As Ukraine Orders Civilians to Evacuate the East, Residents Face a Grim Choice

DONETSK PROVINCE, Ukraine – Explosions from artillery shells fired into eastern Ukraine echoed in the distance, but it was the screams of children playing on a recent afternoon that echoed throughout the yard near the front lines.

The scene speaks to the grim choices people face after President Volodymyr Zelensky called this weekend for a mandatory evacuation of the region, forcing hundreds of thousands of civilians in eastern Ukraine to flee their homes. door.

“We can go,” said Natasha, 46, a mother of six, of the brutal war with unflinching composure. “But how are we going to make money? And I have kids to raise. “

Zelensky’s evacuation notice was the broadest government directive issued to date in the war, coming after months of relentless Russian bombardment that destroyed heat and electricity supply infrastructure across the region. eastern Ukraine. Russian forces are now intensifying their offensive in the Donetsk region after capturing almost all of neighboring Luhansk.

Fighting is also escalating in the south of Ukraine, ahead of an expected Ukrainian attack, and shelling has also increased in areas along the northern border.

In Mykolaiv, the southern city that faced intense Russian bombardment from the outset of the invasion, officials said a hotel, a sports complex, two schools and multiple homes were lost. destroyed by Russian shelling early on Sunday. Officials describe it as the worst shelling there has been – a remarkable assessment given the heaviness the city has endured.

Emergency teams racing between the blast sites in Mykolaiv are still working to determine the number of casualties, but one of Ukraine’s richest businessmen, Oleksiy Vadaturskyi, and his wife, are believed to be among those. die.

Mr. Vadaturskyi’s company, Nibulon, which has confirmed the deaths, has built the storage facilities and other infrastructure needed to export the grain. He was killed just as the first grain shipments since the beginning of the war were being loaded onto cargo ships at Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea after a month of blockade.

It is unclear whether Mr. Vadaturskyi was directly targeted or if he, like many other civilians killed by Russian bombs, went to the wrong place at the wrong time.

Also on Sunday, Moscow accused Ukraine of being behind a drone attack on the Black Sea Fleet headquarters in occupied Crimea, and Ukrainian officials said there was growing evidence that A deadly explosion last week in a Russian colony was ordered and carried out by Russian forces.

In Donetsk, Ukrainian authorities said Zelensky’s order to evacuate this weekend was an attempt to both save civilian lives and free up valuable resources for the impending escalation of the war.

“The sooner the implementation, the more people leave the Donetsk region, the fewer people the Russian Army will have time to destroy,” Zelensky said in his Saturday nightly address.

The directive is intended to give local officials more time to move civilians, relieve pressure on besieged emergency crews and help the government confront what they fear could turn into a crisis. uncontrollable crisis in the coming months.

The Russians control about 60 percent of Donetsk province, and Ukrainian officials have warned that Moscow will step up efforts to capture the rest of the province as it moves forward with its plans. annex parts of Ukraine.

Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, said about 200,000 people needed to leave the region, warning that there would be no heat or gas supplies in Donetsk this winter because Russia destroyed gas pipelines. burn.

Mr Zelensky said the government would help people logistically and financially in the hope of alleviating the economic worries of those who do not want to leave. Natasha and her family know those economic worries well.

She and her husband, Oleh, 49, are the only couple with children to stay in their village just a few miles from Russia’s location in eastern Ukraine. Their dilemma reflects the precarious situation of families in rural Donetsk, who cling to self-sufficiency even as war threatens to sweep over them.

The couple asked not to publish their last names to avoid retaliation, both lost their jobs when nearby factories closed due to the outbreak of war 5 months ago and they have been struggling to make ends meet since then. from that.

Government services in the area were largely shut down and Natasha became the mainstay of the family as neighbors fled and left their homes and dairy cows in her care. She gets up at 4:30 every morning to milk the cows, and she teaches herself how to make sour cream and cheese, which she sells at the nearby town market.

But customers are dwindling as Russian missiles hit the area with increasing intensity. “We have to manage with our own devices,” says Natasha.

The family had lived through the turmoil of war before. In 2014, pro-Russian separatists seized parts of Donetsk, and in the fighting that followed, their houses were destroyed. The separatists evacuated their families, along with the four children they had at the time, to Crimea. They were then transferred to Russia.

Some of their friends were also evacuated to stay in Russia and naturalized in Russia, but Natasha and Oleh decided to return home, where the Red Cross helped rebuild their home.

“I want to eat our sala and apricots,” she said. Sala, or lard, on a slice of bread, is a favorite Ukrainian staple.

Natasha said two more children came along and this fall they will all have to go to school. But school is also suspended now.

“I don’t know how it will all turn out,” Natasha said. “The teacher called. She said she might teach them over the phone.”

In another development, Moscow on Sunday accused Ukraine of being behind a makeshift drone attack on its naval headquarters in the occupied Crimean port city of Sevastopol. The attack caused a few casualties and minimal damage, but it was deeply symbolic, taking place on Russia’s Navy Day and forcing the cancellation of naval celebrations.

Ukraine’s military denies responsibility for Sunday’s drone attack, but it also says Russian military facilities inside Crimea are legitimate targets. “We do not conduct attacks on the territory of the Russian Federation,” it said. “Crimea is Ukraine.”

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 is considered illegal by most of the international community. Now, Moscow is taking steps across all of the recently occupied territory to hold “referendums” similar to the one that led to the annexation of Crimea and to move in the other direction. to integrate the population.

The Russian-appointed administrators gave Russian passports, mobile phone numbers and set-top boxes to watch Russian television. They replaced Ukraine’s currency with rubles, rerouted the internet through Russian servers, and arrested hundreds of people against assimilation.

Also on Sunday, Ukrainian officials cited newly released satellite photos as further evidence that a deadly explosion in a Russian colony last week was not the result of an attack. missile attack on Ukraine, as Russia claimed, was caused by Russian forces.

The explosion, which occurred at a camp on Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine, killed at least 50 Ukrainian prisoners of war, many considered national heroes after being captured during a siege of a house. steel machine in the coastal city of Mariupol.

Since the explosion late on Thursday, both sides have accused each other of the origin of the explosion. Although the Russian Defense Ministry on Sunday said it would allow the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations to access the penal colony, neither organization has confirmed this claim.

The Red Cross said in a statement Sunday that it had received no confirmation from Russia that it would be allowed to visit. There was no immediate comment from the UN, which said it was willing to send experts to investigate when both sides agreed.

Carlotta Gall reports from Donetsk, and Erika Solomon from Berlin.

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