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While Russian troops are stepping up their attacks on eastern Ukraine, tens of thousands of civilians have been captured.
Many are unable to evacuate from towns fighting in the Donbas, while others are under heavy shelling not far from the front line. Those who have managed to escape find refuge in the increasingly crowded western Ukraine.
With Russia’s record of destroying cities and accusations that its troops have committed war crimes against civilians, the authorities want people to leave and not ride out the attack at home.
“Some people are careless. Such people think grenades will hit other places than where they are. Some older people are stubborn in the sense that they say, ‘We were born here – and we will die here,'” said Serhiy Gaidai, governor of Luhansk Oblast, to POLITICO in a telephone interview.
He estimated that up to 70,000 out of 330,000 near the front lines of his region have refused to leave their homes despite requests from local officials and the government in Kiev.
The region is the scene of fierce fighting and is part of the territory that Russia on Friday said was its war target in Ukraine, as it appears to be conquering the entire country’s Black Sea coast and the industrial Donbas region to the east.
Not everyone is afraid of the Russians. There is a minority of pro-Moscow people, Gaidai said. “They are waiting for the arrival of ‘the Russian world’.”
‘There are not that many of them, but such people exist. Basically, these people belong to low social classes, they have low incomes, ”he said. “They watch Russian TV around the clock and they are simply zombified.”
But for the overwhelming majority, Russia’s ruthless approach to urban warfare is the main driving force that causes them to flee.
Two weeks ago, the 95,000-strong city of Lysychansk came under heavy fire from Russian troops. ‘Ten people were killed in one of the micro-districts. Parts of their bodies lay on the street for all to see. “People in that area evacuated the city immediately,” he said. “But the people living in nearby areas who heard the explosions but did not see the bodies remained in their homes.”
Get people out
The central government in Kiev has found it increasingly difficult to negotiate with Russia on humanitarian corridors that allow civilians to leave war-torn regions. Earlier in the week, the government said it had not been able to secure such corridors for three days in a row.
The most tragic situation is in the besieged Mariupol in the nearby Donetsk region. Out of a pre-war population of 450,000, the Ukrainian authorities estimate that up to 170,000 are still in the city, much of which has been totally destroyed in weeks of shelling and street fighting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed on Thursday that his forces had captured Mariupol, but hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers are still holding out in the massive Azovstal steelworks along with some civilians.
On Thursday, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said a humanitarian corridor from the city agreed on Wednesday failed mainly due to Russia’s military commando’s inability to control its forces on the ground.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was forced to suspend its operations in the city.
“Now it is unrealistic to bring help there. If the situation changes and becomes quiet, our team will go there and distribute humanitarian aid. But now the situation in Mariupol is close to apocalyptic, and in such circumstances it is simply impossible to work, “said ICRC spokesman Oleksandr Vlasenko.
He said the Red Cross’ warehouse had also been hit in the fighting.
“Fortunately no one [from the ICRC team] was there even though our staff has been in Mariupol for a long time. Our people have helped civilians living in bomb shelters. “
This is not the only case where a civilian object has been hit by the Russians.
Gaidai claimed that evacuation buses in the Luhansk region have been shelled by Russian troops on several occasions despite agreements on humanitarian corridors. “That’s why we never trusted [the corridors] in the first place – we just get people out every day. “
A few weeks ago, as many as 3,000 people a day were driven out of the danger zone; it has now dropped to only about 100 a day.
“But even though there are only 10 people a day, we will still continue to evacuate them,” said Gaidai, speaking from a location in Luhansk Oblast that he was unable to reveal for security reasons.
“I’m changing my location because there is [Russian] sabotage and reconnaissance groups that have been instructed to eliminate me, ”the governor said.
While the Ukrainian authorities try to evacuate as many civilians from the east as possible, the western regions of the country are preparing for a new wave of refugees.
In the early days of the war, most refugees arrived by train, but Russia’s rocket attack earlier this month on a train station in Krematorsk in eastern Ukraine that killed 57 people changed that.
“The authorities have reduced the number of evacuation trains and people have started traveling in other ways, mostly by bus,” Serhiy Kiral, Lviv’s deputy mayor, told POLITICO.
He estimated that up to 2,500 people arrive in the Lviv region every day. The city of 700,000 has already received over 200,000 refugees since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion on 24 February.
He called the refugee movement “a dynamic process”, with some people traveling on to Poland, some staying in Lviv and others returning to Kiev after Russian forces were forced to withdraw from near the Ukrainian capital.
Although he said the city still has “more respite” to receive new refugees in schools, sports halls and concert venues that have been recycled as shelters, it is only a temporary solution.
“We need help to build temporary shelters or even better permanent new housing for the resettled people,” he said. This would not only give people better living conditions, but also bring the approximately 500 school buildings, sports and music venues back to their original purpose.
“Schools are for kids to learn in. Sports halls are for sports,” he said.