Insight

Donbas residents forced to leave homes they've lived in for decades as Russian forces advance

ITV News Global Security Editor Rohit Kachroo is in Ukraine and has been to the villages along the front line close to the city of Donetsk where the Russian forces are advancing


At first, 82-year-old Valentina tries to hide from us. It is only the loud barks of her two dogs which give away that someone is at home. We are with two volunteers who have spent the day driving around Avdiivka, a small town close to the Donbas frontline, trying to help elderly residents leave - but not everyone wants to go.

Russian troops are now two miles from Valentina’s home, and they are inching closer by the day. She emerges, crying - rejecting the offer of a lift to a new home away from the frontline. But slowly - eventually - the volunteers convince her that now is the moment to leave - helped, perhaps, by the regular bursts of outgoing artillery fire which interrupt their appeal. As she walks down the driveway towards the ambulance, step by tentative step, she pauses to pick a flower from her garden.

Clutching the purple peony in her trembling hand she looks back at the place she has called home for decades. This might be a one-way journey.

Many of the elderly had wanted to leave earlier but were unable to. Credit: ITV News

The ambulance moves across town to pick up an elderly couple from their fourth storey flat. Tamara Tsymbalyuk, 76, is incapacitated, which at times over the last few weeks, forced her husband, Anatoli, 82, to leave her behind when shelling began and he hid for safety in the basement of their building.

The ITV News team helps the two volunteers to bring her down the stairs, using a carpet to lift her outside.

But unlike Valentina, the Tsymbalyuks always wanted to leave, but due to poor mobility had no choice but to stay.

People have been taken out of the village with the help of volunteers. Credit: ITV News/ Sean Swan

With the frontline so close, leaving home might seem like the obvious decision for everyone.

But for many people, it feels like defeat, even for those who are physically capable of joining an organised evacuation like the one we are on.  

An elderly woman describes how a Russian strike "destroyed everything". Credit: ITV News/ Sean Swan

As we head towards the relative safety of the volunteers’ base 45 minutes away, the magnitude of the moment is clear as the elderly evacuees sit in silence.

There are now four former residents in the back of the vehicle who might have just said goodbye to a total of 311 years in their village.

Russian shelling has devastated towns and visited in Donbas. Credit: ITV News

We are driving along what might be Russia’s intended path through Donbas.

It is peppered with new craters everywhere.

In fact, there is a new large hole in the ground a few hundred metres from the hotel where we are staying - a cruise missile was dropped while we slept on Sunday.

That the neighbourhood probably wasn’t the intended target adds no comfort to those residents who, even now, feel that staying behind is the right thing to do.

The intended route of Russian forces is now marked with craters and the aftermath of missile strikes. Credit: ITV News/ Sean Swan

As we approach our destination, the ambulance driver tries to raise the mood and to silence the sound of artillery from outside by turning up the radio.

In the back, Anatoli mouths along to the folk song while others nod their heads.

“I haven’t heard music like this in so long,” he says, reflecting on weeks during which he was forced, by fright, to sit in darkness and silence for large parts of the day.

Once we arrive, Valentina is still holding her flower - but she says she has been convinced that leaving her home, painful as it was, was the right thing to do.


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