Hundreds flee Ukraine's Kherson to escape 'real hell' of Russian shelling

Fleeing shelling, civilians on Saturday streamed out of the southern Ukrainian city whose recapture they had celebrated just weeks earlier as the country remembered a Stalin-era famine and sought to ensure that Russia's war in Ukraine doesn't deprive others worldwide of its vital food exports.

Kilometre-long line of vehicles on Kherson's outskirts as civilians leave recaptured city

Ukrainian servicemen take positions on the front line at an undisclosed location in the Donetsk region, in Eastern Ukraine, on Saturday. (Roman Chop/The Associated Press)

Fleeing shelling, civilians on Saturday streamed out of the southern Ukrainian city whose recapture they had celebrated just weeks earlier.

The exodus from Kherson came as Ukraine solemnly remembered a Stalin-era famine and sought to ensure that Russia's war in Ukraine doesn't deprive others worldwide of its vital food exports.

A line of trucks, vans and cars, some towing trailers or ferrying out pets and other belongings, stretched a kilometre or more on the outskirts of Kherson.

Days of intensive shelling by Russian forces prompted a bittersweet exodus: Many civilians were happy that their city had been won back but lamented that they couldn't stay.

Cars are seen driving out of Kherson on Saturday. (Bernat Armangue/The Associated Press)

"It is sad that we are leaving our home," said Yevhen Yankov, as a van he was in inched forward.

"Now we are free, but we have to leave because there is shelling, and there are dead among the population."

'Everything was in flames'

Poking her head out from the back, Svitlana Romanivna added: "We went through real hell. Our neighbourhood was burning, it was a nightmare. Everything was in flames."

Emilie Fourrey, emergency project co-ordinator for aid group Doctors Without Borders in Ukraine, said an evacuation of 400 patients from Kherson's psychiatric hospital, which is situated near both an electrical plant and the front line, had begun on Thursday and was set to continue in the coming days.

A boy waves through the window of an evacuation bus as it leaves a station in Kherson on Thursday. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)

Ukraine in recent days has faced a blistering onslaught of Russian artillery fire and drone attacks, with the shelling especially intense in Kherson. Often the barrage has largely targeted infrastructure, though civilian casualties have been reported.

Repair crews across the country were scrambling to restore heat, electricity and water services that were blasted into disrepair.

Russia has ratcheted up its attacks on critical infrastructure after suffering battlefield setbacks. A prominent Russian nationalist said Saturday that the Russian military doesn't have enough doctors, in a rare public admission of problems within the military.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine's capital Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy oversaw a busy day of diplomacy, welcoming several European Union leaders for meetings and hosting an "International Summit on Food Security" to discuss food security and agricultural exports from the country.

A deal brokered by the United Nations and Turkey has allowed for safe exports of Ukrainian grain in the Black Sea amid wartime disruptions that have affected traffic.

"The total amount we have raised for 'Grain from Ukraine' is already about $150 million. The work continues," Zelenskyy said in his nightly TV address. "We are preparing up to 60 ships. All of us together do not just send Ukrainian agricultural products to those countries that suffer the most from the food crisis. We reaffirm that hunger should never again be used as a weapon."

A damaged home in Dnipro, Ukraine, is pictured on Saturday in the aftermath of a Russian missile strike. (Mykola Synelnykov/Reuters)

The prime ministers of Belgium, Poland and Lithuania, as well as the president of Hungary, were on hand, and many others participated by video. Zelenskyy said more than 20 countries supported the summit.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said Ukraine — despite its own financial straits — has allocated 900 million hryvna ($24 million US) to purchase corn for Yemen, Sudan, Kenya and Nigeria.

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The reminder about food supplies was timely: Ukrainians were marking the 90th anniversary of the start of the "Holodomor," or Great Famine, which killed more than three million people over two years as the Soviet government under dictator Josef Stalin confiscated food and grain supplies and deported many Ukrainians.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz marked the commemoration by drawing parallels with the impact of the war on Ukraine on world markets. Exports from Ukraine have resumed under a United Nations-brokered deal but have still been far short of pre-war levels, driving up global prices.

'We cannot tolerate what we are witnessing'

"Today, we stand united in stating that hunger must never again be used as a weapon," Scholz said in a video message.

"That is why we cannot tolerate what we are witnessing: The worst global food crisis in years with abhorrent consequences for millions of people — from Afghanistan to Madagascar, from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa."

He said Germany, along with the UN's World Food Program, will provide an additional 15 million euros for further grain shipments from Ukraine.

Scholz spoke as a cross-party group of lawmakers in Germany are seeking to pass a parliamentary resolution next week that would recognize the 1930s famine as "genocide."

Last year, Ukraine and Russia provided about 30 per cent of the world's exported wheat and barley, 20 per cent of its corn and more than 50 per cent of its sunflower oil, the UN has said.

Kyiv water service restored

In a post on the Telegram social network on Saturday, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said more than 3,000 specialists for a local utility continued to work "around the clock" and had succeeded in restoring heat to more than 90 per cent of residential buildings.

While about one-quarter of Kyiv residents remained without electricity, he said water service had been returned to all in the city.

People use their mobile phones as lamps to look at merchandise inside a sporting goods store during a power outage in Kyiv on Saturday. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

The scramble to restore power came as Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo met Saturday with Zelenskyy in Kyiv.

"This might be a difficult winter," he said, alluding to Belgium's contributions of generators, and support for schools and hospitals in Ukraine, as well as military aid such as "fuel, machine-guns, propelled artillery and so on."

"And by standing here, we hope that we provide you hope and resilience in fighting through this difficult period."