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Birthday girl flees as Ukraine pushes back at Russia

Despite claims by Kyiv's mayor that Ukraine had retaken most of Irpin from Russian forces, the battle is still raging, sending smoke plumes into the sky.

3 minute read
People flee the city of Irpin, west of Kyiv, on March 7. Photo: AFP
People flee the city of Irpin, west of Kyiv, on March 7. Photo: AFP

Little Daria plays with her dinosaur mittens as the bus takes her family away from the fighting that has wrecked their home in Irpin. It is her fourth birthday.

“We were planning some candles and a cake, but we had to leave it there,” says her mother Susanna Sopelnikova, 29, holding her daughter tightly on her lap.

Her six-year-old brother Yehor sits silently next to their father Anatolii as they wait for the yellow evacuation bus to leave, while shelling booms in the background.

The family are among the last to leave the flashpoint town on Kyiv’s northwestern outskirts, after intense fighting on Thursday made it impossible to stay.

Despite claims by Kyiv’s mayor that Ukraine had retaken most of Irpin from Russian forces, the battle is still raging, sending smoke plumes into the sky.

“We stayed in the basement for about three weeks, then we decided to leave,” said Sopelnikova, a headscarf covering her hair.

“A bomb hit my house, windows and doors were blown away. But our kids are alive, we are alive. The children are doing well, as if nothing was happening.”

As they peer from the smeared windows, Daria and Yehor are joining an exodus that the UN says has driven half of all Ukraine’s children from their homes.

‘Left with nothing’

Once sleepy suburbia, Irpin’s strategic importance for Vladimir Putin’s stalled bid to encircle Kyiv has left it devastated by some of the heaviest fighting of the war.

Most of its inhabitants had already left across a blown-up bridge, an iconic image of the conflict, but now the rest are starting to leave too as fighting intensifies.

A bitter wind whips up dust as ambulances bring the sick, elderly and injured of Irpin to a makeshift evacuation centre on the edge of Kyiv on Thursday.

Others have been helped to safety by volunteer groups, before boarding the bright yellow buses to an unknown future.

“There was a lot of shooting, they hit my house. Windows, doors, ceilings are shattered,” says Yaroslava Delishevska, 58, who left with her family’s five dogs.

The fluffy brown Pomeranians sit shivering in a plastic crate, with Delishevska’s mother pampering them as best she can.

“They are scared of the explosions and of the shooting. I could not leave them behind. How could one?” says Delishevska.

Everyone has their bags and papers checked by jumpy police, who are on the lookout for potential Russian spies or saboteurs.

As an officer goes through his belongings, Leonid Markevych says that “today’s bombardment left us with nothing” and he has “no house any more”.

‘Fend them off ‘

But the 55-year-old backs up Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko’s assertion that Ukrainian troops are taking back Irpin, much of which was until recently in Russian hands.

“Every day our boys push them back,” Markevych says. “It’s tough for our guys there – but they are tough guys.”

The fighting is intensifying elsewhere on Kyiv’s western edge, too, with Ukrainian rocket launchers trading fire with Russian artillery.

Russian shells trailing smoke also set fire to a warehouse near residential buildings just west of the capital as civilians took cover behind a supermarket, AFP journalists saw.

After a month of war, the civilian toll from Russia’s invasion is growing, and even the hardiest have been forced to leave their homes.

“We spent the whole month there but now we cannot any more – everything is destroyed, everything is on fire,” said Halyna Protsai, 83, resting on a chair after fleeing her home.

Yet the retired bookkeeper, wrapped up in a thick coat and pink woolly hat, also has hopes that Ukraine can convert its stubborn resistance against Russia’s military might into a fightback.

“It’s true, they (Ukrainian forces) took most of Irpin under control. Yesterday we saw tanks passing by,” she said.

“More reinforcements and they will fend them off completely.”