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Kharkiv: Ukrainian residents evacuated under Russian fire

May 22, 2024

As the Russian army steps up its offensive in the north of the Kharkiv region, Ukrainian police are helping people in and around the border town of Vovchansk flee. DW reporters joined them.

The inside of a car and a damaged windshield
Russian snipers have been attacking Ukrainian police trying to evacuate residentsImage: Hanna Sokolova-Stekh/DW/DW

There were numerous traces of gunfire on Vladyslav Yefarov's car. He explained that a Russian sniper had opened fire on him and his colleague Yuri Yaremchuk not long ago. The two Ukrainian policemen were on their way to the town of Vovchansk to evacuate an elderly woman living there on her own. A US armored vehicle saved them, said Yefarov, but they were not able to pick up the woman.

The two have been evacuating residents from the north of the Kharkiv region for almost two weeks — ever since the Russian army resumed its offensive on Ukraine's border areas on May 10, and, according to the Ukrainian government in Kyiv, occupied several villages.

Yefarov said that it was dangerous to stay in Vovchansk because of the fighting. He said the Russians had been shelling residential areas with missile launchers and artillery.

We followed Yaremchuk toward Vovchansk. Before we left, he told us we should speed up as much as possible when we got close to the town because the Russian army was firing guided anti-tank missiles from there.

Vladyslav Yefarov says it is becoming increasingly dangerous in VovchanskImage: Hanna Sokolova-Stekh/DW/DW

'I'll be ready in a minute'

Volodymyr is from the southern part of Vovchansk, where there is currently no fighting. We traveled along many roads lined with bombed-out buildings on the way to the old man's home.

Suddenly, police ordered everybody to lie on the ground because a bomb had exploded nearby.

Volodymyr was not in a hurry. He just stood there in his shorts and a T-shirt, taking suits and shirts out of the wardrobe, and putting them in a bag. When the police asked him to pick up the pace, he just said: "I'll be ready in a minute! I just have to get changed." All the windows in his house had been shattered when the neighboring building was shelled.

Yefarov sighed and carried those bags that were already packed out to the car. He saw a shaggy dog in the courtyard, found a leash and put it on the dog: "You're coming, too," he said. Meanwhile, Volodymyr looked around the yard again, looked around the barn, as if he wanted to remember everything precisely. Accompanied by the sound of explosions, the police van finally drove off in the direction of the city of Kharkiv.

Volodymyr was met halfway by his daughter Maryna, herself a policewoman. She hugged her father tightly. There were tears of joy, but also reproaches: "Why did you wait so long to evacuate?" she asked, shaking her head disapprovingly when she saw all the bags.

"My heart is heavy," said Volodymyr, hugging his dog. And as if to justify himself to his daughter, he added: "I'm 66 years old and I won't be going back there."

"It's hard to leave home," she replied, trying to comfort her father with a smile.

Some people are reluctant to leave their homes, not knowing if they will ever return Image: Hanna Sokolova-Stekh/DW/DW

Vovchansk was under Russian occupation for months in 2022

Vovchansk, which is only 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the Russian border, was occupied on the very first day of the Russian army's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

Yefarov said it was impossible to evacuate the population back then. He and his colleagues were only able to get some weapons and documents out, he recalled. Moreover, some of their colleagues agreed to collaborate with the occupying forces.

It took two months before the Russians agreed to let people from Vovchansk leave for Ukrainian-controlled territory. Volodymyr and Maryna decided to stay, but she refused to work with the Russians when they offered her a deal.

The situation changed after Ukrainian forces liberated the town in the fall of 2022, with Russian troops shelling it ever since. Maryna left for Kharkiv where she was reinstated in the police force, whereas her father gradually became accustomed to life under fire.

Ukraine battles Russian offensive in northeast


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Only 200 residents remain in Vovchansk

Of the 17,000 inhabitants who once lived in Vovchansk, only around 3,500 stayed at first. Now, almost everyone has left the city, according to the police, with only about 200 still there.

Several recently evacuated residents reported that Russian soldiers had forcibly detained them in cellars when they entered the northern part of the town. Residents said that when the Russians finally moved on to another street they rushed to the evacuation point in hopes of fleeing.

Occupying forces reportedly ordered one woman to tend to their wounded. Another man, who is now missing a finger, said a Russian soldier shot him when he tried to enter his house. Two volunteers apparently disappeared during the first days of the evacuation. Neighbors said they had been shot dead by Russian soldiers.

The evacuated were taken to a village halfway to Kharkiv. Many did not know what would happen next. "We spent six days in the cellar," said Daria. "There were no buildings left on our street. Everything was on fire after the shelling. There were undetonated bombs in my garden."

She said she and her family had to find their own way to the evacuation point as the police were unable to reach their street. "We fled to the outskirts of Vovchansk amid drone attacks and shelling, we walked past a burnt-out armored personnel carrier," Daria said, her voice trembling. She said she was sad that she had not been able to take her dog when she left. Most of the others were able to rescue their pets. One man had a white kitten under his sweater and another cat in his bag.

'People are desperate'

Yefarov said that at first some people refused to evacuate. "But then they called and wanted to be picked up." He said that the situation was getting worse and that it had become harder for police to enter the town, so residents now had to find their own way to the evacuation point, which was sometimes kilometers away. "People are desperate," he said.

Then came a call from a man in Bilyi Kolodyas, a village south of Vovchansk. But when police arrived after a bumpy drive along a dirt road, the man said he had changed his mind and did not want to be evacuated after all. Yefarov hid his anger and went to check on the man's neighbor, who also said he wanted to stay. "We're not very scared here yet," he said.

When the phone rang again, two women from the village of Sosnovyi Bir were on the other end asking to be picked up. Their home had been hit by a missile they said. But when police arrived, the women were nowhere in sight, all they found were a few ducks wandering amid the smoldering rubble.

The police spotted the remains of the missile on the road and loaded it into their vehicle. "This is also part of our work," said Yefarov: "Every shelling is a crime. The remains of weapons are material evidence that we can use to prove the guilt of the occupying forces."

This article was originally published in Russian.