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Stay Or Go? In Embattled Ukrainian City, Thousands Refuse To Evacuate

Volunteers try to convince one resident of Lysychansk to evacuateamid the constant Russian shelling.

LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine -- On a picnic blanket spread on the overgrown grass outside her apartment block, a young girl named Lena and her playmate pile their toys and stuffed animals. Lena's mother sits on a concrete bench nearby, while not far away a pot of eggs boils gently over a wood fire, next to a teakettle.

People cook outside because there is no running water in the apartments, and no cooking gas. The sound of Russian rockets and artillery is nearly incessant.

"Where am I going to go and what's the point?" said the woman, who declines to give her name, when asked why she's not taking her children and leaving, as the Ukrainian authorities are imploring residents to do.

An explosion momentarily drowns out her explanation. "There's shelling over there, too," her daughter explained.

Last Road From Lysychansk: Thousands Urged To Evacuate Ukrainian City
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Amid a grinding, destructive Russian military advance, thousands have evacuated from this eastern Ukrainian city, located across the Siverskiy Donets River from the larger city of Syevyerodonetsk, which Russian forces control most of.

Syevyerodonetsk and Lysychansk are at the tip of a dwindling bulge that remains under control of dogged but increasingly desperate Ukrainian forces.

The bridges across the river to Syevyerodonetsk have already been blown, all but cutting the city off for both resupply and for evacuation of hundreds of civilians remaining there.

Ukrainian authorities are desperately trying to persuade those remaining in Lysychansk -- an estimated 15,000 out of a prewar population of around 100,000 -- to get out while they still can.

It's a frustrating task for volunteers who race into the city, and dart from neighborhood to neighborhood, trying to avoid Russian rocket fire, and find people to evacuate -- and persuade those who don't want to leave.

"Here I have a place to feed my children, to bathe them, to change their clothes," the woman who would not give her name said when asked why she's not leaving, even with no running water or cooking gas in her apartment block. "We bring in [water] in buckets."

"I won't risk taking my children somewhere else," she said. "It's scary here, but at least I know what to do."

Volunteers who are racing to get civilians out -- including some who are elderly, disabled, or both -- express frustration that people aren't willing to leave. "There are plenty of people who accept living like this, however horrible that may sound," one volunteer, Anton Yaremchuk, told Current Time, which accompanied his group on a quick trip to Lysychansk on June 14.

"They hide in basements, relying on the humanitarian aid," he said. "They can't work. They're not responsible for anything. Civilized life is gone."

In one home, the volunteers rush to help evacuate an elderly woman named Yevdokia Mykhaylova, one of whose legs has been amputated, after her relatives in Kyiv asked for help in getting her out.

She said she's going willingly.

"My daughter's house was destroyed by a shell. There were four houses destroyed," Mykhaylova said. "I hope I will get back here soon."

Another man, who also didn't give his name, said he and his wife decided to flee the city three days after his neighborhood was hit by a bomb, and burned.

"All the houses burned down," he said, his eyes blood-shot and fearful. "There were cluster and phosphorous bombs."

Outside another apartment block, three older women sat on a stone bench, chatting.

"I'm looking for Lyudmyla Zhuratunova. Your son Yevhen has asked us to evacuate you," another volunteer said as he approached the group.

"No, we are not going anywhere," Zhuratunova replies.

Written by Mike Eckel based on reporting by Borys Sachalko and Serhiy Dykun of Current Time
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    Borys Sachalko

    Borys Sachalko is a correspondent in Kyiv for Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. Born in Ukraine, he is a graduate of Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv. Before joining Current Time’s Kyiv team in 2021, Sachalko worked for the Ukrainian TV channel STB.

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    Serhiy Dykun

    Serhiy Dykun is a camera operator for Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.