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Ukraine evacuates civilians as Russia tries to retake liberated city

The government order was clear: Everyone still here should leave.

For weeks, Russia has ramped up its attacks on Kupyansk, trying to win back a city it lost last year when Ukrainian forces retook control after more than six months of Russian occupation.

With Kyiv now focusing its latest counterattack largely in the country’s south, Moscow is trying to gain ground elsewhere — and Ukrainian soldiers positioned in this enclave 25 miles from the Russian border are working urgently to repel their advance.

As Russian forces target troop locations and strike civilian infrastructure with artillery fire, mortar rounds and aerial bombs, the Ukrainians are digging into positions in the woods and on the sides of roads — and striking back. At stake is control of a strategic military resupply route and a rail hub.

The near-constant shelling is killing five to 10 civilians in the city and surrounding area each week, the regional governor said. Although officials here are reluctant to acknowledge the looming risk of a second Russian occupation, they say they can no longer guarantee the safety of people who choose to stay.

“Do not neglect your safety and the safety of your loved ones!” the regional military administration warned in a message on Telegram. The administration ordered residents to evacuate the city and dozens of nearby settlements on Aug. 10.

But convincing residents that they should relocate is proving a challenge.

In the days since the order, some 2,000 people signed releases stating they don’t want to leave and won’t hold local authorities responsible for whatever comes next, the mayor said. Only about 6,000 people are left in Kupyansk itself, he said, and 11,800 in the greater area.

Those who have agreed to clear out are being evacuated by a coalition of volunteer groups. Some volunteers drove an ambulance through Kupyansk last week to reach one couple, Oleksandr and Natalya, in their fourth-floor apartment on the city’s east side. On their way, they passed a home engulfed in flames after a Russian artillery strike.

At the couple’s building, they laid Oleksandr in a tarp to carry him downstairs. The 69-year-old is largely immobile after a stroke. He was followed by Natalya, also 69, carrying a few bags of belongings and a purple pillow she placed gently under her husband’s head.

“Why are you so worried?” he asked. “We are together, in the car.”

The ambulance pulled away, to drive down bumpy, dusty roads and again past the still-burning home.

Tetiana Skrynnikova, 60, stood outside crying.

She had planned to leave her longtime home last Thursday, but stayed an extra day to harvest potatoes from her garden. Just after she finished her work, a Russian strike hit the house next door, killing her childhood friend, Lyudmila Tokareva.

She watched helplessly as flames engulfed Tokareva’s home. When firefighters, in armored vests and helmets, finally put out the fire, they found the woman’s charred remains in the hallway inside. The explosion had sent her dishes flying off her shelves, covering her body with pieces of white plates embellished with Ukrainian designs.

Skrynnikova, her own injuries bleeding through her brown dress, wept into her phone. “Lyuda is gone!” she cried. “We were picking up potatoes.”

The next morning, Skrynnikova packed everything she could fit into the volunteers’ car — including two religious icons she always carries with her — and climbed in for the ride to a small, safer town two hours away.

Tokareva had already lost her son, husband and parents, Skrynnikova said. She had “just retired and could just start living,” she said. “I will never forget seeing her charred corpse until the day I die.”

Officials hope such horror stories will help convince others that they should not try to stay.

“I am constantly talking to the people on the streets and to elderly people, trying to explain to them that this is a time when they need to move away to safer places in the country to save the most important thing there is: their lives,” said Andriy Besedi, Kupyansk’s de facto mayor since the former mayor was accused of collaborating with the Russians.

On Saturday morning, volunteers from Kharkiv dressed in vests, helmets and goggles to protect themselves from shelling pulled up to a small house on a dirt road and helped Valentina Okhrymenko, 78, carry her bags to their blue van. A neighbor across the street wept as she watched her leave.

Okhrymenko took the time to lock her front door and gate even as outgoing and incoming artillery fire boomed loudly nearby and smoke rose in the distance.

Like Skrynnikova, she had delayed her departure to harvest her potatoes. Then, on Aug. 14, a mortar round hit her garden — destroying her crops and blowing out all the windows in her home. “It made me go a bit faster than planned,” she said.

Despite the demonstrable danger, those who have decided to stay appear undeterred.

In a makeshift market just inside the town, vendors offer a range of goods: clothing, sunglasses, watermelons, fresh milk. Artillery boomed in the distance, but business carried on.

“We don’t want to believe everyone needs to evacuate. We lived through occupation and waited for our soldiers to arrive,” said Vita Rozdorozhna, 52, who sells plastic flowers for funerals. “Now they’re here and we have to leave? Why?”

Kharkiv regional governor Oleh Synyehubov said Russian forces have expanded their front line and have “been accumulating their military presence [in the area] for a long time.”

For those residents who have stayed, life keeps getting harder.

A strike this month hit a blood transfusion center. Another hit a bridge that civilians and evacuation teams had been using to cross through Kupyansk. That attack will probably complicate efforts to take civilians out and carry military supplies in.

Alina Davydenko, a 27-year-old psychologist who works with residents in Kupyansk, said even those who are putting on brave faces are living in constant fear.

Adults and children tell her they are suffering from a lack of sleep and nightmares. Some kids are regressing to wetting their beds or are missing normal developmental markers. Art by the children features military equipment and explosions — reflections, she said, of their stress and surroundings.

Many of those still in Kupyansk when the evacuation order was announced were already vulnerable. They include many elderly people who survived Russian occupation last year and are reluctant to uproot their lives now.

Halyna and Volodymyr Kovalenko, 80 and 86, finally fled their village near the front line on Thursday. “We got scared because there was a lot of noise and a lot of movement of heavy military equipment and tanks, especially at night,” Halyna said from a shelter in Kharkiv the next day. Their only valuable possessions, they said, were their 12-year-old dog, Rybko, and their bike. They left the bike behind.

In another Kharkiv shelter, Nina Shyp, 82, sat surrounded by her life’s work — piles of traditional embroidery she took with her when she fled. Her life has been bookended by suffering: In the 1940s, she said, she lived through famine. Her family survived by boiling turtles she helped catch in the river near their home.

In the next room, sisters Valentina and Hanna Lobanova, 86 and 92, lay next to each other in narrow cots.

Hanna, a retired math teacher, is old enough to remember the day her father was drafted by the Soviet military to fight in World War II.

The history of Ukraine is deeply intertwined with her own: Eighty years later, the Russian military destroyed her house on the first day of its invasion in February 2022. She moved in with her frail younger sister outside Kupyansk and had left the apartment only twice since, once when she tried to collect her pension and the next when she was evacuated to Kharkiv by volunteers. Now, again displaced, she fears they’ll be unable to afford the long-term care they need and could be separated.

On Thursday night, she fell asleep thinking of home. In her dream, she said, “someone was yelling: ‘Ukraine has peace! The war is over!’”

She woke up in the shelter, she said, and found that it wasn’t.

Source: Washington Post