‘Why the hell didn’t you leave earlier?’: the battle to evacuate residents as Russia advances in Kharkiv

<span>Residents of Vovchansk and nearby villages arrive at the evacuation point, an undisclosed location in the Kharkiv region.</span><span>Photograph: Jędrzej Nowicki/The Guardian</span>
Residents of Vovchansk and nearby villages arrive at the evacuation point, an undisclosed location in the Kharkiv region.Photograph: Jędrzej Nowicki/The Guardian

Evacuating the last remaining residents of Vovchansk, the town at the centre of Russia’s recent offensive in Kharkiv region, becomes more dangerous with every passing day.

As fierce street battles between Russian and Ukrainian forces continue in the northern part of the town, a band of local police and volunteers have been journeying in daily to evacuate the last, terrified residents out of a place which was once home to 18,000 people.

“We don’t know how many people are left now, but we hope it’s not more than 200,” said Oleksiy Kharkivskyi, head of the Vovchansk police force, speaking on Friday morning in a village a few miles south of the town.

The road into Vovchansk was under artillery fire at that very moment, he said, and it was possible that his latest mission would have to be called off. The previous day, six people had been wounded in a Russian strike on an evacuation point, including two medical professionals and the head of the Vovchansk administration.

In the end, Friday’s evacuations went ahead and, although Kharkivskyi’s car came under fire, he managed to make it out with an elderly couple in tow. Dressed in military-style fatigues and with a pistol tucked into his body armour, Kharkivskyi’s years of experience as a beat cop can hardly have prepared him for these rescue missions that require dodging drones and artillery fire. “We barely made it out of there,” he said in a shaky Instagram story filmed later in the day.

The people who emerged from Vovchansk and the surrounding villages on Friday were mostly those who had planned to stick it out to the very end in their homes, but finally changed their mind when the intensity of the fighting became too much to bear this week. Most of them were elderly, frail and deeply traumatised. They registered their identities with police and waited for a minibus that would take them to a hub for displaced people in Kharkiv.

“Why the hell didn’t you leave earlier? We’ve been telling you all to leave for days,” shouted one policeman, voice wrought with frustration, at Olha and Mykola, an elderly couple just shy of their 50th wedding anniversary, who were standing at the evacuation hub with a few plastic bags of possessions and a bucket of eggs, perhaps the last to be laid by their chickens.

“We didn’t think it could get this bad,” said Olha, forlornly, cradling a large grey cat, swaddled in a blanket from which it was attempting to wriggle free. “We didn’t want to leave. It’s our home. We don’t know where to go.” She said they would first stay in a shelter in Kharkiv and then hoped to stay with relatives, though she was not sure if there would be space.

Standing together with them was Natalya, the 55-year-old post office operator of Vilcha, just south of Vovchansk, and with 1,800 residents before the war. “Our village is a Chornobyl resettlement village, it was built for us in the 1980s after the disaster, it was called Vilcha there too. Many of us moved together. And now everyone has been scattered all over,” she said. She wasn’t sure where she might go either; her immediate family is in Poland, and would not have space for her and her two dogs.

This region already spent seven months under Russian occupation at the start of the war, and if Vovchansk falls to Russia, it would be the first time Moscow has retaken a town already won back by Ukraine. In recent months, Russian forces have seized the initiative in the conflict, as Kyiv experiences difficult shortages of reserves and weaponry, the latter partly caused by months of wrangling in Congress that delayed a huge US military aid package.


The speed with which a relatively small contingent of Russian troops pushed several miles into Ukrainian territory and made it to the outskirts of Vovchansk has alarmed many in Ukraine, who have asked why defences were not stronger, and whether the country’s second city, Kharkiv, might be under threat again. Russia tried to take the city at the beginning of the war and was repulsed, but has been pounding Kharkiv with missiles and airstrikes in recent weeks.

To stave off the threat, there has been a flurry of military activity in the area between Kharkiv and the Russian border this week, with trucks clawing out earth to construct new trenches and fortifications. Military vehicles and jeeps packed with soldiers ply the roads. Air alarm sirens sound almost constantly in the city.

President Vladimir Putin, speaking during a visit to China on Friday, said Russia does not have plans to seize Kharkiv, though he added a sinister “for now” to the sentence. Russia’s goal in the current operation is to create a “buffer zone” to protect border areas, including the city of Belgorod, from Ukrainian attacks, Putin claimed.

In an interview in Kyiv, a top aide to president Volodymyr Zelenskiy agreed that Russia will not push on to Kharkiv now, saying Moscow had just 15,000 troops allocated for the offensive. Instead, said Mykhailo Podolyak, the idea was to “extend the frontline”, forcing Ukraine to reposition its reserves, and to take advantage of the delay to the US aid package. There would be “two to three more weeks when they have total dominance in resources, and then it will start to level out,” he said.

Another reason behind the mini-offensive, said Podolyak, was psychological: to show that Russia can fight for as long as it takes and that it is pointless to try to resist. “This is not a message for us, this is a message for the elites in the countries that support us,” he said.

The visual consequences of this new offensive have been gut-wrenchingly familiar after more than two years of Russia’s war on Ukraine: urban landscapes assaulted with heavy weaponry, the glazed eyes of displaced residents who had little and have now lost it all, and spirited resolve from many soldiers and civilians who refuse to let the Russian army roll through the country unopposed.

Despite this, the last week caught many Vovchansk residents totally off-guard, partly because the fighting largely passed the town by in the opening stages of the war. The first time around, Russians entered Vovchansk with no resistance on their ultimately futile push towards Kharkiv. When they retreated seven months later, it was hasty and without major exchanges of fire.

“We went to the church to a service with the Russians in charge, and by the time we came out of church two hours later, the Russians had gone and there was a Ukrainian flag flying,” claimed Ludmyla Sorokolitova, a 39-year-old who is training to be a paramedic. “Nobody expected there could be fighting like this.”

Sorokolitova and her husband spent six days sheltering in a cellar, until Wednesday, when they made a dash through incoming fire towards her parents’ home, a kilometre away. They were all able to leave in an evacuation car; both of their homes are destroyed beyond repair, she said.

Now the family is living in a room in the dormitory of a Kharkiv boarding school, sleeping in small single beds. Ludmyla is looking into Kharkiv apartment rentals, but her mother, Natalya, who has lived in Vovchansk for 50 years and spent decades working as a music teacher there, said she was determined to return home as soon as possible.

“We all want to go home,” said Ludmyla, quietly. “I’m just more realistic about the fact that we have nothing to go back to.”