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As Luhansk falls to the Russians, civilians are desperate to evacuate

Two women sit in a van as they wait to be evacuated from Bakhmut, a town in eastern Ukraine that has come under increasing fire as Russian forces try to encircle and seize the city of Severodonetsk. (Francisco Seco/AP)

BAKHMUT, Ukraine — Larisa Strelnikova arrived in this once peaceful town in an armored bus last week, dodging Russian shells and death.

For the past three months, the 79-year-old had lived mostly underground, taking cover in her basement as Russian forces bombarded her beloved city of Severodonetsk. One day, her neighborhood market was destroyed; another day, the bus station. Then a Grad rocket slammed into her building, setting her apartment on fire.

“People rescued me and sent me here,” she mumbled, still disoriented by the jarring turn of events in the winter of her life. She paused, then said: “I gave birth to my children there. One is dead. I don’t know where the other is. I can’t remember when I spoke to him last.”

As Russian forces push deeper into Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, hundreds are fleeing towns and villages every day, including areas once viewed as safe. Russian missiles and rockets are expanding their reach, striking civilian areas as far as 200 miles from the front lines. Severodonetsk and the communities that surround it are growing more desolate by the day.

Volunteers help evacuate elderly Ukrainians from Bakhmut in the Donbas region, where Russian forces are attempting a strategic push to capture territory. (Video: Sudarsan Raghavan/The Washington Post)

“Many of our evacuees wait until the last minute,” said Anatoliy Bezkrovny, pastor of the Church of Grace in the nearby town of Pokrovsk, which has become a way station of sorts for those escaping. “When the shelling and explosions intensify, when they see their houses destroyed, they flee.”

The church received 900 evacuees in April. Now it is getting as many as 300 people a day.

Most are fleeing the region entirely, betting that the war will grind on for months and spread throughout Donbas. An escape route has taken shape, run by caring police officers and volunteers. Evacuees reaching Bakhmut are housed in churches or shelters, then taken to the nearest train station so they can travel to Dnipro, or continue to peaceful areas farther west.

For the elderly, leaving means they will probably never return again to their homes, a final farewell to the lives they built for decades.

“I don’t know where I will go now,” said Strelnikova, in tears, as two elderly women nearby listened, their faces etched with concern.

The civilian exodus from Ukraine’s east comes as Russian forces have captured the towns of Lyman and Svitlodarsk in recent days. They have surrounded Severodonetsk on three sides and are fighting fierce street battles with Ukrainian soldiers.

“Unfortunately, the front line divided the city in half,” Oleksandr Stryuk, head of Severodonetsk’s military administration, said in an interview with a local network. “But the city is still defending itself, the city is still Ukrainian.” An estimated 90 percent of the city’s buildings and all its “critical infrastructure” have been destroyed, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

If the Russians seize Severodonetsk, they will control nearly all of the Luhansk region and can threaten larger cities in the Donetsk region, the other part of Donbas. Authorities in Severodonetsk are frantically trying to get as many residents as possible to safety. On Monday, though, evacuations were temporarily halted as shrapnel from a Russian strike killed a French journalist who was traveling with a group of evacuees.

“In the military aspect, the situation is, unfortunately, getting worse,” said Serhiy Haidai, head of Luhansk’s regional war administration. “The closer the Russians get to Severodonetsk, the more opportunities they get for shelling. If before they only used Grads or artillery, now they also use mortars.”

“Their tactic is to turn the city into a desert and then take the territory.”

‘We hoped it would end’

Vyacheslav Todorov never expected to flee.

Five generations of his close-knit family were raised in Severodonetsk and they never left. Not when the Nazis occupied the city in 1942, known then as Liskhimstroi, and not when the city fell under Soviet rule and was given its current name in 1950. Nor did the Todorovs flee in 2014 when Severodonetsk was briefly captured by Russian-backed separatists.

So when Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the family was determined to stay put and outlast the war.

All 11 members of the Todorov clan stayed together, even as the Russian bombardment intensified, even as the hours they spent in their basement stretched to entire days and nights. They stayed as the grocery stores and pharmacies shuttered. They stayed as electricity and running water disappeared, using generators to charge their cellphones.

When they ran out of supplies, they depended on charity from authorities. Whenever they could, they ordered food, gas and other necessities from Dnipro, 200 miles away, spending their savings on couriers who were willing to risk entering the city for a hefty price. When they ran out of gas, they piled up wood and cooked their food on a fire.

“We hoped it would end,” said Vyacheslav Todorov, 32. “That’s why we stayed.”

But the fighting drew ever closer. Ukrainian forces were in the city, firing rockets and artillery at the Russians from a trolley depot near their house. “The Russians were shooting at the places where the Ukrainian troops were located,” said Yevhen Todorov, 22, Vyacheslav’s foster son. “And then the Ukrainians would fire back.”

“More than half the city is destroyed,” chimed in Vyacheslav. “It’s like a new Mariupol,” he added, referring to the southern port city that was heavily bombarded for weeks and was finally seized by the Russians in mid-May.

Last week, after the family had spent three straight days in their basement, a shell struck a few feet away, shattering the windows of their home. “There were so many explosions,” said Vyacheslav. “We thought our house would get destroyed.”

That’s when they finally decided to leave, along with their neighbors. Only one person stayed behind to look after his in-laws, who were too old to move. “They are still hoping to survive,” said Dmitry Todorov, Vyacheslav’s 65-year-old father. “But we lost our hope.”

They reached out to local police, who have evacuated an estimated 37,000 people from across Luhansk since the start of the invasion. “This is now our mission,” said Oleh Hryhorov, the Luhansk police chief. “The war has changed the life and duties of the policeman.”

The family — all 11 of them — left the city in a convoy of police cars.

In one of the vehicles was Larisa Strelnikova.

To escape, the convoy had to cross one of two bridges still connected to the city. The Russian forces had destroyed a third bridge a few days earlier and were now bombing the others.

“We were shelled the whole time on the bridge,” said Vyacheslav. “We were praying we would live.”

After they crossed and reached the city of Lisychansk, the 45 evacuees were placed in a police-escorted armored bus to take them to Bakhmut. The 35-mile stretch of road is a constant target of Russian artillery. “We heard the shelling all the time, a sort of whistling sound.” Vyacheslav recalled.

By nightfall, they had reached a bus station in Bakhmut, where two yellow buses waited to take them to a shelter for the night.

As they arrived, they heard sounds of eight successive shells slamming into different parts of the city, a reminder that they hadn’t fully escaped the war.

‘I am alone’

The following morning, the evacuees got back on the buses and traveled 47 miles southwest to Pokrovsk, where they were greeted by volunteers at the Church of Grace. They put down their meager possessions — whatever they could carry in their hands — in front of the building. Then they sat down to eat a breakfast cooked by the nuns — pancakes with poppy seeds, soup, pickled cucumbers, coffee and tea.

In one corner, Strelnikova sat with the two elderly women who were attentively listening to her story. Natalia Zinchenko, 70, had escaped with her 92-year-old mother-in-law, Nadia Dolupan, on the same armored bus. They, too, had seen their neighborhood market and the bus station destroyed. They, too, had nowhere to go.

Zinchenko’s granddaughter had fled weeks earlier, but Zinchenko and her mother-in-law didn’t want to be a burden on her. Strelnikova’s son, the last time she heard, lived in Svitlodarsk. It was now occupied by Russian forces.

“All three of us will stick together,” said Zinchenko, who needed help to walk because of her severe arthritis. Strelnikova smiled, unable to fight back her tears.

The three were waiting to go to the train station in Pokrovsk to travel to Dnipro later that afternoon.

As they sat, another elderly woman came over. Her name was Lydmila Koroboko and she was 87. “I don’t have any family,” she said. “I am alone.”

The three ladies invited her to come with them.

Bezkrovny, the pastor, watched the interaction and smiled. He had seen plenty of cases of elderly evacuees arriving alone and finding solace in others of their generation. He made a mental note to have some of his church’s volunteers meet the women in Dnipro.

“They will bring them to a nursing home or another church,” he said. “They will decide what to do with them.”

‘She should have stayed’

The day before, in Bakhmut, volunteers had come to evacuate Nelya Kamynina, along with 15 other residents of the city who wanted to flee. Among them was an elderly couple who had arrived two weeks before from the town of Popasna; now they were on the run again. At 92, Kamynina was the oldest of the group.

Volunteers had entered her apartment, where they found her nearly catatonic, a result of her age, said her son, Ihor Kamynin, a 58-year-old university lecturer who had come down from Kharkiv to care for her. After three straight days of intense Russian bombing, he heard reports on Telegram channels that Russian troops were moving toward Bakhmut. He decided then it was time to evacuate his mother.

“It’s becoming more and more dangerous here,” said Ihor, adding that his own house in Kharkiv had been partly destroyed. “This is the right decision.”

The volunteers wrapped Nelya up in a blanket and carried her down two flights of stairs, placing her in a large white van. Two hours later, there were two more elderly women lying next to her, and more evacuees in other vehicles.

Nelya was born here in 1930, when the city was called Artemivsk. The Nazis occupied it from 1941 to 1943 and her family house was burned down, Ihor recalled his mother telling him.

“At one point, she and other children and some elderly people hid in the cellar of a church,” he said. “The same situation might happen here. Only now, she can’t escape and hide in a cellar.”

His mother studied medicine and became a nurse. She lived for several years in Lithuania, where she met her future husband and Ihor’s father, who had fought in World War II. They returned to Bakhmut and had lived in the same apartment since 1963. She stayed there, even after her husband died. And she remained there, even as most of her neighbors left in recent weeks.

“They are not afraid of the city being captured,” said Ihor, referring to the neighbors. “They are worried about the shelling and being bombed.”

He had arranged for his mother to be cared for at a nursing home in Dnipro. He stepped inside the van and sat next to her as she lay there, her face turned upward. After picking up the other evacuees, the van took them to a hospital in the nearby city of Slovyansk to spend the night.

Nelya never made it to Dnipro, said her son. She died at the hospital the following day. Her last wish was to be buried next to her husband and parents in Bakhmut. Ihor said he asked the military, volunteers, anyone he could find. But no one would take her remains back to a war zone. She was buried in Slovyansk.

“I wish I never evacuated her,” said her son in a telephone call on Tuesday. “She should have stayed in Bakhmut.”

Yevhen Semekhin contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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