Amid the loud bangs of artillery shells falling a few blocks away, dozens of people emerged from a community shelter in this eastern Ukrainian city on Saturday to receive food packages from a red armored van carrying a group of volunteers.
It was the first aid they had seen in months.
Lysychansk, a pre-war industrial city of around 100,000, is fast becoming the focal point of Russia’s slow and methodical advance into eastern Ukraine. After weeks of bitter street fighting and artillery duels, Russian troops have taken most of the neighboring city of Sievarodonetsk. Lysychansk is just across the Seversky Donets River and will likely be the next city the Russian army will attempt to capture.
Although much of Lysychansk has been evacuated, many residents remain. They stand still as the enemy approaches, for many of the same reasons voiced by people who have refused to leave other cities in Ukraine since Russia invaded in late February: lack of money, nowhere to go, fear from looting and so on have to care for disabled or elderly relatives.
But there are also complaints in Lysychansk, a city in the resource-rich and predominantly Russian-speaking Donbass region of Ukraine, that the Ukrainian government has left it to the advancing Russian armed forces. It’s a tale that Moscow’s propagandists harp on about.
“Your Kiev government has given up on us,” said an elderly woman before taking a white bag of groceries from the back of the van. Her words were reminiscent of a Russian radio show broadcast for the citizens of Lysychansk, the recording of which one of the volunteers shared with a reporter.
For months, residents here have been cut off from cell phone networks damaged by fighting, as well as from gas, water and electricity systems. They are bound by the daily routines they must go through to survive – fetching water from nearby wells, building fires to cook food. Until about a month ago, they would have queued outside a relief center for days just to get bread, they said. Then the center was destroyed by a Russian missile.
One of the volunteers, Mykhailo Dobrishman, said it was his tenth trip to Lysychansk in recent weeks. The volunteers have a list of addresses of people outside the city who have asked them to find out if their relatives are still alive in Lysychansk, he said.
“As we distribute the food packages, we try to persuade them to evacuate,” he said. “There are 20 people who made an evacuation request today. But it’s really hard to convince others that we meet on our way, even if they’re staying with young children.”
A teenager at the shelter, wearing a yellow t-shirt and saying her name was Victoria, tried to convince her mother to leave the shelter. The volunteers told her that her friend had asked her to evacuate and that he was waiting for her in a safer area.
The mother and daughter debated for 15 minutes in front of the industrial building used as a communal shelter, while several artillery shells whistled over their heads. They then rushed to pack their things and urge other relatives to join them.
In the street near the shelter, rectangular holes have just been dug in the ground. “Those are trenches,” Mr Dobrishman said. “They are preparing for the street fights.”
But some elderly neighbors said they believed the holes were graves for people expected to be killed by shelling.
It is unclear how many civilians in Lysychansk were killed or wounded by Russian bombing. A few houses from the property, a man nearly lost his leg after a grenade landed in his yard, residents said.
Not far from the bunker was a Soviet-style apartment block inhabited by Ukrainian soldiers. The troops’ vehicles were parked under the tree-lined alley to avoid being spotted by Russian drones overhead.
Outside the building, a military doctor named Sergiy, who had arrived in Lysychansk with a Ukrainian unit a few days earlier, said they braced for an attack. “We will do everything to prevent the Russians from conquering the city,” he said calmly, and for security reasons refrained from giving his last name.
Having served in various frontline towns in Ukraine since the start of the invasion, the doctor said he could not explain why so many people chose to remain in a town that had been under continuous shelling for weeks.
“People ride bikes here, kids run around,” he said. “Maybe they don’t evacuate because they’re waiting for the other side to come.”
Luda, 52, an energetic woman who emerged from the shared shelter where about 50 people were staying, said she was determined to stay.
“This is our Ukrainian country, where we were born and lived our lives,” she said. “This is my country. And whoever comes to take it will die here.”
Vyacheslav Yatsenko contributed to the coverage.
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