Paweł Pieniążek form Kyiv – 03/05/2022. Originally published in Tygodnik Powszechny.
PAWEŁ PIENIĄŻEK FROM UKRAINE | Irpin, a city in the suburbs of Kyiv, is cut off from the rest of the world. An evacuation is underway. The choices are: one road, one train or crossing a broken bridge.
People have been crowding the entrances to the train station platforms for the past two hours. They are trying to leave Irpin, a suburb of 70,000 residents, in the northern suburbs of Kyiv near Hostomel, the latter of which the Russians captured after fierce fighting. The city had been targeted by the Russians from the first days of the invasion. Many residential buildings were damaged. A gradual evacuation is underway, organized by the baptists from a local church, among others. Volunteers from other Ukrainian cities drive in with their own automobiles to take away all those in need. Vehicle columns marked “evacuation” and “children” leave the city on increasingly dangerous roads where military skirmishes regularly break out. Over a thousand people have left Irpin this way.
Others are transported by buses organized by city governments, or by private cars, to a blown up bridge. It was destroyed by the Ukrainian army to hinder a potential attack on the three million inhabitants of Kyiv. Instead of a straight road from Irpin to the capital, a difficult crossing, immensely challenging for the elderly and those with luggage, must now be navigated. Inhabitants cross on two narrow pipes, holding onto a railing and a rope so as not to fall into the river. Soldiers help them across.
On March 3, The inhabitants of Irpin had a chance to leave the city by train for the first time. The train was intended only for women, children and the elderly.
“Initially there were supposed to be three cars, now there are five,” says Artem Hurin. “As many people will leave as can fit on board.”
He is a deputy of the city council but this is hard to ascertain because he now wears a yellow band on his arm, which allows Ukrainian forces to distinguish one-another, and carries a rifle in his hand.
Among the crowd is sixteen-year-old Bohdan. He only has a small backpack and a cat tucked under his sweatshirt. He wants to get to Poltava in central Ukraine, where his relatives live and where the war has still not arrived.
“I will be able to sleep normally there, it is terrible here,” admits the teenager.
At the same time, he says, he has become somewhat accustomed to it all. When we hear artillery fire during our conversation, he doesn’t even flinch.
Bohdan’s father stayed in Irpin. Uniformed men came in the morning and explained to him that, if necessary, he is supposed to stand in defense of the city.
“Dad said to pack up and leave. I obeyed. In my backpack I have some warm clothes, a passport, documents, a charger, headphones and some random things,” says Bohdan. “I’m very worried about him.”
Fifty-one-year-old Oleksandr is accompanying his family — his wife and three underage children. They’re going to nearby Kyiv. He is staying.
“We will greet the visitors,” he smiles broadly. “They did not recruit me into the territorial defense, but my friends and I are organizing ourselves.”
The train arrives late and the crowd boards the carriages, assisted by the territorial defense and the police. Some, like Bohdan, with hardly any luggage and others with large suitcases and bags. Not all of them fit into the carriages and they now look for other escape routes from the city.
In the city I see long lines in front of the few open shops and pharmacies. Irpin is practically cut off from the rest of Ukraine due to the blown up bridge and the Russian offensive from the north and west. Only two threads connect it with the world: the crossing over the broken bridge and a circuitous road to Kyiv.
The window panes tremble
Soon after the train departs, the fighting intensifies. Artillery rumbles. In the city center I meet Mychajlyna Skoryk, deputy of the city council of the neighboring Bucza (37,000 inhabitants). Her city, like Irpin, is under constant attack. If they were seized, the Russians would stand on the edge of Kyiv. Skoryk left for the southern outskirts of Kyiv a few days ago, fearing for her 6-year-old child. She came back to oversee a humanitarian convoy that was supposed to bring the most essential food products. It is difficult to find even buckwheat, oats or water in stores here.
The convoy, however, was stopped at a checkpoint on the way. Russian tanks cut off the last road leaving Irpin. Skoryk invites me to her house and we wait out the clashes together. I hear not only artillery, but also tank guns and rifle fire. Hours pass and the clashes continue. Skoryk walks around and packs food from the kitchen cupboards. She will take what she can with her because it isn’t just in Irpin that store shelves are empty. She gives the rest to her neighbor, who has decided to stay.
“This will guarantee him supplies for the time being,” says Skoryk.
She bustles around the kitchen, nervous, like everyone else is now. She is still coming to terms with the thought that she might be seeing her home for the last time. She bought it a year after the outbreak of the war in Donbas. She doesn’t feel very attached to it, but she wanted to be independent. This is the first home that she has owned in her life.
Skoryk is not surprised to learn that a full-scale war has broken out and battles are being fought across the country. It seems to her to be a logical continuation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which broke out in 2014 and has claimed at least 13,000 victims. She did not believe that the Kremlin would stop at seizing Crimea and Donbas. “But to leave home feeling that you have to take everything because you might not return here… that’s completely different,” she says.
Though at least three hours had passed since the start of the fighting, it was getting louder and louder; the windows shook from the artillery and gunfire. Skoryk led me and the driver to the Baptist church and herself drove to see her family in Irpin. The road was still cut off so we were supposed to stay overnight and leave at the first opportunity. There were at least two hundred people inside the church. Mainly women, children and the elderly. There was also coffee, tea, hot meals, and children ran around the halls.
There is no guarantee
“Attention, there is a chance to leave! I am asking women with children to immediately take a seat on the buses!” — The man responsible for the evacuation shouted.
Uproar, shouting, and the sound of suitcases being dragged and bumping against the stairs followed. Everyone quickly took their seats. The man said the convoy had already turned back twice so there is no guarantee. Perhaps this one will also be turned back.
Ukrainian soldiers stood in the road. There was no trace of tanks. The convoy traveled accompanied by the sound of artillery, past billowing black smoke that enveloped the sky in the vicinity. The attack was repulsed. The Ukrainian side claims that since Russia attacked Ukraine again on February 24, almost 9,200 Russian soldiers have been killed or injured. The Russian Ministry of Defense reported on March 2nd that this number was around 2,100. On March 5, the evacuation continued in Irpin although the Russians shelled the vicinity of the train station and also hit a (fortunately empty) train that was supposed to take people to Kyiv. There is no telling if Mychajlyna Skoryk will ever see her home again.