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Police rush to rescue residents in Ukrainian border town threatened by Russian advance

In a recurring nightmare, horrors usually repeat themselves. For the Ukrainian border town of Vovchansk, they’re getting worse.

Every street seems aflame. The shelling is constant. Torn up tanks and Humvees litter its streets. Small arms fire can be heard as Russian forces inch forwards.

Locals in the town lived through occupation and liberation for seven grueling months in 2022. But now they bear the brunt of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s race to grab as much land as he can before Ukraine eventually feels the benefit of US weapons arriving.

Moscow on Friday launched its most surprising operation since the initial invasion, crossing Ukraine’s northern border, in a repeat attempt to push south towards the country’s second most-populous city.

The devastating weight of the offensive has torn Vovchansk up.

The Russian military claims the action has left close to a dozen villages under its control. Most consequentially, Kyiv is now scrambling to send forces from other over-stretched frontlines where Russia is also seeing progress, to stop Moscow’s guns getting in range of Kharkiv city proper.

In Vovchansk, the onslaught means that one local man Mykola, his wife, and his 85-year-old mother are for the first time leaving behind the house they built and lived in for 40 years. They were one of 35 groups of residents who called the Ukrainian authorities Thursday and asked to be rescued before Russian troops – now just a few hundred meters to the north – reach their door front.

The sounds of artillery shells echoes off the cinderblock walls as a young police officer pulls up outside their house.

Mykola walks out, trips on rubble in his yard, and curses.

“Hop in!” says the police officer, Maksim, as he hustles the family and their few possessions toward the car.

He’s been driving into the town continuously since Russia’s advance, shuttling people out. He moves fast. The smell of burning homes hangs in the air, and smoke clogs out the sunlight – the remnants of the artillery shells that rain down on houses day and night.

Mykola and his wife grab plastic bags of eggs, and shuffle across their vegetable patch. The airstrikes last night were just too much, they admit. Less than five minutes later, they’re away, dodging the potholes and rubble that litter the street.

At a roundabout on the edge of town, an aging Soviet-era fighter jet, once a proud display of military prowess past, has been knocked off its pedestal. They swerve between the charred body and turret of a Ukrainian tank that’s been blown apart – recently enough that its ammunition spills out onto the street, untouched.

Fifteen minutes down the road, they pull into a gas station. With a wide smile, 85-year-old Maria walks haltingly to an awaiting police van.

“It’s not scary,” she says of the shelling. “I just don’t want it.” Her family admits she is hard of hearing, and so the intensity of the bombardment may not have impacted her as much. Yet she still had reached her limit.

She sits next to her former neighbor, Inna.

“At night, they dropped so many aerial bombs,” she says. “Horrible.”

Friends of theirs, who now volunteer to extract residents, tried to reach them the previous day but had to turn back.

“They were shooting close to us. Firing at everything,” said Inna.

Harrowing memories of Russian control

They recall their months under Russian occupation in 2022 – living under the military control of a country they had for decades lived amicably with, mere kilometers away from them across the border.

Mykola’s wife said of the occupation: “It was alright. They didn’t touch us. They did touch other residents.”

Yet Inna recalls how the Russians sought out Ukrainian soldiers who had fought against Russian forces and their proxies in the first phase of the war in 2014. “They mostly tortured the boys who served. We have a factory there, where they had a prison. The Russians held our boys there.”  There has been widespread reporting of mistreatment of Ukrainian civilians under Russian occupation, allegations the Kremlin has typically dismissed as fake.

As soon as they’ve dropped the residents off, the police set off again for Vovchansk. Just past the town entrance, they pull off into a line of trees. Sitting at a picnic table, they examine a map and assess which of the three rescue calls they can answer. Only one group of people requesting their help is accessible, they assess.

Yet their debate is interrupted by a low whining noise. Is it a drone? They peer from beneath the tree cover upwards.  The noise comes and goes. But then a drone is spotted – one of three. A larger one that hovers, and two other smaller devices that race around.

The two policemen point their weapons at the sky. “Over us!  Look!” one says. “Should I f*** it up?” he asks a colleague. “What if it is ours?” he replies. If the police open fire, they may actually draw the attention of the drone on them.

It does appear fixated on something else nearby. But then the noise grows louder. It is time to leave.

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