Residents of the bombarded suburbs of Ukraine’s capital snaked their way across the slippery wooden planks of a makeshift bridge that provided the only way to escape Russian shelling, amid renewed efforts on Wednesday to rescue civilians from besieged cities.
With sporadic gunfire echoing behind them, firefighters dragged an elderly man to safety in a wheelbarrow, a child gripped the hand of a helping soldier, and a woman inched her way along cradling a fluffy cat inside her winter coat. On the far side of the bridge, they all trudged past a crashed van with the words ‘Our Ukraine’ written in the dust coating its windows.
“We have a short window of time at the moment,” said Yevhen Nyshchuk, a member of Ukraine’s territorial defence forces. “Even if there is a cease-fire right now, there is a high risk of shells falling at any moment.”
Thousands of people are thought to have been killed, both civilians and soldiers, in two weeks of fighting since President Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine. The UN estimates that more than two million people have fled the country, the biggest exodus of refugees in Europe since the end of World War II.
The crisis is likely to get worse as Russian forces step up their bombardment of cities throughout the country in response to stronger than expected resistance from Ukrainian forces. Russian losses have been far in excess of what Putin and his generals expected, Central Investigation Agency Director William Burns said on Tuesday.
In addition to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in many of Ukraine’s cities, concerns for the safety of its nuclear plants amid fighting has raised alarm worldwide.
On Wednesday, the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear site was knocked off the power grid and forced to switch onto generators. That raised concern about the plant’s ability to keep nuclear fuel safely cool, though the UN nuclear watchdog said it saw no critical impact on safety from the power cut.
The diesel generators at Chernobyl, site of the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986, have fuel for 48 hours, power grid operator Ukrenerho said. The plant was shut down in 2000, but the deserted site still stores spent nuclear fuel from Chernobyl and other nuclear plants around Ukraine.
Authorities announced a new ceasefire on Wednesday to allow civilians to escape from towns around the capital, Kyiv, as well as the southern cities of Mariupol, Enerhodar and Volnovakha, Izyum in the east and Sumy in the northeast. Previous attempts to establish safe evacuation corridors have largely failed due to attacks by Russian forces.
It wasn’t immediately clear how successful Wednesday’s new effort was.
But some people did start streaming out of Kyiv’s suburbs along an evacuation route that the Ukrainians said both sides had agreed to, even as explosions could be heard in the capital and air raid sirens sounded repeatedly. Many are headed for the city centre, from which they board trains bounded for western Ukrainian regions not under attack.
Meanwhile, a children’s hospital in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol has been destroyed by Russian air strikes, the city council said in an online post.
“The Russian occupying forces have dropped several bombs on the children’s hospital. The destruction is colossal,” it said, adding that it did not yet know any casualty figures.
Russia has, however, denied targeting civilians in its assault on Ukraine.