Home / Politics / News /  Ukraine rushes to evacuate civilians in east as Russia’s offensive pushes forward

SLOVYANSK (UKRAINE) : Ukrainian authorities are scrambling to evacuate the remaining civilians from the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions as Russia begins its new military offensive here and pitched battles get closer to the area’s main population centers.

The main cities in the Ukrainian-controlled parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, such as Kramatorsk, Slovyansk and Severodonetsk, have already turned into ghost towns, with almost all stores and businesses closed, streets emptied and only a handful of apartments in each housing block still inhabited.

As the massing Russian forces attempt to push through Ukrainian defenses under the cover of long-range artillery and aircraft, Ukrainian officials have warned that any civilians staying behind could be trapped—as happened in February in the city of Mariupol, where Kyiv says more than 10,000 people have died in weeks of bloody urban fighting.

On Monday, two Russian battalion tactical groups with some 60 tanks managed to break through Ukrainian lines after a three-day battle and take the town of Kreminna in Luhansk region, Ukrainian officials said. From Kreminna, the Russian forces are attempting to push through forested areas in the direction of Slovyansk.

“There is no more time for thinking. Leave! Thousands of residents of Kreminna didn’t get out in time and have now become hostages of the Russians," Serhiy Haidai, the governor of Luhansk region, said Tuesday. “Save your lives so as not to become cheap labor for the Russians or not to be mobilized into occupation forces."

Russian President Vladimir Putin in February recognized the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, the pro-Russian statelets created in 2014, whose borders include two-thirds of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that Kyiv controlled at the time. Mr. Putin proclaimed the “liberation" of Donbas, as this area is collectively known, as the war’s key goal, especially after an initial push to seize Kyiv failed because of Ukrainian resistance.

The Donetsk and Luhansk “republics" have rounded up and drafted men up to the age of 65, sending them with little training and World War II-vintage weapons to the front lines against Ukrainian forces. That is one reason why civilian men, in particular, should leave the areas targeted by the Russian offensive as soon as possible, Ukrainian officials say. The evacuation isn’t mandatory, however. “It is an evacuation, not a deportation," said Mr. Haidai.

On Tuesday, columns of Ukrainian reinforcements were heading toward Donbas from central Ukraine, with troops, ammunition and artillery pieces on the roads. In Slovyansk, men in uniform began to outnumber civilians on once-busy streets, many of them stocking up on dwindling supplies in the few remaining supermarkets before heading back to the front. Fuel stations were already closed. In Luhansk, electricity was down in most towns after Russian shelling disrupted the main power line.

Slovyansk holds high symbolic importance for both sides. The Donbas conflict began here in 2014, when Russian military veterans led by a former FSB intelligence service colonel seized the local administration. A Ukrainian military offensive retook Slovyansk and nearby Kramatorsk weeks later, but failed to seize the region’s main cities, Donetsk and Luhansk.

Russian troops now are pushing from several directions. The biggest effort is coming from the direction of the town of Izyum, north of Slovyansk, using as many as 50 battalion tactical groups, said Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the civil-military administration of the Donetsk region.

“We have no choice but to fight and to hold on to our territory. If there will be no fierce resistance, and if we don’t achieve a victory here, Putin will not stop at us and will keep going further, toward Kyiv, and onwards to threaten the countries of the European Union," Mr. Kyrylenko said.

Police Capt. Ihor Trebach, the head of criminal investigations in Kramatorsk district, which includes Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, said his officers were going house to house this week, trying to convince residents that it was time to go.

“What we have seen so far is whenever the Ukrainian Armed Forces are successful in the battlefield and push back the Russian forces, the Russians retaliate by simply shelling the civilian cities nearby. This has become the pattern throughout this war," he said.

His officers’ implorations were having mixed effect, Capt. Trebach said. Some residents, exposed to Russian propaganda on social media, still don’t believe that Russian forces would shell civilians, and attribute the destruction of cities like Mariupol to alleged neo-Nazis, he said. Others are afraid that their apartments will be looted if they escape. Many more, however, realize the danger but don’t want to abandon relatives who can’t or won’t leave their hometowns.

A 27-year-old woman said her mother, 56, was bedridden after a stroke and her brother was serving locally with the Ukrainian military. “If there were a way to go with my mom, we would. We understand everything," she said. “For now, we have prepared a cellar, it’s deep and strong, let’s hope we can survive in it."

“Only the fools aren’t afraid," added a teacher in Slovyansk who was also remaining behind to stay with a sick relative.

While Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, some 20 to 30 miles from the front lines, haven’t been shelled with artillery and multiple-launch rocket systems so far, they are within range. Russia has already fired several cruise missiles at the area, including one that hit a crowd of civilians awaiting an evacuation train at the Kramatorsk train station, killing 57 people, earlier this month. The train station is now closed and evacuations are conducted by bus or car.

Another cruise missile hit an empty field off Kramatorsk’s Heroes of Ukraine street on Monday morning, leaving a large crater and shattering windows across several city blocks.

An 82-year-old woman said she still didn’t want to leave even though she no longer had windows in her apartment. “It will all be all right in the end—and where can we go anyway?" she said. After the death of her son last year, she is taking care of her 15-year-old grandson. “Who wants us?" she said as she surveyed the damage. “And how can we afford to go?"

A bakery worker was leaving Slovyansk on Tuesday for the western Ukrainian city of Rivne. “We had kept hoping this would bypass it, that somehow we would manage to stay on," she said. “Now, it’s clear it’s time to go."

Her partner, who walked her through Slovyansk’s empty main square, said he also realized the urgency to escape but didn’t want to abandon his 13-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. “Her mother still hopes things will turn out well and doesn’t want to leave town or give her to me," he shook his head. “I am trying to convince her and call her every day, but so far without result."


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