Fleeing Ukraine’s embattled border villages

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Tetiana and her mother (left) fled Russian occupation to Ukrainian territory

When Russian planes began bombing her border village in northern Ukraine, Nina Skorkina refused to leave.

Then a police team arrived and evacuated the 87-year-old anyway, with explosions all around.

In recent days, other elderly and frail residents have been carried out on blankets across a bridge already damaged by air strikes.

As Vladimir Putin celebrates securing another six years in the Kremlin, and vows to continue his full-scale war on Ukraine, attacks across the border have sharply escalated.

Volodymyr Zelensky says nearly 200 bombs have been dropped on the Sumy region in north-eastern Ukraine this month alone.

He accuses Russia of trying to “burn our border villages to the ground”.

Nina Skorkina

Police and emergency workers have now rescued hundreds of people from the Sumy border area, moving them deeper into Ukraine and to safety.

Many are from a cluster of villages around Velyka Pysarivka.

Helped off a bright yellow school bus this week, Nina Makarenko told me the home she’d had to leave was in ruins.

“They smashed up our houses. There’s nothing left,” she said.

Her cheeks were bright with blusher and her lips painted, but all Nina had brought with her was a few clothes and some homemade jam.

Before the war, she used to cross into Russia regularly to go shopping. Now Russian forces are attacking her home.

“It’s scary. They’re shelling day and night.”

The bus delivers the evacuees to the small town of Okhtyrka, where the local authorities have turned a kindergarten and a school into a temporary shelter.

It’s cosy and there are psychologists working with children, with plenty of smiles and laughter.

But on camp beds laid out inside a classroom, older women sit still, looking bewildered. They’ve lost everything they know and own.

The first thing I hear as I enter the room is a plea for more help for Ukraine’s soldiers.

“Give them weapons to push the Russians back, that’s all we ask!” Valentyna says as she leaps up to greet me. “Their planes are dropping bombs on us, and we have nothing to knock them out of the sky!”

The next outburst is one of anger at Vladimir Putin – who launched this war and who was just officially declared Russia’s president for a fifth term.

“Putin is our enemy! He says he will destroy Ukraine!” Tetiana tells me passionately and mocks the Russian leader’s triumphant re-election. “He appointed himself!”

“What did we ever do to him? But look at how many people have been killed here, how many tortured. How many people have lost their arms and legs. And what for?”

As Tetiana speaks, her elderly mother sobs uncontrollably beside her. Looking round, I realise almost everyone in the room is crying.

Many villagers have abandoned the Sumy border area since last summer as it became more dangerous.

Now, it’s almost impossible to stay. Images filmed by police rescue teams show streets of detached houses in utter ruin.

Mayor Pavlo Kuzmenko

One possible reason for the upsurge in attacks is increased Ukrainian shelling of Belgorod, the biggest Russian city across the border.

Vladimir Putin has vowed to respond, ignoring the fact that Russian missiles have been hitting homes and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine relentlessly for two years.

The mayor of Okhtyrka has another theory for the escalation.

“I understand that the enemy wants to create some kind of grey zone where military equipment can’t enter and where people can’t move in large groups,” Pavlo Kuzmenko suggests.

We met in the town library because his own offices had been destroyed by a Russian missile strike.

“Along the whole of our border, the enemy is gradually creating an area where Ukrainians will not be able to tread,” the mayor believes.

There is another reason for the increased bombardment.

Just ahead of Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin, a group of Russian fighters announced an armed incursion from Ukraine – into their own country.

The self-styled “liberation forces” wanted to show that Mr Putin had lost control of his border. That’s when villagers say the military air strikes on Velyka Pysarivka began.

“The explosions didn’t stop for a moment.”

Tetiana described life in the village then as “hell”.

The Freedom of Russia legion

The Russian forces are made up of men ranging from openly far-right nationalists to Siberian separatists. They’re linked by a belief that only armed resistance can change Russia now and remove Vladimir Putin.

The size and military effectiveness of the forces, based in Ukraine and backed by Ukrainian military intelligence, is unclear.

In Kyiv on Thursday, a spokesman for one of the groups said their ongoing raids had tied up the “Kremlin military machine”, scuppering plans for a new push into Ukraine.

My own sources suggest there could be as much hype as actual fighting.

When I questioned whether their self-vaunted achievements merited the destruction of Ukrainian villages, another spokesman said that civilians suffering was “sad”.

But he said fighting an enemy like Russia “without victims and ruin” was impossible.

It’s not only the fighting that families are fleeing in Sumy.

The northern region has the only working border crossing in the country from Russia, making it the main route for Ukrainians escaping occupation.

Every day, dozens of people from areas Russia has illegally claimed as its own endure a draining journey to reach territory controlled by Kyiv.

The Kremlin says the occupied regions turned out to vote for Putin this month in large, enthusiastic crowds.

Children in a Ukrainian welcome centre for displaced people

But that’s not the picture painted by those who reach Sumy.

This week, Zoya Vypyraylo and her husband Mykhailo travelled three days from a village in the southern Kherson region that’s now full of Russian soldiers.

“There are so many of them. They set up in the houses. They’re in the fields. Their vehicles are moving all over. It was really scary,” Zoya confided, when she finally reached a reception centre.

She says life under occupation changed her, radically: “I had no will. No energy. My spirit was crushed.”

So she and Mykhailo gave up everything. They handed their home of 53 years to a neighbour and left their ducks, chickens and dogs.

“We want Kherson to be Ukraine. We really do. But we don’t believe it, anymore,” Zoya told me quietly, her whole body sagging from all kinds of exhaustion.

To reach Ukraine, the pensioners had to drag their bags across a two-kilometre stretch of no-man’s-land.

Pluriton, an aid group, then shuttles people from the border to a facility where it offers phone calls home, train tickets onwards, tea and hot food.

All arrivals from occupied territory face a security screening by their own country.

“When I look at these people, I remember myself,” Pluriton boss Kateryna Arisoy says. It’s not so long since she left her own home in Bakhmut, a city since razed to the ground.

“I can’t find the words to explain that their former life, unfortunately, will never continue.”

Zoya Vypyraylo knows that.

“When we were driving here I started to cry. I breathed the fresh air, our Ukrainian air,” the pensioner tells me, her voice low but intense.

For two years in Kherson she’s been pressured to deny her identity. Take a Russian passport. Even vote for Vladimir Putin, who ordered the invasion of her country.

“We are Ukrainians. We want our country to flourish. For our children and grandchildren to live in peace,” Zoya tells me, then starts to cry.

“I’m sorry. It’s really hard.”

It’s slowly sinking in that she is free. But Ukraine is no closer to peace.

Additional reporting by Hanna Chornous. Photos by Joyce Liu

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