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Fleeing the battlegrounds around Kyiv as death hangs overhead

IRPIN, Ukraine — An exhausted old woman on crutches gingerly steps onto the fragile wooden planks hastily thrown over the rushing stream of the Irpin River, just outside the city of Kyiv. 

Supported on both sides by a policeman and a volunteer, she feebly totters over the perilous crossing, her helpers’ feet almost submerging in the frigid white turbulence. The boards sag as she makes it to the other side, where she is helped up a ramp to solid ground.

“Come on, grandma, just a little more, here we go, just up here,” coos a tall volunteer, guiding her to the relative safety of the Kyiv side. “There you go, there you go.” 

She pauses, breathing hard, leaning on her crutches, and asks in a faint voice if there is any water. A man pours her two little bottle caps. Slightly refreshed, she moves up the slope to the highway, where ambulances are waiting in a parking lot on the other side. They will take her into Kyiv. There, buses are waiting for those who want to flee further, ready to ferry people to the relative safety of Western Ukraine. 

The volunteer who handed her off is already busy again. Behind her, there is a long line of people also crossing the river. Women with small children in their arms. Young couples with pet carriers. Middle-aged men and women with bulky bags and suitcases containing the remains of their earthly belongings. 

They are all escaping from Irpin and Bucha, once picturesque Kyiv suburbs, whose tranquility Russia shattered with its invasion, shelling and partial occupation. In recent days, Bucha, Irpin and the adjacent town of Hostomel have become a front line for Russian forces trying to encircle and capture the capital. 

The ruins of the Irpin bridge, destroyed by Ukrainian forces to deny Russian troops an approach into the city, tower over the refugees, providing cover from Russian rockets, mortars or shells that can strike and kill at any moment. 

On Sunday, Russian troops mortared the crossing, killing eight people, including a family of four with two children, delaying evacuation plans by a day, according to an online statement by Irpin Mayor Oleksandr Markushin. A video of one of the blasts has circulated on the internet. 

Viktoria Kramarenko, a civilian burns specialist and volunteer medic working here since the war began, confirmed that Russian forces on Sunday morning bombarded the crossing with heavy mortars, followed by unguided rockets. Crowds of people were trapped on the Irpin side, under the bridge, unable to cross, as the ambulances were forced to be pulled back to a safe distance. There have been several dozen injured, she said. 

“People were there, lots of people with kids, older people trying to pass the bridge and get to the Kyiv side to get to the buses,” Tasos Tsiamis, who has an immigration services firm in Kyiv, told POLITICO. “Bombs, rockets were exploding next to our heads.”

The crossings restarted Monday morning. According to one uniformed volunteer, over 2,000 people had evacuated by midday. They may soon join the more-than-1.5 million Ukrainians who have had to leave their country since Russia invaded.

Scars from the fighting were visible in the numerous shell fragments underfoot and the bloodied little dog with a wounded paw that someone had rescued nearby.

Those forced from their homes were haggard, some of them looking like they’d been crying or at least hadn’t slept in several days. Asked how she felt while escaping, Tetiana, who declined to give her last name, replied, “We don’t feel. We’re just single-mindedly living in the moment.”

But their fate is merciful compared to many of those left behind in Irpin and Bucha, who are either forced to stay there by Russian forces or are unwilling or unable to take the risk of trying to escape and be shot — either by mortars from a distance, or by assault rifles, face to face. 

“There are many people left behind, maybe 20 percent” of Irpin’s population, Tetiana said. She managed to cross and make it several kilometers away into the outer neighborhoods of Kyiv on Monday, where the buses heading west idled. 

While the capital continues to hold strong, according to Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko, its multiple suburbs are under fierce attack by Russian forces, who have struggled to make significant headway in recent days. 

Instead, they’ve taken to shelling refugee columns, as they have reportedly done in multiple parts of the country, including the south, according to Ukrainian officials and several international press accounts. 

Indeed, Russian soldiers’ disposition has become “more brutal” every day, as they endure cold and discomfort, according to a resident of the village of Kozarovychi, a village north of Kyiv. The person’s name has been omitted for the sake of safety. 

Kozarovychi’s neighboring towns of Dymer and Ivankiv continue to face humanitarian emergencies, according to Oleksii Kuleba, governor of the broader Kyiv province. 

“Thousands of people have been isolated due to hostilities, in particular Russian shelling of civilians,” Kuleba said Sunday in a statement, referring to multiple areas near the capital. “People survive without light, water, food or medical care. They are in danger.”

The danger is real. In Bucha, two injured children died due to inability to receive medical care, Ukrainian Commissioner for Human Rights Lyudmyla Denisova said Sunday.

These stories are by now gruesomely familiar to everyone’s ears. Numerous people told POLITICO they personally know people left behind in Bucha or Irpin who urgently need to get out but can’t — pregnant women, people with extremely sick or old parents, and the wounded. 

“The hospitals in Irpin have wounded people and small children and their supplies are running out, but [the Russian forces] won’t let them out,” said Kramarenko, the medic. “If there was some way to hold talks, maybe. But if we go, they’ll simply shoot us. Volunteers have been able to bring out a few,” but that’s about it. 

Others who are trapped may not be facing any life-threatening emergency, but they are being denied access to food, electricity, gas and cell phone service. While volunteers sometimes try to distribute bread and grains, these run out before everyone can get some. 

Plus, volunteers put themselves in danger by doing so. A Russian military vehicle fired on a civilian car in Bucha on Friday, reportedly killing three volunteers who had delivered some food to an animal shelter.

“Right now, there is no connection,” said Kramarenko. Russian forces “understood that we were being fed information” by local residents. She said messengers sometimes go toward the occupied territory on foot to let people know when they may try to make a break for it.

Elena Nikolaychuk has been in that situation. Prior to her escape Monday from Bucha, she said her family and neighbors had gone days without power and, briefly, without food and gas. They managed to keep their devices working by rationing their power banks. 

Eventually, they decided to make a break for it, using small side streets to stay unseen. Clutching their goods and a shoebox containing their Corella parrot, the group followed advice they heard to make it to the crossing, to freedom. 

“When we left Bucha and went to Irpin, people looked at us out of their houses like we’re … ”

“Like we’re crazy,” her neighbor cut in, who escaped together with her. 

“Like we’re completely nuts,” she agreed. 

Many people are terrified of leaving. Nikolaychuk said she and her neighbors heard of people being shot in the streets while trying to leave. Fortunately, while her group passed by in view of the Russian forces, the Russians ignored them.

“We prayed that they wouldn’t stop us,” she said. “God had mercy on us. Some people are being forced to stop.”

Besides God, those fleeing also have some mortal protection. 

Ukrainian forces continue to hold the area around the crossing, providing overwatch and helping people make it to safety. Throughout the morning, one could hear the regular thunder of big guns in the distance. This time, they were Ukrainian guns attacking the Russian military, whose drive toward the capital has slowed to a crawl or stalled entirely. 

The civilians also have the support of the medics and ambulances, moving in and out of the area and carrying people away. Tense medics regularly called on people to hurry up as they lingered to avoid being separated from friends or families. Yet the medics’ supplies are also stretched thin.

“We need armored vehicles and we need more high-speed ambulances with life support, so people could be hooked up to artificial respirators,” said Kramarenko.

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