Ukraine conflict: Evacuees in survival struggle

Image caption Some traumatised evacuees in Sloviansk get psychological help

Fighting has intensified in eastern Ukraine, with the pro-Russian rebels bombarding the government-held town of Debaltseve, a key transport hub.

Civilians have fled from there and other war-ravaged areas north of Donetsk to government-held Sloviansk. A BBC Ukrainian Service reporter met some of the displaced people, traumatised by their ordeal.

"I'm 70 years old - and I'm being sent to the Young Pioneers' camp? I won't go!" exclaims a woman by a bus near Sloviansk railway station.

Avdiivka and Debaltseve residents have been brought to the town to be resettled. Sloviansk lies 111km (69 miles) north of rebel-held Donetsk.

There are two buses, and no seats left. So rescuers quickly copy down passport details and offer a choice: you can go by train to the capital Kiev, or Kharkiv or anywhere else controlled by the Kiev government.

Most of the refugees are pensioners; most have no relatives. Only a few agree to go to Kiev, some decide to go to Kharkiv or Dnipropetrovsk. The rest do not want to leave the region.

Sloviansk is just a transit point, there is no room for refugees here. The town's population has increased by 30% since last July, the city council says.

Image caption Buses bring evacuees to Sloviansk - but many others in the conflict zone do not want to leave home

Grim journey

Buses arriving from the combat zone carry "non-scheduled operations" signs. The drivers are reluctant to talk about the hazardous journey.

Most refugees are not very talkative either. They say they have been on the road for a long time, more than four hours; they made stops, waiting for a lull in the shelling.

Most refugees are convinced they are leaving their homes temporarily, for a month at most. So they do not want to go far from home.

Image caption Evacuees in Sloviansk have to move on as there is no space left in the town

Natalia is from Avdiivka, 20km north of Donetsk. "There has been no transport connection with Avdiivka for the last 10 days," she says.

"People are afraid to drive their own cars, and they are not allowed to."

With her parents and husband she is travelling on to Russia by train, to stay with relatives.

"There is no light, water, communications in our town. The shops are running out of everything. Bread is brought in once a week, and it's immediately gone. Prices have risen. A plain loaf of bread cost 5.5 hryvnya (£0.23; $0.34) earlier, and now it's 7.5," Natalia said.

Svitlana, also from Avdiivka, said the local industrial coke plant was still working. "Workers sleep and live there, at the plant - it has shelters. Going back home is dangerous. People try to avoid the streets."

Food shortages

Natalia Zolotaryova, a volunteer, provides psychological help for the displaced in Sloviansk.

"People have different problems. Women of retirement age suffer from high blood pressure. Some people's houses, apartments were destroyed.

"Debaltseve ran out of bread for several days. There's been no water for a long time: people couldn't wash for a month. Some are in shock. I ask: 'Where are you now?' They say, 'I don't know'. I begin to orient them, hold their hands till they come round. It's mainly elderly people, very few with kids," Ms Zolotaryova said.

Across eastern Ukraine about 1.5 million people have been displaced by the fighting, about one-third of whom have gone to Russia.

A desperate woman in Debaltseve spoke to Ukraine's Hromadske TV channel, after her flat had been hit by shelling.

"There's just nowhere else to go. We have two children and couldn't evacuate them. We're the last ones left," she said, as more shells could be heard exploding in the background.

"We still have work here. Please, agree to any possible peace offer. We can't live like this anymore! Debaltseve has been surrounded for six months: we don't have electricity, gas or water. Please, people out there, help us!"

Where to go?

A large tent stands near Sloviansk railway station, providing some shelter from the bitter cold.

A woman called Olena, with a teenage girl, looks inside: it's empty and she is disappointed they cannot stay there.

"We lived in Yasynuvata [on the outskirts of Donetsk]. Our apartment was destroyed: the shell hit just above. We were on the fifth floor - there is no roof," Olena says.

"We moved to my mother-in-law's in Yasynuvata district. And now there's shelling there too, we can't live there. We've been living in Sloviansk for a week, with our relatives.

"A hostel room costs 500-600 hryvnya, and I have a three-month-old son. How can we live in a hostel?"

Refugees who do not want to travel by train are eventually offered shelter in nearby Svyatohirsk, but it is getting crowded there too. And nobody knows how many more will arrive.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ukrainian troops in Avdiivka distributed some much-needed aid at the weekend
Image copyright AFP
Image caption This woman also left Avdiivka with her dog as the shelling became too much