POKROVSK (Ukraine), Feb 25 — Explosions echoed over the train station in east Ukraine on yesterday — the two-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion — where children and a wheelchair-bound woman were loaded onto carriages heading for safety.

Russia’s forces are gaining ground towards cities like the rail hub of Pokrovsk, throwing the future into doubt for Ukrainians already exhausted after two devastating years of war.

Tetiana, a 56-year-old schoolteacher from the nearby war-battered town of Selydove, who was chaperoning a group of students, put into stark terms the need for them to leave now.

“To save the children’s lives — that’s why it’s important. And to support their emotional state, to preserve their mental well-being,” she told AFP before bustling more than a dozen primary school pupils with backpacks onto the train.


Some of the children had already been evacuated at the beginning of the war launched by the Kremlin on February 24, 2022, but cautiously returned as the front line stabilised, she said.

“And now, since the situation has become worse again, their parents decided to send them to safety.”

‘Give us artillery’


In Pokrovsk, one of the mining towns that dot the Donetsk region, which the Kremlin has claimed is part of Russia, Ukrainian troops had a clear message for the foreign leaders convening in Kyiv to show their support on the war’s anniversary.

“Give us artillery, drones, counter-battery, shells,” said a 31-year-old soldier, who identified himself as Woodie.

He was part of a detachment of troops sent to reinforce the nearby industrial city of Avdiivka, which fell this month to Russian forces that had overwhelming superiority in firepower from artillery and warplanes.

President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed victory in Kyiv on Thursday and EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen hailed Ukraine’s resistance, but the troops that retreated from Avdiivka painted a perilous picture of battles with determined Russian forces.

“Our infantry with assault rifles and grenades were facing artillery, aircraft, and tanks,” said a 39-year-old serviceman, who has been fighting for two years and goes by Sportsman.

“We were holding on, inflicting damage, but it is really hard when people with assault rifles are fighting against artillery and aviation,” said Sportsman, noting he had sent his daughter abroad several months after the war began.

‘End in peace’

AFP journalists in Pokrovsk, which was once home to around 60,000 people, heard blasts sounding over the town now tarnished with damaged and abandoned buildings with boarded up windows.

Russia’s capture this month of Avdiivka, which had held out against Moscow and its proxies for nearly a decade, has changed the calculus for many civilians living in its outskirts.

The head of the regional police force earlier told AFP that its fall had brought about an uptick in evacuations from places like Pokrovsk and Selydove, where a hospital was struck this month, killing three, including a pregnant woman.

At the train station, Ekaterina, a 39-year-old housewife said she was en route to visit her son who left for the central Khmelnytskyi region last month. She is remaining in the Donetsk region with her daughter.

How close would the fighting need to come before she flees with the rest of her family?

“Honestly, we don’t even want to think about it,” she said.

“I wish it would end in peace as soon as possible.” — AFP