As soon as the blizzard stops, more or less elderly men come out of the cellar entrance and hurry to shovel away the fresh snow. Then, the women, at an unsteady pace, make their way to the frozen driveway. It’s humanitarian aid time in Siversk, in Ukrainian-controlled Donetsk.
Up to that point, the city seemed deserted. Ukrainian artillery is firing relentlessly, mortars and a few howitzer batteries mostly. Rumbles fill the air, as if to remind us that this place has not in fact been abandoned by humanity. But there are two kinds of men here: the military and civilians. A young man in an open camouflage jacket and mirrored shades walks with swagger from one basement to another; at first we think he wants to check our documents, but he just nods a tough-guy salute.
Then he changes his mind, turns back and signals us to follow him. Behind a corner, an entire section of a condo has collapsed, looking almost like the earth had sucked it back in, and every now and then a stronger gust of wind sends some more rubble tumbling to the ground. “They’re that way,” he says, referring to the Russian soldiers. “Soon they will try to come to Siversk, too.”
A short distance from Soledar, recently captured by Moscow troops, the town of Siversk has an important strategic position for controlling the plains to the east and, moreover, is a thorn in the side for Russian plans for advance. We are slowly going back to the situation of a jagged frontline, as we described months ago in the south. It happens that one army advances while the other occupies positions far behind its rear.
An uneven and shifting border, like a liquid on a tilted surface, sometimes swinging to one side and sometimes to the other. For instance, on Monday the Kremlin claimed it had penetrated as much as 2 km beyond Ukrainian lines (an enormous distance in the Donbass these days). But then the Ukrainians managed to break the advance northwest of Soledar and the situation became stable again. How long can Kyiv’s troops hold out at this rate?
The young man smiles as if he were an actor in a movie: “We’re here, we’re waiting for them,” he says, and then waves us goodbye. In the meantime, the black aid van skids around the last corner and gets bogged down for a while. The young driver curses, and the mission leader gets out with a calm expression and his cell phone ready to film the civilians who are crowding behind the van. Today there is bread, a few tin cans and second-hand clothes.
A very old lady, defying gravity with a hunched back, struggles over the clothes box, trying to lift it at all costs. We help her and she shows us where to take it, opposite the entrance to a basement. Other ladies come there, opening sweaters and jackets as if they were at the market and measuring them with their eyes. Once in a while they put a few garments under their arms and chatter excitedly in the meantime. The hunched lady leaves without taking anything; the others shout something after her but she doesn’t respond and disappears behind a door a few dozen meters away. In less than five minutes, everyone else also returns to the cellars.
Lined up in single file, occasionally exchanging a few words, their heads bowed to face the blizzard that has resumed howling in the meantime, Siversk’s elders head for the iron doors next to the courtyards which mark the boundary between the military’s world and their own. They have been waiting for months, underground, day and night. “What kind of life does this look like to you?” an angry lady replies to our questions about the situation in the city. Without electricity, gas, most often without water, people are surviving in small communities. Each building has its own, gathered in the cramped, lightless space of what looks more like dens than houses.
For the past couple of months, people have also started making fires indoors. This is a necessity, temperatures at night go as low as -10 °C and otherwise one would freeze to death. The fire has to be kept burning at all times – as much as this sentence sounds like something out of a book on human prehistory, here it’s unavoidable. And that is why in the daytime, as soon as the shelling stops for a while and when the weather allows, those who have strength go out and gather every piece of wood they can find. From dry branches to the rubble of bombed-out houses, from store furnishings to park benches, each small log is loaded onto wheeled carts, tied up and brought to the front of the cellar entrance, where the same person or someone else cuts it into smaller pieces with a hatchet and saw.
From the ground floor of the buildings, white smoke rises up, escaping from under makeshift hoods made from old sheet metal or various pipes, driven through the broken walls by hand (you can tell by the fact that the cracks are filled with rags and bits of material to plug the drafts). The risk of the cellar filling up with carbon monoxide and death by suffocation or intoxication is very high, but one must take that risk to avoid frostbite. The work of cutting doesn’t last long either: as soon as Ukrainian artillery stops firing, Russian artillery begins to respond, and then you have to go back underground and the waiting begins again.