‘I can’t leave him’: the villagers of a besieged Donbas village are determined to stay

Bakhmut, Ukraine

Galina Nikolaevna cries in the rubble of her house in the village of Kamyshevakha in Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Two days ago, a couple of Russian bullets landed on the house and garage, rendering it uninhabitable.

But Nikolaevna and her husband refuse to leave.

Like so many people here, they have nowhere to go and no means to support themselves, Nikolaevna said. She was told that just getting to Bakhmut, the closest city under full Ukrainian control, costs $ 300.

Two bullets went straight through Galina Nikolaevna's roof.

“We don’t even have [a] liters of petrol. And our property, “Nikolaevna told CNN, collapsing and sobbing before moving on.” We’ve worked our whole life for this. ”

This village, on the outskirts of Popasna in Luhansk, was hit hard by artillery in recent days. People here are now completely cut off from basic services. Large buckets and drinking troughs are set up in front of the damaged building to collect rainwater. A generator – the only means of power available to residents – hums loudly on the threshold.

On the way from what used to be Nikolaevna’s house, Aleksandr Prokopenko is helping evacuate the residents of the destroyed village.

Prokopenko is from Popasna and worked as a manager in a gas company. Now he spends his days in his old Zhiguli car, making the perilous journey across the Donbas to save the people from his besieged hometown.

Russian soldiers have already entered Popasna, which has seen some of the heaviest fighting in the region.

Prokopenko is picking up Vladimir, who is waiting to be evacuated with his sick father, Anatoly. His mother, Anatoly’s wife, was killed by shrapnel from a grenade two days earlier. They buried her the next day.

Like many others in Ukraine, Vladimir does not want his full name published for security reasons.

With the constant thud of artillery in the distance, Prokopenko loads their few belongings and helps Anatoly into the car. A neighbor, seeing the CNN team, yells out the window to show the world what the Russians have done.

Vladimir helps guide his father Anatoly with the help of a neighbor. He buried his mother the day before.

“I love my city and I can’t leave it. I can’t leave people here. Someone needs to help people, ”Prokopenko told CNN.

While many of the buses evacuating civilians have signs that say “children” or “evacuation,” Prokopenko said marking his car isn’t worth the effort.

“The Russians don’t look at this, it makes no difference to them, children or evacuations or something else. They shell everything. School buses, Red Cross convoys, everything that moves, ”she said.

The Donbas region has already suffered eight years of warfare, with Ukrainian forces fighting Russian-backed separatists since 2014.

When air raid sirens howl, which happens often, most people keep going about their business. The continuing artillery booms have become part of the soundtrack of everyday life.

But with Russian troops now pushing into different cities as part of a new massive offensivethe fighting has increased dramatically.

Russian forces aim to protect all of Donetsk and Luhansk, the two regions that make up Donbas. Parts of them have been under separatist control since 2014, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to recognize these regions as independent was seen as an opening salvo in his war against Ukraine.

As fighting intensifies, thousands of civilians find themselves stranded in small towns.

When driving in the Donbas region, almost all traffic moves in the opposite direction. Ambulances and evacuation buses ply the potholed streets to bring people to safety.

Checkpoints have increased every few miles. Ukrainian forces can be seen digging trenches along the roadside.

But there is little relief for those who reach Bakhmut, a city that remains under Ukrainian control.

Its central square is largely empty. A handful of people queue to get money from the ATM. Leaning against a fence, two older men observe the scene.

Anatoly Vunyak, one of the two, has sent his family away from the city. He intends to stay out of it.

“I’m 75, what am I going to look for? I am too old to hide. I worked so hard for 12 years as a driver in the north to buy my house, “he said.” Yes, we’re afraid. Who’s not afraid? Find me someone who isn’t afraid. Everyone’s afraid. ”

When asked about the situation, the other of the two men, Yuri, shrugs.

“It’s bright and sunny,” he said wryly. “We are alive.”

Nearby, Vera, 38, is on her way to visit her mother, bringing her freshly cut tulips. Her 10-year-old son Valery is riding alongside her on her bicycle. He goes to school online but the internet is patchy.

Vera said on Monday she heard Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announce the start of the Russian offensive in Donbas. She said that she fears she will soon have to leave Bakhmut, but her mother, who is in a wheelchair, cannot escape easily.

When a steady stream of thuds in the distance is heard, Vera tilts her head to listen.

“We try to listen and feel how far it is, but now it has become far away. For now, we sit back, wait and read the news, “she said.

After the treacherous journey outside Popasna, Prokopenko leaves Anatoly and Vladimir in a dormitory for displaced persons. The first five nights are free. After that, they are on their own.

The roads leading into and around the village of Popasna are eerily quiet as the fighting intensifies.

A couple of dozen beds are scattered around a cold, drafty room. Anatoly collapses on one, coughing from the effort.

Next door, another couple saved by Prokopenko complains that their apartment in Popasna was destroyed during the fighting. But unlike most Ukrainians, they don’t blame Putin.

“All our stuff, everything was on fire. It’s a nightmare. Thank you, America who brought us the guns. It’s a horror, it’s a nightmare, ”the woman said.

This is not an unusual sight in some parts of eastern Ukraine. Russian is the primary language here, and many watch Russian TV with its relentless propaganda.

“Putin wants to find a peaceful solution,” added the woman’s husband.

Prokopenko seemed visibly frustrated by what they said.

“Don’t spread these tales. He came with weapons and attacked our land. Did we attack Russia Please don’t tell this bullshit to the whole world, ”he told them.

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