KOSTYANTYNIVKA, Ukraine – Ludmila Bohomolova and her husband Mykola know what it means to stay after Russian tanks arrive. The two teachers endured what they describe as five months of hell after the occupation of their village, Pavlivka, in eastern Ukraine, earlier this year.
For the first three months under Russia, villagers hid in their cellars, tried to survive on whatever food they had, and buried their dead in yards and playgrounds. The only way out was through Russian-held territory.
The couple also remained after Pavlivka was recaptured by Ukraine, remaining for another two months without gas, electricity or running water, under constant bombardment from Russian artillery. It was only after Mykola was injured by shrapnel on July 24 that circumstances forced them to evacuate. “I just didn’t want to leave our house,” Ludmila said. “I was born there, our children too and my parents. It was so hard to leave everything behind.
It’s more stories like these that the Ukrainian government is trying to prevent as it begins to conduct what it calls a “mandatory evacuation” from the most contested parts of the country. Under criticism from aid organizations for not doing enough to protect civilians in combat zones, Kyiv is undertaking what Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk has described as “the largest movement of people in the history of the Independent Ukrainian State”. Unable to provide safety or essential services to nearly 750,000 people in areas where the fighting is heaviest, the government is now insisting they move.
More than 12 million Ukrainians have been displaced by war, most of them inside the country. The government says it expects another 220,000 people to be evacuated from the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine before winter. Vereshchuk, who is also minister for the reintegration of the temporarily occupied territories, said the evacuation order will be extended to 500,000 more people in the areas occupied by Russia or at risk of it in the regions of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Kharkov.
The mandatory evacuation order marks a departure for Kyiv. Since Russia first invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014, residents of occupied or threatened areas have received little instruction or support to leave, or support for the provision of essential services like l water and transport. “People have been left alone with their problems,” said Volodymyr Yavorskyy of the Center for Civil Liberties, a human rights watchdog.
But the change in policy is controversial, especially in light of Russia’s forced deportations of Ukrainians. Under international law, governments are required to do their best to provide essential services in times of war; inform citizens of potential dangers; and only move people if forced for security or military reasons.
” I do not think so [mandatory evacuation is] a very good solution,” Yavorskyy said. “But we have to be clear that it’s not forced – people have a choice.” Earlier this month, international human rights watchdog Amnesty International released a controversial report, accusing the Ukrainian government of not doing enough to keep people away from urban areas and civilian buildings where forces armies base themselves.
Vereshchuk framed the evacuation order not as a requirement for people to leave their homes, but as citizens’ right to safe transportation, financial assistance and housing in safer areas. Evacuees receive 2,000–3,000 Ukrainian hryvnia (approximately €50–80) upon arrival and are registered as internally displaced persons to qualify for ongoing monthly payments. Under the new rules, those who refuse to leave will have to sign a document saying they understand the risks and take responsibility for themselves and their dependants.
The Deputy Prime Minister also called on aid organizations close to the front line to consider whether the aid they are providing encourages people to remain in danger. “I want people to go and get help here, rather than there,” Vereshchuk told POLITICO. “If we bring them blankets, water and filters, it won’t save them from the winter. No warm blanket or pillow will help them.
Vitaly Barabash, the mayor of Avdiivka, a frontline town since 2014, believes the government could go further. Despite trying to persuade people to leave since late February, some 2,500 residents – around 10% of the municipality’s population – including up to 80 children, are still hiding from the bombings in unventilated basements. , lighting or heating.
“I would even do forced evacuations for communities like ours,” Barabash said. “A state of war involves limits on rights — that is war. It shouldn’t go to crazy limits, but to some extent you have to make decisions for people. Especially when it comes to children.
Meanwhile, state workers, soldiers and volunteers who bring aid to people who have the opportunity to go elsewhere are risking their lives. “It’s not right,” said Barabash, who says he’s argued with his constituents over it. “I also have to go persuade people, and I also have three children, and if something happens to me, what will my children do?”
The longer people spend cut off from the world in bomb shelters, the harder it is for them to decide to leave, Barabash said. “Some say they have nowhere to go, or no money, or they say they survived 2014-15 and will survive now,” he said. “Some say they have already left and come back because they had no more money. And I can’t deny that some are waiting for Russia to arrive.
The government must recognize the scale of the difficulties for people to evacuate, said Oleh Tkachenko, a pastor who helped Ludmila Bohomolova, the teacher, to leave Pavlivka in late July. “There are still a mass of questions: what about ownership? And the looting? What about compensation? People lose everything. I suffered from it myself,” said Tkachenko, who has been displaced twice, once in 2014 and again after the most recent invasion.
Ukraine has no mechanism for assessing the value of lost or looted property and businesses, let alone compensation. Vereshchuk promises that free housing will be provided at least through this winter, and that pensions and other payments will still be available. But it is unclear where the funding will come from. The Minister hopes that international partners will help him. “We intend to track payments,” she said. “But we need support to maintain fiscal liquidity, so people there know we’re not letting them down.”
In the near-deserted ghost towns of the Donetsk region, where many buildings are war-damaged and others are condemned, many feel abandoned and resent what they see as an effort to evict them. Some towns have not yet been heavily bombed, but nevertheless have no water or gas; locals suspect utilities have been turned off to encourage people to leave.
“They can’t force us to go, can they?” said Svitlana, 62, from Kostyantynivka, a town about 20 kilometers from the front line. Her daughter already lost an apartment when she was forced to leave Donetsk in 2015. She is now in Lithuania, but Svitlana does not plan to join her to be a “millstone around the children’s necks”. Instead, she hopes the war will largely pass the city by, as it did in 2014.
Bohomolova, the teacher from Pavlivka, estimates that there are still up to 300 people left in her village, including families with children. They are aware of government offers to help them leave. “They know everything. But they are tied to the house they built and their business,” she said. “They don’t understand that everything can be destroyed in an instant. I was the same: How can I get there? How can I leave it all behind? But now it’s terrifying to think about going back.
She plans to move to the city of Dnipro with her husband, where they will share an apartment with other family members – seven people in all. “We’re going to manage one way or another,” she said. “The most important thing is that we are still alive.”