Updated: Apr 26
It's Independence Day in Ukraine, a day which simultaneously marks 6 months since Russia’s full-scale invasion. Despite the growing compassion fatigue around the world, towns made infamous by the atrocities committed in them have now covered our media feed with a ubiquity, the caliber of which has elevated their names to global vernacular. Bucha, Mariupol, Kharkiv, Severodonetsk, Kherson, Lysychansk… names that must have rung so differently just 2 seasons ago.
As summer sees its peak and a third season arrives in Ukraine where nowhere is safe, there is growing fear that cities near the front will begin to suffer in greater magnitude as significant portions of their infrastructure will be - if not already - as bare as the branches of their trees come November.
A months-long game of dodging hypothermia and pneumonia grows increasingly likely to await those still caught in the crossfire as winter approaches, in addition to the ongoing shelling and aerial bombings. This urgent concern and a strengthened focus on evacuations comes from the highest levels of Ukrainian government, and will test the efforts of evacuation teams who will attempt to sway the many unwilling to evacuate to do just that: evacuate.
// Siversk, Donetsk Oblast - Late July, 2022
The scale of the War in Ukraine is the largest we’ve seen in the Post World War II Era, and the toll has been steep. According to Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valerii Zaluzhnyi, over 9,000 Ukrainian soldiers have perished and over 30,000 wounded as of late August, while roughly 7,200 have been captured or are missing.
While the United Nations reports nearly 6,000 civilian deaths as of late August, the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine reports that nearly 30,000 civilians have been killed since February.
The number of refugees since the invasion, according to UNHCR, is estimated to be some 6.7 million, another 7 million internally displaced, and still another 13 million either stranded in affected areas or unable to leave. These figures are staggering when considering the total Ukrainian population comes in at 43 million.
// NGO Save Ukraine helping to board evacuees from Avdiivka on trains in Pokrovsk - May 26, 2022
Late last month, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk announced that the national evacuation effort in Donetsk will be ramped up significantly before the heating season, as swaths of the Donbas will inevitably face winter without heating due to constant damage to gas and electricity infrastructure from Russian attacks.
Images of incinerated homes and scorched-earth tactics have become almost customary in any report concerning Ukraine, and one might find it hard to understand why - if at all - residents refuse to leave despite the life-threatening risks posed by staying. A common (and quite simplified) explanation for this is that “they’re waiting for the Russians,” meaning they’re pro-Russian and/or pro-Soviet, and they want to live in an independent or Russian-controlled territory.
Although it’s tempting to accept this “one-and-done” understanding of those who stay, the reasons are much more nuanced, as you might expect.
A prime example of this is Sasha (not his real name), a 19-year-old boy who stayed behind until the end. Even while living at his best friend’s house after his own house was shelled, he gently refused every offer to evacuate. Using the translation app on my phone, Sasha explained to the evac operator and I in front of his destroyed home that his parents work in Siberia, and that if he evacuated through the Ukrainian front, he would never be able to return to see his parents again. Although several cases have been reported of pro-Russian Ukrainians who flee to Poland only to travel north into Belarus and east into Russia to reunite with relatives, for some, the risk of lasting separation with their loved ones outweighs the risk of being killed in a full-frontal Russian offensive. For many in the east, it’s a balancing act of family, familiarity, home, and sometimes country on one side of the scale and freedom from tyranny on the other.
As we walked back to where the evacuees were gathering, Sasha told us it was his birthday. That same day in late June, TAUSAR Evacuation Operator and Mechanic Andre West, a 21-year-old German who drove his Audi 100 from Celle, Germany to eastern Ukraine to evacuate civilians, successfully led a convoy of 4 civilian cars out of Sasha's village under active Russian shelling. When we returned the next day to run reconnaissance from a 1km distance, all we saw were multiple plumes of white smoke billowing out of the village. To this day, the fate of Sasha and his 2 friends is unknown.
Evacuation efforts on Ukraine’s Eastern Front continue in key cities, including Bakhmut, Slovyansk, Avdiivka and their surrounding areas as both civilian and military infrastructure come under intensifying fire.
// Sergey & Sergei of Tserkva "Kovcheh" Dnipro running a 4 van evacuation convoy to Slovyansk - May 30, 2022
“There’s a common phrase that many say, which literally translates to ‘We’re not needed in the West.’ It means ‘no one wants us.’ That’s the phrase you’ll hear the most,” he says.
Active in Ukraine since before February, Ivlev-Yorke has been leading evacuation efforts in Severdonetsk and Lysychansk (now under Russian control) in collaboration with the municipal offices of both territories.
// Philip Ivlev-Yorke, Misha Dobrishman, Dima Syrbu of Base UA
Victory or Peace? A question on the minds of many and one that all Ukrainians must answer for themselves. Multiple polls show that 70-80% of Ukrainians choose Victory, another way to say that peace will only come when Russian forces are removed from all Ukrainian territory and the borders before the annexation of Crimea in 2014 are restored. And Peace, referring in this case to concessions from Ukraine with most likely devastating consequences and the end of war on more-or-less-Russian terms.
Ukrainians must answer this question for themselves on Independence Day, and again on each day of war to come.