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As Russia pushes deeper into eastern Ukraine, some flee on medical evacuation train

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The leaders of France, Germany and Italy are in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, today to show their support for Ukraine's effort to beat back the Russian invasion, which is now in its fourth month. It's not clear if they're bringing promises of more weapons as well. President Biden, however, says another billion dollars' worth of weapons from the U.S. will soon be on their way. Ukraine is desperate for more firepower, as they're struggling to hold off Russian advances in the eastern Donbas region. In particular, Russian forces seem poised to take the strategically important city of Severodonetsk and are making gains elsewhere as well. NPR's Nathan Rott is in Zaporizhzhia. Nathan, these weapons that the U.S. is sending, is this exactly what the Ukraine's have been asking for?

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: It is and it's not, right? It's far short from the amount of weaponry that Ukraine says it needs. But they are longer range weapons they're going to get with this, which is what Ukraine has been asking for. You know, we've spent some time in eastern Ukraine, that Donbas region, where most of the fighting is now centered. And it is just pancake flat. You know, the biggest bumps on the horizon are slag heaps from coal mines. And in that really wide-open area, having long-range artillery gives you an upper hand. Russia has those weapons and has been making the most of them. Yesterday, we talked to a doctor named Tatiana Yermolaieva, who had been treating Ukrainian soldiers in Dnipro just up the road from here. And here's an example she gave us.

TATIANA YERMOLAIEVA: (Non-English language spoken).

ROTT: "A soldier I treated the other day described being shelled in a trench for 9 hours," she said. "He couldn't even get up to go to the bathroom."

MARTINEZ: Wow. You know, Mariupol, Kharkiv - we've seen some pretty horrible pictures from those places, places that Russia has been striking from a distance. Is similar destruction happening in eastern Ukraine?

ROTT: Yeah. So the other night, Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, described the city of Severodonetsk - that's the last major town still partially under Ukrainian control in the Luhansk region - as pretty much a dead city. And that's something we heard from residents of eastern Ukraine who were fleeing the carnage on a medical evacuation train that passed through Dnipro yesterday. Victor Uyuslav, who was on a pair of crutches with a bandaged foot, came from outside the town of Bakhmut.

VICTOR UYUSLAV: (Through interpreter) I'm from - (inaudible) - village. But it was destroyed.

ROTT: Oh, the village was - it's gone?

UYUSLAV: (Through interpreter) Yeah. It doesn't exist anymore. I don't have anywhere to live.

ROTT: He said he was heading to western Ukraine to try to move in with some family there.

MARTINEZ: You mentioned Victor was on a pair of crutches. Was he injured in the war?

ROTT: You know, he wasn't, actually. He said he'd been in a car wreck. Those still happen in Ukraine. He broke his leg, but he couldn't get medical help. So he's been trying to tough it out, living in a basement for the last two weeks. And then he said he went to feed some pets at his house and it was hit by a shell. The blast wave knocked him down. And his house burnt down. That story of wanting to stay, trying to stay, but eventually having to leave is something we've been hearing a lot of. This train that we visited was organized by Doctors Without Borders, MSF. They've been moving people from eastern Ukraine to western on medical evacuation trains pretty much since the first weeks of the war started. And I talked to the coordinator of this trip, a man named Steven Davidson. Here he is.

STEVEN DAVIDSON: The patients that we're seeing now are mostly civilians, mostly with some kind of war wound or injury, a lot of very old babushkas who have just had everything just come to their door.

ROTT: Davidson says many of the people they're transporting don't even really care who owns the territory that they live in, whether it's Ukraine, Russia. They just want to stay in their homes. But with this war now being this long-range artillery battle, where both sides are just blasting each other from a distance, the collateral damage that's occurring is huge.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Nathan Rott in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. Nathan, thanks a lot.

ROTT: Yeah. Thanks, A. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.