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Evacuations are slow, laborious and arduous

BACHMUT – To a menacing soundtrack of air raid sirens and pounding artillery, civilians flee cities in eastern Ukraine as Russian forces advance.

Up narrow apartment building stairwells, volunteers carry the elderly and infirm in their arms, on stretchers or in wheelchair-waiting minibuses, which then drive them to central staging areas and ultimately to evacuation trains in other cities.

“The Russians are right over there, approaching this place,” said Mark Poppert, an American volunteer working for British charity RefugEase, during an evacuation in the town of Bakhmut on Friday.

“Bakhmut is currently a high-risk area,” he said. “We’re trying to get as many people out as possible in case the Ukrainians have to fall behind.”

He and other Ukrainian and foreign volunteers working with the Ukrainian charity Vostok SOS, which was coordinating the evacuation effort, hoped to get about 100 people out of Bakhmut on Friday, Poppert said.

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A few hours earlier, artillery thunder rang out and black smoke billowed from the northern outskirts of the city, which is in the Donetsk region of industrial east Ukraine. Donetsk and the neighboring Luhansk region make up the Donbass, where Moscow-backed separatists have controlled an area for eight years.

The evacuation process is arduous, physically demanding and full of emotions.

Many of the evacuees are old, ill, or have serious mobility problems, which means volunteers have to load them onto soft stretchers and move slowly through narrow corridors and stairways in apartment buildings.

Most people have already fled Bachmut: only about 30,000 remain from a pre-war population of 85,000. And every day leave more.

Fighting raged north of Bakhmut while Russian forces stepped up their efforts to capture the main eastern cities of Sieverodonetsk and Lysychansk, 50 kilometers (30 miles) northeast. The two cities are the last areas under Ukrainian control in the Luhansk region.

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Northwest of Bakhmut in Donetsk, Russian-backed rebels said Friday they had taken the town of Lyman, a major railroad junction near the cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, both of which are still under Ukrainian control. Smoke rising from the direction of Lyman was clearly visible from Sloviansk on Thursday.

But even in the face of shelling, missiles, and an advancing Russian army, saying goodbye isn’t easy.

Svetlana Lvova, the 66-year-old manager of two apartment buildings in Bakhmut, snorted and rolled her eyes in irritation when she heard another of her residents refuse to leave.

“I can’t convince them to go,” she said. “I have told them several times that if anything lands here, I will carry them – injured – to the same buses” that have come to evacuate them now.

She tried to persuade the adversaries in every way she could, she says, but nearly two dozen people just wouldn’t budge. They are more afraid to leave their homes and possessions for an uncertain future than to stay and face the bombs.

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She herself will stay in Bachmut with her husband, she said. But not because they are afraid to leave their property. They are waiting for their son, who is still in Sieverodonetsk, to return home.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “I need to know he’s alive. That’s why I’m staying here.”

Lvova plays the last video her son sent her, telling his mother that he is fine and that they still have electricity in town but no running water.

“I made him a big cake,” she said, wiping away tears.

Poppert, the American volunteer, said it’s not uncommon to receive a request to pick people up for evacuation, only to have them change their mind once the van arrives.

“It’s an incredibly difficult decision for these people to leave the only world they know,” he said.

He described a man in his late 90s who was evacuated from the only home he had ever known.

“We took this man out of his world,” Poppert said. “He was afraid of the bombs and missiles, and he was afraid to leave.”

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In nearby Pokrovsk, ambulances pulled up to unload elderly women on stretchers and wheelchairs for the westbound evacuation train away from the fighting. Families crowded around them, lugging suitcases and pets as they boarded the train.

The train slowly pulled out of the station and a woman pulled back the curtain in one of the carriages. As the familiar landscape faded, her face contorted with sorrow and tears began to flow.

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https://www.local10.com/news/world/2022/05/28/fleeing-the-russians-evacuations-are-slow-arduous-fraught/ Evacuations are slow, laborious and arduous

Sarah Y. Kim

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