By Max Hunder and Ivan Lyubysh-Kirdey
KOSTIANTYNIVKA, Ukraine (Reuters) – Olha Skachkova and her son, 11-year-old Denys, climbed out of an armoured van which had just whisked them out of their home town of Toretsk, close to the front lines where Ukrainian and Russian forces are fighting fierce battles.
With the war grinding towards its second anniversary, millions of Ukrainians have already fled for safety, and many others who have endured the dangers of artillery fire and snipers are still being evacuated.
For Skachkova, the final straw was her son telling her that he was frightened by the constant shelling nearby.
“My child started to feel very scared … it was frightening,” she said at a shelter in Kostiantynivka, a city in the Donetsk region which is about seven km (four miles) from the front line and is the first port of call for many civilians fleeing the war. “So I decided to go.”
Her mother, who is 69, stayed behind.
“My mother didn’t want to go,” Skachkova told Reuters, recalling how she had told her daughter that she did not want to be a burden.
Moscow denies targeting civilians but the U.N. refugee agency says about 5 million Ukrainians have been internally displaced by Russia’s invasion. Many are from Donetsk region, which has been hit harder by fighting than any other province.
Tetiana Scherbak, a senior volunteer who has helped to run the shelter since March, left the eastern city of Bakhmut on Feb. 24 this year – the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
Scherbak said there were 80 spaces at the centre for internally displaced people (IDPs), and estimated that she had seen about 700 pass through its doors.
Families with children usually stayed for a few days, while older evacuees were harder to find permanent homes for and sometimes stay for months.
“(The elderly) don’t want to go anywhere,” she said. “Many want to be near their cemetery, as they say, near their relatives. They think they will be able to return to their homes.”
‘LET ME DIE HERE’
For 81-year-old Maria Maliarenko, a native of the frontline town of Chasiv Yar, leaving her apartment was a tough choice, even after the windows and doors had been blown out by shelling.
“I never thought I would leave. I thought, ‘let me die here’. But you can’t survive without other people, if there is no-one there,” she said.
Her roommate, Yulia Nikonova, was evacuated in April from Bakhmut, a city that fell to Russian forces after some of the fiercest and most deadly clashes since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022.
The 76-year-old was struck in the hand by a sniper’s bullet and lay wounded for three days. She was told by Ukrainian soldiers who rescued her that she would have died had she stayed another two days.
“On the fourth and fifth floors, the walls between the apartments would fall like dominoes,” she said, recalling the horrors of fighting that reduced much of Bakhmut to rubble.
In the next door room at the centre, Skachkova and Denys were settling in to their temporary home while awaiting more permanent accommodation elsewhere.
Denys strode over to two other boys and said: “Let’s be friends.” The reply was affirmative.
“This is my first time out of Toretsk,” he confided to his new pals.
(Reporting by Max Hunder and Ivan Lyubysh-Kirdey, Editing by Timothy Heritage)