‘How many graves? Go and count them ‘: Russia beats Ukraine’s east

The burial rows were marked with simple crosses of freshly cut wood. Black plaques with gold letters declared the names. The occasional wreath broke the monotony of dull earth tones, and in front three rectangular holes awaited the newcomers.

“How many graves? I do not know. Go and count them,” said the caretaker of this cemetery on the southern edge of Severodonetsk, which began to grow as Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. “We dig new ones almost every day now.”

In the escalating struggle for eastern Ukraine, Russia’s army – after consolidating and relocating its forces from other parts of the country, including the capital Kyiv – has renewed its efforts to conquer the Donbas region. New devastation is inflicted daily on communities affected by both nearly eight years of war against Moscow-backed separatists, as well as this latest attack, which the Russians call a “special military operation.”

Russia’s strategy is to surround the east and close in on Ukrainian forces. It has placed Severodonetsk, the easternmost tip of the Ukrainian government’s checkpoint in the Donbas, as well as the city of Slavyansk, about 40 miles west on the strategic M03 motorway, at the top of Moscow’s finish list.

Ukrainian forces guard the city center of Severodonetsk on Friday as shelling can be heard. The Russia-Ukraine war continues in the city of Severodonetsk, where most of the inhabitants have left, but a few remain.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The biggest fear for the residents here is that Russia will try to bombard this region for submission, as it does in the southern port city of Mariupol. With the growing certainty that the vise will close – Russian troops fought on Friday with Ukrainian soldiers for control of a city just over a kilometer northwest of Severodonetsk – many have already fled. Only a fifth of Severodonetsk’s 106,000 people and possibly a quarter of Slavyansk’s 111,000 people have remained seated, authorities say.

Those who remain endure a surreal existence under increasingly deadly skies.

The few who defy the streets of Severodonetsk keep one eye on the ground as they choose their way past artillery-ravaged buildings, wrecked cars and low-hanging power lines. Sounds of destruction echo around them. Some bike or walk their dog near the large square in front of the city council, past a crater with the remains of a rocket still inside. Cautious soldiers, stationed with their rifles in the corner behind stacked sandbags, watch them walk with their fingers on trigger guards.

War arouses suspicion even towards neighbors. After more than fifty days of fighting, some, like Vladimir Kadavy, 49, a thin, shabby-clad man who worked as a caretaker in maintaining Severodonetsk’s public space, seemed attracted to the erratic drumming of missiles and grenades playing above.

Woman lighting candles in a cathedral.

Lydia Mychisla Vena lights candles in Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, where she helps keep things running.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

“I do not have a basement or anywhere to hide. I’m not scared anymore. I hear this every day,” Kadavy said with his tired eyes steadfast while a thunderclap of artillery sounded.

He looked around the square, his voice buzzing with grief. The places he had spent much of his life keeping beautiful were now in ruins. His boss told him he would be evacuated in three days, but Kadavy thought, like many others interviewed, that he would be bewildered if he left his hometown.

“If we go, who cares about us?” he said. “I was born here. Somehow I want to survive here, I think.”

Although they did not show the same composure, Yura Alforov and his wife, Olga, did not want to leave either.

“We are not calm about this. We just want peace,” Olga said.

A woman in shock rests in a hospital in Severodonetsk.

A woman in shock rests in a hospital in Severodonetsk, on the front lines of the war between Ukraine and Russia. There were very few servants in the hospital, and most cared for wounded soldiers.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The couple was on their way to the hospital, which was even closer to the front line. Yura, an electrical maintenance engineer who had moved to Severodonetsk in 1984, had sprained his ankle while rushing to the basement during a shelling.

“We have no money to go, and we still have no place to go. How would we live if we went? ” said Alforov. He took off his glasses and wiped a tear away.

The choice to stay is difficult, but the decision to leave one’s home is associated with one’s own insecurities.

Mile to the west, on a dirty corner near Slavyansk train station, where a trio of stray dogs growled at each other over a piece of food, Yuri Kovalenko, a 58-year-old coal miner, waited for the bus that would take him and his family to safety.

Two hours before, he had left his wife back on their farm in the mining town of Gorskaya, bringing his daughter Yulia and his two grandchildren, Dmitri, 7, and 5-year-old Igor with him. They were going to his sister’s place near Chernihiv.

Soldiers patrol the streets of Slavyansk, Ukraine.

Soldiers patrol the streets of Slavyansk, Ukraine, on Thursday. As the threat of another offensive by Russian forces appears imminent, Ukrainians are preparing or leaving.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

“If we all came, it would be different,” he said with his blue eyes steadily and calmly forward. “But my wife stays to take care of the animals. I care about her. So many years we lived together, had our lives together and now it’s time to go. How am I? I wish I had never felt this. “

His gaze wavered; he walked away, his eyes blushing for a moment before watching his grandchildren play out to the side and pull themselves together.

A grenade dropped near their town a day earlier had spurred the family’s escape. But it was also about the threat of living under Russian-backed separatist rule and the economic extermination that would surely follow.

“If Russians come here,” he said, “it will be a dangerous place.”

Their departure was not a moment too early: that morning the train connection was suspended from Slavyansk after an attack on the railway somewhere to the north and the Russian advance towards the town of Barvinkove, 25 miles to the east. Many were also too scared to take the train after last week’s horrific attack on the station in the nearby town of Kramatorsk.

A girl is playing with her stuffed animal in the basement of a school in Severodonetsk.

Alona Hgrechiskina, 9, plays with her stuffed animal in the basement of the school, where she attends third grade in Severodonetsk.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Scenes with departures have turned into intimate portraits of loss and fear woven into the shared burden of survival.

Near Slavyansk City Council the building dragged a crowd of 71 people suitcases, overloaded backpacks and bags towards seven vans that would take them to the western Ukrainian city of Ternopyl. Among them was Dina Zhivilyak, 18. She helped an elderly woman, Lyudmilla Botkovskaya, carry her dog Kashtanka (so named after the dog in the eponymous short story by Anton Chekhov; it means “little chestnut”) to one of the vans, before she struggled with her own suitcase.

“I have the essentials here. Clothes I need for the trip, comfortable shoes, documents. And this,” Zhivilyak said, rummaging through her bags before finding a teddy bear with a ragged appearance: a gift from her foster parents when they first brought her from the orphanage.

With most stores closed and only a few major grocery stores in operation, municipal authorities had begun sending trucks to various parts of the city to distribute aid. One of them parked near Slavyansk’s central square. People stood in line to receive a bag filled with onions and carrots.

A woman leaves Slavyansk with her dog in a bag.

Lyudmilla Botkovskaya leaves Slavyansk with her dog Kashtanka in a bag.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

“It is very difficult to get products. Everything is closed. So I’m standing here. I do not even know what they are spending, ”said Tanya, a 62-year-old retiree who gave up her first name only for privacy reasons.

She stayed behind because of her three cats, she said, but was not afraid something would happen.

“I’m optimistic,” she said.

Equally fervent in her faith was Lydia Mychislavena, a caretaker of the city’s Alexander Nevsky Church. She lit the candles for the second daily service. A couple of parishioners came, kneeling and bowing their heads, while a priest and two women sang, and their voices echoed across the ornate interior of the church.

“In the war of 2014, we stayed. We’re not going now,” said Mychislavena. She told how she was getting out of the shower and heard a voice in her head saying she should move to the other room. she did and then shall come, she prayed, and they flew over her head.

“Our prayer is a million times stronger than the bombs.”

Sergei and Lila Zaharolka have lived in the basement of a school.

Sergei Zaharolka and his wife, Lila, have lived for weeks in the basement of the school, where he is deputy principal.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Maybe not a million, but many bombs have fallen between Slavyansk and Severodonetsk. They have taken lives, roads, shops and animals; they have plowed over fields and leveled buildings. Sergei Zaharolka, the 51-year-old deputy director of the Severodonetsk school, was bunkered along with his wife, Lila, and several others at the school.

“The instructor left, but I stayed. Where were we going? We want to take care of the school,” said Zaharolka.

They had converted much of the space underground for housing, including the school clinic and areas near the indoor swimming pool. Some employees were given the task of cooking (the bean stew, chicken and freshly baked bread). Others would clean or rig for solutions to get facilities.

Zaharolka, a handsome man who looked like David Lynch – he thought he looked more like the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov – did woodwork. The atmosphere seemed less besieged than a strange camping trip where two children played hide-and-seek in one of the hallways before straying into a boiler room filled with mattresses, religious icons and belongings.

But all that did little to improve the mood of Natalya, the 44-year-old cleaning lady who was there with her 9-year-old daughter Alona. She had been at school almost from the beginning of the invasion on February 24th. She had not intended to go either, but was afraid that bedlam would happen nearby.

“Only fear. I do not feel anything else. Just fear,” she said. She added that Alona understood that there was war and that she did not ask too many questions. Yet when the bombing became too much, “we just sit here and pray. “

Zaharolka went up the stairs to the school’s outer courtyard. To the side lay a stack of crosses. The locals had asked him to make them along with coffins. That was another way he could help, he said, and they would soon be in the cemetery – a view he met with a shrug.

“I’m a carpenter. Some live. Some die. This is life.”

Moments later, an artillery shell landed to the north, hitting something that triggered a dark, angry-looking smoke flag that rose for miles and darkened the sky over the city.

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