She suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Her severe arthritis meant she couldn’t walk up the stairs to take the train, or she would have left days ago. She, her daughter, and their cat, Parsik, have not left their apartment for nine days. But the Russian forces were now inside their city and the bombing was approaching their homes.
It’s time to flee. “We just took the cat and my medicine,” Shumskaya, 65, said, breathing hard. Her daughter Julia carried a small wooden chair for her mother to rest in. They joined hundreds of terrified residents of this city on the northern outskirts of the capital Kyiv, who fled across a destroyed bridge on Monday, seeking to escape the advance of the Russians.
As the Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanged shells, many of the deserters were old, some too weak to walk alone. Others were in a wheelchair or on crutches. They struggled to cross narrow planks laid over the Irbin River, as Ukrainian forces destroyed the bridge to block a possible Russian move toward the capital.
At least one elderly woman was pushed into a wheelbarrow. Others carried on the backs of children or grandchildren, members of the territorial defense forces, and even generous strangers. As they crossed under the rubble of the bridge, a continuous artillery shelling was heard from both sides.
The attacks came despite an agreement to create a humanitarian corridor in Kyiv and other cities to allow civilians to escape the escalating war. The bombing did not hurt the fleeing civilians, but it spread fear and panic, forcing many to flee or take cover at every sound of shells.
“There are a lot of disabled and old people coming today,” said Stepan Protyak, 33, a construction worker who registered to fight the Russians as a member of the Ukrainian Regional Defense Forces. “At this point, everyone will leave. They thought the war would stop, but it won’t.”
Desperate parents also included pushing children in strollers or carrying them in their arms. Others kept their dogs on leashes and their cats in bags. Everyone had small suitcases or plastic bags with a few belongings they could carry to move quickly and avoid shelling and shooting. Some only came with what to wear, and were forced to decide to leave before they became caught up in the urban warfare.
Among the escapees was 91-year-old Hanna Pechuk, who still remembers when Ukraine was occupied by the Nazis during World War II. She said she preferred the Nazis over the Russians. “Now, the situation is worse, much worse,” she said, walking with a cane. “At that time it was better. The Germans were more humane. They even gave us some food. This is the first time I have escaped from a war.”
Shumskaya and Julia moved to Irpin five years ago because they loved its tall, modern buildings and beautiful city centre. “It was great until Putin came,” Shumskaya said, referring to the Russian president. Because of her medical illnesses, the original plan was to wait for the conflict to end at home.
Three days after the Russian invasion, an artillery shell nearly hit the building. Then Julia spotted Russian troops coming out of an apartment. Julia, 43, said: “We decided to leave five days ago, but we didn’t know how to get out. They started bombing more aggressively.”
As the fight nears the neighborhood, a friend relays some scary news to her sister. “She told us that the Chechens are coming and they are killing men and raping women,” Julia said, referring to a Russian unit known for its brutality.
Whether the report was correct or not, the women decided to leave the next day. The fighting had subsided on Monday and they sensed an opportunity. “I ran out of my house in my sandals,” Shumskaya said, pointing at her sandals.
Mother and daughter with the wooden chair and the cat Parsik in a small carrying case, found a trip to the bridge, where the body of a man lying next to a bicycle. It was not clear when he was killed. The women walked under the wrinkled structure and tread carefully on the planks over the Irpen River. Then they made their way up a hill towards the main road.
“Give me the stool,” said Shumskaya, breathing hard. I sat down and sighed. Seconds later, emerging Ukrainian artillery shells hovered over their heads, then the sound of Russian mortars incoming from afar. It’s time to walk again.
All the way from the bridge was Serhiy Teslya, 40. Two volunteers from the Regional Defense Forces were carrying him in his wheelchair to the same hill where Shumskaya had stopped to rest. “I didn’t have the opportunity to leave,” he said, explaining why he had not left Erbin earlier. “I couldn’t move on my own.”
On Monday, he was able to cross the bridge with the help of family and friends. He was moving to an apartment with his in-laws in Kyiv, but was worried that the Russians would soon launch an all-out assault on the capital. “I worry about everything,” he said. This war should not have happened. So many innocents die, and why? “
There was also Valentina Stepanuk, 63, who ran under the bridge after a Ukrainian fighter warned of possible Russian snipers in nearby buildings.
“We didn’t leave because we thought the Russians would behave normally,” said Stepanuk, who arrived without bags. She had left her home 25 years ago half an hour ago. “I just got my coat on and ran,” she said. The bombing was heavy. Everything burns.”
She was going to her village near the city of Chernihiv, which was also bombed. “At least I’ll be with my sister,” she said, adding that many elderly people were still inside Irvine, unable to leave due to the constant bombardment.
Others who fled said most parts of the city had no electricity amid growing shortages of water, food and other necessities. Mobile phone networks have been down for at least three days, leaving many residents isolated from their families in other parts of the country or abroad. Thousands are still in underground shelters.
“We witnessed heavy fighting in the streets,” Natalia Bendich, 65, said after crossing the river. “We couldn’t get out of the shelters.” Shumskaya got up from the chair and looked up the hill. Julia gently urged her: “Let’s go little by little.” Shumskaya slowly started to walk while holding her daughter’s arm. In Julia’s other hand was the bag with Parsik. “Oh my God,” Shumskaya repeated, her breathing intensifying with each step.
The women finally reached the street heading towards the capital. Before them, about 100 yards away, carriages and ambulances were waiting to be transferred to buses a few miles away. They had no idea where they would live. Perhaps Germany, Shumskaya said, is where her sister lives. Probably in western Ukraine, where she had relatives.
But to get to the vehicles, the women still had to cross the danger zone, the exact location where on Sunday at least four civilians were killed by Russian mortars.
As the women advanced toward the chariots, a Ukrainian fighter running behind them shouted, “Go, go, faster, faster.” Shumskaya breathed, “I can’t, I can’t.”
The soldiers had spotted a drone flying above them in the sky. Now they fear the arrival of a mortar or missile. Julia asked her mother to stop near the fence and install a bench. “Sit for a minute and then let’s go,” she told her mother.
“We need to act now,” shouted the fighter. Then, from afar, the sound of a shell falling came, shaking everyone. But the frightening attack on the street never materialized. Shumskaya was breathing heavily again.
“Sit,” her daughter said. “control yourself.” A few minutes later, the women arrived at an evacuation truck. Oh my God, Shumskaya said as she helped her sit up.
Volodymyr Petrov contributed to this report.
“Alcohol geek. Certified web scholar. Travel aficionado. Subtly charming twitter fanatic.”