Ukrainian families flee Zaporizhzhia on overcrowded trains after Russians seize nuclear power plant

Most of those on the platform were women and children who had waited outside for hours in snowfall and freezing temperatures, trying to position themselves where the train doors might possibly open. open.

As the train pulled to a halt emotions ran high, with the women tearfully saying goodbye to their husbands and male relatives – who are not allowed to leave the country if they are aged between 18 and 60 – while trying to get their children and belongings on board through the crowds of people.

The exodus from the city and all of Ukraine has been underway since Russia launched its invasion on February 24, with more than a million refugees pouring into neighboring countries. The pace of evacuations from Zaporizhzhia has accelerated since Thursday evening, when the nearby Enerhodar nuclear power plant was captured by Russian soldiers, who set fire to a training building adjacent to the plant. Some residents fear that the Russians will then attack the town itself or try to impose power cuts.

The power plant takeover was the latest push for 19-year-old Hanna Iliushchenko and her family to flee the country. They plan to go to Lithuania where they have friends.

“The situation is getting worse,” Iliushchenko said. “My mother and my sister have decided to leave, that’s why I’m going with them.”

But Iliushchenko said it was “difficult” for her to leave her boyfriend, Serhii Prytulo, 33. The couple held each other in his arms and kissed on the edge of the platform at Zaporizhzhia 1 station as they said goodbye.

“I feel bad. My country (is at) war,” Prytulo said. “It’s very bad for everyone.” But he will stay to defend his hometown, he added.

For families with children, their goal is to bring them to safety, either in western Ukraine or outside the country.

Oleg Khodarev cradles his two-year-old daughter Vasilisa in his arms and hugs his wife, as he prepares to part ways with no indication of when they will be reunited.

“We just want to save the child’s life,” Khodarev said. “We could never imagine that.”

Their family home is in the center of Zaporizhzhia, near a civilian administrative building. They fear that if the city were targeted, they would be in the line of fire.

“There are no bomb shelters,” said his wife, Natalia. “There are only a few basements in the houses, but in these you can easily get trapped under ruins.”

For others, leaving town involved difficult choices about who to leave behind.

Aleysa Panaseyko, 41, said she made the “difficult decision” to travel alone to Lviv because the 620-mile trip would be too difficult for her parents.

“They can’t go there because (they are) old people,” Panaseyko said. “This situation (is) very sad.”

Mykola Tymchishin, 80, said he would stay and fight.

Many elderly people have decided to stay in Ukraine, either because they do not want to leave their homes, or because they are not strong enough to make the trip, or because they want to contribute to the effort of war.

Mykola Tymchishin, 80, stood on the platform behind the jostling crowd, hoping to see her daughter and grandson board the train.

Although he may be leaving, he tells CNN he’s “staying to fight” because he “could be useful here.”

“I made Molotov cocktails,” he said. “I have very good rifles. I am a hunter with 40 years of experience. I stay.”

A former paratrooper of the Soviet Army Airborne Assault Battalion, he shows off a star-shaped medal he carries in his coat pocket.

He ‘hates’ the invading Russian forces, he said, because of what they are doing to his town and his family – and because they relentlessly bombard the northern city of Kharkiv -eastern Ukraine, where his other grandson is trapped.

Another city besieged by Russia is Mariupol, about 200 km south of Zaporizhzhia, which lacks fuel, food and water. Several attempts at evacuation corridors to help civilians escape failed after Russian forces continued to fire on those routes, Ukrainian officials said.

Many residents of Zaporizhzhia fear that the same fate will befall their city.

Elyna, 6, with her stuffed duck Luff Luff

Sergiy and Alyona Samkov, who have two young daughters, said they decided to leave a few days ago.

“When Russian troops moved closer to the Zaporizhzhia area, I decided it was better to get my family out (before) than they enter the city itself,” said Sergiy, 30. . “Because we know that in some cities, like Mariupol, evacuation is impossible. We don’t want to wait until we have the same situation.”

Knowing she was facing a long journey and might eventually have to walk the final stretch of the Polish border, Alyona traveled light, bringing only a stroller and food and drink supplies for their two daughters, Elyna, 6, and 7-month-old Emilia. Elyna was also allowed to bring a single stuffed animal – a bright yellow duck called Luff Luff.

But despite their desperation to leave, the family have been unable to find a seat on a train for the past two days.

“People wouldn’t let us in even though we had a baby,” said Alyona, 35. “We lifted her, but people were pushing each other and we couldn’t get there.”

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On Saturday, some of those waiting finally gave up hope and turned around, dragging their wheeled suitcases along the station platform.

Nearby, the men who have said goodbye indefinitely to their wives and children are white-faced, uncertain of what might happen to their families on the long journey west, as well as the imminent threat of invasion of their city by Russian forces.

But many remain defiant – and ready to fight.

“The main thing for me is to see my family leave,” said Sergiy Samkov. “I will defend our city (and) help the Territorial Defense Forces. I will stay here until the end.”


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