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A Vow to Ease Bombing Is Too Late for Many in Ukraine City Near Kyiv

On Tuesday, in negotiations in Istanbul aimed at ending the war, the Russians said they would ease their bombardment of Chernihiv, but their positions around it are already so fortified, and the city itself so battered, that the offer hardly amounted to a concession at all.

March 30, 2022 / 06:51 PM IST
Representative image (Image credit Twitter/ @MFA_Ukraine)

Representative image (Image credit Twitter/ @MFA_Ukraine)

Thousands of people have been fleeing the northern outskirts of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, escaping towns and villages under attack by Russian troops across the region. Many of them are from the city of Chernihiv, with bleak faces and crushing stories.

They have been arriving in steady droves in recent days at Kyiv’s central station, clutching bags and children, their eyes hollow and full of strain.

“The city is under fire all the time,” said Iryna Shepetova, 35, hugging one of her children after spending the night sleeping on a bench in the station. “The mayor told us you are responsible for your own lives.”

She escaped with her three children and her mother on one of the last minibuses out of the city last week, as Russian forces closed in.

Chernihiv guards the left bank of the Dnieper River and has been a target for Russian forces advancing on Kyiv since the start of the war five weeks ago. Thwarted from seizing control of Chernihiv, Russian units surrounded it and pounded it with airstrikes and artillery fire, as a second battalion group moved in to encircle it from the south.

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On Tuesday, in negotiations in Istanbul aimed at ending the war, the Russians said they would ease their bombardment of Chernihiv, but their positions around it are already so fortified, and the city itself so battered, that the offer hardly amounted to a concession at all.

“They were purposely bombing schools,” said Vera Kaydash, 67, a retired physician. “There were lines for bread and water, and they fired on the people waiting.” She said she knew two people who were among those killed in an attack on a line outside a grocery store.

Water and electricity were out, only gas was working on one side of town, and telephone and internet services were down, she said. In her former hospital, the damage had made the X-ray and dialysis departments unusable, she said. “They destroyed them in such a way that only after the war would we be able to replace them.”

“I have not seen such cynical behavior in my life,” she said.

So when the city’s mayor, Vladyslav Atroshenko, urged those who could to get out and volunteers from a private bus company organized minibuses, dozens of people decided to risk it. Cars trying to escape had come under repeated fire, and there was no guarantee of safe passage for civilians, but the situation inside the city was becoming increasingly precarious.

“A great number of cars came under fire, and many people died,” said Kaydash’s husband, Mikhail, 68, who accompanied his wife and sister. He said he was surprised that they got through. “We were lucky; it was quiet.”

They made a tortuous six-hour journey along back roads through woods and fields to avoid Russian positions, listening to the pounding of tank and mortar fire not far away.

Shepetova left behind her husband since, she said, men between the ages of 18 and 60 were not allowed to board the buses. Vera Kaydash left behind her daughter and family.

Then, three days after their escape, Russian planes bombed the only bridge leading out of Chernihiv, cutting the exit route for tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers still inside. A pedestrian bridge across the river remains, but it is damaged and exposed to Russian shelling and gunfire, the mayor said.

He asked for help for his besieged city last weekend in a video call with journalists. “We are looking for way to bring 44 seriously wounded people out,” Atroshenko said. “They need urgent evacuation.” The wounded were mostly military, he said, but included civilians and three children.

More than 200 people had been killed in attacks on the city, he said, adding that destruction was so extensive, “it is now easier to count those buildings that have not been damaged.”

Since then, families have still been trickling out on increasingly dangerous journeys, making their way from the city on foot and ferried across the river by volunteers in small boats. Many are so terrified of the prospect of a Russian takeover that they did not want their full names published, but recounted their experiences.

One family said they walked and drove for three days through villages before finding a way across the river. “We were a group of seven with one child and a grandmother who is disabled,” said Svetlana, 40. “We had to make a huge hook around, for 50 kilometers, with him,” she said, pointing to her 5-year-old son, Dyma. They loaded their bags onto two bicycles and pushed them along, she said.

People described a chaotic and dangerous situation with front lines shifting as Russian forces sought to encircle the city and Ukrainian forces mounted a counterattack.

“All the ways out of Chernihiv are being shot at by the Russians,” said Alyona Sukhova, who drove out with her husband and 14-year-old daughter, Olha, from a rural area south of the river Monday. “It was risky,” said her husband, Pavlo Sukhov, who did the driving. “The Russians had been pushed back a bit, so there was a small window to get out.”

Mikhail Kaydash called for more international help, especially in stopping the Russian air attacks.

“If Chernihiv falls, the Russians will come to Kyiv,” he said. “The Ukrainians are fighting furiously. It would be nice to have some support.”

Kaydash listed the countries where Russia has seized territory over the last 30 years. “It began from Moldova and Georgia and continued in Ukraine,” he said. “And there is Poland next door. Ukraine might be not the end. It might continue.”

(Author: Carlotta Gall)/(c.2021 The New York Times Company)



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New York Times
first published: Mar 30, 2022 06:51 pm
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