of Zaporizhzha in Ukraine.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Sasha Alexander Tarasenko and his mother drove to Ukrainian-held Zaporizhzhia through a series of Russian checkpoints, telling soldiers a made-up story that she needed to travel for surgery. The cover worked. The real reason for their hasty departure was to get out of occupied territory before Moscow’s widely expected annexation of four regions of southern Ukraine following what it called referendums there.

His mother was at the dentist when she heard about the referendums. She said her hands shook when she imagined that her son might be taken away as part of Russia’s military mobilization.

Mr. Tarasenko and his mother were among a stream of cars in a supermarket parking lot that was serving as a welcome centre for those fleeing. The Ukrainians The Globe and Mail spoke with on Wednesday said that when they heard about the referendums, they knew they had to get out. But for men, it was especially crucial.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered mobilization at home, Ukrainian men aged 18 to 35 were prevented from leaving the occupied areas. But those fleeing said they were fearful that the age limit could be extended. Mr. Tarasenko is 42.

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Russian-installed administrators in occupied Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk on Wednesday formally asked Mr. Putin to incorporate them into Russia. The orchestrated vote concluded Tuesday with Russia announcing that the majority voted in favour of joining Russia.

But many Ukrainians in the occupied regions say they had been forced to participate in the referendum process and that armed men forced them to vote “yes” to join Russia.

It’s not clear what will happen in the coming days. Russian state media has reported that President Vladimir Putin was expected to deliver a speech Friday on annexation. And Russia has indicated it would defend any newly annexed land as its own.

The Kremlin called the referendums after the Ukrainian army’s lightning counteroffensive in Kharkiv region that resulted in the liberation of villages and towns.

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Russian reservists bid adieu to their families before departure for their military bases in Sevastopol, Crimea, on Sept. 27.ALEXEY PAVLISHAK/Reuters

Western countries have condemned the referendums as a sham. The United States is working with allies and partners to quickly impose severe economic costs on Moscow for orchestrating them in what has largely been viewed as a step toward annexing Ukrainian land.

The U.S. also said the “illegal and illegitimate” referendums would be challenged internationally. Meanwhile the European Union executive proposed on Wednesday an eighth round of sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, including tighter trade restrictions, more individual blacklistings and an oil price cap.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday. A readout from the Prime Minister’s Office said Mr. Trudeau denounced Russia’s illegitimate referendums in occupied regions of Ukraine and said Canada will not ever recognize the results or Russia’s attempted illegal annexation of Ukrainian territories.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a statement on Wednesday that forcing people “to fill out some papers at the barrel of a gun is yet another Russian crime in the course of its aggression against Ukraine.”

He said it does not have any implications for Ukraine’s administrative-territorial system and internationally recognized borders. “All citizens of Ukraine who took part in the organization of these acts together with the Russian occupiers will bear responsibility in accordance with the provisions of the Criminal Code of Ukraine.”

Valerii, a 50-year-old veteran of the Ukrainian army who arrived in the supermarket parking lot, said he fled Berdyans’k because he was also fearful of what comes next for the area and, particularly, of mobilization. The Globe is not naming him because he fears retaliation from Russia officials who have been trying to find him. Sitting in the parking lot, Valerii kept his eyes focused on the road where a bus carrying his wife and mother would arrive from occupied territory.

He said it was impossible living under occupation, but he stayed for family and routine. Then his neighbours, former policemen, began collaborating with the occupiers, he said. He was scared they would share information about him. “Traitors would be the softest word for them,” he said, pointing out that they are in the minority. “The general population does not support Russia.”

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A man hangs Russian flags at a café in the Kremlin-controlled region of Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, on Sept. 27. 'Illegal and illegitimate' referendums were held over the past few days in Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine.The Associated Press

And like many Ukrainians who Russia forced from their homes, he is optimistic he will return. “We expect that Ukraine will come back, so it doesn’t change a lot,” he said of the possibility that Russia will annex the occupied provinces.

Elvira Zolotar, 30, was standing among cars lined up in the parking lot. She said she lives in a village between Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. She said soldiers didn’t make her vote because they couldn’t get to her – they have a big dog, she said – and their house is a bit remote. But they did find her 80-year-old grandmother.

“They came to her house and told her to vote ‘yes’ and she told me, ‘How can I vote no? How can I resist people with guns?’”

Ms. Zolotar said her husband is left behind because he is of conscript age, but added that he is also tending to their farm land, which is all they have. When he’s finished with planting season, he’s going to try to find a way out, she said.

“He said he definitely will not fight against Ukraine. That’s for sure,” Ms. Zolotar said. “My intention is in six months maximum to get back to my house and it will be Ukraine.”

Nearby, Maryna and Anatolii Gryukach stood outside their car, which was completely weighed down with belongings. They had two dogs in the very back and two cats in a plastic carrier. They travelled to safety with their young son, Denys, and Maryna’s grandmother, Halyna.

“This referendum has finally kicked us down,” Ms. Gryukach said, adding that they tried to escape on another occasion but were stuck on the road for days and decided to return home. “Here, even the air smells like freedom,” she said, saying she was always fearful of saying the wrong thing in front of Russian soldiers and getting arrested

Mr. Gryukach said they always wanted to leave but felt determined to stay. “You get strengthened by this … why should I leave instead of them?”

With reports from Reuters

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