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On the Road in the Vovchansk Region of Ukraine as Terrified Civilians Flee Their Homes Amid a new Russian Offensive

Evacuees are seeking safer ground in the face of a brutal Russian attack, reports Joseph Roche

Alina from Vovchansk arrives in Staryi Saltiv. Photo: Joseph Roche
Alina, 77, from Vovchansk, is emotional as she arrives in Staryi Saltiv after fleeing her home. Photo: Joseph Roche

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Around Vovchansk – under a stormy sky, Andrii, 44, an evacuator from Kharkiv, Ukraine, presses the accelerator pedal.

In the back, Nina, 74, her daughter, Ludmilla, 53, and their neighbour, Alina, 77, grip the armrests of the small van taking them from the outskirts of Vovchansk to Staryi Saltiv, Kharkiv oblast, a small town that has become one of the rallying points for the evacuation of civilians in the region since the start of the Russian counter-offensive.

The journey is only 25km, but takes around an hour, as there are a number of checkpoints and a river crossing over a make-shift bridge.

On May 10, Russian forces opened a new front in the northern Kharkiv region, a territory they initially conquered at the beginning of the war before it was recaptured by Ukrainians during the summer 2022 counter-offensive. Moscow began its latest offensive with an aerial bombardment campaign, particularly using glide bombs, which left widespread destruction in their wake. 

Andrii, the evacuee, sits outside his van in Staryi Saltiv. Photo: Joseph Roach

Today, Ukrainian forces control 70% of the city, which had a pre-offensive population of at least 17,000 inhabitants. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has called the defensive operation a success. “The Russian Army has failed to execute their Kharkiv operation,” he said last Saturday. However, despite this relative success for Ukraine, Russian forces continue to heavily bombard Vovchansk, reducing it to a field of ruins.

Dodging potholes as best as possible, Alina suppresses a cry: “Lord, save us.”

Once they cross the Donets River, the three women calm down. The cries turn into tears, and the tears, into laughter. “Thank you, my God,” continues Alina. “We are saved.”

At the entrance of the central alley, surrounded by small destroyed houses, is the meeting point. It is equipped with a generator and a Starlink terminal. “You can charge your phones”, explains Andrii. “There is also water and an internet connection”.

Alina, 77, from from Vovchansk, is emotional as she arrives in Staryi Saltiv after being fleeing her home for the safety of a displaced persons centre. Photo: Joseph Roche
Alina, 77, from Vovchansk, is emotional as she arrives in Staryi Saltiv . Photo:-Joseph Roche

‘We Didn’t Know Where to go or who to call’

Natives of Vovchansk, Nina, her daughter, and Alina had spent several weeks in the basement of their house. “There was nothing left, no water, no electricity, nothing to eat. We had to drink water from the pipes”, Nina told Byline Times.

Widowed and caring for a disabled daughter, Nina did not know where to go. “We had no network, no internet… we didn’t know where to go or who to call.”

Running out of supplies after several weeks, Nina, her daughter, and their neighbour finally decided to flee their village on June 7. “We heard a car and went out to see… It was the police. They took us and dropped us off a bit further, on the Ukrainian positions”, recounts Ludmilla.

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“I threw my shoes behind me. As a promise that we could one day return home”, adds Nina with a smile before revealing her feet, covered only by a pair of torn socks.

Bohdan, 45, another resident of Vovchansk, arrived that morning. “I didn’t want to abandon my dogs. They are like my children,” he explained. Andrii added: “Sometimes, people wait until the last moment before leaving.”

Nina, from Vovchansk, spent several weeks in the basement of her house before fleeing. Photo: Joseph Roche 

“They think the Ukrainians will be able to push back the Russian forces, or just pray that nothing will happen to them.”

With his copper-coloured face hidden by a long black beard, Bohdan walked more than 10km to reach Ukrainian positions.

“My dogs ran away. So I walked to Synelnykove (a village about 10km from Vovchansk). There were swarms of drones all around me. When I arrived, our (Ukrainian forces) told me I was crazy to have come alone. They were telling their guys: ‘Don’t shoot this idiot, he’s a civilian,’” Bohdan concludes with a laugh. 

After regaining their composure, drinking some water, and calling their loved ones, Alina, Nina, and her daughter are finally taken to an internally displaced persons centre located on the outskirts of Kharkiv, about 30km from Staryi Saltiv.

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“It feels like the early days of the war,” says Ihor, one of the volunteers at the centre. “Dozens, even hundreds of people arrive here every day.”

On the forecourt, volunteers from international and local NGOs provide each arrival with hot meals and new clothes. For some, it’s the first proper meal in weeks.

The small group of women is immediately taken to the hall where their papers are registered. They are then examined by a doctor and offered emotional and psychological support.

Most of the people who arrive here are generally very poor or very old,” explains Iryna, a psychologist at the centre. Many are in shock. They have left everything behind, their life, their home

Iryna, a psychologist at the displaced persons centre

Masha, one of her colleagues, adds: “The arrival can be traumatic for these people. We try to support them in the first few hours. Sometimes, the euphoria of having survived can turn into despair.”

A few meters from Iryna, in a patch of light bathed by the evening sun, an old woman with vacant eyes sits in the hall of the centre. “Her name is Alina Vassilivna,” whispers Iryna. “She is 82 years old. She arrived from Vovchansk this morning.”

“Where is my son?” murmurs the old woman… “The Russians killed my son, it was a long time ago, in Afghanistan. Before leaving, I forgot to go to the cemetery, I wanted to say goodbye to him… They killed my son.”

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