Police officer Wladyslaw Jefarov’s car shows numerous signs of being shot. Only recently a Russian sniper opened fire on him and his colleague Yuri Yaremchuk. The two police officers were on their way to Vovchansk to evacuate an elderly woman who was alone. The fact that they are still alive is thanks to an armored vehicle provided by their American partners, says Jefarov, who is also leading investigations in the area. However, he regrets that they were unable to pick up the woman.

Yefarov and Yaremchuk have been evacuating residents from the north of the Kharkiv region for almost two weeks. On the night of May 10th, the Russian army resumed its offensive on the border areas of Ukraine and, according to information from Kiev, occupied several villages.

It is dangerous to stay in Vovchansk because there is fighting there, says Yefarov. The Russians would bombard residential areas with rocket launchers and artillery.

We follow his vehicle. Shortly before the city we should accelerate as much as possible because, according to Jefarov, the Russian military is firing anti-tank guided missiles there.

Volodymyr has lived in the southern part of the city of Vovchansk, where there is currently no fighting. The path to the older man leads through several streets with destroyed houses. Suddenly, the police order everyone to lie on the ground because a bomb has exploded nearby.

Volodymyr is in no hurry. He stands there in just shorts and a T-shirt, takes suits and shirts out of the closet and puts them in a bag. When the police asked him to do this more quickly, he just said: “Right now, right away! I just have to change.” All the windows in his house were shattered when the neighboring house was hit by a bullet.

Vladyslaw Jefarov sighs and carries the already packed bags to the car. He sees a shaggy dog ​​running around in the yard. When he finds a leash, he puts it on him and says: “You’re coming with me too.” Meanwhile, Volodymyr looks around the yard again and takes a look into the barn, as if he wanted to remember everything in detail. Accompanied by the sounds of explosions, the police van finally drives off towards Kharkiv.

Halfway there, Volodymyr is met by his daughter Maryna, a policewoman. She hugs her father tightly. There are tears of joy, but also accusations. “Why did you wait so long to evacuate?” she asks her father. When Maryna sees all the bags, she shakes her head disapprovingly.

“My heart is heavy,” says Volodymyr, hugging his dog. And as if to justify himself to his daughter, he adds: “I’m 66 years old and I won’t go back there.” “It’s hard to leave your own home,” Maryna replies, trying to convince her father with one smile to comfort.

Vovchansk, just ten kilometers from the Russian border, was occupied on the first day of the Russian army’s large-scale invasion. It was the morning of February 24, 2022.

At that time, it was impossible to evacuate the population, says Vladyslaw Jefarov. With colleagues, he just managed to get weapons and documents out of the occupied city. But some colleagues quickly agreed to collaborate with the Russians.

Only after two months did the occupiers allow the people of Vovchansk to go to the territory of Ukraine controlled by Kiev. Volodymyr and Maryna, however, remained. The Russians also offered her cooperation, but the police officer declined.

The situation changed when Vovchansk was liberated by Ukrainian forces in the fall of 2022. Since then, Russian troops have repeatedly shelled the city. Maryna moved to Kharkiv and was reinstated in the police force there. And Volodymyr gradually got used to life under fire. Of the once 17,000 residents, only around 3,500 remained in Vovchansk at that time. According to police, almost all residents have now left the city, only around 200 do not want to leave.

Several residents of the city reported being forcibly held in cellars by Russian soldiers who had invaded the northern part of the city. When the Russians finally moved to another street, they took the opportunity and fled to the assembly point to be taken out of the city.

The occupiers ordered a woman to care for wounded Russians. And a Vovchansk man missing a finger on his hand says a Russian soldier shot him as he tried to get into his house. In the first days of the evacuation, people say two volunteers disappeared. Some say they were shot by Russian military officers.

The rescued people are taken to a village halfway on the road to Kharkiv. Most of them do not know how or where they will go next. “We spent six days in the basement,” says Daria from Vovchansk, adding: “There are no houses left on our street. Everything was shot at, everything was burning. There were unexploded bombs in my garden.”

The police were unable to reach the street where Daria lived. So her family went to the evacuation site themselves. “We fled to the outskirts of Vovchansk, under drone attacks and shelling, past a destroyed armored personnel carrier,” reports Daria with a trembling voice. She is sad that she couldn’t take her German Shepherd with her. Most evacuees bring their pets with them. A man hides a white kitten under his sweater and a cat meows from his pocket.

“In the first days of the evacuation, people refused to leave, but then they called and wanted to be picked up,” says police officer Jefarov. The situation in Vovchansk is deteriorating with each passing day and the Ukrainian police are no longer able to penetrate deeper into the city. Therefore, residents have to walk the kilometers to the collection point themselves. “People are desperate,” reports Jefarov.

The next call the police received was from a man in the village of Bilyi Kolodjas, south of Vovchansk. The place can only be reached via a bumpy dirt road. But as it turns out, the man doesn’t want to be evacuated after all. Vladyslav Yefarov hides his anger and goes to the next house. An older man comes up to him – he doesn’t want to leave either. “We’re not very afraid here yet,” he says.

The phone rings again. Two women want to be picked up from the village of Sosnovyj Bir. Their houses were hit by a rocket. But the police can no longer find them on site. Only ducks walk among the rubble of houses from which smoke rises.

The police find remains of the rocket on the street and load them into their vehicle. “This is also part of our work,” says Jefarov, emphasizing: “Every shelling is a crime. The remains of weapons are material evidence with which we can prove the guilt of the occupiers.”

Adaptation from Russian: Markian Ostaptschuk

Author: Hanna Sokolova-Stekh

The original for this article “Vovtschansk: Evacuation under Russian fire” comes from Deutsche Welle.