Le Pays De France - Russian invasion drives families into central Ukraine

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Russian invasion drives families into central Ukraine
Russian invasion drives families into central Ukraine

Russian invasion drives families into central Ukraine

Viktor and Natalya's apartment building was among the first to be hit by artillery in the city of Volnovakha, eastern Ukraine, on the first day of Russia's invasion.

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After fleeing to Dnipro, a city on the river of the same name that divides east and central Ukraine, the family have taken refuge in a children's day care centre called the Banana Club.

They sleep under a canopy of whale and teddy bear cartoons in a single room with their three children, aged between 14 and two years old, and three other family members.

Dnipro has become a relative safe haven, currently experiencing less intense bombardment than other cities.

But air raid sirens sound several times a day and Russian troops have advanced towards the nearby city of Zaporizhzhia, where they attacked and took over Europe's largest atomic power plant just 80 kilometres (50 miles) to the south.

Across the city, nurseries, shops and hotels are taking in people fleeing heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Viktor says Volnovakha, near Ukraine's former front line with Russian-backed separatists, has been completely destroyed.

The family spent three days sheltering in a basement alongside 30 neighbours with no heat or electricity before they could escape.

"The attacks went on all night and all day. We told the children it was thunder," said Viktor, who owned a gardening business before they fled.

- 'Never go back' -

"We can never go back to Volnovakha. Everything has been ruined and nothing is there anymore."

The family want to leave Ukraine and head west to one of its European neighbours, but under mobilisation rules -- as Viktor is of fighting age -- he cannot leave the country.

Natalya does not want to be separated. The family say they will stay at the Banana Club for now.

No figures are available for the number of people internally displaced by eight days of fighting, but more than 1.2 million Ukrainians have fled the country, according to the UN.

Vesta Burkina, 31, who is volunteering to help coordinate the arrival of displaced people said there are currently two families and one lone woman staying at the Banana Club.

However, on Friday she is expecting the arrival of a further 20 people from Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city, which has been under heavy assault for days.

"Many will only stay one or two days, but just don't have the money to move on to western Ukraine," she said.

Russian forces crossed the Ukrainian border in several places last week. In the north and the east, they have met tougher than expected Ukrainian resistance.

But in the south, crossing from the Russian-occupied Crimea region, armoured columns have made greater progress, advancing as far as Zaporizhzhia and its nuclear power plant.