Russian war drives Ukrainians from their homes in historic numbers

Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

An estimated one-third of Ukraine’s population has been driven from their homes since Russia’s invasion in February, including more than 6.27 million internally displaced people, according to data from the Organization. for Migration, illustrating the scale of a humanitarian crisis that has largely gone invisible as the war continues.

The number of internally displaced people dwarfs the 4.8 million Ukrainians who fled to Europe as refugees, according to the UN refugee agency, which described unprecedented levels of displacement since World War II.

While large swathes of the country were subjected to the brutality of the Russian invasion in its first weeks, most of the displaced Ukrainians now come from the east, as this region becomes the center of the conflict.

Boarding trains and buses, civilians left towns and villages in eastern Ukraine, fleeing to the relative safety of the west and the northern capital, Kyiv. Some left in humanitarian convoys, taking dangerous routes under threat of gunfire or shelling. Others left on foot, literally running for their lives.

And as Russian forces now train their artillery in Donetsk province to the east, aiming to capture the entire industrial region of Donbass, more and more people are being driven from their homes every day. Shellfire by Russian forces has killed five civilians in Donetsk in the past 24 hours, the head of the regional military government, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said on the social messaging app Telegram on Wednesday.

For days, Mr. Kyrylenko has been advising residents to leave the province, a sign that Ukrainian authorities believe the fighting will intensify. Officials hope to avoid having to attempt large-scale evacuations like in the neighboring province of Luhansk, which has fallen to the Russians in recent days.

Only three million people have been officially registered as internally displaced, although the actual number is believed to be more than double. Inadequate international humanitarian assistance further strained local resources.

“The state was not ready for such a scale of displaced people in many regions,” Vitaly Muzychenko, Ukraine’s deputy social policy minister, told a news conference this week, where he announced new plans to register displaced people for state benefits.

This massive displacement reshaped communities across the country, even those spared the physical devastation of war. Shelters have sprung up in public buildings, university dormitories have been converted and modular houses have been set up to house the displaced.

The majority of internally displaced people, like refugees, are women and children, and many face shortages of food, water and basic necessities, according to UN experts. UN.

Oksana Zelinska, 40, who was headmistress of a kindergarten in the southern city of Kherson, now occupied by Russian forces, fled in April with her two children, a colleague and the woman’s children to the western town of Uzhhorod near the Slovak border. Her husband stayed in Kherson and she would like to come back, but she said she was staying in the west for her children.

“When we got here I needed to do something, it was hard and I didn’t want to sit around feeling depressed,” she said. “I wanted to be useful.

She began volunteering at the community kitchen she used when she first arrived, peeling potatoes and preparing food for the dozens of people who throng each day for a hot meal.

Helping displaced people return home – or find new ones – emerges as one of Ukraine’s greatest challenges, regardless of the outcome of the war. Some of their hometowns may not return to Ukrainian control. Others that are retaken could be almost entirely destroyed, with homes, water pipes and other vital infrastructure pulverized by the Russian military’s scorched earth tactics.

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