The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ukrainians escape embattled enclaves with frightful stories, and little else

After enduring weeks of relentless Russian shelling, Lidia Hrytsunyak, 77, was finally able to flee the city of Irpin, Ukraine, through a safe corridor to Kyiv. (Video: Jon Gerberg, Alice Li/The Washington Post, Photo: Heidi Levine for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)
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BROVARY, Ukraine — Vasil Hilko lay quietly in the hospital, recovering from surgery that took the lower half of his right leg. On the edge of his bed perched his wife, wiping away tears. On the floor nearby was a single blue sandal, for his only remaining foot.

In early March, Russian forces invaded the couple’s village outside Brovary, they said, forcing civilians to take cover in crowded shelters underground. Each night, Russian troops would barge in, telling the group of about 20 people to quickly line up for a head count. “ ‘If somebody is missing, we’ll kill everybody else,’ ” Vasil Hilko recalled them saying.

One night, a commander gave them just 10 seconds to line up “ ‘before we start shooting,’ ” he said. Hilko was the last to reach the line and a soldier carrying a shotgun proceeded to open fire on the 63-year-old’s leg as punishment — then left him wounded without medical care.

“He asked if I wanted him to shoot my other leg, and I said ‘Okay, you may,’ ” he recalled.

For days, he said, he stayed in the shelter fearing the infection brewing in his wound would spread and kill him. Finally, Russian soldiers — who he said expressed embarrassment over their comrade’s behavior — took him to a humanitarian corridor that allowed him to reach the hospital in Brovary, a city east of the capital Kyiv.

Civilians like Hilko, running from battles around the capital, have trickled into Kyiv and the neighboring city of Brovary in recent days, shaken by intense violence and carrying stories of nightmarish conditions in nearby contested areas.

They are arriving from places such as the city of Irpin and villages near Brovary, where the Ukrainians for weeks have mounted a counteroffensive against Russian forces.

With the Russian advance now stalling outside the capital and the Ukrainian government claiming to have regained some territory, civilians coming into Kyiv report intense street battles and shelling — traumatizing people who did not leave soon after the invasion and now have few options to reach safety.

Civilians who have recently reached the capital or other relatively safe areas described desperate escapes from apocalyptic conditions, where they say they were surviving with little or no water, gas and electricity — and at times faced direct assault by Russian troops.

At a small, heated olive-green tent in Kyiv over the weekend, civilians arrived a few at a time, appearing numbed by their experiences as they waited for relatives to pick them up or prepared to board buses to the next destination.

When it came time to flee Irpin, they took only what they could carry — and what they knew might comfort them in the difficult days ahead: a pet cat, a bunny, a favorite book.

Lyuba Burlakova, 79, sobbed as she struggled to describe what she had been through in recent days. She hadn’t wanted to flee, she said, but woke up “surrounded by flames.” One of the few items she grabbed on her way out was a book she loves on the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, which she clutched to her chest in the tent.

Tatyana Symenonko, 68, held her cat and shivered on Sunday, crying as she recounted her perilous trek from Irpin that morning.

A longtime teacher, she got help evacuating Sunday from a former student now serving in the Territorial Defense Forces after days of fighting in her city. “They’re bombing so bad, and our side is too,” Symenonko said. “They’re going back and forth and we’re stuck in between.”

Her home had no light, no heat and was running out of water. “If 40 minutes passed without explosions, it was happiness,” she said. “Everything was flying through my house.”

Like others, she fled to the broken bridge that once connected Irpin to Kyiv, then trekked across the makeshift platform below, carrying her belongings with her. To keep her cat dry and out of the snow, she tucked it into a bag. When they embarked on the journey, she said, everyone in the vehicle just prayed that they would survive.

Lidia Hrytsunyak, 77, also from Irpin, arrived at the same temporary shelter in Kyiv on Sunday. She was weeping and her hand trembled as she held tea in a small plastic cup.

“They’ve been bombing us for three days straight,” she said.

Nila Gnatyuk, 65, and her partner, Sergiy Belmega, 55, reached the same tent in the capital the day before, where they chronicled their own desperate escape. They carried with them just three small bags and a red cage with a bunny they found abandoned in the basement where they had sheltered from attacks.

“The city is divided into three parts and there is constant fighting,” Gnatyuk said. “Either gunfire or shelling, and we are caught in the middle of it.” Ukrainian forces are controlling most of the city, she said, but “the Russians are still occupying one part.”

“The most intense battles were taking place over the last three days,” said Belmega, a bearded scientist and artist who was dressed in a yellow jacket.

At the emergency tent on Saturday, Svitlana Tykhonova, 58, described the terror of being stuck in a basement “right in between the Russian positions and the Ukrainian positions.”

“They were shelling out and the other side was shelling near us,” she said. “The houses were on fire. Almost every second house was on fire.”

“Missiles hit the houses and they were on fire until there was no fire,” she added. “No one came to extinguish them.”

She fled with her neighbor, Natalia Sokolvak, 57, and Sokolvak’s father, who uses crutches. His limited mobility made it difficult for them to evacuate earlier. They decided to try after they sensed a quieter day on Saturday and thought the Ukrainians might have gained control of their district.

“There was intense fighting near us and we think the Ukrainians pushed the Russians back,” Sokolvak said. “This is probably why we were able to get out.”

Inside the Brovary Central District Hospital on Saturday, Igor Rubsov, 48, lay in bed, his feet bloody and bandaged. Several days ago, he encountered shelling in a village outside Brovary.

“It was calm for two days before,” he said. “I didn’t expect anything like this.”

Rubsov, who has been experiencing homelessness since he lost his job in Kyiv during the coronavirus pandemic, was walking to feed stray dogs and cats when the shelling began. He tried to take cover on the street but was hit, badly injuring his feet and lower legs. He doesn’t know whether the animals survived the attack that left him wounded.

In a room nearby, Olga Teplyuk lay on her side, her hand gripping the mint-green wall of her hospital room, her head bandaged. She and her husband, Oleksandr, were seriously wounded when their house near Brovary came under shelling and a wall collapsed on her while she tried to shelter in a hallway.

For days, she lay flat on a wooden door, trying to prevent further injury to her back. Russian forces who were occupying the area refused to help her, she said.

She was finally evacuated with help from friends who loaded her into a station wagon before transferring her to an ambulance.

At the hospital, surgeons performed brain and spinal surgery. She remains partially paralyzed. Her husband, who also sustained wounds to his back, turned 64 on Saturday. There was no celebration — just relief. They knew that they were lucky to have survived.

“Now we are happy,” he said. “The doctors here are very caring.”

Despite losing his leg and home, Hilko said he feels “optimistic.”

The days he thought he would die in a basement were so painful and terrifying, he said, that surviving is a gift in and of itself.

“I know I need to be strong to find a way to move forward,” he said. But, his wife, Zinaida, added: “We cannot forgive them.”

Volodymyr Petrov, Olga Beskhmelnytsina, Anastacia Galouchka, Jon Gerberg and Heidi Levine in Kyiv contributed to this report.