on the train, with the civilians who didn’t want to leave

on the train, with the civilians who didn't want to leave

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, thousands of people have fled the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. In recent days, the evacuation trains made available by the Ukrainian railways have seen an influx of those who did not want to leave and who have finally resigned themselves to it. Report on board the train of displaced people from Donbass.

This Wednesday morning, Doctor Oleksander Babitch and other doctors from Ukrzaliznytsia, the national railway company, meet on the platform of the station in Dnipro, a major industrial city in eastern Ukraine and gateway to entrance to the Donbass. This is the start of a new operation to evacuate civilians caught in the combat zones which continue to intensify.

Direction Pokrovsk in Donetsk Oblast. After the bombing of Kramatorsk station on April 8, which killed 52 people, including five children, the small town of 60,000 inhabitants became the railway exit door for the inhabitants of Donbass.

Railways on the front line

Hunched over their phones, drivers, captains and doctors learned that Pokrovsk had been hit by two missiles a few hours earlier. Six people are said to be injured. The train sets off, crosses the Dnieper River and begins its 200 kilometer journey east.

Doctor Oleksander Babitch, 59, an employee of the national railway company, is coordinating a new operation to evacuate civilians from Donbass. © David Gormezano, France 24

“Of course we are afraid, but someone has to do this job,” explains Dr. Oleksander Babitch. “We know that the Russians are targeting the railway infrastructure, 160 employees of the company have been killed since February. But we continue to work, we will not stop. They bombed the Kramatorsk station because that is where we gathered the people to be evacuated. After this bombardment, we moved our activities to Pokrovsk. They are inhuman. They do not respect any rules of war”, he adds, alternating Russian and Ukrainian.

The Donbass, at war since 2014

A doctor from this region, Oleksander Babitch has spent his entire career with the Ukrainian railways. After working for a long time in the company’s hospitals in eastern Ukraine, he was reassigned to the kyiv region in 2014 when the Donbass war broke out. His parents still live in Bakhmout, between Donetsk and Kramatorsk, just a few kilometers from the fighting. Smiling, energetic, determined, he knows intimately the dramas experienced by the inhabitants of this region.

“Those who decided to leave left a long time ago. Those leaving now are those who did not want to leave, but were struck by tragedy. A few days ago, we evacuated an elderly couple whose the house was destroyed by a bombardment. They had time to take refuge in a shelter, but not their daughter, who was killed. They buried her in the garden, then they left Volnovakha.”

Oleksander Babitch dispenses first aid reminders to railway employees before arriving at Pokrovsk station.
Oleksander Babitch dispenses first aid reminders to railway employees before arriving at Pokrovsk station. © David Gormezano, France 24

Three hours after leaving Dnipro, the train stops at Pokrovsk station. The people brought to the station by coaches and ambulances had to be taken care of quickly, their state of health and their needs assessed and they were put on the train – all within two hours. The railway team thought it would collect 200 displaced people today, but in the end only 101 boarded. “It is probably the intensity of the fighting that has prevented the movement of civilians and volunteers who go looking for them all over the region”, we are told.

“The further we advance towards the front, the more difficult the situation. There are many places where we can no longer go,” says Oleksander, one of these young volunteers in an orange T-shirt. “We tell people, ‘We’re not sure we can come back, take your pick.’ But some don’t want to leave, even when they live hidden in cellars with children. I don’t know how to convince them.” Oleksander tries to understand their reasons: “They must be afraid of losing everything they have. Or they don’t know where to go. ‘We’re going to rob them or cheat them… That’s my interpretation.’

Oleksander, one of the volunteers who criss-crosses the Donbass combat zones to bring the civilians evacuated by train to the station.
Oleksander, one of the volunteers who criss-crosses the Donbass combat zones to bring the civilians evacuated by train to the station. © David Gormezano, France 24

Arrived from Donets’ke, a village between Sloviansk and Lyman, Lyudmila is finally installed in a compartment with her mother, very old and invalid. “We didn’t want to leave our house, because my mother had a medical room. And then, nobody wants to leave their house,” she said on the verge of tears. “But a cluster bomb blew out all our windows two days ago. We lived in the hallways and in the basement. It was too hard, unbearable. We decided to leave because it was now or never . No more internet, no more mobile network, we had no more information. And we had no more gas, electricity only once in a while, and not much to eat either.”

Lyudmila and her mother on the train taking them to Dnipro.
Lyudmila and her mother on the train taking them to Dnipro. © David Gormezano, France 24

A few seats further, a young woman accompanied by her mother and their children are unpacking a picnic. This family was lucky not to have been overtaken by the fierce fighting taking place a hundred kilometers away. A refugee in Poland since the start of the war, Lina came back to convince her mother to leave the Donbass. They will make the trip to Lviv, the terminus of this train, then hope to return to Poland. “We want to come back when it’s over,” sighs sadly Valentina, the mother, who lost her husband in the clashes in Donbass after 2014. “It’s good to be a guest, but it’s even better to to be at home.”

Lina, Valentina and their children want to reach the Polish border.
Lina, Valentina and their children want to reach the Polish border. © David Gormezano, France 24

In another compartment, two women face each other, staring into space, a suitcase at their feet. Victoria is a teacher in Pokrovsk and intends to stop in Dnipro. “After that, I don’t know,” she tells us. “If I could stay, I would, because I have my whole life here. But the best way for me to help the Ukrainian army is to leave, so they can liberate us. That’s what the local authorities tell us every day.”

Ms. Tsivilina has left the city of Artemivsk, she tells us. You have to understand “Bakhmout”, because the city changed its name in 2015, after the adoption in Ukraine of a “decommunization” law. With a population of 77,000, the town has regained its original name. “I waited, but now there are no lights in the windows at night. People only go out to buy food. When I think of my apartment, I feel like crying,” says the old woman. lady.

Victoria and Mrs. Tsivilina exchange a few words, discussing the war on board the evacuation train.
Victoria and Mrs. Tsivilina exchange a few words, discussing the war on board the evacuation train. © David Gormezano, France 24

After our questions, the two women begin a brief conversation. “I watched the May 9 parade on television to try to understand why Russia is doing this to us. There must be a reason, but I don’t understand which one. We have to respect our freedom, we don’t have them. not invited to come,” recalls the teacher. “There is no valid reason to invade Ukraine. We can live as we wish. They don’t have to save us from ourselves,” replies Ms. Tsivilina, who is going to join relatives in Kryvyi Rih, the birthplace of President Volodymir Zelensky.

A century of war in Donbass

A silence settles, then the old lady resumes, in a low voice: “I will come back when the war is over, but I am 83 years old… This region has suffered so much, for so long, with the Holodomor [une famine orchestrée par Staline qui fit au moins 2,5 millions de morts en Ukraine dans les années 1930, NDLR]then the Holocaust [plus de 1 million de juifs ukrainiens périrent entre 1941 et 1944, NDLR]. And today, it’s horrible what they [les Russes] subject Mariupol. Putin is Hitler.”

Since 2014, in the East, fighting between pro-Russian separatists, actively supported by Moscow, and the Ukrainian army has claimed more than 13,000 lives according to the UN and caused the displacement of nearly 1.5 million people. Since the beginning of the Russian offensive in February, the fighting has reached an unprecedented level of violence. Moscow wants at all costs to seize the entire Donbass and defeat the Ukrainian army which has been resisting it for eight years. A goal that Oleksander Babitch, the doctor from this region, strongly rejects: “We will resist to the last drop of blood if necessary. We will prevent them from destroying us.”

At the end of a new evacuation operation, the train with 101 civilians on board approaches the town of Dnipro.
At the end of a new evacuation operation, the train with 101 civilians on board approaches the town of Dnipro. © David Gormezano, France 24

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