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BELGOROD: At a train station in Russia’s border city of Belgorod, worried mother Yelena Gokova is seeing off her 10-year-old who is being evacuated after weeks of deadly shelling from Ukrainian forces.

The 37-year-old is one of hundreds of parents escorting their children to the station, agreeing to an offer by authorities to send them to children’s camps further from the border.

It is one of the biggest civilian evacuations on Russian soil since Moscow launched its Ukraine offensive in February last year.

“We are worried for the children,” Gokova, dressed in purple winter wear and looking anxious, told AFP.

Ukraine, whose own cities have come under attack, has targeted Belgorod for months but has sharply escalated the shelling in the last two weeks.

Gokova made the decision to send her son away after a December 30 Ukrainian attack that killed 25 people.

Russia evacuates hundreds from border city amid Ukrainian strikes

“We decided to worry less about them and send them to the (children’s) camp,” she said in the bustling station.

He will go to a camp in the Kaluga region near Moscow.

“The children are scared of bangs,” Gokova said. “It is very worrying.”

Belgorod Mayor Valentin said 392 children “will go to out-of-town health camps in the Voronezh and Kaluga region for 21 days.”

Gokova said her son’s school organised the evacuation with the authorities, but that most children did not want to be separated from their parents.

Yevgenia Savenko, a kindergarten teacher who has a preschool-age sun, said she was scared but did not plan to leave.

“We know (about the evacuations) but we don’t plan to go anywhere,” she told AFP as she walked through the city’s main square with her young son.

Kyiv condemns ‘kidnappings’ as Russians foster Ukrainian kids

“It can happen anywhere – at home or in a neighbouring town,” she said. “Nowhere is safe.”

She said her family lived in fear.

“The fear is always present. It never goes away.”

‘Every day they bomb’

The evacuations came a day after the Kremlin said it would do “everything” it could to stop the shelling, which officials say has left over two dozen people dead in Belgorod.

But moving people out of their homes on Russian territory is a blow to the Kremlin, which has tried to maintain a semblance of normalcy in Russia ahead of President Vladimir Putin’s re-election campaign.

After the December 30 attack, schools near the border with Ukraine were ordered to remain closed beyond their winter holidays.

While many Russian cities appear to have a business-as-usual approach as troops fight in Ukraine, signs of the military campaign are inescapable in Belgorod.

One building was still taped off, damaged by an attack.

Other buildings had their damaged windows patched up. Posters of Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine line the city streets.

A makeshift memorial to the December 30 attack had toys and flowers stacked on a large heart reading “Belgorod”, with photos of some of the young victims.

The attack was the deadliest on Russian territory since Moscow launched its offensive and in response Putin vowed to intensify strikes in Ukraine.

Nina Tikhonova, an 83-year-old pension, said the city was constantly targeted.

“Every day they bomb, in the morning and in the evening,” she told AFP.

Her neighbour’s house was damaged by shelling.

“My acquaintances took their children to Ivanovo,” a Russian city some 250 kilometres (155 miles) northeast of the capital Moscow, she said.

City officials estimate that some 1,300 schoolchildren are ready to leave Belgorod, citing surveys of their parents.


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