On the train with civilians who don’t want to leave

Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, thousands of people have fled Donetsk and Luhansk regions. In recent days, the evacuation trains provided by the Ukrainian Railways have seen an influx of those who did not want to leave and who finally gave in to it. Report on the train displaced from Donbass.

On Wednesday morning, Dr. Oleksandr Babich and other doctors from the national railway company Ukrzaliznytsia met on the station platform in Dnipro, a major industrial city in eastern Ukraine and a gateway to the Donbass entrance. This is the beginning of a new operation to evacuate civilians trapped in the increasingly intense combat zones.

Pokrovsk direction in Donetsk Oblast. After the bombing of the Kramatorsk station on April 8, which killed 52 people, including five children, the small town of 60,000 people became the railway exit gate for Donbass residents.

Rail on the front line

Drivers, captains and doctors, bent over their phones, learned that Pokrovsk had been hit by two missiles a few hours earlier. Six people were said to have been injured. The train takes off, crosses the Dnieper River and begins its journey 200 kilometers to the east.

Dr Oleksander Babitch, 59, an employee of the National Railways, coordinates a new operation to evacuate civilians from Donbass. © David Gormsano, France 24

“Of course we are afraid, but someone has to do the job,” explains Dr. Oleksandr Babic. “We know that the Russians are targeting the railway infrastructure, and 160 employees of the company have been killed since February. But we continue to work and will not stop. They bombed Kramatorsk station because this is where we gathered people to be evacuated” “After this bombing, we moved our activities to Pokrovsk. They are Inhumane. And they don’t respect any rules of war,” he adds, alternately Russian and Ukrainian.

Donbass, at war since 2014

A doctor from this region, Oleksander Babitch spent his entire career with the Ukrainian Railways. After working for a long time in the company’s hospitals in eastern Ukraine, he was transferred to the Kyiv region in 2014, when the Donbas war broke out. His parents still live in Bakhmut, between Donetsk and Kramatorsk, a few kilometers from the fighting. Smiling, energetic, assertive, he knows firsthand the dramas experienced by the inhabitants of this region.

“Those who decided to leave left a long time ago. The ones leaving now are those who did not want to leave, but were struck by tragedy. A few days ago, we evacuated an elderly couple whose house was destroyed by the bombing. They had time to take refuge in a shelter, but not their daughter who was killed. They buried her in the garden, and then left Volnovaka. ”

Oleksander Babitch gives first aid reminders to railway employees before arriving at Pokrovsk station.
Oleksander Babitch gives first aid reminders to railway employees before arriving at Pokrovsk station. © David Gormsano, France 24

Three hours after leaving Dnipro, the train stops at Pokrovsk station. People brought to the station by coaches and ambulances had to be quickly taken care of, their health and needs assessed and put on the train – all within two hours. The railway team thought it would collect 200 displaced people today, but in the end only 101 on board. “It is possible that the intensity of the fighting prevented the movement of civilians and volunteers searching for them around the area,” we were told.

“The further forward we go, the more difficult the situation,” says Oleksander, one of those young volunteers in an orange shirt. “There are so many places we can no longer go.” “We tell people, ‘We’re not sure we can go back, and choose what suits you.’ But some don’t want to leave, even as they live hidden in basements with children. I don’t know how to convince them.” Oleksander tries to understand their reasons: “They must be afraid of losing everything they have. Or they don’t know where to go.” We’re going to plunder them or cheat them… That’s my interpretation. “

Oleksander, a volunteer who scours the combat zones of Donbass to bring civilians who have been evacuated by train to the station.
Oleksander, a volunteer who scours the combat zones of Donbass to bring civilians who have been evacuated by train to the station. © David Gormsano, France 24

Lyudmila arrived from Donetsk, a village between Sloviansk and Lyman, and was finally installed in a room with her mother, very old and unfit. “We didn’t want to leave our house, because my mother had a medical room,” she said, about to cry. “After that, no one wants to leave their house.” “But a cluster bomb exploded in all our windows two days ago. We were living in the hallways and downstairs. It was so hard and unbearable. We decided to leave because it was now or never. No more internet, no more mobile network, it wasn’t We have more information. We don’t have gas and electricity every once in a while, and we don’t have much food.”

Lyudmila and her mother on the train that took them to Dnipro.
Lyudmila and her mother on the train that took them to Dnipro. © David Gormsano, France 24

A few benches away, a young woman, accompanied by her mother and children, is unpacking their bags for a picnic. This family was fortunate that the fierce fighting that took place over a hundred kilometers away had overtaken him. Lena, a refugee in Poland since the beginning of the war, returned to convince her mother to leave Donbass. They will make a trip to Lviv, the station of this train, and then hope to return to Poland. Valentina, the mother, who lost her husband in clashes in the Donbass after 2014, sighs sadly: “We want to go back when it’s over. It’s good to be a guest, but it’s better to be at home.”

Lena, Valentina and their children want to reach the Polish border.
Lena, Valentina and their children want to reach the Polish border. © David Gormsano, France 24

In another room, two women are facing each other, staring into space, a suitcase at their feet. Victoria school in Pokrovsk and plans to stop in Dnipro. “Then, I don’t know,” she told us. “If I can stay, I will, because my whole life is here. But the best way for me to help the Ukrainian army is to leave, so that they can liberate us. That’s what the local authorities tell us every day.”

Mrs. Tsivelina tells us that she left Artemivsk. You have to understand “with a groove”, because the city changed its name in 2015, after the adoption of the law on “Disassembly” of Ukraine. With a population of 77,000, the city has reclaimed its original name. “I’ve waited, but now there are no lights in the windows at night. People only go out to buy food. When I think of my apartment, I feel like crying,” says the old lady.

Victoria and Mrs. Tsivelina exchange a few words discussing the war on the evacuation train.
Victoria and Mrs. Tsivelina exchange a few words discussing the war on the evacuation train. © David Gormsano, France 24

After our questions, the two women start a short conversation. “I watched the May 9 parade on TV to try to understand why Russia did this to us. There must be a reason, but I don’t understand which one. We have to respect our freedom, we don’t have them. Not invited,” the teacher recalls. “There is no good reason to invade Ukraine. We can live as we like. They don’t have to save us from ourselves,” replied Mrs. Tsivelina, who will be joining her relatives in Kryvyi Rih, the birthplace of President Volodymyr Zelensky. .

A century of war in Donbass

A silence breaks down, then the old lady resumes in a low voice: “I will return when the war is over, but I am 83 years old … This region has suffered so much, and for a long time, from the Holodomor [une famine orchestrée par Staline qui fit au moins 2,5 millions de morts en Ukraine dans les années 1930, NDLR]Then the Holocaust [plus de 1 million de juifs ukrainiens périrent entre 1941 et 1944, NDLR]. And today, what’s awful [les Russes] Mariupol theme. Putin is Hitler.”

Since 2014, in the east, fighting between pro-Russian separatists, with active support from Moscow, and the Ukrainian army has claimed more than 13,000 lives according to the United Nations and displaced nearly 1.5 million people. Since the start of the Russian offensive in February, the fighting has reached an unprecedented level of violence. Moscow wants at all costs to seize the entire Donbass and defeat the Ukrainian army that has been resisting it for eight years. A goal that Dr. Oleksandr Babic, the doctor of this region vehemently rejects: “We will resist the last drop of blood if necessary. We will prevent them from destroying us.”

At the end of a new evacuation, a train with 101 civilians on board is approaching the city of Dnipro.
At the end of a new evacuation, a train with 101 civilians on board is approaching the city of Dnipro. © David Gormsano, France 24

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