Updated March 7, 2022 at 5:00 p.m. EST|Published March 7, 2022 at 11:28 a.m. EST
IRPIN, UKRAINE — On Monday morning, Oksana Shumskaya didn’t know what awaited her on the other side of the destroyed bridge. Was it death, as it was for the four residents of this city killed by a Russian mortar shell the day before? Or was it escape, which she desperately wanted?
She suffered from diabetes, hypertension and a heart ailment. Her severe arthritis meant she couldn’t walk up steps to take a train, or she would have left days ago. She, her daughter and their cat, Barsik, had not left their apartment in nine days. But now Russian forces were inside their city and the shelling was getting close to home.
It was time to flee. “We took only the cat and my medicines,” said Shumskaya, 65, breathing heavily. Her daughter, Julia, carried a small wooden stool for her mother to rest on. They joined hundreds of panicked residents from this city on the northern outskirts of the capital, Kyiv, who fled across a damaged bridge on Monday, seeking to escape the advancing Russians.
As Russian and Ukrainian forces traded shells, many of those fleeing were elderly people, some too frail to walk on their own. Others were in wheelchairs or on crutches. They struggled to cross over narrow wooden planks placed over the Irpin River, where the bridge had been destroyed by Ukrainian forces to hamper a possible Russian move toward the capital.
At least one elderly woman was pushed in a wheelbarrow. Others were carried on the backs of sons or grandsons, members of the Territorial Defense Forces, even generous strangers. As they crossed under the remains of the bridge, the incessant thuds of artillery shelling could be heard, deployed by both sides.
The attacks came despite an agreement to create a humanitarian corridor in Kyiv and other cities to allow civilians to escape the intensifying war. The shelling did not hit the fleeing civilians, but it did instill fear and panic, forcing many to run or take cover at every reverberating shell.
“There are a lot of handicapped and older people coming today,” said Stepan Protynyak, 33, a builder who signed up to fight the Russians as a member of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces. “At this point, everyone is leaving. They thought the war will stop, but it’s not stopping.”
The desperate also included parents pushing kids in strollers or carrying them in their arms. Others were holding their dogs on leashes and their cats in bags. Everyone had small suitcases or plastic bags with the few possessions they could carry to move fast and avoid the bombings and gunfire. Some only came with what they were wearing, forced to make a decision to leave before they became trapped in an urban war.
Those escaping included 91-year-old Hanna Bychok, who still remembered when the Nazis occupied Ukraine during World War II. She preferred the Nazis to the Russians, she said. “Now, it’s worse, much worse,” she said, walking with a cane. “Back then it was better. The Germans were more humane. They were even giving us some food. This is the first time I have fled war.”
Shumskaya and Julia moved to Irpin five years ago because they liked its tall, modern buildings and nice downtown. “It was super until Putin came,” said Shumskaya, referring to the Russian president. Due to her medical ailments, the original plan was to wait out the conflict at home.
Three days after Russia invaded, an artillery shell nearly hit their building. Then, Julia spotted Russian troops coming out of an apartment. “We decided to leave five days ago, but we didn’t know how to get out,” said Julia, 43. “They began to shell harder.”
As the fighting approached their neighborhood, a friend of her sister delivered some frightening news. “She told us that the Chechens are coming and that they are killing the men and raping the women,” said Julia, referring to a Russian unit known for its brutality.
Whether the report was true or not, the women decided to leave the next day. On Monday, the fighting had subsided and they sensed an opportunity. “I fled my house with my slippers on,” said Shumskaya, pointing at her sandals.
With the wooden stool and Barsik the cat in a small carrying bag, mother and daughter found a ride to the bridge, where the corpse of a man lay next to a bicycle. It was unclear when he was killed. The women walked under the crumpled structure and gingerly stepped on the wooden planks over the Irpin River. Then they made their way up a hill toward the main road.
“Give me the stool,” said Shumskaya, who was breathing heavily. She sat down and heaved a sigh of relief. Seconds later, outgoing Ukrainian artillery shells flew over their heads, and then the sound of incoming Russian mortar fire in the distance. It was time to walk again.
Along the route from the bridge was Serhiy Teslya, 40. A couple of volunteers with the Territorial Defense Forces were carrying him in his wheelchair up the same hill where Shumskaya had stopped to rest. “I had no opportunity to leave,” he said, explaining why he hadn’t left Irpin earlier. “I could not move on my own.”
On Monday, he managed to cross the bridge with the help of family and friends. He was moving to an apartment with his in-laws in Kyiv but was concerned the Russians would soon launch an all-out attack on the capital. “I am worried about everything,” he said. “This war should not have happened. A lot of innocent people are dying, and for what?”
There was also Valentina Stepanuk, 63, who ran under the bridge after a Ukrainian fighter warned that possible Russian snipers were lurking in nearby buildings.
“We didn’t leave because we thought the Russians would act normal,” said Stepanuk, who arrived with no suitcases. She had left her home of 25 years a half-hour earlier. “I just got my coat and ran,” she said. “The bombing was so intense. Everything is burning.”
She was headed to her home village near the city of Chernihiv, which had also been shelled. “At least I will be with my sister,” she said, adding that many elderly people were still inside Irpin, unable to leave because of the constant bombardment.
Others fleeing said most parts of the city had no electricity amid increasing shortages of water, food and other necessities. Cellphone networks have been down for at least three days, leaving many residents isolated from their families in other parts of the country or abroad. Thousands remain in underground shelters.
“We had intense fighting on the streets,” said Natalia Pyndych, 65, after crossing the river. “We couldn’t get out of the shelters.” Shumskaya got up from the stool and looked up the hill. “Let’s go little by little,” Julia gently urged her. Holding her daughter’s arm, Shumskaya began to walk slowly. In Julia’s other hand was the bag with Barsik. “Oh my God,” Shumskaya repeated, her breathing intensifying with each step.
The women finally reach the street that headed toward the capital. Before them, about 100 yards away, were vans and ambulances waiting to take them to buses a few miles away. They had no idea where they were going to live. Perhaps Germany, where her sister lives, said Shumskaya. Perhaps western Ukraine, where she had relatives.
But to reach the vehicles the women still had to pass a danger zone, the exact spot where, on Sunday, at least four civilians were killed by Russian mortar shells.
As the women walked toward the vehicles, a Ukrainian fighter running behind them yelled, “Go, go, faster, faster.” Shumskaya said, “I can’t, I can’t.”
The soldiers had spotted a drone flying over them in the sky. Now they feared incoming mortar fire or missiles. Julia told her mother to stop near a fence and set the stool down. “Sit down for a minute and then let’s go,” she told her mother.
“We need to move now,” yelled the fighter. Then in the distance came the sound of a falling shell that rattled everyone. But the feared attack on the street never materialized. Shumskaya was breathing heavily again.
“Sit down,” said her daughter. “Get a hold of yourself.” A few minutes later, the women reached an evacuation van. “Oh my God,” said Shumskaya, as she was helped into a seat.