More than a million people have fled Ukraine for other parts of Europe as Russian forces intensify attacks on urban areas, bombarding government buildings, apartment blocks and schools across the country.
The European Union has for the first time activated a measure that provides people fleeing Ukraine with rights to residency, housing, work, welfare and medical assistance across Europe.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mikhailo Podolyak said talks with Russia on Thursday had produced a “solution” for the “organization of humanitarian corridors” to secure safe passage through the war zone.
Thursday marked the eighth day of the war, and 1.05 million Ukrainians have already left the country, according to a tally by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It appears to be the most rapid European exodus since the Second World War, said Andrew Geddes, the director of the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute.
Great waves of Ukrainians have jammed trains and highways in an attempt to seek safety, some waiting for days at border crossings.
With Russian forces accused of war crimes for their attacks on civilian infrastructure, “there’s been an acceleration in the last couple of days,” said Matthew Saltmarsh, a spokesman for the UNHCR. The agency is planning for four million Ukrainian refugees.
“Whether we get there or how fast we get there would depend very much on the conflict and how that evolves,” he said. “And also the ability of people to get to borders.” Not only has the invasion created logistical difficulties, the intensity of the conflict has made fleeing increasingly risky.
“It’s so hard to leave your home … my life has just gone to zero. There was my life before and my life after. It’s just emptiness inside me,” said a woman from the shattered front line town of Shchastia, in the southeastern Luhansk region. She arrived in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv this week after a three-day journey across the rapidly expanding war zone.
She paid a taxi to take her north to Chernihiv, only to discover that Russian forces were laying siege to that city too. Her next stop was Kyiv, but the capital was also under assault.
She said there was nothing left for her in Shchastia, a town whose name ironically translates as “Happiness.” Her home was destroyed by artillery fire, she said, crying and evidently traumatized. Her husband, who is in the military, was still in the town, and she was worried she would never see him again.
The Globe and Mail is not reporting any details about the woman or her husband for fear he could face retribution if captured by Russian forces.
“I’ve spent three days in such deep stress, I couldn’t eat or drink. Even now those days have been swept out from my memory,” she said. “I was so exhausted that I had hallucinations that my husband was here with me.”
Ukrainian refugees have arrived in great numbers in Hungary, Slovakia, Moldova and Romania.
But the greatest movement has been to Poland, where residents and officials have been struggling for days to cope with the surge.
In the Polish border city of Przemysl, the few shelters that have been set up in schools can accommodate only 600 people, and refugees have been told they can stay for only two days. Thousands of Poles, however, have volunteered to fill the gap by taking in families.
Government officials plan to open a giant refugee centre in a former shopping mall a few kilometres from the border. The shelter is next to a sprawling parking lot where a steady flow of buses brings refugees who have walked across from Ukraine. Volunteers have set up lines of tables offering hot food and help finding rides and accommodations.
On Thursday, dozens of refugees were already camped out inside the mall. Volunteers had set up a makeshift transportation area to co-ordinate buses destined for other cities across Europe. One vast room in the complex had been set up as a children’s area with toys and puzzles.
Vasili Ratoushny, 77, was among the busloads of refugees arriving Thursday. He had come from Kyiv with his wife, daughter and granddaughter.
“There was a bomb, and we had to go so fast,” he said wearily, while his daughter sipped from a bowl of hot soup. “We brought just enough for one day, one night.”
But his resolve to return to Kyiv remained strong. And in a simple show of support for his countrymen, Mr. Ratoushny is refusing to ever speak Russian again, a language he grew up with. “Ukrainian, Polish, English,” he said in halting English. “No Russian.”
His daughter, Victoria Ratoushny, was relieved to have finally made it to safety but she was frantic about her husband, who stayed behind. He’s safe for now, she said. He’s doing volunteer work, helping to find food and shelter. “I’m really worried for him.”
Many people, however, are unable to leave, fearful even to step outside amid Russia’s ongoing attempts to destroy Ukrainian forces and demolish the civil will to defend urban centres.
In cities under siege – and now occupation – people have pleaded for safe passage for those seeking relief from days of shelling and missile strikes that have killed civilians, cut water and electricity supplies and destroyed apartment buildings.
On Thursday, President Vladimir Putin claimed that Russian “soldiers have provided corridors in all zones of battle without exception.”
Across Ukraine, though, people had seen no sign of such corridors ahead of the Thursday agreement with Russia.
In some places, the destruction has grown so grievous that passage via roads and highways is no longer a viable option.
At the Regional Children’s Hospital in Chernihiv, a city northeast of Kyiv that has been subjected to intense attacks, staff have been pleading for an air evacuation of the 11 children – plus their mothers and doctors – in the cancer ward. With the city surrounded by Russian forces, and the roads mined by Ukrainian defenders, there’s no other way out.
Such pleas are complicated by the fact that distrust of Russian forces is also high.
Serhii Chudinovich, a Ukrainian Orthodox priest in Kherson, recalled the 2014 Battle of Ilovaisk, when Mr. Putin agreed to a “humanitarian corridor for besieged Ukrainian soldiers” to leave a city in the Donetsk region.
Russian and Russian-backed troops subsequently surrounded a column of departing Ukrainians. Father Serhii called it a “massacre.” Today, “I don’t like the idea of green corridors. I don’t even like to say the word,” he said.
Better, he said, to demonstrate resolve and hope for Ukrainian forces to take back control of Kherson.
“We will eat only bread and water. We may have to suffer a little. But we must show patience and wait for our army.”
When it comes to Russian forces, he said, there should be “no negotiation. No making requests. We must show them that we do not welcome them.”
On Wednesday, Father Serhii was called by a leader of the local Territorial Defence Forces – civilians fighting for the country – to oversee the burial of more than 20 people killed by Russian forces. He shared with The Globe a video of bloodied bodies – some of them dismembered corpses held together with rags – being placed into graves. As they were being interred, Russian troops drove past, and Father Serhii offered words of supplication.
“They have kept your commandment of love, that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” he prayed. “They gave their lives for our country and for our people. So make them united with your eternal goodness.”
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