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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

War in Ukraine has forced more than 14 million people to flee

A woman and her children at a food bank for internally displaced people in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, on June 25, 2022.

By Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Marc Santora and Matt Stevens

Russia’s eight-month war in Ukraine has already created the largest and fastest refugee crisis in decades. But the United Nations and humanitarian agencies are warning that new fighting in the east and south, Moscow’s intensified targeting of power plants and other infrastructure, the approaching winter and fears of a nuclear attack could drive even more Ukrainians to flee their homes in the coming months.

More than 14 million people have fled their homes since Russia’s invasion in February, according to the United Nations, with 7.8 million having sought refuge outside Ukraine. More than 6 million are displaced inside Ukraine in areas farther from fighting but are increasingly at risk of Russian airstrikes that have disrupted power and water supplies, producing new misery as temperatures drop.

Beneath the raw numbers lies a series of agonizing choices made by individuals and families over schools, work and care for family members who are too old or infirm to leave their homes.

Although the immediate danger of a Russian takeover of the capital, Kyiv, and the country’s second largest city, Kharkiv, has passed, and many people have returned to their homes there, the numbers of the displaced continue to climb, if more slowly. Some 10.5 million people had been displaced by the war just in its first month, according to U.N. figures. But Russia’s barrages of missile and drone strikes across the country in recent weeks have highlighted that nowhere in Ukraine is truly safe.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, told the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday that the tally of 14 million people forced from their homes represents the “the fastest and largest displacement witnessed in decades.” The country’s prewar population stood at roughly 44 million.

“Humanitarian organizations have dramatically scaled up their response, but much more must be done, starting with an end to this senseless war,” Grandi said.

“Unfortunately, we see the opposite,” he added. “And the destruction caused by strikes at civilian infrastructure, which is happening as we speak, is quickly making the humanitarian response look like a drop in the ocean of needs.”

A senior Ukrainian government official warned last week that people should not return to their homes. Russian strikes have destroyed roughly 40% of the nation’s critical energy infrastructure in recent weeks, according to Ukrainian officials. The national power grid has been stretched to the breaking point, with officials instituting widespread rationing needed to keep it from collapse.

Before dawn Thursday, Russian missiles did more damage, hitting energy and water supply infrastructure facilities in the southern city of Kryvyi Rih, local officials said.

Warnings that Russia could turn to unconventional means, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons, have added to unease. This week, officials in the Kyiv region said they were preparing more than 400 fallout shelters in case of a nuclear attack.

But not everyone has the option to leave. In areas occupied by Russian forces in the east and south of the country, almost all of the routes toward Ukrainian-controlled territory have been blocked.

In the southern region of Zaporizhzhia, there is a single designated crossing where people from all four regions of Ukraine partly occupied by Russian forces can cross the front line. For months, thousands were able to escape occupied territory along this route.

But after Moscow announced the illegal annexation of the occupied territories in September, the Russians have allowed fewer people to pass through the maze of checkpoints. Russian forces have also stepped up efforts to forcibly relocate civilians in southern Ukraine as they fortify defensive positions and move soldiers into abandoned homes, according to Ukrainian officials and residents.

Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe, warned recently that “wintertime challenges, and the recent escalation in fighting, could add to significant internal displacement, with an anticipated 2 to 3 million people on the move in Ukraine itself as well as another exodus of refugees to surrounding countries.”

Poland received more refugees than any other country, with nearly 1.5 million Ukrainians registered as refugees, according to U.N. data. More than 450,000 are registered in the Czech Republic, and smaller numbers have gone to other European countries including Bulgaria, Slovakia, Romania and Hungary.

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