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Putin’s invasion forces embattled Ukrainian citizens to face the grim realities of combat – again


MARCH 2, 2022

When she found out Russian tanks were rolling into Ukraine, Anna Myasnokova, 27, left her pet parrot in her apartment in Kharkiv and went to stay in the basement of her office building.

The next day, when she went back to visit her bird, heavy shelling outside sent her into the bathroom to hide. Once the noise quieted down, she washed dishes, just to calm herself.

Back at her office, she was telling her story to USA TODAY when a boom came over the phone receiver. She grew quiet. “I apologize,” she said. “They are bombing us badly right now. I have to go down into the basement.”

Myasnokova is one of millions of Ukrainians under siege as the Russian invasion creates increasingly worrisome humanitarian problems, forcing nearly a million people to escape their homeland while those who stayed take cover in bomb shelters, scramble to find food and sleep in subway terminals.

The war is an escalation of armed conflict that has lasted since 2014, when Ukrainians revolted over their president’s ties to Russia. In response, Russian-leaning separatist areas in Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence from Ukraine, and Russian President Vladimir Putin took over Crimea.

By the beginning of this year, fighting in the Donetsk and Luhansk region had killed 14,000 people, a quarter of them civilians, and displaced 2 million Ukrainians, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Myasnokova left home in Donetsk when the Russian-backed militia took control.

Days into the Russian invasion, Ukrainians feel the cumulative impacts of the yearslong conflict and go to great lengths to stay safe and survive, and observers worry about more hardship to come. Ukraine’s Ministry of Health reported 198 Ukrainians dead and 1,115 injured as of Sunday. Ukraine’s State Emergency Service reported 2,000 civilians dead as of Wednesday.

“This will lead to a devastating impact on already damaged civil infrastructure, further restricting people’s movements, and disrupt essential public services such as water, power, transport, markets and banking,” said Amgad Naguib, spokesman for the organization CARE, which assists the nonprofit group People In Need with humanitarian efforts in Ukraine.

Exodus from Kyiv

The outmanned but determined Ukrainian forces have fought to keep control of the capital city of Kyiv. Almost-hourly airstrike alerts at night warn civilians to take cover in basements and metro stations.

Natalia Zabolotna decided Saturday morning to leave Kyiv with relatives, including a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old. The children had spent the night in a metro station, and they were hungry. Zabolotna and her niece rushed the children out of the city and headed for the Romanian border. The trip took three days.

“During our entire journey, we did not find a place to feed the kids properly,” Zabolotna said. “The food was gone from gas stations. It took us several hours to fill up diesel. Gas stations sold not more than 20 liters per vehicle. Our country could have never got prepared for this devastating exodus, hundreds of thousands of people escaping on the same day.”

More than 874,000 people left Ukraine for neighboring countries, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Most of them go west to Poland, Hungary, Romania and Moldova. More than 100,000 others are displaced within the country.

Mykola Kovalchuk, the president of the World Boxing Council’s Ukraine office, used to live in the Kyiv region, not far from the border of Belarus, the country run by a Putin ally that has joined Russia’s side of the war.

Russians bombed Kovalchuk’s house Friday during an attack on a nearby airport, a strategic target because Ukrainian air forces could land there. When he learned an attack could be coming, he brought his wife, four children under age 10 and parents to a safe place, so he could work with the military.

“We are a nation of Cossacks, you know,” he said, referring to the ancient warriors who lived on the Dnieper River that runs through Ukraine. “In the 15th century, we were the most powerful army in the world, so we know how to fight, and it is in our genes, and we are not afraid to die for our country.”

He keeps the location of his family secret but said they have not left Ukraine.

“I just want to tell you this,” he said. “Me, my wife, my parents, my kids will never leave our country. I will leave them in a safe place. And I will go to war. I will go to fight.”

Iryna Volkotrub, 33, an interpreter from Kyiv, woke up Thursday morning when she heard explosions. Lucky to have a car, she and her husband picked up four girls they knew from church, piled them in the back seat and brought them to their pastor’s home, where people from their church met.

The next day, they came up with a more permanent plan: hide out at a friend’s house 15 minutes outside the city where the basement could serve as a bomb shelter.

The friends showed up and put together all the dry food they were able to get from the stores in the days before the war started. Other people trying to move west came through the house, and Volkotrub and her roommates made them beet soup.

Eighteen people are staying in the house, including four teenagers and a young girl. They bunk together on blankets on the floor. A few brought mattresses. Towels hang to dry on the railing of a spiral staircase.

They spend most of the time in the basement. The climate is similar to New England or the upper Midwest – it’s cold. The radiators are not enough to warm the floor and walls, so they wear layers.  Monday night, it snowed.

Despite the hardship, they’re not going anywhere.

“This is our land,” Volkotrub said. “These are our people. We just went a few minutes away to make sure we are alive to help others around. We want to help, support, carry peace and believe in our victory.”

A three-hour drive south from Kyiv on the border of the Dnieper River, Anna Bievets, 30, a lawyer from Cherasky, has a luxury most Ukrainians don’t: a real bomb shelter on her property.

She couldn’t get to it in time Sunday night, when four airstrike alerts forced her to huddle in the bathroom with six to eight people, including her 2-year-old son. She said the children sometimes sleep in the bathroom.

“The most hard thing for me is that I am a mom of a two year old son,” she said in an Instagram message. “He doesn’t understand why he cannot sleep in his bed or go outside when he wants.”

Bievets’ male relatives joined the military. She said so many people have signed up that the army does not have room for everyone. Men stand in line for hours to be included, she said. “They say, ‘Go home. We will call you later.’”

Ukrainians have to take cover from Russian attacks in bomb shelters. – Anna Bievets

Trauma on children ‘increasing every single day’

Though men and women alike are fighting in the war, most of the refugees are women, children and elderly people. The government banned men ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country.

“Even before this recent escalation of conflict, 54% of the nearly 3 million people in Ukraine in dire need of humanitarian assistance were women and girls,” Naguib said. “There is a desperate lack of data on how these women and girls are being specifically impacted, or the role they play in aiding and supporting their own communities in these times of extreme difficulty. Each day is a struggle for millions.”

Lviv, a city the size of Seattle in the western part of the country, is a transit hub for refugees trying to get to Poland, Hungary or Romania. Welcome centers popped up in buildings around town. Hotels, which have no rooms left, let people sleep on the floors.

James Elder, UNICEF spokesperson, described fathers at the train station in Lviv on Sunday trying to explain to their children why they could not continue on their journey with them out of the country.

“The trauma on children – the stress on children – just is increasing every single day because this is not anything that they are accustomed to nor should be accustomed to, but it’s now their reality,” Elder said.

Daniel Salem, 38, an actor and television host, said in a WhatsApp message that he works with the police and army to help Odesa, a city on the coast of the Black Sea, stand its ground.

“We are all trying to hide our women and children in neighboring countries so we can focus on protecting our cities and country,” he said.

UN: 12 million Ukrainians may need assistance

Agencies within the United Nations warn that the situation in Ukraine is very fluid, and numbers change daily or even hourly.

From Saturday to Sunday, the number of refugees who left the country more than tripled, and Sunday, the Ukrainian government announced that some checkpoints at the border with Hungary would be open around the clock.

“We are looking at what could become Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a statement.

The United Nations said in a fundraising appeal Tuesday that up to 12 million people inside Ukraine – a country of 44 million – could need assistance, and 4 million refugees could need assistance in neighboring countries.

“The humanitarian needs are growing exponentially, both in numbers but also in geographical terms,” said Jens Laerke, the deputy spokesperson for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “We are seeing needs all over Ukraine. People are on the move.”

Courtesy/Source: This article originally appeared on USA TODAY