IRPIN, Ukraine – The bridge was just a shell of its old self, blew up days ago by Ukrainian soldiers intent on slowing the Russian advance into the capital Kyiv, but despite being battered, it provided a lifeline for desperate civilians to escape a fight.
On Sunday, as Ukrainian refugees roamed near the entrance to the building, calculating the odds of arriving safely over the Irbin River, a family packed with backpacks and a blue suitcase decided to run into it.
A Russian mortar fell on its way to Kyiv.
A cloud of concrete dust rose into the morning air. When he settled down, Ukrainians could be seen running crazily from the scene. But not the family. A mother and her two children were lying on the road with a family friend.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly denied that his forces are targeting civilians fleeing combat zones. He did so again on Sunday, a day after a railway track used to evacuate Ukrainians came under fire.
But only a handful of Ukrainian troops were near the bridge when the mortar shells began to fall. The soldiers there did not participate in the fighting but in helping the refugees carry their children and their belongings towards the capital.
One of the soldiers said bitterly: “The army is the army and that’s one thing.” “But these are civilians, people who waited until the last minute.”
The attack on the bridge was witnessed by a team from the New York Times, including photojournalist Lynsey Addario, a security consultant, and freelance journalist Andrej Dubchak who filmed the scene.
Since Saturday, hundreds of Ukrainians fleeing the fighting in three towns on Kyiv’s western edge have gathered around the bridge to make their way to the capital – which is also at the Moscow Junction.
Civilians crossing the bridge into Kyiv form small groups and together exercise about 100 yards while potentially coming under Russian fire. Ukrainian soldiers run alongside civilians to help them and then return to hide behind a brick wall.
But early Sunday morning, the district’s governor announced that the roads to Irpen were so unsafe that they could be effectively closed. “Unfortunately, unless there is a ceasefire,” he said, no one will be able to get out.
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But people kept trying, dashing over the wreckage of the damaged bridge and moving across the exposed street.
When the mortars landed, Ukrainian forces engaged in clashes nearby, but not where civilians were moving along the street on the Kyiv side of the bridge. Mortars emanating from a Ukrainian position could be heard about 200 yards away, far enough from the bridge to indicate that the Russians were either deliberately targeting the evacuation route or ignoring the risk of civilian casualties.
Russian mortars fell the first 100 yards or so of the bridge, then turned in a series of thunderous explosions into the part of the street people were fleeing.
As the mortars approached the stream of civilians, people ran, grabbed the children, and tried to find a safe place. But there was nothing to hide behind.
When the family – a mother, her teenage son and her apparently eight-year-old daughter – were seen lying on the ground, soldiers rushed to help, but could do little for them or a man described as a family friend who was helping the escape.
The group’s luggage was scattered around them. There was a small green pet carrier nearby as well. Dog barking can be heard.
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