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Civilians In Eastern Ukraine Flee As Fighting Intensifies


The war in Eastern Ukraine raged on today, taking a toll on fighters and civilians alike. The Russian-backed separatists are pounding government-held towns in and around Donetsk and civilians are trying to escape. The separatists have been pressing their own offensive for nearly two weeks now, gaining ground against Ukrainian government troops. NPR's Corey Flintoff met some of the refugees today.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: It might be hard to relate to this story, although you've probably heard many like it - displaced families, crying mothers, people who've lost everything. But the places these people are escaping are very far away and they have strange names like Adievka and Debaltseve. What if they had names like Grand Forks and Valley City? Then you could imagine yourself living on the northern Great Plains, and you'd know how cold it gets with the snowy fields and the dirty slush on the roads. The hardest thing to imagine would be your country in the middle of a seemingly endless war, with your town under constant bombardment.

LUDMILLA: (Through interpreter) It's like the end of the world. Shells flying from all sides, the hospital raked, houses burning and nobody puts them out. We were moving out under the shelling. It was very scary and there are still people in there.

FLINTOFF: That's Ludmilla. Like most people here, she's too afraid of reprisals to give her full name. We found her on a dirty, rickety bus packed with weary people who'd just escaped from Debaltseve. In normal times, the people on the bus would probably look pretty ordinary if you saw them in Valley City, only now they look like the refugees in photos from the Second World War - gray, dirty and worn down from days of hiding in cellars - no heat, no electricity, no toilets, while the shells crashed overhead. Aleksander Chelobitchenko is the Ukrainian military coordinator who organized the evacuation.

ALEKSANDER CHELOBITCHENKO: (Foreign language spoken).

FLINTOFF: He says, "it would've been impossible if a local company hadn't loaned some buses and drivers who were willing to risk their lives." Like this man, who gave his name only as Yuri.

YURI: (Through interpreter) They shelled us but I didn't think about it. I just had to load the people onto the bus. A shell hit nearby, there was shooting, and we just helped the people to get in.

FLINTOFF: The buses brought the people here, to the town of Svyatogorsk. They'll be housed in the cabins of a vacant summer resort for the time being. Tatyana Polyanskaya didn't go inside right away. We found her on the icy road outside the dining hall, pointing out the stars to her grandson in his stroller. She says they arrived here yesterday from Adievka, a town near Donetsk that's been under fire for months.

TATYANA POLYANSKAYA: (Through interpreter) Now I'm just rejoicing in this life. When we came out, we all just sat in silence because the bus was being shelled. We were so afraid and we thought we would die there. But when we got far enough away, we all relaxed - no more horrible noises. They were killing civilians, you understand? Just killing.

FLINTOFF: The truly awful thing about this story is that it's not news. It's happening all the time in places that aren't all that much different from Grand Forks and Valley City, except that they're very far away and they have strange names, like Adievka and Debaltseve. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Svyatogorsk, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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