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Ukraine: Evacuees brought to safety as Russian strikes intensify

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and partners facilitated the transport of some 2,500 people to safety who arrived in the main city of Kharkiv, weary from more than two years of war.

These evacuees – mainly elderly persons or people with disabilities – are extremely vulnerable, said Alexander Mundt, UNHCR Principal Situation Coordinator in Ukraine, who recently returned to the capital, Kyiv from the northeast and plans to go back soon.

Immense loss

“It’s not just that they’re escaping fighting,” he told UN News. They’ve lost homes that they’ll probably never be able to rebuild. They’ve lost literally everything at age 85.”

During a recent briefing, the UN Security Council in New York heard how Kharkiv and other regions, including Donetsk and Sumy, have been under relentless Russian shelling, with power plants and other civilian infrastructure increasingly being targeted.

“There’s a chance in the coming weeks, if the Russian advance can’t be halted, that they could be in artillery range of Kharkiv city, where 1.3 million people live,” Mr. Mundt warned.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Residents survey the damage in the aftermath of an attack in the city center of Kharkiv, Ukraine.
© IOM

Residents survey the damage in the aftermath of an attack in the city center of Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Alexander Mundt: The situation is truly awful, and the toll on civilians is almost unspeakable. It’s hard to even capture in words the level of trauma that you see among the people getting off the bus.

They’re shaking, they can barely hold a cup of water. They’re so traumatized, they almost can’t speak. The tears come very easily. Even trying to assist them is a chore because they’re just so disoriented by what’s happened to them.

Their villages have been completely destroyed. The level of destruction is immense. There is no question that it’s just targeting civilian infrastructure, targeting people’s homes, with an intent just to destroy lives.

The tragedy is a lot of these people are very elderly, and part of the trauma is they realize they may never go home. Their villages have been completely destroyed. The level of destruction is immense. There is no question that it’s just targeting civilian infrastructure, targeting people’s homes, with an intent just to destroy lives.

On the bright side, the humanitarian response has been amazing. Denise Brown, the Head of the UN in Ukraine and the Resident Humanitarian Coordinator, came out and we had a meeting. One of her comments was that you can really see how far the humanitarian response has come because the level of preparedness and the response is truly extraordinary.

In the transit site, there are 25 or 26 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) providing everything from hot meals to medical care, blankets, referrals for services in the town, helping people find places to sleep and temporary accommodation, providing emergency cash, and legal counseling to replace lost documents.

It’s a really good example of what the humanitarian community can achieve when it works together.

UN News: What is the priority for UNHCR right now in terms of the humanitarian assistance?

Alexander Mundt: Our top priority is to help safely evacuate people, but also to ensure that the humanitarian assistance they are receiving has a lens towards the medium and the longer term. These people aren’t going to go home right away, so what can we do “beyond the blanket”?

How can we help refer some of them to temporary accommodation that is sustainable in the long term? How can we help them recover from trauma? How can we ensure there are psychologists and trauma counsellors available?

What can we do in terms of legal assistance that will make sure they can continue to receive their pensions while they’re in displacement? All of this has to come together.

I think the other point is, particularly for the elderly people who are alone, they’re coming in with their neighbours from the villages.

We really need to focus on what we can do to make sure that their temporary accommodation is with people they know, because imagine if you’re an elderly woman or elderly man and you’ve lost everything, and now you’re put in a place in isolation.

Our focus really has to be on the protection elements of making sure that people can regain agency, can feel a bit of hope, and can recover from the trauma they’ve just experienced, in addition to all of the things the humanitarian response normally entails.

Residents access the damage following attacks in the city center of Kharkiv, Ukraine.
© IOM

Residents access the damage following attacks in the city center of Kharkiv, Ukraine.

UN News: How are people coping in this situation?

Alexander Mundt: I think it’s different because [more than 10,000] have been evacuated from frontline areas now under direct assault by Russian Federation forces. Many self-evacuated, so probably about 3,000 people came out on buses with support. And these were the truly vulnerable.

Of the other 7,000, many people relocated to Kharkiv city. They have family there; they have a support network to some extent already in place.

This is not to suggest that they don’t need support in the medium and long term, but they have coping mechanisms that are in place that give us a bit of time to try to figure out how to address their needs.

For the 3,000 that came out in buses, I think their level of vulnerability is extraordinarily high, and their coping mechanisms are quite weak. I don’t mean to suggest that they’re not resilient people, but I think they’re going to need lots of support and social accompaniment to access services, and basically just to find a way through what is a very dark period.

It’s not just that they’re escaping fighting. They’ve lost homes that they’ll probably never be able to rebuild. They’ve lost literally everything at age 85. Every time I see these people coming off the buses, I think of my own grandmother, or what if this were your family, because it very much could happen to anybody.

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