In the late afternoon of February 18, the Russia-backed separatists controlling parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine announced the evacuation of residents, setting off a weekend of confusion, fatigue, and fear.
"We had a hard rain all evening," a resident of the city of Donetsk who asked to be identified only as Larisa told RFE/RL about the events of that evening. "Everyone was calling us, asking whether we were going and what we were going to do. Of course, no one would go of their own accord in the rain, at night, just based on one announcement."
She said that those leaving were mostly people who had been mobilized through their workplaces or those dependent on social subsidies.
"My friends are calling in a panic," another Donetsk resident wrote in a message to RFE/RL. "But they are afraid to go. Television is showing the same footage over and over of how children from orphanages are being evacuated…. It would be awful if children are suffering because of these evacuators."
Human rights monitors have accused the separatists of exploiting the orphans for propaganda purposes.
A resident of Horlivka, a smaller city north of Donetsk and near the front line separating separatist-held territory from the government-controlled part of the region, wrote late on February 18 that "everything here seems to be quiet."
My mother can't walk. My stepfather is old and my granddaughter is a baby. Where am I supposed to take them?"
"No one I know is planning to leave," he added.
Another resident of Donetsk told RFE/RL that he went out to a central square to watch the buses being loaded up. "But the police wouldn't let me get very close," he said.
The evacuation orders came amid rising tensions in the region as Russia has amassed more than 130,000 troops along the border with Ukraine and in the occupied Ukrainian region of Crimea. The United States and NATO have warned that a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine could come at any moment.
Meanwhile, indeterminate incidents of shelling along the line of contact between Ukraine's military and the separatist-controlled parts of the Donbas have increased after weeks of near-total calm. On February 19, the Ukrainian military announced its first fatality in 37 days.
Despite unsubstantiated claims by Russia and the separatists, Ukraine denies planning or carrying out military operations in the area. Kyiv and Western leaders have accused Moscow and the separatists it supports of seeking to manufacture a pretext for a new offensive.
A mid-ranking bureaucrat in the de facto separatist administration in Donetsk who asked not to be identified had harsh words for the way Russia-backed separatist leader Denis Pushilin handled the evacuation announcement.
"Pushilin announced the evacuation when it was already getting dark," he told RFE/RL. "Who would go at night without any men, but with small children and old people in some unknown buses heading off in the direction of Russia without any information and no sign of any trouble?"
According to Russian officials on February 20, more than 30,000 people had already crossed the Ukrainian border into Russia on trains and buses. Several evacuees who spoke to RFE/RL in the Rostov region, which borders the separatist-held areas of Ukraine, said they were enticed to come after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a 10,000 ruble ($130) payment to each new arrival. The amount is about equal to the monthly salary of a nurse in the separatist-controlled parts of Ukraine.
Social media chats based in the separatist-controlled areas were inundated with comments from a confused public.
"Why aren't any of the television channels talking about the evacuation?" one user wrote. "Where are we running to? Where are they taking us?"
"It will be like it was in 2014," another wrote. "They'll take us to tent camps. But back then at least it was summer. Now it is winter. No one there needs us. I'm not going."
"My mother can't walk," wrote a third. "My stepfather is old and my granddaughter is a baby. Where am I supposed to take them?"
Others noted that the homes and property of people who left during the intense fighting in 2014 were often looted or seized in their absence. Such concerns have been intensified by separatist mobilization orders specifying that cars and other private property are subject to requisition as deemed necessary.
"We leave now, and they will take away our apartments," one user wrote. "No thank you."
A teacher in Donetsk who asked to be identified only as Tatyana said she was not afraid at all until after the evacuation announcement.
"Then, after Pushilin's speech, they turned on the air-raid sirens and people began running back and forth in front of my window," she said. "And the stores were emptied out. We haven't seen anything like it in seven years."