KHERSON, Ukraine — Fleeing shelling, civilians poured out of the southern Ukrainian city on Saturday, which they had celebrated just weeks earlier being retaken.
The exodus from Kherson came as Ukraine was solemnly remembering a Stalin-era famine and trying to ensure Russia’s war in Ukraine didn’t deprive others around the world of vital food exports.
A line of trucks, vans and cars, some towing trailers or transporting pets and other belongings, stretched a kilometer or more on the outskirts of the city of Kherson.
Days of intense shelling by Russian forces triggered a bittersweet exodus: many civilians were glad their city had been retaken but bemoaned the inability to stay.
“It is sad that we are leaving our home,” Yevhen Yankov said as a van he was in inched forward. “Now we are free, but we have to go because there are shells and there are dead among the population.”
Svitlana Romanivna stuck her head out from behind and added: “We’ve been through hell. Our neighborhood was burning, it was a nightmare. Everything was on fire.”
Emilie Fourrey, coordinator of Médecins Sans Frontières’ emergency project in Ukraine, said an evacuation of 400 patients from the Kherson psychiatric hospital, located near both a power station and the frontline, began on Thursday and will continue in the United States years to come continued days.
Ukraine has faced a heavy onslaught of Russian artillery fire and drone strikes in recent days, with the shelling in Kherson being particularly intense. Often the barrage was largely aimed at infrastructure, although civilian casualties were reported. Repair teams across the country scrambled to restore the destroyed heat, power, and water supply systems.
Russia has stepped up attacks on critical infrastructure following battlefield setbacks. A prominent Russian nationalist said Saturday the Russian military does not have enough doctors, in a rare public admission of problems within the military.
In the capital Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy chaired a busy day of diplomacy, hosting several European Union leaders for meetings and hosting an “International Food Security Summit” to discuss food security and agricultural exports from the country. A deal brokered by the United Nations and Turkey has allowed safe exports of Ukrainian grain to the Black Sea despite war-related disruptions that have affected traffic.
“The total amount we have raised for ‘Grain from Ukraine’ is already around $150 million. The work goes on,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly televised address. “We are preparing up to 60 ships. All of us together send not only Ukrainian agricultural products to the countries that are suffering the most from the food crisis. We affirm that hunger must never again be used as a weapon.”
The Prime Ministers of Belgium, Poland and Lithuania and the President of Hungary were present, with many others participating via video. Zelenskyy said that more than 20 countries supported the summit.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said Ukraine – despite its own tight budget – has allocated 900 million hryvnia ($24 million) to buy corn for countries including Yemen, Sudan, Kenya and Nigeria.
Our food security summit was supported by more than 20 countries. The total amount we have raised for “Grain from Ukraine” is already around $150 million. The work goes on. We prepare up to 60 ships. All of us together send not only Ukrainian agricultural products to the countries that are suffering the most from the food crisis. We affirm that hunger should never again be used as a weapon.
The food stocks reminder was timely: Ukrainians were celebrating the 90th anniversary of the start of the “Holodomor,” or Great Famine, which killed more than 3 million people in two years, as the Soviet government under dictator Joseph Stalin confiscated food and grain stocks and many Ukrainians deported.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz marked the commemoration by drawing parallels with the impact of the war against Ukraine on world markets. Exports from Ukraine resumed under a UN-brokered deal, but still fell far short of pre-war levels, driving world prices higher.
“Today we agree that hunger must never again be used as a weapon,” said Scholz in a video message. “That’s why we cannot accept what we are experiencing right now: The worst global food crisis in years with devastating consequences for millions of people – from Afghanistan to Madagascar, from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa.”
He said that Germany will provide another 15 million euros with the United Nations World Food Program for further grain deliveries from Ukraine.
Scholz speaks as a cross-party group of lawmakers in Germany tries to pass a parliamentary resolution next week that would recognize the famine of the 1930s as “genocide”.
Last year, Ukraine and Russia provided about 30% of the world’s exported wheat and barley, 20% of corn and over 50% of sunflower oil, according to the UN.
In a post on social network Telegram on Saturday, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said that more than 3,000 specialists for a local utility company continued to work “round the clock” and provided heat to more than 90% of residential buildings. While about a quarter of Kiev residents remained without electricity, he said water had been returned to everyone in the city.
The scramble to restore power came as Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo met Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Saturday.
“This could be a difficult winter,” he said, alluding to Belgium’s contributions for generators and support for schools and hospitals in Ukraine, as well as military aid like “fuel, machine guns, propelled artillery and so on.”
“And by standing here, we hope to give you hope and resilience to get through this difficult time.”
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