Civilians escape towns in eastern Ukraine as Russian onslaught looms
By bus and train, residents continue to roll out of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk in eastern Ukraine as fears grow the towns will be prime targets for another major Russian offensive.
On Tuesday morning, a green and yellow bus from the local FC Kramatorsk football team was waiting in the rain to pick up around 50 people.
The men dropped off their wives, children and elderly relatives for the journey west which was funded by a religious group.
Worry and sadness were etched on the faces of loved ones as they prepared to say goodbye.
The frontline is only 50 kilometers (30 miles) north, east and south of Kramatorsk – the Ukrainian army’s main hub for its operations in the east.
That distance could soon be reduced as Russia gathers its forces for an assault that many believe will be aimed at capturing the city and neighboring Sloviansk in a pincer movement.
A family got out of a taxi to take the bus, among them a little girl holding a plastic box containing a black and white cat.
Valentina Oleynikova, 82, was leaving with her husband.
Angry that the threat of the Russian onslaught forced her to leave her home, she dismissed President Vladimir Putin’s claim that his forces were seeking to liberate the largely Russian-speaking region of Donbass from Ukrainian “neo-Nazis”.
“All my family is from Russia, I was born there. My father and my mother too. I have family all over Russia,” she told AFP.
“Here in the Donbass and in Kramatorsk live people of all nationalities. Where did he see Nazis here?
– ‘Devil incarnate’ –
She reserved particular anger for the Russian leader as she prepared to embark on her journey to stay with her sister-in-law.
“What’s going on is inhuman, he’s fascist. I don’t know what to call him, devil incarnate,” she said.
“If only we could close the sky. Now we hear that there is a 12-kilometer convoy ready to attack Donbass. They are inhumane,” she added, repeating a common appeal from the Ukrainian side for a no-fly zone stops. Russian bombardment.
Eventually the luggage was loaded and the bus was ready to go.
Valentina’s grandson waved to her through the window to call her cell phone.
Some of the women wiped away tears as they left.
Kramatorsk station has been closed since a missile attack killed 57 people on Friday as crowds of residents tried to flee.
Trains evacuating people now depart from Sloviansk, about 10 kilometers to the north.
Two or three trains go west every day.
On Sunday, 2,700 people were evacuated, and 1,100 on Monday, said Svetlana Biletska, the station manager.
The first train left around 11 a.m. local time on Tuesday, carrying around 300 passengers.
In the hubbub of the station hall, Natalia sold one-way tickets to Dnipro for 200 hryvnia (6 euros, $7) and gave information about timetables from the only work desk.
“We added extra cars, free of charge,” she said, declining to give her last name.
“Some families leave, but many people stay. They don’t want to leave their loved ones and their homes.”
She was one of those who refused to go.
“I’m not scared anymore,” she told AFP.
“Something keeps me here, I don’t know how to explain it. We work on the railway, so we are as strong as the tracks.”
– ‘We have to survive’ –
A long train with 12 faded blue carriages arrived empty and immediately began to turn around to take more evacuees.
An old lady heading towards Vinnytsia in central Ukraine was a bit lost.
“You will have to change trains for one going either to kyiv or to Lviv,” a railwayman in an orange vest told him.
On the steps of the train, Nadiya Zhizhunas, 44, said a final goodbye to her husband.
Eyes reddened, the couple held each other tight for several minutes.
“We made the decision yesterday. I wanted to stay with my husband, but now I have to leave and he’s going to stay here. We wanted to experience this together, it’s scary,” she told AFP.
“It’s terribly difficult to leave. I have no idea when we’ll be together again. We have to survive first,” she added before turning to board.
Through the window, she made a heart with her thumbs and forefingers towards her husband.
The train started to pull back, then stopped.
A family with children who were late crossed the tracks to board.
Finally, he finally left the station. Direction kyiv, expected arrival in twelve hours.