Almost 5 million Ukrainians have already evacuated to nearby countries, mostly in Poland, to avoid being victims of the Ukraine-Russia war that has entered its 3rd month.
Their evacuation, however, was characterized by horrible, inhuman conditions, and fear in order to escape the war and stay alive.
Most of them are children and women because their husbands, elder brothers and siblings were left in Ukraine to fight for their country as volunteer groups fighting side by side with the military.
I can just imagine how they feel leaving their country by force, leaving their houses, their loved ones who stayed behind fighting for their country, their belongings, and other prized properties they acquired through the years.
I remember my old relatives narrating to us how they, about 250 relatives and close friends led by my father, left our hometown of Urdaneta, Pangasinan to evacuate to the adjoining mountainous town of Balungao, Pangasinan during World war 11.
My eldest brother had to carry a 50-lbs bag of rice and my mom had to take care of my newly-born brother when the war broke out.
They had sleepless nights and fear of their lives as they negotiate the trail of safety to the adjoining town.
Reuters reported that Seven buses carrying Ukrainian soldiers have left the Azovstal steel works in the port city of Mariupol and arrived at a former penal colony in the Russian-controlled town of Olenivka near Donetsk with individual stories to tell. Their evacuation was a joint effort by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which convinced Russia to hold its fire until some civilians got out.
When Russian forces invaded Ukraine, 47-year-old Anna Krylova was working the night shift as a gas purification operator at Azovstal, a massive steel processing plant in the southern port city of Mariupol. Her 14-year-old daughter, Maiia, came with her — no one was at home to watch her.
“We didn’t leave that plant for the next 70 days,” says Krylova. “As the bombing got worse, we moved further underground.”
About 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians sheltered in a vast network of tunnels with bunkers in the huge Soviet-era plant in Mariupol, but those inside said they never felt truly safe. Anna Krylova and her daughter Maiia took shelter in the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol for 70 days.
They were evacuated this week. (Joanna Kakissis/NPR)
Krylova narrated: “It was really scary because we couldn’t go outside.
It was just too dangerous. And inside we kept going from shelter to shelter, because the bombs kept hitting.
We were hungry, we were scared, we were under constant shelling.” She called the experience “like the apocalypse, like a horror film” and her daughter said: “Each day felt like it would be our last one alive.”
Osnat Lubrani, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine, told reporters that the U.N. was already planning another evacuation, but Russian forces reportedly began storming the steel plant again.
English teacher Alex Dybko, who was evacuated along with his wife and young children said: “It’s horrifying to think what could be happening there.
It was already so terrible when we left. The steelworks looked like a mass of stone, iron and dust … like something out of the Second World War. I never thought I would see this with my own eyes.”
Dybko shared an underground bunker with the Krylovas. They pushed together benches to use as beds. The bunker shook, especially at night, when the bombing and shelling was the worst. His kids told him they were afraid to get up and go to the toilet.
“The only bright spot,” he said, “was that a plant worker sheltering with them found a generator, so there was sporadic electricity.”
Another evacuee, Oleh Yurkin and his wife, said she cooked on a makeshift stove while sheltering in in the steel factory, made from bricks blown loose from explosions.
Many others lived in near-darkness for two months, including 57-year-old Oleh Yurkin, a Mariupol native.
He used a headlamp to get around, “but only in areas where we were covered because otherwise the drones and fighter jets would spot us.” Also, he and his wife cooked on a stove made out of bricks blown loose from explosions. Soldiers had stockpiled goods inside the plant and shared them with civilians and – “Now, the city is no more.”
UN humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu confirmed that the evacuation from the Azovstal plant was under way with the International Committee for the Red Cross and in coordination with Ukrainian and Russian officials. (Jackie Salo)
Ukraine president Vladimir Zelensky said “Up to 1,000 civilians and 2,000 Ukrainian fighters are believed to still holed up in the steel plant, which has remained the only part of the city not occupied by the Russians. Those taking refuge at the site include women and children hiding in bunkers beneath the sprawling facility.”
It was likewise reported that another roughly 100,000 civilians are estimated to be living elsewhere in Mariupol, struggling to survive amid severe water and food shortages.
Reuters reported that a group of around 40 civilians fleeing the steel plant arrived first Sunday at a temporary accommodation center in the Russian-held village of Bezimenne, around 18 miles east of Mariupol, a Reuters photographer said. Later, another group of around 14 people arrived at the accommodation center, where blue tents had been set up, the photographer said — with Zelensky adding that dozens more were following.
The Washingtron Post reported that Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s mayor, called evacuation efforts on Sunday “one of the last real chances to leave the city,”
In his weekly address in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis mentioned Mariupol as he decried the war as a “macabre regression of humanity,” saying it has made him “suffer and cry.
“My thoughts go immediately to the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, the city of Mary, barbarously bombarded and destroyed,” he said of Mariupol, which is named after Mary. He continued:
“I suffer and cry thinking of the suffering of the Ukrainian population, in particular the weakest, the elderly, the children,” the pontiff told a crowd of thousands.
Reuters’ Alexander Ermochenko reported that Russia’s siege on Ukraine in the past two months turned the port city into a bombed wasteland, with an unknown death toll and thousands trying to survive without water, sanitation or food.
The evacuees, while temporarily safe, are still suffering from fear and shock due to the rigorous and difficult path they went through escaping the death of fire coming from the Russians.
(ELPIDIO R. ESTIOKO was a veteran journalist in the Philippines and a multi-awarded journalist here in the US. For feedbacks, comments… please email the author at [email protected])