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Russia-Ukraine War In Zaporizhzhia and Other Occupied Areas, Evacuation Orders Sow Confusion

The New York Times - 09.05.23

As fighting intensifies before an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive, Russian officials in some occupied areas are ordering residents to leave. Few people in occupied Zaporizhzhia appear to be heeding Russian evacuation calls.

People living in Russian-occupied areas of southern Ukraine described an atmosphere of confusion over the weekend as the occupation authorities ordered evacuations in the face of a looming Ukrainian counteroffensive.

The New York Times communicated with more than a dozen people in occupied towns and villages in the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions of Ukraine by phone and through secure messaging applications. They said gas stations were running dry, grocery store shelves were emptying and A.T.M.s were out of cash.

“They discharge people from the hospitals and take away the equipment,” said Andriy, 38, a resident of occupied Kamianka-Dniprovska in the Zaporizhzhia region of southern Ukraine. “Then they close them. No one explains why and for how long. And people are afraid to ask since there are armed soldiers around.”

Access to occupied areas is heavily restricted, and the accounts of residents could not be independently verified. Some of those interviewed were reached with the assistance of exiled local officials; others were contacted through relatives in Kyiv or after they posted about the evacuation orders on social media.

Russian occupation authorities have in the past presented mandatory evacuations as a humanitarian gesture, although last fall, an evacuation order in the Kherson region preceded a Russian military retreat.

In Zaporizhzhia, there was no indication of Russians withdrawing, according to Ukrainian military officials and Western military analysts, who say Moscow’s troops continue to expand defensive fortifications in a sign they are digging in for coming battles.

On Friday, occupation authorities in the Zaporizhzhia region — partially occupied by Russian forces, and one of several points along the long front line where Ukraine could try to break through Russian defenses in a counteroffensive — issued “mandatory” evacuation orders for 18 towns and villages, citing intensified fighting. About 70,000 people in the region were expected to be moved, according to Russia’s state-run Tass news agency. It was not immediately clear where they would go.

Few people appeared to be heeding the evacuation orders, according to interviews with people in five towns and cities in the region, even as both armies have stepped up strikes in recent days and as Ukraine says it is in the final stages of preparing a counteroffensive.

Bohdan Starokon, the exiled head of the Vasylivka district administration in the region, said about 80 of the roughly 5,000 people who remained in the town — out of a prewar population of 22,000 — had agreed to evacuate on Sunday.

Halyna, 58, a resident of the occupied town of Polohy, said the Russian authorities abruptly announced the end of the school year on Friday. Scores of buses were brought in and residents were told to board with only what they could carry, said Halyna, who, like others interviewed for this article, asked that only her first name be used because of safety concerns.

Artur Krupskyi, the exiled Ukrainian head of the Polohy regional administration, said other residents of the town told him they saw school buses accompanied by police cars leaving Polohy and traveling south, toward the coastal city of Berdiansk.

The Ukrainian military’s General Staff said on Sunday that the Russian occupation authorities were moving civilians to “recreation centers” in Berdiansk and Prymorsk, a coastal town. The first people to be evacuated were those who had agreed to take up Russian citizenship in the early months of the occupation, it said.

The situation appeared to be particularly chaotic in the town of Enerhodar, home to many people who work at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency warned over the weekend that evacuating Enerhodar could increase the risk of an accident at the facility and expressed alarm over the “increasingly tense, stressful, and challenging conditions for personnel and their families.”

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Russia-Ukraine WarIn Zaporizhzhia and Other Occupied Areas, Evacuation Orders Sow Confusio
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Ukrainian servicemen laying flowers to Memorial of Glory in Kharkiv on Monday, the 78th anniversary of the victory against the Nazis and the end of the World War II in Europe. Credit...Sergey Bobok/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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