Ukraine refugees tell harrowing tales even as numbers ease

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An aerial view of refugees queuing for transport at the border crossing at Medyka, Poland, Sunday March 13, 2022, where the main flow of Ukrainian refugees cross into Poland. The U.N. refugee agency says more than 2.5 million people, including more than a million children, have already fled Ukraine. It has become an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Europe and the fastest refugee exodus since World War II. (AP Photo)

SUCEAVA – Elena Yurchuk saw families with children blown up and the hospital she worked in reduced to rubble during Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

“I don’t know if I have a home or not," said the 44-year-old nurse from the northern Ukrainian town of Chernihiv. “Our city is under siege and we barely escaped.”

Yurchuk has arrived to safety in the Romanian border town of Suceava, which has welcomed thousands of refugees fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the past days. Chernihiv, she said, now resembles a “ghost town."

“People in cars are blown up by mines, a car with children and a young family was blown up … literally behind us,” Yarchuk said.

While the number of people arriving in neighboring countries from Ukraine appears to have eased in the past week, the refugees' harrowing accounts of destruction and death are evidence of the continued suffering of civilians in Ukrainian cities besieged by Russian forces.

At the train station in Przemysl, Poland, refugees described traveling in packed trains and “people sleeping on each other” during their journeys to safety. Some heard explosions as they passed through a western region of Ukraine near Lviv in the area where Russian missiles pounded a military training base, killing at least 35 people.

“When I went through Lviv there was an explosion. They bombed two military bases,” said Elizaveta Zmievskaya, 25, from Dnipro. “The sky became red.”

More than 1.5 million refugees have arrived in Poland since the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 — out of a total of around 2.7 million people that the United Nations say have fled so far.

But Polish border guard spokeswoman Anna Michalska said that the numbers of refugees arriving have eased in the past week with about 79,800 arriving on Saturday, compared to 142,000 a week earlier. In Romania, 29,636 refugees arrived on March 7, with the number dropping to 16,676 on Saturday.

Still, the refugees said their escape to safety was as hard as ever.

Roman Titov Chuguyev, 16, traveled with his brother for more than 10 hours in a crowded train before meeting their mother who was already in Poland.

“We had to travel by ourselves," he said. "It was very crowded, lots of people sleeping on each other. In the cabin for six people there were eight to 10 people inside. It was just very hard.”

His mother Svetlana Titova said she was relieved that her two sons have finally arrived.

“I had no connection with them," she said. "I was worried, but I was here with others who were waiting.”

For Natalia, a 55-year-old Ukrainian refugee from Zaporizhizhia, this was her second time fleeing, after leaving the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, when Russia annexed it.

“It was scary," she said. "We did not wait for them (Russians) and this is not our first experience. But it was scary.”

Most of the refugees fleeing Ukraine have been women and children, because men from 18-60 have stayed behind to fight and are forbidden from leaving the country. Many already have moved to other countries in Europe, mostly to stay with friends and family there.

At dawn on Sunday, a bus carrying about 50 Ukrainian refugees overturned on a major highway in northern Italy, killing one person, Italian firefighters said.

In Britain, the government announced it will pay a monetary reward to people who offer their homes as a refuge to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion. Officials said Sunday the “Homes for Ukraine” program, to be introduced this week, will see sponsors receive a government payment of 350 pounds ($456) per month.

But refugees like Svitlana Prihodnia, a 55-year-old from Dnipro, just wish they never had to leave at all.

“Everybody dreams that they will go back home soon,” she said.

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Renata Brito contributed to this report.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine