"I will never return home again": Escaping Vovchansk During Russia’s Assault

In the midst of relentless bombardment and sniper fire, Ukrainian police officers are risking their lives to evacuate the remaining residents of Vovchansk, a border town ravaged by the ongoing Russian offensive in the northern Kharkiv region

by Sededin Dedovic
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"I will never return home again": Escaping Vovchansk During Russia’s Assault
© Anastasia Vlasova / Getty Images

The Russian army continues its offensive in the northern Kharkiv region. DW reporters followed Ukrainian police evacuating residents from the border town of Vovchansk and other places. The car of police officer Vladislav Yefarov is full of bullet marks.

Just recently, a Russian sniper opened fire on him and his colleague Yuriy Yaremchuk. The two officers were on their way to Vovchansk to evacuate an elderly woman living alone. They owe their lives to the armored vehicle provided by their American partners, says Yefarov.

However, they couldn't manage to pick up the woman. For nearly two weeks, Yefarov and Yaremchuk have been evacuating residents from the northern Kharkiv region. On the night of May 10th, the Russian army launched an offensive on Ukraine's border areas and, according to information from Kyiv, captured several villages.

It is dangerous to stay in Vovchansk, where fighting is ongoing, says Yefarov. The Russians are bombing residential areas with rocket launchers and artillery. We follow his vehicle. Just before reaching the town, we should speed up as much as possible.

Yefarov says that the Russian army is firing anti-tank guided missiles there.

"I will never return home again"

Volodymyr lived in the southern part of Vovchansk. There is no fighting there at the moment. The road to this elderly man leads through several streets with destroyed houses.

Suddenly, the police order everyone to lie on the ground. A bomb has exploded nearby. Volodymyr is in no hurry. Dressed only in shorts and a T-shirt, he takes out suits and shirts from the wardrobe and packs them into a bag. When the police ask him to hurry, he replies, "Just a moment, just a moment!

Let me change first." All the windows in his house shattered when a shell hit the neighboring house.

A member of Ukraines 72nd Brigade Anti-air unit points to the direction of a Russian Zala reconnaissance drone sighted overhead © Chris McGrath / Getty Images

Vladislav Yefarov sighs and then carries the packed bags to the car.

He then sees a shaggy dog running around the yard. He finds a leash, puts it on the dog, and says, "You’re coming too." Meanwhile, Volodymyr looks around the yard once more. He glances into the barn. It seems like he wants to remember everything.

With the sounds of explosions in the background, the police vehicle finally heads toward Kharkiv. Halfway there, Volodymyr's daughter Marina meets him. She is also a police officer. She hugs her father tightly. Her eyes are filled with tears of joy, but also with reproach.

"Why did you wait so long to evacuate?" she asks her father. And when she sees all his bags, she shakes her head disapprovingly. "My heart feels heavy," says Volodymyr as he hugs his dog. As if justifying himself to his daughter, he adds, "I am 66 years old, and I will never go back there." "It's hard to leave your home," says Marina, trying to comfort her father with a smile.

First occupation, then shelling

Vovchansk, a town just about ten kilometers from the Russian border, was occupied on the first day of the major Russian invasion. It was the morning of February 24, 2022. At that time, it was impossible to evacuate the population, says Vladislav Yefarov.

He and his colleagues managed to take weapons and documents out of the occupied town. But some colleagues quickly agreed to cooperate with the Russians. Only after two months did the occupiers allow people from Vovchansk to go to territory controlled by Kyiv.

Volodymyr and Marina, however, stayed. The Russians also offered her cooperation, but the police officer refused. The situation changed when Ukrainian forces liberated Vovchansk in the fall of 2022. Since then, Russian troops have shelled the town multiple times.

Marina moved to Kharkiv and resumed her police duties there. And Volodymyr gradually got used to life under fire. Of the former 17,000 residents, only about 3,500 remain in Vovchansk. According to police data, nearly all the residents have now left the town.

Only about two hundred refuse to leave. Many residents reported that Russian soldiers who entered the northern part of the town forcibly kept them in basements. When the Russians finally moved to another street, they took the opportunity to flee to the assembly point to be evacuated from the town.

One woman was ordered by the occupiers to take care of wounded Russians. A man from Vovchansk, who is missing a finger, says a Russian soldier shot him while he was trying to enter his house. Two volunteers went missing in the early days of the evacuation, and people say Russian soldiers killed them.

Escape under fire and drone attacks

The rescued people were taken to a village halfway to Kharkiv. Most of them do not know how or where to go next. "We were in the basement for six days," says Darya from Vovchansk. "There is no longer a single house on our street.

All are hit, all are burned down. There were unexploded bombs in my yard." The police couldn't reach the street where Darya lived, so her family went to the evacuation site on their own. "We fled to the outskirts of Vovchansk under drone attacks and shelling, past a destroyed armored personnel carrier," says Darya with a trembling voice.

She is sad that she couldn't take her dog. Most evacuees take their pets with them. One man hid a white kitten under his sweater, with a cat meowing from his pocket. "In the early days of the evacuation, people refused to leave, but then they started calling for us to pick them up," says police officer Yefarov.

The situation in Vovchansk is worsening day by day, and the Ukrainian police are no longer able to penetrate deeper into the town. Therefore, residents have to walk kilometers to the assembly point. "People are desperate," says Yefarov.

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