Since the start of the war in Ukraine, thousands of people have fled the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. In recent days, Ukraine’s national railway company has seen an influx of people who did not want to leave their country but who have finally resigned themselves to boarding evacuation trains. FRANCE 24 reports from aboard a train carrying displaced people from Donbas.
On Wednesday morning, Dr Oleksander Babitch and other doctors from Ukrzaliznytsia, the national railway company, gather on the platform of the railway station in Dnipro, a large industrial city in eastern Ukraine and the gateway to the Donbas. It marks the start of a new operation aimed at evacuating civilians caught in the ever-intensifying fighting.
Here, a train is ready to depart for Pokrovsk, in Donetsk oblast. After the Kramatorsk railway station was bombed on 8 April, which resulted in the deaths of 52 people, including five children, the small town of 60,000 inhabitants became the railway exit point for the inhabitants of Donbas.
The railways on the front line
Scanning their phones, drivers, conductors and doctors learn that Pokrovsk has been hit by two missiles a few hours earlier. Six people were reportedly injured. The train starts up, crossing the Dnipro River, and begins its 200-kilometre journey east.
“Of course we are afraid, but someone has to do this job,” says Dr Babitch. “We know that the Russians are targeting railway infrastructure, 160 company employees have been killed since February. But we keep working, we won’t stop. They shelled the Kramatorsk station because that’s where we were gathering people to evacuate. After the bombing, we moved our activities to Pokrovsk. They are inhumane. They don’t respect any rules of war,” he adds, switching between Russian and Ukrainian.
The Donbas, at war since 2014
A doctor from this region, Babitch has been employed by Ukrzaliznytsia his entire career. 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 war in Donbas broke out. His parents still live in Bakhmut, between Donetsk and Kramatorsk, just a few kilometres from the fighting. Smiling, energetic and determined, he is well aware of the difficulties that this region’s inhabitants have faced.
“Those who had decided to leave left a long time ago. Those who are leaving now are those who did not want to leave, but were hit by tragedy. A few days ago, we evacuated an elderly couple whose house was destroyed in a bombing. They had time to take refuge in a shelter, but not their daughter, who was killed. They buried her in the garden and then left Volnovakha.”
Three hours after leaving Dnipro, the train stops at Pokrovsk station. The people who had arrived at the station by bus and ambulance are quickly medically assessed and then board the train – all within the space of two hours. The railway team thought it would take 200 displaced people that day, but in the end only 101 boarded. “The intense fighting has probably prevented the movement of civilians and the volunteers who are going to look for them all over the region,” we are told.
“The further you go towards the front, the more difficult the situation becomes. There are many places where we can’t go anymore,” says Oleksander, one of the young volunteers in an orange T-shirt. “We tell people: ‘We are not sure if we can come back, make your choice. But some people don’t want to leave, even when they are living in a cellar with children. I don’t know how to convince them.” Oleksander tries to understand their reasons: “They must be afraid of losing everything they own. Or they don’t know where to go. They are so anxious that they decide to stay at all costs. Maybe they think they will be robbed or cheated… That’s my opinion.”
Arriving from Donets’ke, a village between Sloviansk and Lyman, Lyudmila was finally put into a compartment with her elderly and disabled mother. “We didn’t want to leave our house, because my mother had a medical room. Besides, no one wants to leave their home,” she says, close to tears. “But a cluster bomb blew out all our windows two days ago. We lived in the corridors and the cellar. It was too hard, unbearable. We decided to leave because it was now or never. There was no internet, no mobile phone network, no news. And we had no gas, electricity only from time to time, and not much to eat either.”
A few seats away, a young woman with her mother and children eat their packed lunch. This family was lucky not to have been caught up in the fierce fighting a hundred kilometres away. A refugee in Poland since the beginning of the war, Lina returned to convince her mother to leave Donbas. They will travel to Lviv, in Western Ukraine, the train’s terminus, and then hope to return to Poland. “We want to come back when it’s over,” says Valentina, the mother, who lost her husband in the post-2014 clashes in Donbas. “It’s nice to be a guest, but it’s even better to be home.”
In another compartment, two women in the dark are facing each other, a suitcase at their feet. Victoria is a teacher in Pokrovsk and plans to stop in Dnipro. “Afterwards, I don’t know,” she says. “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 that they can free us. This is what the local authorities tell us every day.”
Ms Tsivilina has left the town of Artemivsk, she says. This town with a population of 77,000 was officially renamed “Bakhmut” in 2015, after Ukraine passed a “decommunisation” law. “I waited, but now there are no more lights in the windows at night. People only go out to buy food. When I think about my flat, I feel like crying,” says the old woman.
After answering our questions, the two women begin a brief conversation. “I watched the May Day parade on TV to try to understand why Russia is doing this to us. There must be a reason, but I don’t understand what it is. Our freedom must be respected, we didn’t invite them to come,” said 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 Tsivilina, who is going to join relatives in Kryvyï Rih, President Volodymir Zelensky’s hometown.
A century of war in Donbas
Following a brief pause, the old woman 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 [a famine orchestrated by Stalin that killed at least 2.5 million people in Ukraine in the 1930s], and then the Holocaust [more than 1 million Ukrainian Jews perished between 1941 and 1944]. And today, it is horrible what they [the Russians] are doing to Mariupol. Putin is Hitler.”
Since 2014, fighting in the east between pro-Russian separatists, who Moscow actively supports, and the Ukrainian army has left more than 13,000 people dead, according to the UN, and displaced nearly 1.5 million people. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion in February, the fighting has reached an unprecedented level of violence. Moscow wants to take over the entire Donbas at all costs and defeat the Ukrainian army, which has been resisting it for eight years. Babitch, the doctor from this region, strongly opposes this objective: “We will resist to the last drop of blood if necessary. We will prevent them from destroying us.”
This article was translated from the original in French by Mariamne Everett.