By bus or train, the inhabitants of the twin cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk continue to be evacuated before a Russian offensive is announced to be imminent and massive in this region of eastern Ukraine.
Around 8 o’clock on this rainy Tuesday, a green and yellow bus in the colors FC Kramatorsk, a second division team of the Ukrainian Football Championship, is waiting for about fifty passengers. It was chartered by a Christian church.
We come from Kramatorsk or neighboring villages. The faces are serious, worried and above all sad.
The front is only 50 km to the north, just as much to the east and south. It risks getting even closer in the coming days: Kramatorsk and Sloviansk would then be taken in a tong movement.
The West is the only escape.
Men come by car to drop off wives and children, parents or grandparents.
A family gets out of a taxi: a little girl holds a large transparent plastic box under her arm. Inside is a frightened black and white cat.
Valentina Oleynikova, 82, leaves with her husband. She is angry and does not understand.
“All my relatives are from Russia, I was born there. My father and my mother too. I have relatives all over Russia. Here in Donbass and in Kramatorsk live people of all nationalities (…) Where did he see Nazis?”, she asks, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who justifies the invasion of Ukraine with an alleged desire to “denazify” the country.
– “inhuman” –
“What’s happening is inhuman, he’s a fascist. I do not know what to call him. An incarnate devil,” she is torn again.
“Now we hear that a 12-kilometer-long convoy is ready to attack Donbass. They are inhuman!”
“We’re going to my husband’s sister,” she adds, urged by him to get on the bus.
The cargo hold is full. It’s the hour of departure, separation. Through the window, Valentina’s granddaughter signals that she should call each other on the phone.
In the bus that starts rolling, one woman wipes her tears, another receives a call, still others send messages. Eyes are glued to cell phones, faces closed, pensive.
Since the attack on Kramatorsk station, which killed 57 people on Friday, it has been closed. Evacuations by train are now taking place from Sloviansk, about ten kilometers to the north.
Two or three trains run every day. On Sunday, 2,700 people were evacuated and another 1,100 on Monday, according to Svetlana Biletska, station manager.
Around 11 a.m. this Tuesday, a first train is due to run. On board about 300 people.
In the three halls of the station it is showering. At counter No. 1, the only one open, Natalia, who does not want to disclose her last name, informs, reassures and sells tickets for 200 hryvnia (about 6 euros) to Dnipro, 200 km to the west.
“But we have added free carriages,” the ticket agent adds, “Some families go, but many stay. They do not want to leave their loved ones and their homes.”
– “Something keeps me here” –
Will she stay too? “I’m not scared anymore (…) Something keeps me here, I do not know how to explain it. We work for the railways, so we are solid as rails”, she says.
A long train with 12 faded blue carriages has just arrived: it’s time for the locomotive to turn around and the evacuees can board.
An old lady is a little lost: she is going to Vinnytsia in the middle of the country, but for that she will have to change. “We will have to take another train either to Kiev or to Lviv”, reassures her agent in an orange vest, who guides the passengers.
At the foot of the train at the platform, Nadia Jijounas, 44, says a final goodbye to her husband. The eyes turned red, the couple embracing for long minutes.
“We made the decision yesterday. I wanted to stay with my husband, but I have to go and he stays here. We wanted to get through this together, it’s scary,” she told AFP.
“It’s terribly hard to leave. I have no idea when we’ll be together again. First we have to survive,” she adds. Through the window she forms with her thumbs and forefingers a heart towards her husband.
The train goes, stops. A late family with children runs across the tracks to board.
The long convoy finally leaves the station. Direction kyiv, expected arrival in twelve hours. Now far from the war.