The soldiers have taken cover under a tree. Their eyes are tired and their hands are dirty with dust. They are sitting on the ground amid the green grass, tousled by the wind.
They look exhausted, and they certainly are. A couple have even fallen sleep. We ask them, “Odkuda vy?” Where do you come from?
They point to an indefinite spot beyond the bend at the end of the road: “Sievierodonetsk,” they say. Then their heads lower once more. We are spending the morning on the streets of Lysychansk, the last town under Ukrainian control west of the Siverskyi Donets.
Sievierodonetsk – “the new Mariupol,” as newspapers have called it – is just over there, across the river. The bridge that connected the two towns was torn down on Thursday night, and since then, the now former capital of the Luhansk Oblast has been cut off from the rest of the country.
We would have liked to get to the ruins of the bridge, but the soldiers wouldn’t let us – it’s too dangerous, they say. The Russians are stationed on the other side and shooting constantly. A small convoy of trucks and tanks passed along the bend next to us.
No one knows for sure what is happening in Sievierodonetsk. Russian sources claimed the “liberation” of two-thirds of the urban area, dotting the proclamation with threats against the fighters on the Kiev side: “Those who do not surrender will be liquidated.”
However, the Ukrainians claim to have unleashed a series of victorious counteroffensives, forcing the enemy into a partial retreat.
From Lysychansk Hill – which overlooks the sister city from above – all we could see were clouds of smoke from burning buildings and the constant flashes of explosions.
About 110,000 people used to live in Sievierodonetsk before the war, 90% of whom managed to escape to safety on the eve of the storm. Those who remained live buried in bunkers and cellars, waiting for a dawn that now seems more distant than ever. In Lysychansk, too, the prospects look grim.
The Russians have not yet arrived here – to do so, they will have to succeed in the arduous task of crossing the Siverskyi Donets; so far they have failed in all their attempts. However, they are very close, a closeness that is more tangible than ever.
Picture two artillery deployments positioned opposite each other, and you’re right in the middle. This is the situation in Lysychansk. When you’re in the middle of war, you learn to recognize the high-pitched whistle of incoming shells.
It is a chilling sound – when you hear it, it means you only have a few seconds to run and take cover before the explosion. In this town perched on the hills – which was home to 95,000 people before February 24 – that sound has become part of daily life.
The shells don’t always explode among the houses; more often than not, they simply fly above them, only to fall a few kilometers to the east, if fired by Ukrainian guns, or west, if fired by the Russians.
The effect is excruciating: it is like having a Kalashnikov pointed at your face every time you turn a street corner. But people here seem to have gotten used to that, too.
We saw men and women walking calmly on the sidewalk as missiles and Grad rockets whistled above their heads. One woman, obviously drunk, skipped past our car. She was laughing to herself, lost in thoughts we could not fathom.
In the courtyard of an apartment building, a young boy followed us around for half an hour, asking us in vain for a cigarette. “U nas net sigaret,” we told him again and again. But he seemed not to understand, and kept coming after us, dragging his feet, with a blank grin plastered on his face. Is this the effect of three months of bombs?
In Lysychansk, there is no more electricity or gas or running water. People have stopped washing; they’re cooking out in the open, directly over campfires. What about humanitarian aid? Few have seen any. All one can see around are gaunt faces, with zombie-like posture and gazes lost in the void.
At the highest point of the city, facing the smoking cauldron of Sievierodonetsk, stands a large eight-story apartment building. We climbed all sixteen flights of stairs on foot until we reached the attic apartments. Here, amid smashed doors and shattered glass, we met a small, shriveled old woman with a striped handkerchief tied under her chin.
“Gdye vasha doma?” we asked her. She replied that her house was right there, on the eighth floor, and that in spite of everything, she continued to live and sleep there.
“Nie bunker?” we insisted. She made a playful gesture with her hand, as if to swat away a funny, nonsensical thought. “Eta maya doma,” she told us a couple of times: this is my home. This is how people are living, under the bombs, in the city of Lysychansk.